The Understudy: Theatre Historian Charles Duff on His Memoir, ‘Charley’s Woods’

An unexpurgated account of an extraordinary life could, in lesser hands, have been a misery memoir. But Duff created a delightful literary work throughout which, even when revisiting the darkness of his past, he sprinkles gaiety and humour.

Charles Duff is perhaps Britain’s pre-eminent theatre historian and a highly regarded arts journalist and former actor. He comes from a noted aristocratic and theatrical family and his upbringing brought him into contact with everyone from Joe Orton to the Queen Mother. But home life was a mix of deceits, half-truths and out-and-out lies. He had been adopted at infancy by Sir Michael Duff and Lady Caroline Paget and brought up at Vaynol, a grand country estate in Wales occupying 1,000 acres. As a child, he was told a series of falsehoods about his birth parents. For years, rumours circulated that he was the child of Princess Margaret. In 2005, the BBC aired a documentary about him and the enduring mystery of his past (Vaynol – The Secret Behind The Walls), which prompted him to start work on his memoirs, just published, documenting in vivid detail his extraordinary childhood among the famous and infamous, his descent into alcoholism and destitution, and eventual emergence from both.

Had his father lived just eight months longer, Duff would have inherited a large ancestral home (Vaynol, North Wales) and its contents. Instead, he found himself destitute, his only consolation a lethal combination of methylated spirits and milk known as ‘purple flashes’. In 1980, the law that had previously prevented adopted children from making a claim on their parents’ estate was reversed. But it was too late.

Duff spoke with me about his recently published memoir, Charley’s Woods. It’s the story of someone who grew up in an environment where leading figures of stage and screen mingled with royalty both major and minor. It’s the tale of a gay man whose upper-class adoptive parents were both homosexual and needed a marriage of convenience to erect a social façade, and then a child/accessory to help keep the edifice standing. It’s about a prep-school survivor and recovering alcoholic, a preternaturally perceptive man whose talents — diminished and scorned by his family — are salvaged and encouraged by others.

Charley’s Woods, an unexpurgated account of an extraordinary life could, in lesser hands, have been a misery memoir. Given the anguish visited on the author by those who should have loved him, scarcely could he have been blamed for treading that lucrative path; his young life brought him into contact with a gallery of grotesques that seemed to get inordinate pleasure from the suffering of others. But instead, he’s chosen to be a reliable narrator, composing a delightful literary work throughout which, even when revisiting the darkness of his past, he sprinkles gaiety and humour.

When recalling some of the twisted personalities with whom his professional and social paths converged, he does so without rancour or ill-will, but with generous restraint and a lightness of touch. He doesn’t let everyone off the hook, but he’s more frank and unflinching about his own flaws and failings than anyone else’s. And he is far quicker to draw attention to the good qualities of his supporting cast than the bad, committing to print enchanting descriptions of Maria Callas, Tallulah Bankhead, Princess Margaret (a rumour that Duff was the lovechild of Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend endures to this day, despite being disproved) and many others.

His isn’t just a tale of parents delegating the care of their child to hired hands, as was common among the upper classes. They also delegated the obligation of loving their child to third parties, seemingly incapable of dredging up any prolonged fond feeling. Indeed, the kindest sentiment either of them extended to Duff was indifference (his father) and fleeting tenderness (his mother) but more often they showed him extraordinary malice. This was particularly true of his father, Sir Michael Duff, 3rd Baronet of Vaynol, who is revealed as a petulant man-baby, sometimes capable of charming people but, at his core, unlovely and unloved.

Duff’s mother, Caroline (nee Lady Caroline Paget), was the more attractive personality, an actress and socialite who was sometimes playful and friendly with her son, making her ultimate abandonment of him all the more startling (in the ’70s, at which point Duff believes himself on good terms with her, she abruptly announces she is ‘sacking’ him and never sees him again). Duff’s unhappy childhood was divided between Vaynol, a Paultons Square (London) property owned by Caroline, and a succession of boarding schools.

“I wanted to tell my side of the story,” he explains. “The world my father moved in had only heard his side. I’d been portrayed as hopeless, dishonest, alcoholic, a loser and a reprobate. I wanted to show people that if I had ever been like that (and I don’t think I ever really was), that I’d been adopted by this very bizarre couple and, given that it was pretty difficult, I survived it remarkably well.” ‘Pretty difficult’ is a characteristically understated assessment. One of his earliest memories is of being told at three-years-old the lie that his father had died in a car crash and his mother died giving birth. “Can you imagine! Telling a child they’d killed their mother. That must have affected me.” At the time of Michael’s wedding to Caroline, Caroline was pregnant by Prime Minister to be, Anthony Eden, and was going to pass the child off as Michael’s. When the baby was stillborn, people in high places set wheels very quickly in motion to acquire a replacement. Cue Duff’s entrance.

Michael’s unkindness to his son takes form in most peculiar ways. He makes careful note of which toys, books and trinkets are most cherished by Duff and then hides or destroys them. When Duff is a young actor on the stage, he arranges for acolytes to attend each performance and boo him throughout. Without provocation and apropos nothing, he spreads slanderous falsehoods about his son, discrediting him with friends, colleagues and relations. Michael — bitter and incapable of love — comes to be thought of by his son as diabolos and not without reason. Among the lies he spreads is that his son has attempted to murder a schoolboy by tying him to railway tracks. Not one word of love for his son ever passes Michael’s lips.

Michael’s marriage to Caroline in 1949 should have given both of them exactly what they wanted, allowing them to conform to public expectations while pursuing their real relationships in private. Caroline’s partner since her late teens was the actress, Audrey Carten, while Michael had a coterie of young, upwardly mobile male admirers, proffering themselves in the hope of acquiring status and riches in exchange. But it didn’t work. “He felt his marriage to Caroline had wrecked his life and that they’d lost their senses in adopting a child and that I, too, had wrecked his life.”

Whereas Caroline had the benefit of an enduring relationship (although it wasn’t straightforward; Audrey was alcoholic and then became senile), Duff suspects that his father’s predilections made it impossible for him to acquire the same. “Caroline always longed for him to get a boyfriend. She said her life was much easier when he had someone else. But he always fell out with them. His sexual tastes were odd. I’d say ‘S&M’ with an emphasis on ‘M’…cigarettes being stubbed out on the soles of his feet, that sort of thing. I’m not 100 per cent sure, but I think so. And he attracted the worst kind of social climber. He’d say, ‘I’ve got this wife who’s a bitch and this so-called adopted son, who’s hopeless. So all these young men thought, ‘Oh goody goody! I’m going to inherit this huge house and estate and lots of money!’ But then it would all go to dust and go terribly wrong.”

Duff found deliverance from the emotional brutalities of home and school in three ways; he would wander the grounds of Vaynol alone (hence, Charley’s Woods), constructing in his mind an elaborate world more real to him than the world to which he returned once indoors, he immersed himself in theatre and opera, with which he formed a deeper relationship than his parents had, and he explored the worlds of spiritualism and faith. Thanks to an ability to store memories as if in aspic — a knack that kicked in at the age of two — he’s able to share wonderful, crisp descriptions of the famous and infamous supporting players who wander on and off stage at Vaynol. Of the Queen Mother, he says:

“She had two faces, I noted: an upper face with hard calculating little eyes which missed nothing, and observed the world with a marked lack of charity; and a lower face, all smiles and compliments. She seemed most put out by my presence. The few sideways glances I received were free of warmth.”

Of the ordeals of prep school, he writes only a little. Several parts of the memoir have a personal resonance for me (my beloved Godmother, Georgie Mount, was adopted in order to make her gay father’s marriage of convenience seem more plausible), and this is one of them. Many English boarding schools were underpinned by the belief that love enfeebled male children, and that they should be separated from love in order to become strong. That belief, along with the elaborate, pseudo-sexual (and sometimes just plain sexual) punishments meted out to boys by strange men, did not begin to die out until the ’90s. “It was seen as a good thing for little boys to be beaten up by grown men,” Duff agrees, detailing in the book how he was punched by one teacher so debilitatingly that he asked Caroline to intervene. “She said she couldn’t possibly do such a thing,” he recalls. “Prep school masters were traditionally the dregs of the private teaching world.. . a truly woeful collection of paedophiles, psychopaths and losers.”

After he survives home and school, Duff’s young adult life plays out across London, Paris, and Tangier. The author is amusingly blunt about the attractions of the latter: “I couldn’t wait to leave England for the gay capital and drug centre of the world.” The memoir has the feeling of a quest, the quest of a man, thrown into opulent chaos and told falsehoods about his provenance, to find himself. He writes:

“I believe…that every alcoholic is on a spiritual search. However, it is a mistaken spiritual search, because the addict tries to fast-track that which can only be attained through the hard graft of a spiritual programme.”

Caroline predeceased Michael by four years and, upon Michael’s death in 1980, Duff’s cousin Andrew Tennant swooped in for the jackpot, and set about selling Vaynol piecemeal, sharing not a penny of the proceeds with Duff, who was living in penury, having just gone into recovery from alcoholism. “Most families, of whatever social bracket, try to help if there’s a member who’s destitute, and it’s a family disgrace if they don’t,” he tells me. “The fact that he sold Vaynol as soon as he could and I got nothing from it was very bad behaviour. I don’t think he’s an admirable human being and I hope he doesn’t come out of the book well.” He certainly doesn’t. A passage in which Duff, as a child, first meets the man, two decades his senior, who will one day be party to his disinheritance and downfall, is chilling:

“‘This is your cousin, Andy,’ said my mother. The man in the fawn duffle-coat looked at me quite impassively, his faced unflickering, his eyes dead. Whatever pleasure I might have found at the encounter was clearly not shared. Those eyes gave out no light at all. They were without any inner spirit. Here was no friend.”

Duff’s relinquishing of drink and re-emergence into life has not always been smooth. “It’s been very difficult and it’s taken a long time,” he says. “Life had reinforced low self-esteem… the idea that I’m not worth more, that that’s the way I’m going to be treated because that’s the way I deserve to be treated. With adopted children, there’s always some terrible insecurity because you’ve been given up at a very young age. I had no confidence and didn’t think that I deserved better. There was another side — I was flamboyant and socially adept — but underneath there was low self-esteem that could only be ‘cured’ by drinking.”

After finding an alternative cure, Duff flourished. His previous works include the The Lost Summer: Heyday of the West End Theatre and he lectures internationally to this day. “Theatre people, like all artists, deal with the truth, not with pretend, and I think that’s the difference. Vaynol was just drama! There were no sexual boundaries and they behaved badly. But the theatre is about revealing great human truth, ennobling the human spirit and helping people have a better knowledge of the human heart. My adopted family was just about fancy dress — not the same thing.”

His father’s death enabled Duff to eventually trace his family of origin, a search that led him to Ireland. He remains in contact with them to this day.

One of the most striking features of Charley’s Woods is its absence of score settling. “There are no grudges or resentments,” says Duff. “I’ve forgiven Michael and I’ve lost interest.” To this day, his experiences inform the way he conducts himself, particularly in teaching:

“The basis of all good teaching is kindness and the instilling of self-belief. I realised that teaching had to be an act of generosity, whose three aims were to instil the student with a belief in their own abilities, to pass on the teacher’s love of subject, and for the teacher to have engraved on his heart Plato’s dictum that all knowledge is but remembrance. It was not until I left drama school that I swore an oath that no student under my aegis would ever leave my care without an added belief in him or herself.”

There’s no doubt in my mind, after spending just a short time with him, that this expectation of himself is one that he has not only met but excelled at.

Charles Duff (photo: Zuleika)