Actor Peter Land looks back on the loves of his life, on and off the West End stage, ahead of his appearance in The Revellers Society at South Mill Arts in Bishop's Stortford
Peter Land was finding his feet in the world of West End theatre when a seismic event knocked him off them – and led to a love match that lasted 40 years.
Fresh from his homeland of New Zealand, where he had made his mark as a promising young actor, Peter came to the UK in 1977 and gave himself a year to, in his words, "do something decent".
After being cast as Freddie Eynsford Hill in the Adelphi Theatre production of My Fair Lady, he recalls the cast being asked to go and have a drink at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
It was a somewhat intimidating event for Peter as he was rubbing shoulders with theatre legends Dame Anna Neagle and Liz Robertson, but as he went to leave the room his world was blown apart.
"I was trying to leave the room and the door came open, and there was this vision with blonde hair – that was Gillian."
The Gillian in question was choreographer Gillian Lynne, later Dame Gillian, and a whirlwind romance began.
"We were in love with each other's talent – Gilly adored what I was doing and I thought here was this great person giving me the benefit of her talents," said Peter, who will appear as Aubrey Everett in The Revellers Society later this month at South Mill Arts in Bishop's Stortford.
Peter married Gillian in May 1980 and their respective careers blossomed. Peter went to the National Theatre and appeared as The Ballad Singer with Michael Gambon in Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo, while Gillian went on to choreograph Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats and later The Phantom of the Opera.
Among the other stage luminaries Peter performed with were Dame Peggy Ashcroft in All's Well That Ends Well at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Patrick Stewart, who was to become a great friend of the couple. He also starred in the West End shows The Phantom of the Opera and Cabaret, and Ruthless! in New York.
But as Gillian's career took off Peter decided to take a back seat. "She was extraordinarily busy and needed support, and I was happy to give it," he said.
Gillian died in 2018. It was during the first coronavirus lockdown earlier this year that Peter really felt the void left by her death.
"In the first instance I thought 'Whoopee!' because I love a hermit existence, but suddenly that void began to have an impact," he said.
He is grateful that he could be with Gillian as she passed away from pneumonia as he is aware that this year so many could not be with their loved ones in their final days.
"The one glorious thing was I could hold her and speak to her until the end," he said.
Peter felt it was incredible that a London theatre has been named after Gillian and is proud of the foundation set up in the couple's names and the work it does helping aspiring actors. He is full of praise for the list of experienced and starry patrons of the Lynne and Land Foundation.
"I wanted people who were at the top of their field, who we could use as mentors and judges," he added.
He believes putting on productions like The Revellers Society is an attempt to "bring back joy" to the world.
The couple's connection and friendship with the show's creator Ian McFarlane goes back a long way.
"He is a great friend of ours. Not only did he play my son in Peter Pan, but when Ian started to write and compose we were enormous fans of his," said Peter.
The Revellers Society is described as a "decadent and bawdy" cabaret-style variety show that features comedy, song, dance and audience participation.
Peter, 67, describes his role of Aubrey as that of an older man slightly stuck in his tracks, but with a heart of gold. A would-be star, he is determined to make a big comeback, whatever the cost to his dignity.
He says the role is somewhat of a tribute to all the freelancers in the theatre industry who are just trying to get by.
Lockdown and the pandemic have, he says, been a "really tough journey", but he was looking forward to getting back on stage and his first trip to Bishop's Stortford from his home in Primrose Hill, north London.
"Live theatre needs to come back into our lives," he said."This will give the people of Bishop's Stortford such a lift – it will be a really good show."
He further emphasised his desire to brighten the hearts of Stortford's lovers of the arts by offering to sing Bless This House in a church in the town – and thought my suggestion of singing it in Market Square a great idea!
Of all the stars he has performed with, Harry Secombe – with whom he appeared in The Pickwick Papers – was his favourite. "I really adored him, he was the funniest man on two legs," said Peter.
He said his proudest moment was My Fair Lady, as at 24-25 he "looked right for the role" and, of course, he met and married the show's choreographer.
* The Revellers Society will be at South Mill Arts for seven nights from Wednesday December 16 to 23 (excluding Sunday December 20). Tickets are £23.50 each for tables of two or four. Visit the box office at the centre in South Road, phone 01279 710200 or visit the South Mill Arts website.