Pamela Gems was a English playwright. The author of numerous plays, as well as of adaptations of works by major European playwrights of the past. She is best known for the 1978 musical play Piaf.
She was a very good friend of mine and I miss her terribly. She dies aged 85 in May 2011. Here is the substance of an interview I did with her in 1987.
THE EARLY INFLUENCES
Pamela Gems: My grandmother was a great influence. I spent a lot of time with her. She was widowed in the First World War. My mother was also widowed very young, but I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She was a witch really. You imprint at a very deep level, and I imprinted from her. My mother was, still is, a melancholic from the loss of her lover husband. But my grandmother was very strong, very wise, very tough and unmalicious. She was a little bit frightening, and I don’t know why, because she was very benign. We were, in a way, sisters. Just before she died, she used to come to me and say things like, look after Else, Pam. Else is my mother, whom I neglect. My grandmother was very important woman, but quite uneducated and very funny. She had three sons and three daughters, no money, lived by poaching – all that kind of thing. But she was formidable.
I had two younger brothers, but one had a heart defect and the other was severely asthmatic so missed most of his schooling. I was the eldest of the three. And we were told that neither of them would survive. Once, when we all had measles, they told us to lay my baby brother on the bed, because he was going to die. In fact they are both alive and well. My mother was told, when she was widowed, to put two of us in a home. And she refused. She was very beautiful, still is, in her seventies. She looks like Garbo, and I’m still frightened of her. I’m a plain daughter of a beautiful woman. I am in love with my mother- we all three were- but we had to placate her constantly. She sang contralto beautifully. In fact she was taken up by the local gentry. We had no middle class where we lived, only ourselves and people with titles and huge houses and thirty servants. So I grew up knowing the difference between an Aubusson and a Chinese carpet, for example. I saw the end of the feudal life. You see all this and yet you are not part of it. Of course, you are full of hatred, really. You’re full of resentment, because it’s so unfair. We lived, seven of us, in a coach-house. Next door lived an old lady with, i guess, seven or eight servants, counting the outdoor- one woman in a house with fifteen bedrooms. It was a house where Scott had written some of his books. So this collision was very dramatic; it was a dramatic childhood. In fact I didn’t know that the middle class existed until I grew up and went into the WRNS, when I realized that there were gradations rather than snobs and slobs. I was a terrible snob myself, and still am a bit, because of that early hierarchy and knowing how to behave. My uncle was an under-gardener who got the sack because he refused to bow when Queen Mary went by. The servants had to line up and bow, and he said, I can’t do that, and they said, well, I’m sorry, but you must. But when she came he hid behind a bush. He voted Labour, secretly. It had to be secretly in those days, or you lost your job. But he was seen and he lost his job.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES
Pamela Gems: I think, for a long time, I thought I was a boy. We lived on a marsh during those years, and I was still very wild, I was just like a boy. It’s hard to imagine now I am old and fat. But I fought as a boy, and I always had a stick. When you are the lowest, you are despised in the social hierarchy in a small town, so I was always very aggressive. As my brothers grew older, they became stronger than me because of the sex difference, and there came a day when I couldn’t beat up my brothers if they misbehaved, so that was a rather bad day. I’m not so much motherly as older-sisterly; that is, that has always been my attitude to men: protective and bullying. You find it hard to lose those patterns.
I didn’t really find disadvantages in being a woman. You have only your own life to go by. I am a feminist by condition and through politics, but war came when I was fifteen. Now, during wartime, men and women suddenly have amazing equality. Suddenly women are quite capable of ferrying large Liberator aeroplanes and becoming spies, or being dropped by parachute, and the camaraderie between the classes and between the sexes is amazing and wonderful. Of course, we all thought, after the war we’d have to get rid of the public schools and everything else. We didn’t expect to revert. At that time, I didn’t come across discrimination, and I was happy to be a woman in that I didn’t I didn’t have to fight and actually kill someone, though I guess I would have done it then. I couldn’t have done it after having children; then you change. It takes too much of your life to produce a human being; the sin of killing becomes total.
The first thing I learned when I came into the theatre was that, if you open the Radio Times or the TV Times, there’s twice as much work offered to an actor as an actress, week by week, year by year. That means, five years out of drama school, the boy is twice as experienced therefore twice as good as his sister. The parts offered to women are written by men mostly, and they always are of an object, a sexual object- what I call the girl in the front seat of the car. I watch it like a hawk every time. She has no lines, she’s not a protagonist. It’s the man who has the action, who has the challenge, who is changed by his experience, who wins or loses. The girl is there to smile and be there and greet him, to be saved by him. I don’t mind that, I quite like being saved. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But when I came into the theatre, the lack of opportunity for actresses absolutely astonished me.
I have a young woman friend who is black, a very bright girl, got all her exams and wanted to be a vet. The most right-wing group of surgeons you can imagine is in the veterinary school. They tried very hard to discourage her; she had to get very, very good marks. When she applied, her marks were so much better than the boys’ that they had to say yes. The day she went to register, the woman at the desk looked up, saw she was female and black and said, my dear wouldn’t you be happier doing secretarial work? Can you believe it? Now that’s an extreme example. Some women are lucky. Some women are foxy, they will succeed on a man’s back, or become his mistress and get a job that way. I worked in the BBC and I’ve seen that happen. Sometimes the man gets drunk so the woman does the job, the woman does the job again, and suddenly she has the job. But there aren’t enough jobs to go round. We have such a problem to get woman directors into the theatre; we need them for various reasons, to explore certain kinds of work. But how can the men move over? I can’t say to Ron Daniels, do you mind giving up your job because, fair dos, you don’t have any women working there? Men say, we’re glad to have a woman if she’s good enough, we’re not chauvinist, she just has to be good enough. But she can’t be good enough until she’s done the number of productions that men have done, with the privileges they have for production. It’s impossible. In the theatre, it is really impossible. I see no sign of it changing. I’m very depressed about it, actually.
There is no doubt that, if you are to succeed in anything, you must be persistent and dedicated. And a lot of that is to do with whether you are lucky with energy, whether you have a good adrenalin, a supersonic system. I don’t. I think there is a way and I think a lot of women haven’t found it. I have just been in America, and women there do it at a great cost, the ones who become mock men, the ones who become strident. Almost worse are the women who go, as it were, into drag. They become super-female, you know. They’re very honeychile about everything, and their urine would etch glass. That is really frightening to live with, and men and women are, I think, repelled.
I couldn’t dream of being a man, because of having a child, because it is such an ecstatic experience. On the other hand, I do believe in reincarnation and I would like to be a man next time to experience that.
Pamela Gems: There is a very wide sexual spectrum. My doctor friends tell me people still come into the surgery and say, we’ve been married six months and haven’t got a baby yet; and it turns out they haven’t been doing it. Amazing. On the other hand, there are people who are the opposite, and it’s just as difficult for them. I’ve known men whose desires have been uncontainable. A dog’s life. What do you do? Such a man has to find an answer. And I’ve known women like that. So we have this very wide spectrum. I have often thought, because I myself never had a lot of energy, and it happens I have a husband with very high energy, that some of the rules about marriage are silly. I mean, some men should definitely have three or four wives. It would be really kinder for the woman, too; occasionally, not so often I don’t think, the other way round. It is a problem. In America, they have serial marriage. They are a high-consumer country: every five years you have another hat and a wedding, and a new deal, and lawyers have been paid off, and you have a new one. Liz Taylor is the arch example. It’s romantic, and very immature. In France, it’s the menage a trois, which is a very good system, a very good system. Of course, the French do everything best. But we’ll never do that are because we are Anglo-Saxon and we’re puritans, you know. England, I think, has always been a mess sexually. We send our boys away to school, and all that.
Pamela Gems: Discrimination is at a very deep level. There is an awful lot of lip-service paid to feminism, particularly if it sells newspapers or whatever you’re involved in selling. We live in a buy-and-sell society. But the discrimination is there, and it is there au fond, because a man is stronger than a woman and in the end he can hit her. That is one of the major differences, and one men and women both find it difficult in different circumstances to deal with. The honour between men and women which began in the twentieth century – this code of I am stronger than you, therefore my role is to protect you- is an incredible code. This was fine when men and women were together in a static feudal society. Now we smash men to pieces and people are surprised at this venomous increase in rape. There is a terrible sex war going on. The hostility between men and women is dreadful. It’s terribly difficult for men. Iv’e spoken, and been regarded as reactionary, at many feminist meetings, because I’ve agreed it isn’t in men’s interests to give up being looked after, first by the mother and then by the wife, while they shoulder the responsibility for the family. You know, I have never seen a good production of A Doll’s House because it is always played as though Nora is escaping from this silly husband, he’s a perfect husband. They are in the middle of their conjugality, they are in love. They have three beautiful children and he is doing his best. She gets into debt, she can ruin him, and if she ruins him how can he look after the three children? This is a wonderful subtext in the play which is not ever dealt with. He is played as a wimp, and what woman wouldn’t want to run out of that house from such a silly man? But all of those systems of protection started to go when the machines came in and muscles weren’t necessary anymore. Man is in a tragic state in the West because his heroic qualities are no longer needed and not revered.
The difficulty for a woman is the deception. You see, it’s a moment’s thought for a man. I know, because I was complaining to my son the other day about my husband, and my son said surely now you can accept the fact that we are not like you; when we see it, we have to have it. He was actually talking about himself and his father. And I said, yes, but I still can’t get over it. I’ve lived with this man forty years, I love him, he’s the father of my children, and he comes in with a bland face and a bunch of flowers; and the bunch of flowers always gives him away. Why has he bought those dreadful daffodils, which cost him 50p? I know why he bought them, and so they go into the bucket. He has no charm, no style. He’s not going to buy a jewel, he’s already got me. Anyway, I’m older. I used to say to him twenty years ago, cant you say, oh, Pammy I’ve met this wonderful woman and she’s gorgeous, and you know you’ve never been good in the legs, and she’s got wonderful legs. I wouldn’t mind if he had the odd kid elsewhere, but he could never tell me. My son says, don’t you understand, thats half the fun. But my husband is making me into his mother, and I don’t want to be his mother. That’s the dilemma. I see no way out of it, for men or women in the society structured as we are. I started to think in the 1960’s, the communes are going to work it out – it’s going to be an extended family, like a gipsy group, there’s going to be little bits of love here, and maybe a kid, and then they’re going to move on. But the shotgun comes out at some point. There is always one who breaks it up, not two. In any of the normal daily papers, there is always somebody who has shot himself or his wife because she has been having it off with the man at the pub.
I always fall in love with men who look like my Uncle Ted, who was not my favourite uncle, but he was the best cricketer in the village, and he had a very English face, and fair hair and blue eyes, and if anybody looked like that, I fell in love. But I never went near him, because I was too afraid of rejection. I tended to go with men whom I felt needed me. I guess it was maternal, though I was a bookish girl and hated to be thought of as that. You spend your twenties finding out about sex, being concerned about sex, but mostly getting it wrong, but when I came to maturity in my thirties, I found that my sexual taste was for rather repressed men, almost perverse. And I think it is something to do with the English, and something to do with being brought up in the kitchens of these very lah-di-dah men who were also terribly repressed because the only relations they knew were power relations. They had no relations with their parents, whom they rarely saw. They were brought up by nannies, nursery governesses, with whom they had relations of affection, but also they had power over them. I like that. I like men who are kind of spies, and I like moody men. I had a friend who, alas, lost her husband who died on the operating table. It was twenty years ago, and she went to a marriage bureau. You had to write down what kind of a man you wanted and what sort of personality, and my friend Ann wrote, moody. She has this lovely moody man, never boring. I think to be married to someone boring must be the worst thing.
Pamela Gems: In my own personal history, I see men equally oppressed, for different reasons. That’s not to say that there aren’t men who aren’t absolute monsters, but I see as many women who are monsters, witches – bad witches – that destroy children’s psyches before they are out of the cradle with their coldness and hatefulness. But I think that the male dilemma is particularly acute. I have had men say to me, in a way you’re lucky, you have a cause. It’s true.
The more I talk to my sons and other men, and the more I talk to women, the more I think we see things differently. I say this particularly after having seen women, often younger than me, doing for what I would call the masculine style of behaviour that is gaining pace, living a free sexual life, exercising the right to choose a partner, to ditch a partner, the right to choose not to breed from a partner, the desire to have a child but not want to marry – you know, all these radical choices women have been making. And the concomitant unhappiness has been very defeating for a lot of women. Iv’e seen that unhappiness. I know women, very well-known women, who’ve spent years in the London Clinic trying to breed. I know a woman who had a hysterectomy because she wanted to be an artist. Is art to be the cost of mutilation? That can’t be right. My own perception now is that women and men are far more different than I used to think, when I grew up with brothers. Particularly sexually. Particularly where sexual loyalty is concerned. I suppose I was nearly into my forties before I realized that to expect sexual loyalty from a man is to expect and abnormal man. You know, there was something bloody well wrong with him if he didn’t lust after something that was absolutely fascinating out there in the street. It’s very hard for some women to accept that, because most women do breed at some point in their lives, and it changes you utterly. You are hostages to fortune then. You are dependent on the goodwill of the world; particularly, if you are wise, on a man, and if you are very wise, on the father of your children. We haven’t discovered any really good substitute for the family unit, boring and reactionary and traditional as it’s regarded. Children have a right to their own genetic inheritance. Take the surrogacy case in America – the woman who had a baby and then couldn’t give it up. The father lost all his relations in the Holocaust, so he badly needs a child. One can imagine his need. His wife has multiple sclerosis, so it would obviously be unwise for her to have a child. So they found a surrogate and the surrogate couldn’t give up the child. What judgement does one make? The father is middle class, the child would have a very good life with him. The mother is working class, rather shaky background, without culture. Do you simply say, it is better for the child to be with the father? It’s quite simple for me, because I am a woman. You cannot take the child away from its mother. It’s an insanity. She can’t give up the child and the child has a right to her. But the judge will give that child to that father, to what he thinks is the best environment and consider he’s solved it. There’s a surrogate case in England where twins were born and the woman didn’t want to give them up. She’s accepted £5,000 and the judge has ruled that the father may adopt the children and the mother now must be deprived of them. In other words, she must legally stay by her bond. It’s nothing to do with what happens in the uterus and the bonding between a mother and child. If you start to break those laws, we might as well give up. Really I believe that. I think its terribly dangerous not to honour the fact of natural family. You might as well go to the Nazis. You cannot say, look, you’re a poor woman, you’re a working-class women, you can hardly afford to bring up your three children; we’re an infertile middle-class family, we’ll give you £10, 000, please have a baby for us. I would love to have a baby for you; I already have my children and I need that £10, 000. But now I have the baby and there’s milk coming through, of course I can’t give him up, he is me. I can’t give up my arms and my legs. This is the difference between a man and a woman. But most judges are still men, and the few female judges are in the masculine mode. Otherwise they wouldn’t have got there.