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