Last time I was allowed to write a story for The Spectator, I managed to get away with a frankly smutty and boastful piece about sex. Well, it’s been a while, so... I do hope nobody minds if I do that again.
If I’m honest, when young, one of the reasons I decided to mortgage my life to showbiz was because I thought that if I did, I would get more than my fair share of bedroom action.
Hang on. Sorry, not more than my fair share. (I must stop putting myself down.) Firstly, as we all know there is no such thing as fair in these matters; very attractive women regularly confound the rest of us by sleeping with people everyone thinks are ghastly. And secondly, even if they didn’t I am perfectly capable, on a good day, when not overwhelmed by various complexes there isn’t space to describe, of actually being quite reasonably charming. But anyway, aged 21, I was entirely sure being in showbiz would definitely tip the scales in my favour. Think of the scenes of mass hysteria that greeted the Beatles. People actually threw their sodden underwear onto the stage. Not just the Beatles, David Essex, probably even Cliff Richard. OK, mostly pop stars rather than classical theatre actors, but come on, how many employment sectors can you think of that involve that sort of thing as even a remote possibility? The medical profession I grant you, out of necessity, and politics, for reasons which baffle everyone, But for spontaneous pants removal as an expression of sheer joie de vivre, it’s got to be either sport, or for arts graduates, Lady Showbiz.
Twenty-five years ago. 1989. The beginning of the end of the ‘second summer of love’. The sap was high. Beautiful young people were driving round the M25 on ecstasy, dancing in fields till dawn, But I wasn’t part of that. Born in the first summer of love, 1967, by the second, I was pulling on thick tights nightly at the Chichester Festival Theatre ready to skip about in the marriage masque at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost. The idea that someone in the audience might be so overwhelmed by my performance as Costard the Clown that they would be impelled to hurl their knickers onto the stage had faded into the realms of distant fantasy. By the end of the season I’d got some good reviews, been to some lovely barbecues, and someone very encouraging had likened me to a young Ian Holm.
But as the colours began to turn autumnal I had to face the fact that my tally of conquests was nothing to write home about. Not that I ever would’ve done. Not that is, until I got old enough to write about them in The Spectator.
The season was ending, I had no job to go to, an uncertain future beckoned. One evening, as I shuffled into the stage door for one of our final shows, the kindly but bored doorkeeper told me there was a package waiting for me. She produced a crumpled brown paper bag with ‘for Tom Hollander’ scrawled on it.
In the dressing room I poured its contents out. I was amazed. Could it be true? There before me lay a pair of lady’s knickers. Black. More structured and supportive than I would have liked. But undeniably underwear of the female variety. And, oddly, two small carved wooden amphibians. These were slightly disconcerting, but I quickly realised that of course, they must be toads. Horny toads. A slightly ill judged but eloquent and humorous symbol of animal desire. And the right size for a postbox.
Ha! Nothing else. No note. No explanation. It seemed bizarre, but this was it. The fulfilment of my half-forgotten showbiz dream. Admittedly the toads were a bit weird, but an actual real woman had sent me her underwear. And what's more I noticed, as I turned them over in my hand, she'd worn them first.
That night’s performance passed in a euphoric daze. Was she out there? Eyes glinting in the darkness, a half-smile playing on her lips. In the marriage dance I skipped for her, and for all the other women out there who wanted me. Afterwards, forgoing drinks and compliment-fishing in the bar, I raced home on my moped, through the shining glory of the South Downs on a late summer night.
Leaving the toads to one side, I lay on my bed and considered my trophy. I tried to imagine the woman who had worn them so recently. What was she like? I told them to my nose and breathed in the traces of her scent. It wasn't only hers though. To me it was infinitely feminine. Whoever they belonged to, this flimsy material had been in enviably close contact with the most beautiful thing in all creation. Troy was besieged for this. I communed with it. I worshipped woman-kind through the talisman of this one anonymous gusset. We had a lovely night together, those pants and me. Next morning I awoke with them on my face.
About ten days later, when it was all nearly over, I was on the phone to my parents in Oxford.
‘It was so good to see you in Love’s Labour’s Lost the other week.’
‘Not your dancing at the end though — that was a bit silly.’
‘Oh, OK, I’ll tone it down.’
‘But otherwise it was really good. Excellent. And very well directed. We really enjoyed it darling....’
She went on. ‘Oh and just before we go. I’ve been meaning to tell you that when we came to see you last, I stupidly left some things at the bed and breakfast. Some knick knacks I picked up for your cousins. But the nice lady who ran the place said she’d drop them off for me.’
‘Oh right, I’ll look out for them. What were they?’
‘Two little wooden frogs. She said she’d leave a package at the stage door. Hello? Hello?’
‘Sorry I was just having a ...nothing. So...er, just the frogs then. Anything else?
‘No, no, I don’t think so... Are you all right?’
‘Yes, yes, fine... I’ll ... I’ll look out for them.’
‘Thanks darling. Well done again. Bye.’