Sweetpea Slight: How I became Thelma Holt’s shadow

Sweetpea Slight. Picture: Kate Barsby

Sweetpea Slight. Picture: Kate Barsby - Credit: Archant

Hampstead’s Sweetpea Slight talks about her memoir recalling two eventful decades working for West End theatre impresario Thelma Holt.

Sweetpea Slight has made a habit of working for strong female bosses.

Currently PA to TV presenter Anne Robinson, it is her 20 years assisting larger than life producer Thelma Holt in the 80s and 90s that’s the subject of her memoir Get Me The Urgent Biscuits: An Assistant’s Adventures in Theatreland (Weidenfeld £14.99)

Growing up on a Dorset farm she moved to London in 1985 hoping to got to drama school and be “the next Helen Mirren”.

Not long after her stint running The Roundhouse, Holt spotted the 18-year-old Jane while on work experience at The Theatre of Comedy: “Within a fortnight she had stolen me, sent me to evening classes to learn to type, organised a miniscule salary, cancelled my audition for RADA and renamed me Sweetpea.”

Slight’s anecdote-packed memoir sheds light on the eccentric backstage world. Holt, who is still making theatre aged 85, emerges as an irascible, forceful and eccentric figure who would hurl obscentities and hugs with equal vigour, a woman who came across as “absolutely bonkers” capable of storing champagne in the dishwasher or attending a first night and forgetting to put her dress on. Slight, who under Holt would balance budgets and egos for major international National Theatre Tours admits: “I became her shadow.”

“I kept a notebook while I was working for her. It wasn’t a diary in the ‘dear diary’ sense, I wrote down anything that was particularly funny or unusual – which when you are working with the characters I got to work with was not a difficult task!”

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She hasn’t any regrets about missing out on an acting career.

“She was quite right to cancel my audition – she sniffed out very quickly that I didn’t have the temperament for life as an actor. I have never thought of myself as an actor since but one of the great pleasures in my life is to watch actors at work. I am still bowled over by superb performances, on stage and screen.”

Holt has clearly been a huge influence, not least because Slight has changed her name by deed poll to make the nickname official.

“I am not sure the term friend quite names what it is that I feel about Thelma. Apart from my parents, I have not experienced the effects of such a long term and powerful presence in my life, which for good and bad has had a lasting impression, and continues to influence the way I view the world. It is rare and complicated, not always comfortable, but it’s certainly a kind of love.”

While there are similarities between herself and Holt. “We shared a love of theatre, actors and the absurd” she adds: “We are fundamentally very different people.”

Being a fly on the wall to the theatre making process brought Slight into the orbit of stars such as Alan Rickman, who was unfailingly kind and humorous to all those around him.

There were also alcoholic actors, wandering hands and on one occasion, the armourer for a production that used guns was found dead in his Zurich hotel room with his weapons stolen.

Vanessa Redgrave once cut a £1500 wig because she thought her character would wear her hair shorter, and Dustin Hoffman got confused when Holt bellowed ‘Sweetpea’ because that was his childhood nickname. She was only starstruck once: “sitting on Lauren Bacall’s knee at a first night party in New York.”

“I think watching Richard Harris was one of the most powerful and shocking things because you never knew what he was going to do next, even when you were sure of what to expect, because you had seen him perform the play many times, he would do something slightly different and for a moment you would think he was going AWOL – he wasn’t – he was just new minting a moment. That was very exciting.”

Having started her next book, Slight plans to finish it soon: “when I can escape the demands of Anne Robinson”.