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Helene Hanff

HH on stage and screen

'84' on film -
1975 BBC 'PLay for today'


In her book 'Q's Legacy', Helene Hanff wrote:

On a January day in 1975, a cable arrived in my agent's office and she called to read it to me. "KEEN TO ACQUIRE 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD FOR BBC TELEVISION - MARK SHIVAS". Mark Shivas, she told me, was one of the BBC's best young producers. Being a fan of BBC television, I was very flattered. I phoned the news to all my friends and it was my friend Susan who said brightly: "You'll see your whole life pass before you and you won't have even have to drown."
In February Hugh Whitemore's script arrived. I'd wondered how on earth he was going to trun a book of letters into television dialogue. He hadn't tried to. You might say he scorned to try. He'd let the letters speak for themselves take the place of dialogue by doing the whole script in a television technique known as 'voice-over'.
'Voice-over' meant that the audience would hear a letter read by a disembodied voice while the owner of the voice performed pantomime action on the screen. To do an hour-long TV show this way from beginning to end required the kind of audacity known as 'chutzpah'.

Chutzpah or no, the production went ahead. Anne Jackson (an American actress, more usually known as Annie) played Helene, and Frank Finlay (a British actor) played Frank Doel. Promising an article about it all to the Reader's Digest in return for a plane ticket and some hotel money, Helene went to London to attend the three-day taping of the programme. After all, as she said, I had no work in the typewriter. I can only write about what happens to me and nothing much had happened to me lately. But it occured to me that sitting in a TV studio watching an actress pretend to be definitely classified as something-happening-to-me.

The production was a BBC 'Play for Today', lasting an hour and twenty minutes.


'84' on STAGE UK & US -
1981 Play on West End & Broadway


The book of '84' was adapted for the stage by James Roose-Evans and was first shown at the Salisbury Summer Theatre Festival in the summer of 1981. That summer was a frantic one for Helene - she had had cataract surgery on both her eyes and spent her entire time afterwards trying to get used to wearing cataract spectacles (through which she couldn't see) or trying to get her eyes to accept contact lenses which kept on falling out. She was therefore unable to attend the production in Salisbury, which received wonderful reviews.

(In her words) "in October, James Roose-Evans wrote to say that he had sold 84 Charing Cross Road to a London West End producer named Michael Reddington. I wrote and congratulated him, and went on trying to hypnotize my right lens, which went on dropping out."

Michael Reddington's production was due to open at the Ambassadors Theatre in London on Thanksgiving Day - Thursday 26th November 1981 - and he asked Helene to come to London for the opening night.  Worrying about losing her contact lenses at Heathrow Airport and being left to the mercy of her 'fun house spectacles', she made her excuses not to travel to London. The impact of what was happening finally hit Helene - when her friend Richard told her "After all the years you spent trying to crash the theatre as a playwright, somebody's made a play from your book, it's opening in the West End - and you're not going to the Opening?"

Helene flew to London...

Both of the following photographs were sent to me by Adrian Hall, who played William Humphries in this production.

'84' on film -
1986 movie by mel brooks


From the 25th Anniversary edition of '84 Charing Cross Road' - in which Anne Bancroft (who played Helene in the 1986 film of '84') wrote the following introduction:

I'm not a writer, but this book and its author mean enough to me that I'm glad to venture a few words in celebration of its new edition.

Like the people who win our hearts, the books we come to love can introduce themselves in the strangest ways. Let me tell you about how I met 84, Charing Cross Road. Some years ago, as I was sitting on the beach on Fire Island, a man strolling by approached me. I didn't know the fellow, so his exclamation - "I've just read something that would be perfect for you!" - took me by surprise.

The next day, as I sat in the same spot, he came my way again, this time with book in hand. His enthusiasm seemed so sincere I couldn't help but be intrigued. So, soon as he was gone, I opened the small volume he had delivered and started to read. That's how my romance with 84, Charing Cross Road began.

As many of you already know - and many more, I hope, are about to find out - it's difficult, if not impossible, to start this book without finishing it. The trail of Helene Hanff's correspondence with Frank Doel and his colleagues at Marks & Co. leads us, captivated, down one woman's idiosyncratic path through English Literature; along the way, our enjoyment in sharing her literary education is deepened by the human narrative her letters weave. This is a book which seems at first to be about other books, which of course it is, but as we get to know Helene, and, through her, Frank and Nora Doel, and Cecily Farr and Megan Wells and the rest at 84 Charing Cross, we recognise that the books desired, located, sent and received are the happy vehicles for much else: conversation, friendship, affection, generosity, wit - in other words, for all the best things life can share with us.

Which brings me to just what it is about this slim book that means so much to me. The more I listened to Helene's distinctive, wry, and winning voice, the more I heard echoes in it of another voice, that of a friend I'd been close to for many years, since, in fact, we'd been students together. Much like Helene, this friend was enchanted by books in a way that animated his every word; what resonated between Helene's voice on the page before me, and my friend's in my memory, was the respect, need, and love for books that characterised their mutual passion. Sadly, at the time the wandering reader of Fire Island delivered 84, Charing Cross Road into my hands, I was mourning the death of this very friend. So all the while Helene was writing to Frank Doel about Pepys and Hazlitt and Stevenson and "Q", her words were really talking to me about this dear friend of mine, giving them a poignancy that only enriched the extraordinary charms they already possessed.

Soon after, knowing of my attachment to this book, my husband did a wonderful thing, pursuing and acquiring the film rights to it and presenting them to me as an anniversary gift. That's how I got to play Helene on the screen, and to meet her in person. If I were a better writer, I'd describe the occasion on which we all met the Queen Mother at a command performance of the movie; the image of Helene democratically offering her hand to royalty remains an indelible memory.

Now, I certainly didn't mean to pass myself off as a reader of the stature of Helene Hanff, nor even the beachcomber who dropped her book into my lap, but it seems to me that my experience with this lovely volume reveals an awful lot about what books provide: a way of reaching out across time and space to friends and strangers, and to the absent presences that play such a large part in all our lives. In the pages that follow you'll recognise Helene reaching out to her beloved English authors and to the many friends in and about 84, Charing Cross that these long-dead writers introduced to her. What you won't recognise is the beachcomber speaking to me, or myself communing with my late friend; but, believe me, there we are, right between the lines.


Rosemary Leach with Helene Hanff on stage
Helene Hanff meets the Queen Mother
84 Charig Cross Road dvd cover
Helene Hanff wth the London cast of 84
underfoot stage.jpg
'Underfoot in Showbusiness' -
2008 UK PLAY

New York playwright Charles Leipart's adaptation of Helene Hanff’s comic memoir, Underfoot in Show Business, received its world premiere at the Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne, UK, from Tuesday 13 - Saturday 17 May 2008, directed by award-winning BBC director, David Giles.

From the Devonshire Park Theatre's website:
"Adapted from the memoir by Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road, Underfoot in Showbusiness follows the hopes and dreams of those who want to get started in the glamorous world of showbusiness. Helene grew up in Philadelphia dreaming of becoming a playwright. When she won a fellowship and moved to New York she believed it would be the start of something big...
Each year, hundreds of stage-struck kids arrive in New York firmly convinced they’re destined to be the next Noel Coward or Tennessee Williams or Marlon Brando... 1 in a 1,000 turns out to be right. This play is about life among the other 999, by one of them."

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