By Theo Cronin & Bryony Clarke
At the age of 90, Violetta Farjeon simply doesn’t understand the cult of modern celebrity.
The West End musical star celebrated her birthday last weekend, and actors, show business personalities and local residents alike descended upon her secluded home near Southwater to mark the occasion.
Most known for her roles as the coquettish French maid Hortense in the original London productions of Sandy Wilson’s hit musicals, The Boy Friend and Divorce Me Darling, many of Violetta’s friends would have been considered celebrities during their prime.
But, reflecting on her time in musical theatre, it was a far cry from what she describes as ‘this terrible cult of celebrity’ that has now become all consuming.
“What is a celebrity?” questions Violetta, who despite her years is sharp, clear-minded and fabulously witty.
“I’ve talked to children and asked them what they want to do, and they say they want to be famous - well what does that mean? Famous for what?
“What a terrible thing to have in mind, ” she exclaims, her French accent still evident despite decades of living in England.
“Somebody goes on a commercial and they’re suddenly a celebrity,” she continues.
“I mean, what are they celebrated for?”
For Violetta, celebrity, recognition or fame was earned, and while working with The Players’ Theatre in the post-war years and into the 1950s, the company worked incredibly hard.
“It was always a full week, and you had tours which lasted for two or three years.”
Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend was the first hit-musical following the Second World War, and set in the 1920s, its was created to cheer the nation up.
“I played Hortense,” reflects Violetta, the maid’s name almost unrecognisable with her Gallic pronunciation.
“I think it’s the role I’ll be forever be associated with, because it was an unbelievable success, it really was extraordinary.
“For three years we didn’t have an empty seat, even at matinees.”
However, just a few years previously Violetta’s future was far from certain.
Half British due to her English father she was forced to flee from German occupied France soon after the Nazis took control.
She arrived in London in the midst of the blitz – a shock that still resonates with her to this day.
“I was about 16 at the time and I remember thinking this is going to be wonderful, and then we went straight into an air raid shelter!
“I had had no idea about the bombardments in London. It was quite a shock!”
Violetta spent the rest of the war in Britain, and worked entertaining the troops. Characteristically self-deprecating, the actress laments what she believes she inflicted on the service-men.
“The poor soldiers who had to sit through it – I was so bad in the beginning! And they couldn’t leave because there was a sergeant at the door,” she says, bursting into laughter.
However, from these inauspicious beginnings, an extraordinary career in entertainment soon flourished.
She joined the world-famous Players’ Theatre, London’s only Victorian theatre and one of the oldest music hall companies.
“I used to stay with my parents and do the plays, and then from the Players The Boy Friend was made.”
Composer Sandy Wilson, who wrote the part of Hortense with Violetta in mind, has remarked how she stole the show nightly with her hit song, ‘It’s Nicer than Nice’.
He recalls her dance routine as being ‘so vigorous that at many performances her vital assets often popped out of her costume and were on full display to the astonished audience!’
Violetta grins at the memory of this, but ‘it didn’t happen as often as Sandy says it did’, she corrects.
“You had to flatten your chest because this was the Twenties, so the costume department came up with roll-ons - in those days they didn’t have all these wonderful bras,” she adds.
“The other four girls were all flat chested so they were fine, but I was quite, well, um, well endowed!”
Violetta jumps up and with her right arm frittering high above her head and her left out to the side, she explains how with a series of accompanying high kicks it ‘of course sometimes came out!’
The Boy Friend enjoyed phenomenal success. It ran for five years, with more than 2000 performances at Wyndam’s Theatre in London, making it for a time the third longest running musical in West End history.
Then came Divorce Me Darling, and a host of further acting credits, many of which she now finds difficult to recall – although playing a bit part in a film starring Marilyn Monroe is more memorable, but not for reasons you might at first expect.
“It was lovely because she never appeared, and we were paid by the day!”
Violetta’s recollections of this period are filled with nostalgia. “That was the Golden Era,” she says. “I suppose it was the fun that we had.
“I think the poor kids now going into the theatre don’t have the fun that we had.”
She acknowledges today’s cultural landscape is a very different terrain for aspiring young actors.
“In those days you were never out of a job, and if you were, there were always the provinces where you had theatres, and of course they just don’t exist anymore.”
Her advice for today’s young thespians is uncompromisingly pragmatic.
“I would say get something that makes some money on the side, because otherwise how would they survive?”
The nonagenarian remains an active member and familiar face in Southwater’s community, where she has lived since 1987, taking up painting, Spanish classes and giving talks to Horsham’s French Club.