Bas­ket case

The­atri­cal as­sis­tant Sweet­pea Slight faced one her great­est fears when she took to the skies with Stephen Daldry and Fiona Shaw in 1998

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - FLASHBACK -

If there had been a dis­as­ter, then Bri­tish theatre would have lost four of its finest tal­ents in one hit

IT’S 1998 AND my friend the ac­tress Fiona Shaw or­gan­ised a bal­loon ride to cel­e­brate her birth­day. Among the other bal­loon­ers were di­rec­tors Deb­o­rah Warner, Phyl­l­ida Lloyd and Stephen Daldry. If there had been a dis­as­ter, then Bri­tish theatre would have lost four of its finest tal­ents in one hit.

Fiona was per­form­ing in Richard II at the Na­tional Theatre, so we drove down to Sus­sex af­ter the show to be ready for a 6am lift off the fol­low­ing morn­ing. I shared a car with Stephen and Phyl­l­ida. I asked Stephen what he was up to. ‘Well, I’m work­ing on a film about a boy from a hous­ing es­tate who wants to go to bal­let school,’ he said. He talked about the meet­ings he was hav­ing with the writer and pos­si­bly cast­ing Julie Wal­ters as the boy’s bal­let teacher. I did won­der if the film would ever hap­pen. Stephen asked Phyl­l­ida what she was do­ing. ‘I’ve been asked to di­rect a mu­si­cal in the West End based around the songs of Abba.’ Why on earth is she do­ing that? I thought.

We ar­rived late at our ac­com­mo­da­tion and had a night­cap. I couldn’t sle ep – fear about the im­pend­ing as­cent had got all out of pro­por­tion, in an F Scott Fitzger­ald kind of way where ‘at three o’clock in the morn­ing, a for­got­ten pack­age has the same tragic im­por­tance as a death sen­tence’.

Af­ter very lit­tle sleep we were up and off to the bal­loon site. Hat­ing heights, all I had been think­ing about was how crazy it seemed to be in­stalled in what was es­sen­tially a large log bas­ket. Shar­ing my con­cerns with Phyl­l­ida (front left in the bas­ket) on our way to find our pi­lots, she replied, ‘Oh don’t worry, they don’t use bas­kets any more, they ’re a sort of solid box – you can’t see the ground through them.’ I felt some­what com­forted. But as we rounded the cor­ner and en­tered the field there it was and my stom­ach fell away. ‘Phyl­l­ida! It’s a f—ing bas­ket!’

We were given a les­son on land­ing, which in­volves ly­ing on your back – feet up – hold­ing on to the side of the bas­ket. The hold­ing on bit proved crit­i­cal. Deb­o­rah, who also suf­fers from ver­tigo, re­fused to go any­where near the edge, plac­ing her­self be­hind me (my eyes are closed in the photo) and next to Stephen (in the white cap). We seemed to be float­ing above a par­tic­u­larly af­flu­ent part of Sus­sex; ev­ery prop­erty ap­peared to have a swim­ming pool, equine school or pri­vate racetrack. ‘Look,’ said some­one, ‘isn’t that Bryan Ferry’s place?’

The prospect of land­ing was the next worry, and not with­out rea­son. It seemed to go on for­ever as we were dragged across a field full of bumps and the bas­ket rolled over be­fore com­ing to a halt, right-side up. We all screamed.

By the time we got back to base at 8am the sun was al­ready hot. We stood on a ve­randa drinking cham­pagne, feel­ing high. In my case, the cham­pagne merely ex ag­ger­ated an over­whelm­ing relief to be alive. Break­fast be­gan with half a grape­fruit, which one mem­ber of the party felt needed a lit­tle sea­son­ing, lib­er­ally dous­ing it with fine white pow­der (which some thought to be sugar) be­fore of­fer­ing it to the rest of us. We de­clined, in the same po­lite man­ner one would de­cline condi­ments.

Get Me the Ur­gent Bis­cuits: An As­sis­tant’s Ad­ven­tures in Theatre­land, by Sweet­pea Slight, is pub­lished by Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son (£14.99)

From far left Phyl­l­ida Lloyd, Stephen Daldry, Sweet­pea Slight (front row, sec­ond from left), and Deb­o­rah Warner. Fiona Shaw is far right on the back row

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