Colourful Characters in a Bleak Landscape

I’m pleased to welcome a guest writer to my blog today with a personal memoir of drama teacher Giselle Birke.

Actor, writer and teacher, Michael Murray was born in Stepney, East London.
He trained for the stage at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Under his Equity name, Michael worked for many years as an actor and voice-over artist. His career also encompassed teaching, writing and directing. Michael is a Drama in Education specialist and holds an advanced qualification in the teaching of drama: the A.D.B. (Ed). He also has an M.A. in Education. Michael now writes full-time. His latest novel, ‘Leefdale’, was published earlier in 2018.
Michael is the author of:
Magnificent Britain 2012
Julia’s Room 2012
Learning Lines? (A Practical Guide for Drama Students and Aspiring Actors) 2014
A Single To Filey (A DCI Tony Forward Novel) (Amazon Bestseller 2015)
Leefdale 2018. Michael is also my other half and I’m delighted he’s agreed to my posting this fascinating article.

Giselle Birke was my first drama tutor and director. I remember with great fondness being directed by her in “The Crucible”, “An Elizabethan Evening” and “Tovarich”. That was in the sixties at the Toynbee School of Drama which was based at Toynbee Hall in Commercial Street in London’s East End. We were very lucky to have the beautifully appointed Curtain Theatre to perform in on the same site.

“Toynbee” as its students called it, was an evening drama school under the aegis of the Bethnal Green Institute. Giselle taught and directed there for many, many years. A great number of successful actors, some of them today’s household names, knew and were taught by Giselle.

Later, Giselle also became a colleague. After I graduated from RADA I became an actor and a qualified drama teacher. It was at this time that Giselle approached me and asked if I would help her work with the students at Toynbee. By then the school was in decline because of financial cut-backs and was being run single-handedly by Giselle on a shoe string. I would not be paid, but it was Giselle who was asking me, so how could I refuse? However, Giselle strove loyally to get me paid and a year later, thanks to her resourceful efforts, I was remunerated for my work. I cite this as an example of her determination in all things.

Giselle never spoke to me of her early years in Germany. And having read her book “Colourful Characters in a Bleak Landscape” I can understand why. In the book Giselle recounts an idyllic childhood spent on the large estate in north eastern Germany owned by her upper middle class family. But then the Second World War came and with it the destruction of her entire way of life; for example: her family were not supporters of Hitler but she was press ganged into the Hitler Youth.

Giselle’s memoir mainly chronicles her experiences of the Russian invasion. To escape the Russians she was forced to join with huge numbers of refugees and travel miles and miles through Germany seeking safety with her relatives: the “Colourful Characters” of the book’s title. Often she slept out in the open, existing, if she were lucky, on scraps of dry bread, riding on the outside of trains, and experiencing horrendous vicissitudes against a background of invasion by the Russian, American and British armies. As a beautiful, blonde 17 year old she was in constant danger of being raped. Indeed, she was nearly raped by a Russian soldier on one occasion and only saved herself by determinedly fighting him off. As I read Giselle’s book, time and time again I found myself asking, “How on earth did she endure this?” Yet all the while, amidst all of the chaos and upheaval, she continued to nourish and keep alive her dream of a better world in which she would fulfil her ambition of becoming an actress.

Giselle describes how her father and mother were ejected from their estate by the invading Russians. She became a displaced person but eventually managed to get to Berlin where she found employment as a nurse in a private clinic. However, she had to give this job up because of the unwanted attentions of a patient who was pressuring her to give him sexual favours.

With amazing courage for a young German woman after the war, Giselle, who spoke little English, decided to travel alone to England and settle here. And it is at this point that her account ends. One of the conditions of Giselle’s permit to settle in England was that she had to do domestic work for four years. She learnt English, studied drama in the evenings and later found work as an actress in repertory, radio and television and in films. She studied for and gained an LRAM and a Diploma in English Literature after which she became a drama tutor. As well as teaching and directing in the evenings at the Toynbee School of Drama she also taught at full-time drama schools.

When I first met Giselle in 1965 I had no idea that she was German. Her English pronunciation and idiom were so perfect. The story of how she came to England alone and attained such a command of English that she was able to achieve her ambition to act on the English stage is as remarkable, in its way, as “Colourful Characters in a Bleak Landscape”. Sadly, I fear that a sequel will never be written. I discovered on the Actors’ Equity Website “In Memorium” page for 2012 that a Giselle Birke passed away that year.

I had always admired Giselle: if I had known only half of her traumatic backstory my admiration for her would have been immeasurable. She was always passionately and profoundly anti-racist. Reading her memoir has enabled me to see why.

Giselle is a superb writer of English and her graphic descriptions of the collapse of Nazi Germany from the perspective of a displaced person are compelling and provide an important social and historical document. I literally couldn’t put this book down, it is so readable. I think the book would make a fascinating film. I do hope some enterprising screenwriter or director will read it.

If nothing else, “Colourful Characters in a Bleak Landscape” provides compelling reasons why, despite the imperfections of the European Union, we should remain pro-European. We don’t want to see another catastrophe like the Second World War bringing terror once again into the heart of Europe.

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