Every year as the date of September the 11th rolls around, I think of my own strange ‘other worldly’ experience as I reluctantly found myself in a re-enactment documentary being filmed just nine months after the terrible tragedy of the Twin Towers in New York.
My agent Jacque rang up to send me for an audition to which I was not anxious to go. I was to be considered for the part of the senior Flight attendant who went down on United Airlines Flight 93 in Philadelphia on its way to San Francisco on September 11th 2001. Apparently I looked just like the girl involved. This special documentary was to go out on ITV prior to the anniversary.
I was not enthusiastic. I intensely dislike documentaries with bits reenacted. I phoned my agent back to tell her that I didn’t I want to go for the interview. I felt that this film was being made too soon after the tragedy while emotions were still running high and I was concerned about the stress it might bring to the relatives. This was not a job for me.
However, Jacque told me that I had got it wrong, that in fact the relatives of the passengers on Flight 93 wanted the story to be told and that they had already filmed the interviews with them in the States.
So, against my better judgment, and to keep my agent happy, I agreed to go to the audition secretly hoping that there would be someone else more suitable to play the part than me.
As I walked through the door to the audition, the assistant to the director handed me the script to read over in the waiting room before going in to meet the director. The script was a transcript of a conversation made to a loved one in the last half an hour before the flight came down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The air hostess was called Sandy Bradshaw and she was asking her husband for ideas on how to stop the hijackers. She then began telling him how much she loved him and thanked him for being a great Father.
Two minutes later the director’s assistant came back into the room and asked if I was ready to meet the director. I said yes, and took a deep breath, and nervously followed behind. As I entered the room, I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Chris, what are you doing here?”
“I’m the director, what are you doing here?”
“I’m the actress ---the one you asked about-- Megg Nicol”
“Amazing, you look so different---of course I had forgotten you were an actress ”,
Chris looked embarrassed. The assistant looked totally confused.
“I guess you know each other--”
“Oh, yes we do, Chris lives in my street .....he’s just never seen me looking smart before. Well I guess I can go now, you wouldn’t want to be working with your neighbour, I totally understand. I got up to leave.
“No, don’t go--” said Chris “You might as well read the script, at least---since you‘ve come for an interview”
I hesitated. “OK, but you don’t need to give me this job, I wouldn’t be here if you’d known who I was, if you see what I mean”
I picked up the script and began to read it out loud. But it was weird, it didn’t feel like reading a normal script, it felt strange, as if “I” had temporarily stepped aside and the words were “speaking “ themselves. I was feeling every word ...as if I was living it.
When it came to the last few lines I could hardly get them out I was sobbing. The emotion beneath the words burned in my heart for the ones she was leaving behind. I stopped reading. We were all visibly moved.
“I’m so sorry”, I stammered searching for a tissue.
“No, that was just right---thanks for coming in to see me”, said Chris kindly.
I was glad the interview was over. Three days later my agent rang up to tell me I’d got the job. I still felt very uneasy about the whole thing but since I knew and trusted Chris, I agreed to do it
For those of you who might not be familiar with the story of United Airline Flight 93-- Newark to San Francisco. It was the fourth flight to be hijacked on September 11th, 2001. What made this flight different from the other three was a decision reached by the passengers about forty minutes into the air to bring the flight down after they had learned on their cell phones that they were likely to be flown into a building as the fourth plane in a series of suicide missions.
The filming was being done at a small airport near Bournemouth. I met the cast early Sunday morning, as we boarded a coach in London that would take us to the location. I was slightly relieved to find that we all felt similarly apprehensive, the most nervous of all being the four guys who would play the “hijackers” who thought we might not speak to them! As we exchanged chit chat about the people on the flight I was stunned by the strange coincidences involved. I met “Sandy Bradshaw” the flight attendant whose cell phone conversation they had used as an audition piece for the job. She looked perfect for the part. I was cast as Deborah Welsh the senior flight attendant in charge and my colleague in First Class was Wanda Green (her real name being Wendy Brown). Everyone was extremely friendly.
Reality struck as the coach pulled into the airport hangar and we saw the plane that would be our base for the next few days. After lunch, we tried on our air hostess outfits and went into the make up caravan for the make-up artists to see what work they needed to do to affect similarities to the “real” people. They had photos of all the people on Flight 93 in the caravan. Amazingly, as we walked through the door
they were able to tell who we were playing by just looking at us.
In my own case as I looked at the photos on the wall. I saw one of myself in a “T” shirt that I couldn’t remember having taken. Then on a closer look I realised the photo wasn’t of me at all but Deborah Welsh; the person I would represent. If I needed confirmation that I should be there, this was it, I was ready.
A properly trained air stewardess demonstrated what would be expected of us aboard a normal flight. The sort of things as a passenger you would take for granted, like greeting people and checking their names off the list, showing them to their seats, safety checks, announcements, serving breakfast; the full routine. The difference being that I was “standing in” for Deborah, a poor substitute for the real thing taking boarding cards from passengers aboard Flight 93.
It was a beautiful day and I was working in First Class with Wanda Green. There were ten passengers in First class and I know where each one of them sat. One passenger Mark Bingham was late, he had apparently overslept and his friend Matthew had driven him crazily through Manhattan to Newark to make the Flight. I helped re-open the door for him and let him on the plane. He sat in aisle seat 4D, just across the aisle from Tom Burnett, husband of Deena and father to three girls. Wanda Green served him a welcome drink of orange juice. He could have had champagne.
The hijackers boarded separately. Ziad Jarrah sat in 1B to the right, in the very front seat near my station. Ahmed Al Haznawi a twenty-year-old student from Saudi Arabia sat in 6B to the right and Al Nami and Al Ghamdi sat together on the left in 3C and 3D. They were all in their twenties. There was nothing unusual about their behaviour at that point.
Just after Wanda and I had served breakfast, which everyone had happily tucked into, Flight 93 was near cruising altitude. It was then that a message came
through from United Control Tower warning pilots in the air of potential “cockpit intrusion”, translated as; some passenger might try to seize the plane.
It was a few minutes after 9:a.m. as our flight left the East Coast and hundreds of miles behind us that the World Trade Centre was in flames. At this point Flight 93 had now reached 31,000 feet and was flying at 515 mph.
Suddenly, 40 minutes into the flight, three of the hijackers stood up, put on red bandannas and killed passenger Mike Rothenburg in 5B directly behind Mr.Burnett. It all happened so quickly and now they were heading my way. I was standing between them and the cockpit of the plane. There was no escape. They were screaming for the key to the cockpit, which I had secured in my pocket some 35 minutes before. I struggled as one of them grabbed my hair and waved his knife threateningly.
Although I was terrified, I wouldn’t give in, not for the safety of my passengers, my husband, the plane, my life. I screamed till it hurt, then fell to the floor.
Three young actors with red bandannas were standing over me, one helped me up and the other apologised for hurting me. I walked out onto the boarding ramp for some air, it was all over. I was alive but Deborah Welsh was not.
Over the next few days I witnessed actors delivering their lines from the transcripts of conversations held on mobile phones during the final 40 minutes of that tragic flight. Most passengers were aware that it could be the last time they had a chance to share a moment with their loved ones.
These people were united in a terrifying ordeal. Yet determined that the plane should not become a missile in the hands of fanatics, they hatched a plan. Not fueled by hatred, or revenge, but through concern that if they didn’t try to bring the plane down themselves many more innocent people might die.
Sandy Bradshaw who had been trained never to spill coffee over anyone was now standing in the galley kitchen in Economy pouring boiling water into large jugs. They waited till the plane was flying over open fields near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, then Todd Beamer gave the now familiar signal, “Let’s Roll” and some of the passengers stormed the cockpit armed with boiling water.
At 10:06 the radar screen at Air Traffic Control in Cleveland went blank. United Airlines Flight 93 had disappeared from the screen. Thirty-seven people united for short period of time defiant in the face of death, an ordinary cross-section of travelers sharing a common fate. They have been hailed as heroes and certainly they acted with amazing courage. However none of those thirty-seven passengers would have described themselves in that way.
In the forty minutes between the hijacking and the plane crashing there were some extraordinary transformations, many moments of enlightenment. Thanks to modern cell phone technology, these moments have been preserved for us to consider. Although the contents of the conversations were unique in themselves each one was carrying the same message.
There was only one thing that was important. That “something” was more important than life itself. Something that no person could take away, but something when given away, more of it would flood into your life. When there was nothing left, when all the outer layers of the personality had been tossed aside. When the ego had become silent and still, there was only one thing remaining, transmitting across the airwaves and radiating like a precious beacon above the skies in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. And that was “Love”. Love sharp enough to cut through the fear and transcend all evil.
When I was asked to play the part of Deborah Welsh I had been frightened about what I might find out aboard that flight. Worried that the horror would be too much and that I might blur the boundaries between being ‘just myself’and an actress and access energy I’d rather not experience.
However, I did “feel” the energy and to my astonishment the experience was quite overwhelmingly positive and not at all what I was expecting. Love was by far the strongest emotion on that flight and with it came an extraordinary peace as the passengers accepted their final destiny.
When the documentary was broadcast, thanks to the sensitivity of the director Chris Oxeley the message of “love” came across loud and clear. In a small and humble way, I do believe I was meant to do that job simply perhaps to act as a “voice” for those who could no longer speak for themselves, so people might understand a little of the spiritual aspect to their story.
I leave you with the words that Patrick Welsh spoke at Deborah’s eulogy, which to me say it all.
“As we think about Debbie and our loved ones lost, the transformation from their tragedy is not found in the smoldering rubble and scarred skyline of our great city. It’s not found in the broken walls of our proud Pentagon. It’s not found in the charred crater of courage and those gentle fields of Pennsylvania. Our transformation is not found in the murderous malevolence of madmen. Tragedy transforms us through Divine rescue of boundless love and unlimited compassion. It’s in our ability to care for one another that separates us from the monsters that wound us. Our care for one another has forever transformed us. That is Debbie’s legacy, the world’s legacy”
Versatility has always been an essential ingredient for a career within the Arts but the ability to think outside the box is even more important today.
So when one opportunity goes cold you are already thinking about the next one. Of course that means that you have to be alert and aware of trends within the industry as well as having the foresight see into the future.
When I was lecturing on the MA Music Management and Artist Development degree at London College of Music as I introduced myself I would always say to the students.
‘I guess you might be wondering, if I am so successful, why I am actually lecturing to you guys. Well, the answer is simple, I am here to pick your brains and to learn from you, because you are the future and if I want to continue to do the job I love, I need to know how you think and what’s important’
Usually this made them laugh, but I was deadly serious.
Weirdly the current climate of seeming chaos is not such an unfamiliar one to anyone involved in Entertainment and we are better equipped than most to deal with it. Our industry is full of ‘ duckers and divers’ and personally ....I’m proud of being one of them.
One of the most valuable things that a lecturer at Drama College ever said to me was.
‘In the Theatre dear, always remember the word ‘NO’ doesn’t exist. If someone says ‘ can you ride a horse? juggle ? tap dance ?......the answer is always ‘YES’. Then you bloodywell learn how to do it!’
(I took his word for it and actually I once got a West End role that involved tap dancing by doing the one and only tap dance step I knew wearing a huge grin and giving it lots of welly)
And now? Well, I’m not about to give up now am I? Of course not. There’s lots going on and this is when ‘thinking out of the box’ is essential.
So what’s out there? Where does the next opportunity lie and who are the ones trying to make things happen and take those chances?
Clue...they are young. They are talented. They have a passion that lies beyond making money. They meet in a warehouse in Dalston and they try out their Art. It’s not safe...it’s a bit messy. You can make mistakes and they are all willing to listen and learn. I am probably the oldest person there and I only qualify because I have spoken to various inanimate objects as part of my career as a Children’s TV presenter and now I want to know what gives inanimate objects life.
This is ‘Puppet Jam’ , a group of people who are breathing life into Puppets , objects and ideas, who want to share their passion with others.
You will hear more about them soon.
DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING
The power of a great song has never been so aptly illustrated as it was last Sunday in Hong Kong as two million protestors took to the streets singing the song from Les Miserables ‘ Do You Hear the People Sing’ lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer.
Do you hear the people sing ?
Singing the songs of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
The song seemed to give them a strength and courage as they stood up for their rights against Communist China which is trying to force a new extradition bill on Hong Kong that could consign anyone living in the in the Territory to the so called Chinese ‘justice’ system. The song was banned in China when the Les Miserables hit the West End stage 33 years ago so it must have been particularly irksome to hear it sung with such oomph and defiance during the protests. Actually the song has become an anthem for protestors everywhere from Venezuela, Taiwan, Turkey.
But isn’t it interesting how the Chinese Government all those years ago recognised that those words and music could be potentially dangerous to their existence.
As Herbert Kretzmer, the lyric writer said, “It demonstrates the power of words when set to inspirational music, has the power to mobilise millions , silence guns and lay down weapons’
‘Do you hear the people of Hong Kong? They are standing up for their rights. He said, “At ninety -three I can only be with them in spirit . But my words are on their lips....and I’m singing with them too”
Hear hear Herbert, we’re all singing with them .....!
Oh my goodness I can hardly believe that it is almost the end of February. How the time has flown. We’ve been very busy following up the contacts we made from the two concerts at Kings Place in London this December of Little Fir Tree, the new family musical I wrote with David Stoll.
It was so exciting to hear the music performed for the first time with such an amazing cast led by Sylvestor McCoy as the Narrator. The show was directed by David Ian Neville, and our musical director was Stephen Clarke.
So far the comments on the Concerts have been very positive and there was a nice quote from Michael Simkins in The Times regarding shows he’d seen over Christmas, saying that he "was enchanted by a children's musical, Little Fir Tree, at Kings Place".
What we are really hoping for is for a full –scale production for Christmas 2019/20. So fingers crossed.
Our designer Claire Lyth, came up with some imaginative visual ideas to bring the stage to life and she crafted some stunning slides of a fairytale forest in different hues to create an atmospheric glow. It would be so nice to be able to give her head and let her create a proper set. For the concert we had to keep the staging and costumes very simple, but Claire set up a mini light box in the foyer to demonstrate how the show might look in the fully staged version.
Read more about the show here.
Oh it’s getting so exciting! It’s only nine days away until the musical that David Stoll and I have written called LITTLE FIR TREE premieres at Kings Place on 18th December in London, as a staged –concert. Sylvester McCoy who is well known as the Seventh Doctor Who and The Hobbit Trilogy plus loads of other things, is our Narrator.
Sylvester has been extremely busy filming YOU in Dresden, and in fact has he has just returned to London, but he still found time to make a surprise visit to see us during rehearsals this week in Islington. He even posed for photos with the superbly friendly ladies of the Community Centre, where we are based.
We are now in the last week of preparations before our two concerts at Kings Place. The atmosphere at rehearsals has been very jolly thanks to our Director David Ian Neville, and Musical Director Stephen Clarke, but there is no way round it, it’s always a nerve racking experience staging a new work!
That said we are greatly aided by having a very talented cast ready to tackle anything with a can-do spirit.
Also, I must say that I am completely knocked out by the beautiful designs that Claire Lyth has done to bring the stage to life. She has crafted some stunning slides of a fairytale forest, a couple of which I have included in this blog. (By the way, Claire also did the set for our children’s opera THE DRUMMER BOY OF WATERLOO, which premiered in Aldeburgh in 2015).
So if you’re reading this and happen to be in London on December 18th 2018 do come along to one of the concerts, there’s still some seats left and here’s the link. We’d love to see you!