Fifty years of backstage glamour
Updated: Apr 29, 2019
In my quest for the meaning of life, I encounter this treasure chest.
Harry Preece is everything and more.
Who is Harry Preece?
I am an 82 years old English man. I work at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End as an usher, greeting customers, etc. And I enjoy life.
Whereabouts in England are you from and why did you move to London?
I am from Plymouth -border of Devon and Cornwall-, and I came to London about fifty years ago. I had been a policeman down in Cornwall, -which is the West country of England-, and I wasn't very happy doing that. So I thought: "Right, I'll have a change!" So I came to London to see what other things were in Life. I didn't know what I was gonna do. I had somewhere to stay. I looked for a job, and I worked in Bourne and Hollingsworth -a big store in Oxford Street, as a shop assistant, back in the mid-sixties.
Was London very different back then?
Oh yes! Over the last fifty years has changed a lot, there are more people coming to live here. It's busier.
How was your life during the sixties living in London?
I met a lady at work, and eventually, we got married, but she told me that I had to get back to the police force. So I did, and I was posted to Belgravia, and you will find out about my private life now (he giggles), because I was married but... then I met another lady (another cheeky laugh). After a couple of years, I am afraid I left my wife, and I went to work for the person who she was working for. That person was the actor Rex Harrison who offered me four times what I was earning as a policeman -which was already a very well paid job back then. I became his chauffeur, butler, and general maintenance.
But Mr Harrison had the habit of not staying married very long. After four years he and Mss Harrison broke up, and we had to find another job.
What did you do?
I found a job working for a film producer out in the country with accommodation. I did chauffeuring, gardening... but it wasn't great paid, so it didn't take me too long to decide to come back to London. And just before we moved, our next door neighbour -Victor Lownes, the vice president of Playboy- heard that I was leaving the countryside for London again, and he offered me a job with Playboy as a chauffeur. After five years they lost a license, and I carried on working as a chauffeur for different agencies, but I couldn't find a permanent job as a chauffeur, so I started working as a porter in a block of flats down in Chelsea, and then in the West End. One of the residents was David Pugh -a theatre producer. He gave me a job backstage in a play at Wyndham's Theatre, and we toured afterwards. I jumped to the Guilgud Theatre for the play Equss, with Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe.
Are you friend with Harry Potter?
Yes (proudly affirms). When the play finished I stayed in that theatre working as an usher, and when my manager got a position as a theatre manager at the Noël Coward -within the same company, Delfont Mackintosh Theatres-, I followed her, and there is where I am now. I have been very lucky, every job has flowed from one to the other. I can say that I have enjoyed every job I have done.
What do you like most of London?
It's the differences. It's always changing. There is always something to do in London. Museums, Theatres... Even people. Every day there is someone different that you can speak to. I may be different, but I always talk to people on the bus. It's a common thing that people say that nobody talks to each other because nowadays they are on the mobile phone, but I smile at people and say hello, and I just ask: "Are you on holiday?" And they talk to you! That's the thing I enjoy. Through that, I have met a lot of interesting people. One example, I went to Ireland two weeks ago to see my new granddaughter. In the airport, there was a gentleman who came to sit opposite us when we were sitting having coffee. He was very smartly dressed, very good looking tanned man, and I said to my son: "I think I recognise him, I am sure I have seen him before. I am sure he has something to do with horse racing." My son said: "Oh dad you always..." Anyhow, that was on a Sunday travelling back to London, and I came back to work on a Thursday, and this man was on the theatre that day. As he was leaving I said: "Excuse me, sir, I hope you don't mind me being rude but we were at the Cork Airport together on Sunday evening", and he said: "Oh yes! I remember you were with another gentleman, a lady and a baby." I said: "I said to my son when I saw you; I thought you were something to do with horse racing." And he went: "Yes! I'm a race trainer". What a small world! And we shook hands. That is London. You meet people of all different kinds every day.
What do you like least about London?
When it's too busy in the West End. Whenever you try to get anywhere, the people going in your direction are slow, and the people coming towards you are busy! But that's a stupid little thing. I don't like the word hate, even to say it. I don't like HATE; I don't know... But If I hate something, is litter on the floor. When my sons were little, we use to find apple cores and wrappers in their pockets, because I trained them not to throw litter away.
What do you do when you are not working?
I go to the cinema; I like walking around Westminster, St James's Park, Hyde Park, Regent's Park, Battersea Park... I go to New York very often when I am on holiday.
Why are you still working?
Because I can (smiles). Nobody has asked me to stop yet. My manager says: "Harry, who would talk to the old ladies if you weren't here?" I enjoy doing what I'm doing. It keeps my brain going, and it keeps the body moving. It gives me something to do, and I enjoy the people I meet. I don't enjoy everyone I work with (giggles. We used to work together, and he knows I know who he is talking about). I don't have too many friends. My mother used to say: "Have too many friends, you don't know who your enemies are".
Tell me an anecdote of the theatre you work, that you treasure?
There was a line in a play we had in the theatre -Peter and Alice-, where Dame Judy Dench, who played Alice said: "I could be sitting upstairs in an empty room, or I could be Alice". One day I said to her that I changed that line: "I could be an old man sitting at home watching TV or I could be working at the Noël Coward Theatre."
What is the meaning of life?
Enjoy what you are doing. My religion is: "do on to others as you would like them to do on to you."