INTERVIEW: Ursula Mohan on sharing a grandmother’s memories

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Florence Smith in 1918 with her firstborn, Bill. Ursula Mohan today, and in On the Buses, on the right with yellow shirt.

RSC actor Christopher Saul, who lives in Stratford and is currently in Imperium, has written a one-woman play based on the memories of his grandmother, Flo Smith. Actress Ursula Mohan talks to Gill Sutherland about taking on the role in the new play, Flo Smith: Now and Then which makes its premiere at The Bear Pit on 25th February.

Tell us about the show.

Christopher Saul

Chris Saul had a wonderful grandmother called Flo Smith. In 1969, when he was about 21 and studying at Rose Bruford [London drama school] and working on his thesis he asked her if he could record her talking about her life. She was born during the Boer War so she actually lived through three wars, which is incredible. She died in 1989 aged 96. She was very lucid and very hard working throughout her life.

Anyway Chris asked her if he could record her on his old Grundig — which he had got for his 21st, and we are actually using in the show. The stories she poured out are these very human stories but within the arc of reality: kings abdicated, Edward VII’s death, all the wars, children dying in the Blitz. This very simple hard life that Flo led is contrasted against these huge events of history, and it’s very tender, funny and sad. It actually makes you think how on earth did people live? There was no National Health, no security if you had no money. Flo’s husband was injured during the First World War and became very ill afterwards – he wasn’t even given a proper pension. She had to go scrubbing floors to make ends meet and to raise her children.

She was very funny and very London… when I’ve met her relatives they’ve also told me she was something of a battleaxe too! The show is verbatim, as she said it.

How did you get involved in the play?

I didn’t know Chris before this — we’ve both been at RSC in Stratford but never in the same company. He mentioned to his sister-in-law Marilyn Sarrington that he was looking for someone to play Flo and she recommended me. Chris sent me the script and I read it and couldn’t put it down — I said I would love to give it a go, so we met for coffee, got on really well. I began to work on it and got Flo’s voice, I felt I knew her – she was like my nan who also lived in North London.

We did a reading last year in a church hall in Crouch End, near to wear Flo lived, in front of her family, which was a bit daunting. I mean I don’t even look like her — but I put a grey wig on! Anyway they were really moved, enjoyed it and laughed at the things she was saying and how it matched with their memories of her.

Chris had been on stage too but the general feedback was that Chris wasn’t needed, so now I’m on my own. Which is a bit scary as I’ve always been with everybody else! Doing a play is like you are tied to each other going up the Eiger — now I’ve got no one tied to my waist! I hope I don’t fall!

You started at the RSC in the 1960s as a young actress, tell us about that.

It was a wonderful time — John Barton dying has made me think back on it. He was wonderful with the younger company and I was not even 20. He used to give us classes on the sonnets which were breathtaking he had a brilliantly simple way of looking at things.

I left school at 15 and went straight to work at Wimbledon Theatre – I made tea, painted scenery and played maids – and learned so much, and went to Rose Bruford Drama School aged 16 and a half. I went straight to the Old Vic and then a short time later auditioned for the RSC at Stratford and got in and was due to play small parts and be in the crowd… then I got another call to say would I come and read for Trevor Nunn who was doing a new play called Tango. Anyway I did, and I got the role of Ala! That was 1966. I’ve been so lucky… After that I went to work with Peter Brook, who was marvellous. I was working with giants, but back then I didn’t really know they were, you just got on with it!

I also have a very normal life as well. I’m married with two children and have four grandchildren and have lived in East Dulwich, south London, for about 30 years.

What else stands out in your career?

I was very proud of doing The Good Woman of Setzuan, which actually my future husband, Ian Watt-Smith, directed. It was 1975 and I was so happy then doing a wonderful role and finding my life partner.

Then most recently [in 2014] I’ve been proud of playing a female Lear – I did it before Glenda! It was great doing that at 70. Now I’m doing Flo at 72, I hope I can get through it!

Finally, you were in cult telly show On the Buses in the early 1970s, do tell all!

I was asked to do an episode, and then they kept writing me back in. I was playing Edna, although sometimes I was called Joyce, how hilarious! My character was a saucy clippie [ticket collector], then I was promoted to work in the front office. We wore skirts that were just belts and it was outrageous really – it’s very iffy, so politically incorrect. We were 19 and then there were all these lecherous men. There was one black conductor who was called Chalkie — can you imagine that?

It was an extraordinary time with beautiful people like Bob Grant who played Jack, who was really a fine classical actor. He became very upset that no-one would take him seriously after that, he had a lot of anger.

Stephen Lewis, who played Blakey and who has just died, was a very private man. He started as an electrician for Joan Littlewood and she put him on the stage. Reg was a stand up comedian — as soon as you went into rehearsals he would start his routine! I was also extremely fond of Doris Hare who played the mum; she had the most wonderful stories, like when she had worked with Noel Coward.

None of us had any idea that On the Buses would be a cult. I still get asked for autographs because of the show. You can tell people you’ve played Lear but when you say you were in On the Buses, they are truly amazed!

When and where: Flo Smith: Now and Then is on at The Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford, on Sunday, 25th February at 7.30pm. Buy tickets at www.thebearpit.org.uk, call 01789 403416, or visit the RSC box office.