She came to me in a dream. Half-recognised and elfin-featured, I knew her from somewhere. Of course I did. For the duration of my early twenties, she’d been following me.
In the dream, her name appeared in the credits, replacing Zoë Wanamaker, and I knew it was happening again.
In the early twenties, believing as I did that I was the only gay to ever live in Devon, I found what consolation I could in feature films. The buses stopped around six o’clock, so no city gay bars for me. I got as far as the Legion, which doesn’t count.
So, films. I had heard of, and subsequently found, ‘The Killing of Sister George’. In hushed whispers, it was mentioned, as the late-sixties film that women like me watched in crowded cinemas across the land, all dressed like their mothers. Deeply conservative-looking women, with pill-box hats and heavy plastic handbags, faces lit up in the creeping darkness, pretending not to know the Gateways club intimately, nor to recognise their famed barmaid Smithie in her acting debut.
I watched in semi-rural stillness, and okay, there are the stereotypes of the time: the woman who couldn’t get a man if she paid cash, the woman who was power-mad and strident and probably had penis envy, and the woman who had been devastated by a man; these are the lesbians.
It was the late 1960s, and some homosexual acts had only recently been decriminalised. I think a little slack needs cutting.
On its release, the film received an X rating, which seems impossible. However, this was downgraded to an R rating in 1972. A quick google of what R rating actually refers to, and I understand that an adult can bring a child up to the age of seventeen, but they’re advised not to do so. ‘The Killing of Sister George’ is still rated 18. It contains, one love scene, tepid by today’s standards, some swearing and a long-shot kiss.
Starring Beryl Reid, Susannah York and Coral Browne, I only recently discovered the role of George was also offered to Angela Lansbury and Bette Davis. So I was around twenty years old, painfully single and watching ‘The Killing of Sister George’ in my living room, once I was sure my mother was asleep.
And I knew I recognised her: Susannah York. I knew her from something. Something I’d seen rather a lot. At least, something I’d seen a glimpse of before. Perhaps I’d walked through the room. Of course, ‘A Man For All Seasons’. I spent a good chunk of my childhood half-seeing that film. And that was where I knew her from. She had been a semi-constant presence in the backing track of my childhood. Her voice was clean but textured; everyone had that scratch in the sixties because every avenue of life was laced with cigarette smoke. It was the time.
Still, two sixties movies coming to mind in the space of a few hours, early on in the new millennium, was pretty startling. And then, some nonesuch advert spilled across the small and fat-backed screen. I was certain I knew that voice. Nothing will pull the memory of what the advert was actually for, but I know it was Susannah York’s voice.
These things come in threes, I supposed.
Nothing to spend too much time thinking about. But of course, that didn’t stop me.
My uncle visited a lot in those days. He has always been an avid birdwatcher, stargazer, tree-identifier, and he wasn’t so nervous of driving at that time, so Devon fitted him like a glove.
Before we moved down this way, my parents, uncle and I came down to the Westcountry for a holiday. My uncle had never been away with us before. He never came with us again. My dad was both driver and navigator in the lead car. My mother liked to believe she was assisting with map-reading but, with the best of respect, much as she knew where we were headed, she probably couldn’t find where we were. This is not a great way to plot a course. She much preferred gazing into the clouds, romanticising the sky, and imagining her arrival in the countryside. My father, not stressed but very aware that we couldn’t all look into the clouds and speculate on what might or might not be, when there was a bloody big truck coming the other way. My uncle followed in his little red tea-strainer of a car.
My uncle was driving fairly swiftly behind us. My dad knew where he was going, and uncle didn’t want to get too badly lost. And then he saw a buzzard.
We went straight over the roundabout. Suddenly, my uncle was not behind us. He had veered sharply to the right and disappeared back towards Dorset. After a twenty minute detour, we found him at the side of a road, following the winged predator with the sweep of his binoculars.
When we got to the holiday home, my uncle continued on his birdwatching tour of Britain, my mother swept through the newspapers, I fought off a head cold and my dad put dinner on.
Years later, close to the start of Susannah York’s stalking of me, I collected the big Sunday newspaper from the shop, only for the crossword. I was raised to barely believe the dates on newspapers, but the crosswords were safe. My mother and uncle spent the mornings on them.
The week before, there had been a DVD giveaway with the paper. The BBC version of ‘Macbeth’ starring Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. It was magnificent, there was one semi-awkward kiss, and I was swept away entirely. Another Sunday, another crossword, the second DVD – ‘King Lear’. I regret to admit, I have forgotten who starred as the eponymous King, but Cordelia (after whom my mother was almost named) was played by… Susannah York. There she was again. This became less than a coincidence.
I started to anticipate Susannah York at every turn. I saw her in the mannequins in shop windows, she filled television voiceovers, every film was hers, she followed me into sleep.
I decided to seek solace in early evening drama. Born and raised on Casualty scripts, with my mother picking apart who would and who would not survive in reality, I thought a little bout of ‘Holby City’ would be safe.
There she was again. Looking exceptional.
I have, of course, never been a source of interest for an actress. But there’s time.