At the release of his latest memoir in 2019, Nancy Richards had a chance to speak to the great satirist.
An Indian wedding party winds its way through the manicured gardens of the Mount Nelson Hotel where we’re having tea. It prompts Pieter to tell the story of a time at the Space Theatre in Cape Town back in the 70s.
They took a Tennessee Williams play to the streets, performing on top of the toilet building in Greenmarket Square, when the attention of the mystified crowd turned to the arrival of a bridal couple. “A black husband and a white wife. You can imagine. This was the 70s. Eventually the police came, hustled everyone on and tried to arrest the actors.” PDU, as he’s fondly known, is filled with acting and reacting anecdotes, and he could keep you entertained for hours. He does.
It was this anecdotal approach that grew into The Echo of a Noise: A Memoir of Then and Now. It started at the 2015 National Arts Festival where his 70th birthday was being honoured. “They invited me to do something I’d never done before. So I decided to just sit and talk. About bits and pieces. When it was done everyone stood and shouted as if I’d won the World Cup.” And so the seed for the book was sown.
In his previous two memoirs Between The Devil and the Deep and Elections and Erections he avoided childhood, “Childhood is boring. I only start reading autobiographies from about page 36, but in this case the small years were important – little signposts that changed my life. Of course there were big billboards too like Ma’s secrets (only after she died did he discover she had fled Berlin because she was Jewish) and suicide…” he pauses.
“Most difficult was what not to put in. Too many stories is like a whole lot of little cakes when one wants a milk tart.” Pieter’s speaking voice echoes through the book in asides, observations, reminiscences, all sharp as razors.
Adding even more richness to the text are black and white photos of little blond Pietertjie at the gramophone, of his ‘first magic box’ (music remains ‘my buzz track, my heart beat’), of the dashing dandy in long pants (finally), of the long-haired London years, and of Evita, before and beyond. I marvel at the pictures, the letters, the poems (one of his own written aged 13) and other what must have been meticulously filed ephemera. “I’m a qualified stage manager and have a very well-organised archive.”
In trawling the past for this recollection collection, Pieter found two real “diamonds amongst the duds” – his father, Pa (Oom Hannes) and Ant’ Sannie from Athlone, the Uys’ housekeeper responsible for preparing the twinkle-eyed Pietertjie macaroni with grated chocolate and the rich language he later used on stage that horrified his father.
“Pa was a very egocentric man. Always talked about my house, my garden, never our. He was tight with money and frightened of the world.” Pieter unpacks him incident by incident. “In the car he would talk in endless monologues but among them were wonderful stories. Despite all, “really and truly we became trusted friends, eventually.” Later, as a member of the Censor Board, Oom Hannes also gave the aspiring satirist some sage advice, ‘Don’t be frightened of them, make fun of them’.
And Sannie, well, strong women have always been inspirational in Uys’ life. His devotion to Sophia Loren since his teens is legendary and, in Echo, we listen in on their very first encounter. And Evita herself (‘my Trojan horse’), all 30 years of her existence has had no small influence on his career.
But Sannie, Susanna Abader, is in another league. “I’m sure she and my ma talked about things way beyond the role play of maid and madam, but she never pretended not to be the maid. She voted Nat in the first democratic election and she inspired all the goodness of humanity.”
For one who claims to ‘build sandcastles when the tide is out’ PDU has some extraordinary tales to tell, and this memoir touches on the most touching.
Listen to Nancy Richards’ podcast with Pieter-Dirk Uys
The Echo of a Noise: A Memoir of Then and Now (R280) is published by Tafelberg