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Valentine Dyall’s lost weekend

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Episode 13 of the first series was broadcast on 23 August 1951. Find it on page 28 of this week’s Radio Times below a rather fetching picture of Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The strain of performing multiple shows every week hit different entertainers in different ways. As we’ll explore later, Michael Bentine left the Goon Show in part because of wanting to balance other commitments with family life, while Spike Milligan blamed overwork on his mental health problems (although it’s likely wartime trauma played a major role in this too).

Valentine Dyall, co-star of Bumblethorpe (see yesterday’s blog) and occasional Goon, opened up about his struggles after he caused a bit of a stir when he missed the recording for the second episode.

Several newspaper reports from 18-19 November 1951 describe him as “missing” and cite a statement from his concerned wife, Babette. However, he soon turned up in Paris staying with a friend. He called Bumblethorpe producer Peter Eton to apologise for his absence and returned to London a few days later to resume his role, telling reporters only that he had been “resting” and that he was “sorry to have caused all this bother”.

An article penned by Dyall in London’s Weekly Dispatch on 25 November 1951 explains his “lost weekend” in an unusually frank and honest description of what was then termed a nervous breakdown:

My ‘Lost’ Week-End

There is no mystery about my “lost” week-end [sic] – which was quite the reverse of Ray Milland’s version* and consisted mainly of black coffee.

The real answer to my walk-out is that I had been overworking and over-worrying. I felt ill, tired, and depressed, the sort of feeling when one is keyed up. Elastic can be stretched too far. I was playing a heavy part at the Q Theatre and starting a new radio show at the same time.

I felt I had to get away from it all before I went round the bend. I had been walking about with my passport in my pocket for some days with a vague idea that it might come in handy.

When you have a nervous breakdown you do not have to climb the curtains, have trembling hands or make funny faces. I didn’t. I just walked away from my Chelsea home to Victoria.

I saw the train indicator showing the Calais boat train leaving at 9.30, so, on the spur of the moment, I bought a ticket. I had no clear idea of what I was going to do except that I had to talk to somebody.

Almost instinctively I headed for one of my oldest friends whose advice I have always sought and valued.

He is an Englishman who lives in a flat on the left bank of the Seine. I do not remember much of the journey – I looked out of the window at trees and fields and did not see them. All I could think of was that I was getting away from my worries.

In A Daze

I could not even remember how I came to be on the train. I had nothing to read and could not have concentrated on it if I had. I went on board the cross-Channel boat in a daze, with no idea that the man who looked at my passport would remember it a few days later when my disappearance was publicised.

I left home early in the morning. I don’t remember the time except that my wife had left for an early appointment. I left a note for her which, I thought, would explain everything. I was pretty hazy as to what I said, but now I have seen it again I am not a bit surprised that my wife got in a panic. She had been worried about my health for some days.

Anyway, she promptly jumped to the conclusion that I was about to hurl myself from the top of the Eiffel Tower with “full confession in left boot”.

Missing Person

Naturally, she decided that I must be found, and so for the first time in my life I became an official “missing person”. It is not a part I intend to play again and I don’t think it suits me.

When I arrived in Paris I went straight to my friend’s flat and stayed there. We talked things over for hours and must have consumed gallons of black, sweet coffee.

By Monday I began to feel a great deal better and was making plans to return when for the first time I saw the English papers and found I had been a man of mystery.

That shook me. At first I funked going home again and things looked blacker than ever. However, I had the sense to get messages to my wife and the police and let them know where I was.

But I still funked going home. My perspective was badly clouded. For a radio actor to forget a rehearsal verges on the insane, but I forgot that I was due in London, so I must have been badly off balance.

Worried Too Much

The new BBC show was my first excursion into the regular variety side of the business and I worried too much about being a success. I had always been “The Man in Black” to the public.

I need not have worried, apparently, for everyone seems happy about it, and the BBC have generously asked me to go on with the “Bumblethorpe” series.

To some people Paris means fun and games. To my wife and me it has always meant refuge, somewhere to escape to.

I cannot say how sorry I am to have caused all this trouble, especially to my good friends the police. I hope they will remain my friends and I am looking forward to some of them coming round soon for a quiet drink with the latest recruit to the list of “Missing Persons” – now, I hope, honourably discharged.

Am I the only one who just wants to give him a hug now?

* Ray Milland was an actor who won an Oscar for his lead role in the film The Lost Weekend.

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