I left drama school in 1976, picked-up an Equity ticket doing TIE (Theatre in Education), and in the Autumn of 1977 began working for the Welsh Drama Company. The company was the impoverished sister of the established and highly successful Welsh Opera Company. Both companies worked from a large customised warehouse in an otherwise largely derelict area of Cardiff. The Welsh Drama Company's fortunes were actually in the doldrums (sadly never to recover!), their funding having been greatly reduced by the Arts Council. The company, once quite ambitious in its scope, was by now little more than a community theatre company. We toured Wales, playing mostly single nights at small venues, community centres, church and miners halls etc. In larger towns we'd play for a few days at a time. The stuff we performed was specially written by Phil Woods, and our first play was called 'Ghost Stories', directed by Gruffudd Jones. It was a comic piece, 'a sealed house drama' where six characters are brought together and one by one relate a 'ghostly tale'. As the evening develops, they realise that they are unwittingly all caught up in a ghost story together. The whole thing was basically just good-natured fun. I played a comically sinister character called Gregory Hammond who had Satanic inclinations, and in one scene, I not only hypnotised everyone else on stage, but started to actually levitate, then tossed off a quick incantation and conjured up a demon - all in the best possible taste! People always wanted to know how the levitation was done. It was visually quite convincing. All I'd admit to enquiring members of the public was that it took a lot of practice. This wasn't actually true; it was in fact, an incredibly simple trick. However, not one person, though they eagerly advanced imaginative theories, usually involving wires or mirrors, actually figured out how it was done. And guess what? I'm still not telling!
One of our venues was a place called Clyro Court. The village of Clyro is right on the Welsh border, about a mile from its now famous neighbour Hay-on Wye. Clyro Court was a stately home that had been converted into a luxury hotel. When one of our party first saw the large house as they came along the drive, they were heard to remark that it looked like Baskerville Hall from the Sherlock Holmes tales. This was a remarkably perceptive observation, because Clyro Court was indeed the home of the real Baskerville family. Apparently Conan Doyle had often visited his Baskerville friends at Clyro, and with their permission used their name, which he put together with a local legend about a large dog, but for discretion's sake set the tale in Dartmoor. Back in 1977 it was owned and managed by a chap whose first name I recall was Colin - the surname I forget.
You can imagine our delight, all young actors, invariably strapped for cash, not only getting to play a tasty venue like Clyro but having our accommodation there too! It was a big treat, as we were generally only in the market for the cheapest 'digs' in town. Something I should tell you about the hotel, Clyro Court, back in those days, was that it didn't have any room numbers - but every room had been awarded the name of a country. I discovered myself in 'India' - a smallish room with exotic wallpaper and a four poster bed. It was very comfortable. I soon discovered, however, that a number of my colleagues had done far better than me. Some of them were in rooms that seemed to my youthful eyes to be as broad as football stadiums, bearing untold luxuries - like water-beds et al (I hadn't got out much by this time!). I recall visiting our stage manager, Sean, who was giving public audiences from a sunken bathtub, reclining amongst hillocks of bubble bath with a glass of champagne and a large cigar stuffed into a corner of his mouth! His room was 'USA', I suppose the red and white stripes of the wallpaper and the blue paintwork were meant to suggest the US flag. The weekend at Clyro seemed like the perfect opportunity to invite my girlfriend (later my wife), who I already shared a flat with in London, down to stay. She arrived on Saturday afternoon. We'd already played one performance at the venue on Friday evening - so I'd slept one night in 'India' by the time she got to us!
After the second evening's performance we all congregated, as we generally did, in the bar. I recall our table was near a stone plaque, laid by Thomas Baskerville when the house was new. We were all sitting at a table with Colin, Clyro Court's owner. He had an interest in all things to do with the occult and possessed an object he referred to as a 'gnome stone'. Yes, our tongues were firmly fixed in our cheeks too, gentle reader! This stone, rectangular in shape, approximately eight inches by twelve, looked to me like an undistinguished slab of sandstone. Anyway, Colin said he was able to 'read' this stone and that it could be asked questions concerning the future. We were each allowed to ask it something, for this we had to focus our minds on our question - the response would come via the 'Gnome Stone's' medium, Colin. Actually the answer I got to mine turned out to be fairly accurate, but then it was also rather generalised. At midnight, Judith and I left the assembled company and turned in for the night.
I felt remarkably tired and fell asleep quite soon - this is almost reversed behaviour for us, as I was ever a poor sleeper, while Judith has always been swift off the mark to run into the arms of Morpheus. However, she told me later that she'd had a really strong conviction that it would be unwise for her to fall asleep. She couldn't have rationally explained it, because she felt completely safe herself but just couldn't shake off the notion that I was in some kind of personal danger. She was convinced that she must remain awake - and watch over me as I slept!
Two hours later, at 2 am (the time is relevant!), whilst laying asleep on my back, I began to groan, then I started thrashing from side to side. It was, Judith described later, like watching someone trying to turn over or get up but who is being held by invisible bonds and therefore immobilised. In fact, this describes exactly what I was experiencing in my nightmare, or whatever it was. I was actually 'seeing' it all too: observing myself (though fast asleep you understand!) in bed, fully aware that I was in the room 'India', I could even see Judith lying troubled and awake beside me. The reason why I couldn't rise or turn was because a youngish woman, dressed in the kind of embroidered lace nightdress worn by ladies in the nineteenth-century, was actually standing on my torso, and although I sensed no weight bearing down, she had me literally pinned to the spot. Her arms were reaching out towards me, and I knew that she was calling me to come to her. My willpower to resist seemed to be diminishing fast, as the energy was leeched out of my sleeping form and drawn up into her.
I don't know, and don't really want to know what the 'spectres' intended outcome was. Fortunately, Judith shook me quite firmly until I was wide awake!
I told her I'd had a nightmare and explained the gist of what I'd experienced. Nightmares have never really concerned me too much, so I went straight back off to sleep. Judith didn't tell me until the next day that she hadn't felt it safe for her to fall asleep earlier - I suspect getting back off to sleep again might have been less easy if she had! However, once this 'event' had occured, she felt with a conviction as unshakeable as she had known before, that I was no longer in any danger, and allowed herself to settle down and sleep too.
In the morning, over breakfast, my friends in the company said they wished they'd left and gone to bed at the same time as us. They explained that after we'd gone off, things had got a little weird and rather freakish down in the bar. Colin, our host, had brought out a ouija board and had suggested they hold a seance. Those who were present described an uncomfortable rather stifling presence in the room during this seance. Colin announced to all that a female ghost had materialised before them; the name Elizabeth was spelt out on the ouija board; then, without any warning, setting everyone's nerves firmly on edge, there was suddenly a great crash - a window had blown out on the ground floor of the building! My actor chums found the experience all a bit too much to take, they said they were suddenly very tired and quickly beat a retreat.
"What time did all this happen?" Judith asked.
Someone said they'd glanced up at the wall clock when the woman's name was being spelt out on the board and that it was 2 am. It was only at this point that Judith explained how she had sensed I was in danger and had resisted sleep herself.
Whilst with the Welsh Drama Company, I happily performed and stayed at Clyro Court once again. Nothing untoward happened, however, on this subsequent visit we all stayed away from seances and ouija boards. I was relieved when arriving at the reception desk to be given a key for 'Greece'. My pal Terry Jackson had stayed in this room on the previous occasion and he assured me that I'd get nothing but a good night's sleep. He was right, I did. Nobody stayed in 'India' on this our final visit.
And there you have it. Was I actually haunted, or had our imaginations simply constructed something out of all the other-worldly stuff that was going on about us?