I shall never forget the morning I woke to find tears running down my cheeks as though somebody had turned on a bath tap behind my eyes. “Whatever’s wrong?” I asked myself. “Is it flu?” I didn’t know it then, but I was on the eve of a terrible sickness which was to wreck my career. Although it began several years ago, it is only now I can be sure that I’m fully recovered and bring myself to talk about the ordeal I had to face.
Sickness could not have struck at a more unfortunate time. I was a bride trying to cope with all the problems of setting up a new home—I had married actor Ronan O’Casey, only four weeks before. And my career was at its most critical point. After years of heart-breaking effort, my luck had turned, and I was now playing opposite Max Bygraves. Because of this, Ronan and I hadn’t even taken a honeymoon—that would have to wait.
So, because I was enjoying my first West End starring role, the compulsion to go on, whatever the aches and pains, was great. Although I could scarcely drag myself there, I turned up at the theatre as usual that evening, wearing dark glasses.
The first person I ran into was Max Bygraves himself. The dark glasses brought him up short. “Hey, Louie, what’s wrong with you?” I tried to brush the question aside but Max made me take the glasses off. “You’re not going on in that state,” he insisted. “You’re obviously ill. Off to the doctor with you, don’t worry about the show!”
I saw my father, a specialist in infectious diseases, who was then at a well-known London hospital. My parents lived in the hospital grounds and there was reassurance in finding myself back in familiar surroundings. I was packed off to my old room where I lay in a turmoil of conflicting thoughts and emotions.
I’d no idea that I faced months of pain and incapacity, during which I would persuade myself that I was going to die and then, that even if I lived, I should never walk again. In the middle of the dark hours, I woke up, terrified. Something extraordinary was going on. I couldn’t breathe and the pains and aches had intensified to such a degree that I cried out. I decided that I had polio. Clear as a vision, I saw myself encased in an iron lung.
My father gave me a sedative and I fell back into an uneasy, twilight unconsciousness. By morning I was in terrible pain. All my joints had swelled up and I couldn’t move. For two days I lay in my bedroom while specialists examined me. Finally, a diagnosis was made. I didn’t have polio, but a rare disease called Reiter’s syndrome. Polio attacks the muscles; this disease attacks the joints of the patients.
For weeks I lay almost completely encased in plaster. The critical stage of the disease occurs in the early weeks while the germ is still active, and my treatment was to have my joints laid out straight, and to keep them like that!
I am not a formally religious person, although I’ve had a religious upbringing and both my parents have a strong faith. But now, in my pain, I turned to prayer. I didn’t use formal words, but when the pain increased so that I could no longer bear it, I’d say: “This is getting beyond a joke,” and add a little prayer.
As a result, I seemed to get immediate strength from somebody or something. The pain would never quite vanish—but I was able to bear it more easily. For four weeks I lay in agony, my thoughts concentrated only with the idea that I was dying, or that I might never walk again. In my lucid moments I was shocked by my husband’s appearance. I watched him turn grey, his face grow pale and haggard with worry. It was certainly a shattering start to our married life. Never at any time did I think of the theatre. A sign, surely, that I was very ill indeed.
From my earliest years I had wanted to be a ballet dancer, but I soon learned that, technically, I should never be good enough. After studying at RADA I got my first big part with Wilfred Pickles in Hobson’s Choice, where I made friends with Eunice Grayson, who had an important influence on my career. I didn’t know that I had a voice at that time, but Eunice and I used to sing together in our dressing room. South Pacific had not yet come to Britain, and its music was not known over here. But we managed to get some records from America and used to play them in our dressing room.
After Hobson’s Choice closed, Eunice rang me up one day and said: “Louie, they’re auditioning people for the chorus of South Pacific at Drury Lane. They need a girl singer.”
“But I’ve never sung in public,” I protested.
“Never mind that,” said Eunice. “I’ve heard you and you’d be great.”
So I borrowed a bathing costume and took along a copy of If I were a Bell from Guys and Dolls. Unfortunately, it was scored in a higher key that the one I could sing. Realizing I had to do something quickly, I asked the pianist to play I’m in love with a Wonderful Guy. I stumbled over the first notes but then gained confidence and must have done fairly well, for I was hired! Other people in the chorus were Sean Connery, Millicent Martin, June Whitfield and Ivor Emmanuel.
Show business is a strange world, however, and after South Pacific, I found myself out of work for a long time. I had to take odd jobs—as a secretary and photographer’s model. Then I was offered the juvenile lead in a show at The Player’s Theatre called Twenty Minutes South. This proved successful and eventually transferred to the West End where I stopped the show twice on opening night. Stopping the show is an unbelievable feeling—finding yourself standing in the middle of the stage with the roar of applause around you. I remember I ran off the stage and burst into tears.
When, after this, I was offered the starring role opposite Max Bygraves, I was certain that I was well on the way to stardom. The world had never seemed brighter or more wonderful. What was even more wonderful, I was also in love.
I’d first met Ronan O’Casey, briefly, six years earlier and had also seen him in several TV plays. One evening I met him again at a party. But we began arguing and I remember thinking: “Oh dear, he’s a disappointment. He’s so big headed!” But I was always trying to be a trifle too clever myself in those days and we patched it up somehow.
Three months after the Max Bygraves show opened we married at Caxton Hall and among the guests were Max himself, Stanley Baker, Hattie Jacques, Dennis Norden, Sid Colin, Kenneth Tynan, Christopher Isherwood, Channing Pollock, Brenda Bruce and her husband Roy Rich. That night, during the performance, Max led me out on to the stage in my wedding dress amid deafening applause. I was so happy.
Lying in hospital, wracked with pain, those days seemed far away. Only the extraordinary cheerfulness of the nurses kept me going. However, a month after I entered hospital, the germ activity began to cease and the pain ebbed away.
Suddenly I became more cheerful—although no one could guarantee that I would walk again. It was still impossible to predict what would be found when the plaster cast was removed. But personally I didn’t care—I was simply thankful that the pain had ceased. I became aware of the world around me once again.
Friends visited me and I laughed and joked with them. Among my visitors was Gerry Campion, well known as TV’s Billy Bunter, who used to bring me lovely cakes he had baked himself. Then there were the Channing Pollocks, Denis Norden, Sid Colin and many other kind friends. I was even well enough to feel worried about my husband. He looked so ill he might have suffered all the pain himself.
This, in fact, was the most critical period of the whole treatment. While I lay in the cast all my muscles had been withering. My weight had dropped by several stones and I became very thin. At this stage a really marvellous woman physiotherapist took charge of my rehabilitation. If it had not been for her, I doubt whether I would be walking today. During the period of heartbreak and disappointment ahead of me, I doubt if I would have found the faith to keep trying without her.
Three weeks after the removal of the cast, the physiotherapist announced: “We’re going to lift you and you’re going to sit on the side of the bed and try to put your feet on the floor.”
It sounds simple doesn’t it? But when the nurses propped me up, my legs stuck over the side of the bed like two matchsticks. Try as I would, I could not bend them to put my feet on the floor. Every time I tried, excruciating pain shot through my joints as though they had rusted.
After a month I was able to bend my left arm and right leg fairly easily. But both my right arm and left leg, remained obstinate. I told my husband, Case: “If I ever learn to bend my knees properly again, you’ll find me the nicest person. You’ll never hear a cross word from me or get an argument—because nothing will ever really worry me again.” Case, I remember, treated me to a sad smile.
Three weeks afterwards I reached another stage. I was put in a wheelchair and pushed down to the physiotherapy department. It was a wonderful feeling that day! For five months I had never been moved out of my ward save for the occasional trip out on to the roof to enjoy the sun.
For several weeks more, I suffered the slow, agonizing process of learning to walk again. Six months to the day from the time I entered hospital, I was transferred back to my parents’ home. By then I could hobble a little on crutches. The doctors told Ronan that more sun and warmth might prove beneficial for me.
“Listen, darling,” he announced one morning, “how would you like to go to Majorca?”
The idea of Majorca in late summer was entrancing, and with my crutches and a parcel of wool and some knitting needles (for I intended to knit Ronan I sweater while lying on the beach), I was carried aboard a plane at London airport a few days later.
The month we spent in Majorca remains a wonderful and romantic idyll for me. We’d never had a honeymoon—now this was it! No matter that it was the strangest honeymoon a bride ever had!
Our hotel was perched on a small cliff overlooking the beach and my hear sank when I saw the long flight of steps that gave access to it. Four times a day—twice up and twice down—Ronan carried me up and sown those steps. The hotel offered help but we were in love and it was our battle.
Each day I felt better and even felt encouraged to wonder how long it might be before I’d appear on the stage again. My thoughts received a push in this direction when Ronan convinced me to sing a song at a small nightclub in the village. Everybody clapped and cheered as I stood there on my crutches. I don’t think I have ever appreciated applause more than the reception I got for that song.
Just over a year after my illness began I went back on a stage again. I got a part in a musical called Harmony Close opposite Bernard Cribbins. Although the role called for only a little dancing, I soon realized that I had bitten off more that I could chew. It was six months before I felt confident enough to play another engagement—this time in Panto opposite Jimmy Logan. Any lingering doubts I had about my recovery were now dispelled. I had two marvellous, almost acrobatic sequences when, clad in special harness, was lifted up from the stage and ‘flew’ around, some 30 or 40 feet from the ground!
Gradually I began to pick up the threads of my career. I did a West End show with Mariam Karlin and Ron Moody, For Adults Only, after which I found, to my delight that I was pregnant.
After Matthew was born I quit the stage for almost a year. Then came a TV magazine show called Standby written by Ronan in which we appeared together for the first time in our careers. And there was a period not so long ago when I was working with Muriel Young on the ITV show Five O’Clock Club, rehearsing every afternoon for a BBC 2 series and appearing each evening in a West End play.
Today, I am happy and contented. I try to keep a balance between a career and running my home. I try not to plan too far ahead these days—to savour life as it comes.
Dancing! It has been a long hard struggle to get back. Even now, if I get over-tired, my left leg will give a twinge or swell slightly. But I can dance again. And if it is only to do that, I feel that my long struggle to get well again was well worth while.