In case you missed this great interview with one of our Duty Managers, Andrew Stocker, here’s a copy of the piece published in Bristol Evening Post earlier this year.
From encountering the theatre’s famous ghost, to witnessing a skull being unearthed, and knocking a star of stage and screen to the ground, Andrew Stocker has seen and done it all.
The 49-year-old Bristolian has worked at the Bristol Old Vic since 1983. From his first part-time job serving punters at the theatre’s Garrick Bar, to working front of house, organising the archives, and guiding back stage tours, Andrew knows every inch of the theatre.
Now working as duty manager, he’s thrilled to finally be able to witness the tremendous improvements that are being made at the historic venue and is keen to share his thoughts and experiences.
“Over the years, there have been numerous plans, fundraising, funding cuts and hold-ups,” says Andrew. “So to see this happen now, well, I have to pinch myself.
“It’s a very exciting time. What I’ve seen behind the scenes in the past week is unbelievable – it looks like they’ve had people working on it for the past year.
“The last time they refurbished the building in the Seventies, they didn’t research things and note them down. This time we know exactly what they are discovering, from old tram tickets and pottery, to hidden staircases and bricked-up arches and passageways. It’s revealing a very interesting story.”
Andrew’s part in the theatre’s history began with a bang – literally.
“I knocked Paul Eddington (The Good Life/Yes, Prime Minister) flat on his back,” laughs Andrew.
“It was my first day at work and because of an accident in Lawrence Hill I was going to be late. When I got off the bus in the city centre, I belted down Baldwin Street and Queen Charlotte Street, ran into the theatre, bolted up the stairs and knocked this very elegant gentleman off his feet.
“I said ‘I’m ever so sorry… oh my God, it’s you!’ and Paul Eddington said, ‘Yes it is – and who the hell are you?’
“I explained my story and he told me to calm down and said ‘may our collision bring you luck’. So that’s how it all started.”
Andrew went on to encounter many famous actors, playwrights and directors over the years, but his personal highlight is meeting one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.
“I was thrilled to meet Arthur Miller, and he didn’t disappoint. We did the European premiere of The Man Who Had All The Luck here, and he came over from the United States for a time and was a really lovely man – a gentle giant.
“We have an incredible link with that great playwright. In 1954, his play The Crucible premiered at the theatre, and we also held the European premiere of The Archbishop’s Ceiling here.
“We still have a link now, even though Arthur Miller is sadly no longer with us,” Andrew continues. “Daniel Day Lewis, who was a student at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and is now involved in our fundraising campaign, did the film version of The Crucible, and while doing that he met Arthur Miller’s daughter Rebecca, and they are now happily married.
“I also met John Gielgud, and Harold Pinter came when we did 12 Angry Men, which was another highlight.
“I also have to mention Up The Feeder, Down The Mouth, which was an amazing show. I was involved in the revival down at the docks – the trains, boats and cranes used were certainly the biggest props we’ve had in a show!”
Considering the theatre’s age, it’s not entirely surprising to learn that some of Andrew’s encounters occurred on the astral plane.
Sarah Macready, the Old Vic’s resident ghost, was a widow manageress who ruled the theatre with a rod of iron for two decades from 1829.
Over the years, many have told how they’ve sensed her ghostly presence, caught a whiff of her lavender perfume, heard her voice and even felt her breath on their face.
“I’ve experienced the spirit twice,” says Andrew. “Oddly enough, not in the theatre, but in the Studio, which was the original theatre entrance.
“One evening I was in there and I thought someone was messing around, making noises and trying to scare me. Suddenly I didn’t feel very safe; I felt threatened. But nobody was there – it was very eerie.”
In 1999, Andrew was asked to make sense of the archive of documents that were at that time stored at the theatre. It was a labour of love that took 18 months to complete, but Andrew discovered some real gems including a programme from the 1800s.
The bill said that Mrs Sarah Macready would present two plays and if you stayed in your seats at 11.30pm, you could witness a live sailor’s Hornpipe.
“That really made me smile,” says Andrew. “The sailor’s Hornpipe was never a guarantee. Sarah would nip out of the theatre and promise the sailors a bottle of beer if they came back to the theatre with her and danced for the audience. She was an incredible lady for her time.”
In addition to the ghost, there have been other hair-raising discoveries at the theatre.
“I’m just waiting to see how many bodies they dig up this time,” laughs Andrew. “In my time of working here we have done two productions of Hamlet. When we did it in the Eighties, BT dug up a body at the back of the building. Ten years later, during the second production, the area outside stage door was being dug up and literally at the end of this shovel was a skull.”
Andrew may be the font of all knowledge when it comes to the theatre, but even he is constantly finding out new stories.
“About a year ago, I did a backstage tour and a gentleman said ‘that was a great tour, but you didn’t mention the duel’.
“The man worked for a company of solicitors and he told me that they have documentation to show that the last official duel to take place in this country was prompted by an incident here at the theatre.
“The story goes that people would queue into the street to get into the theatre, but one of the actors was late and he pushed his way through the crowds. He pushed this lady to one side and her husband took great offence and challenged him to a duel. Apparently, it took place up on the Green at Westbury-on-Trym.”
There are so many enthralling stories surrounding the historic venue, and many more will be created as the redevelopment makes the country’s oldest working theatre fit for purpose in the 21st century.
“About five years ago, I did wonder if this would ever happen. But it is happening and we’re off on another chapter in the history of the Bristol Old Vic – and what an exciting chapter that is.”
Written by Natalie Hale