November, 2001

Serendipitous London
By George Takei

LOS ANGELES - As if some atavistic urge compels me, I always seem to have a need to go to London near the end of the year. I love the crisp, bracing air; the holiday hubbub; the sound of English spoken as in Merchant-Ivory movies. This year, the urge was even more compelling. The trip to London became symbolic. It was an assertion of defiance against the terrorists. I wasn't going to be intimidated. Vigilant - yes. Careful - surely. Anxious - perhaps. I wasn't going to let the terrorists change my plans. Besides, the British people and government have been our strongest allies in the effort against terrorism. Prime Minister Tony Blair has been a true stalwart.

We got to the airport three hours before departure. As I had anticipated, the security was tedious and time-consuming. But, I was glad. The hassle was reassuring. We felt exceptionally well examined and very secure. The trip was gratefully uneventful.

The reward for my determination was a trip filled with lucky, out of the blue experiences - like a joy ride up to a spectacular view of London on our first afternoon. Last year, when we tried to take a ride on the Millennium Eye, the giant Ferris wheel on the south bank of the River Thames, it was closed because of wind conditions. And all tickets for future opportunities during our stay were sold out. This year, we just walked up to the ticket booth, bought our tickets, and got in the glass capsule that leisurely lifted us up to the highest vantage point in all London. The air was crystalline and the vista was sharp and clear. The sky churned with dramatic clouds, just like a Gainsborough painting. And all of London lay before us from the office towers of Canary Wharf off in the distance, to stately Tower Bridge rising up across the Thames, to the classic dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, all the way down to familiar old Big Ben just below us. It was a sensational experience.

I had old English five pound and ten pound notes that had gone out of circulation from some previous trip. Banks all over London wouldn't exchange them. I had to go to the Bank of England itself in the financial district of the city known simply as the City. We got there before it opened so we decided to roam about the area admiring the imposing, gray architecture of the City. Serendipitously, we chanced upon a new men's shirt shop that had just opened its doors for the first time. It was an exclusive shop that catered to the financial people of the district. As a celebration special, they were throwing in a selection of handsome ties for the price of a shirt. What a bargain! I stepped in and they promptly made a sale. Now I own a shirt and tie just like the ones worn by those British bankers.

The Bank of England should be open by now. We crossed the street and walked past the now open bronze doors of the building where British banking began three centuries ago. A stern looking security guard stood blocking entry at a second set of doors. As I approached, his eyes narrowed. They seemed to penetrate right through me. Why is he scrutinizing me like that, I wondered. I'm not going to rob his bank. He stared intently at me until I stepped up to him. Then he demanded, "You're on Star Trek, aren't you?" I was completely thrown off balance. That phrase has been like "open sesame" for me. "I love your show," he stated. Star Trek has magically opened doors for me into some of the most inaccessible places in the world. The stern guard, still unsmiling, said, "Follow me, sir." He courteously escorted into an imposing marble domed banking hall. My outdated bills were graciously exchanged for me. Then my stern friend asked, "Would you like to visit our Museum of Banking, sir?" Would I? Door after unanticipated doors opened for me into a museum of the history, not only of the Bank of England, but of banking itself in England. That was a fascinating and educational afternoon - and totally unexpected.

London, for me, is theater land. My main mission, when I'm in London, is to immerse myself in some of the best theater in the English language. I spent every night in a theater. And every night was rich and engaging. There was a perfect production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," starring Alan Rickman, who, you might recall, played the character based on Mr. Spock in "Galaxy Quest." At the National Theater complex, I saw a big and brilliant production of John Osborne's "Luther" in the Olivier Theater and in the Lyttleton, a sensational new play, "Mother Clapp's Molley House" about commerce and prostitution in the 18th century and today. There were revivals galore - a wonderful production of "Joe Egg," a hilarious production of "The Royal Family" starring Judi Dench, and a powerful production of Lillian Hellman's "Little Foxes" with a commanding performance by an actor named Penelope Wilton. British actors seem to have a gift for playing characters of the American south. But, the serendipity for me, was in the sold out hit, Lerner and Lowe's "My Fair Lady" with Jonathan Pryce playing Professor Henry Higgins. I didn't recognize the names of the actors playing Eliza, a Martine McCutcheon, and Doolittle, played by a Dennis Waterman. The reviews that were on display outside the Drury Lane Theater gave their performances glowing raves. You can imagine my disappointment when we arrived at the theater to learn that understudies were going on that performance for Eliza and Doolittle. Thank goodness, Jonathan Pryce was there to play Henry Higgins. We settled down in our seats not without some grumbling.

The overture started up and the Cockney denizens of Covent Garden sauntered out to set the stage to perform a delightfully choreographed dance prelude. It seemed to be getting off to a good start. Eliza entered. Her first sounds of Cockney seemed "spot on" as the British say. Through her smudge-smeared make-up, one could see that she had a beautiful face. Her first exchange with Higgins went perfectly. Her first song number, "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" revealed a gorgeous voice. She was wonderful!

When the character of her father, Doolittle, entered, we knew immediately that he was a fun-loving, conniving witted, energetic, Cockney low-life. He had the cockiness of a bantam rooster on coke. Then he exploded on stage with his first production number, "With a Little Bit of Luck." He brought the house down! Both understudies were extraordinary! I couldn't imagine the regular actors topping their performances. My bravo, bravo, bravos go to Kerry Ellis as a brilliant Eliza and to David Shaw-Parker as the best Doolittle I have ever seen. "My Fair Lady" was an unforgettable experience. And yes, as we expected, Jonathan Pryce was good as well. But the understudies, Ellis and Shaw-Parker, were our serendipitous, unexpected good fortune.

London is a place of magic that passes too quickly. All too soon, we were in a London taxi headed back to Heathrow Airport for the trip home. The driver seemed eager to chat. He talked about current events. He firmly believed that the Taliban would fall soon enough. He lamented the absence of tourists in London. He told us that the English like to take their holidays in Spain. He nattered on and on. When he said "holiday in Spain," I suddenly realized. His accent was perfect Cockney! As a matter of fact, we had Doolittle himself driving us to the airport! As we neared our terminal, he said, "with a little bit o' luck, your flight will take off on time." I almost expected him to break out in song. He was the perfect driver to see us off back to Los Angeles, California. Ah, I shall look forward to the next serendipitous return to London.




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