Theatrical success didn't make Vendela Tyndale-Biscoe happy. Nor did drugs and partying. Mary Lean finds out more.
As a teenager, Vendela Tyndale-Biscoe lived the fast life of the 60s and dreamt of success on the stage. But when she finally made it, at the age of 24, she felt 'dead inside'.
She grew up near Gothenburg, in southern Sweden. When she was nearly eight, her father died of a hereditary kidney disease. He was only 44, and Vendela's older siblings were 18, 15 and 13.
Vendela threw herself into activities to 'compensate' for her father's death. She had taken up ballet at the age of four and enjoyed performing comic songs for her family and friends. At 12 she made her 'real' debut in an annual review in her city. 'I experienced the sweetness of making people laugh and applaud for more. By then I knew that this was what I wanted to do.'
She started singing her own songs in rock clubs, in the intervals when the evening's band took a break. She didn't tell her mother about staggering onto stage after throwing up half a bottle of brandy, nor about hitchhiking home in the small hours during a visit to England where she spent her evenings in the night clubs. Nor did she tell her mother when a friend of her sister's seduced her on her second visit to Britain, when she was 17.
For the last years of her schooling she lived away from her mother, first with her brother and sister and then on her own. She fell for a young actor - only to discover, painfully, that she wasn't his only girlfriend. 'For four years, he became my invisible idol who I always looked out for and seldom met. My brother was suffering from depression, and I longed for a man who would love and care for me.'
She started smoking hashish - 'I found it helped me to forget my pain and laugh.' While working in Spain before taking up her place at the Malmo Theatre School, she tried LSD. 'I was also taking slimming pills containing amphetamine to keep me awake so I could stay up all night and still cope with work. When I got home I was so tired and nervous that I used to wake up at night shouting.'
She loved theatre school, where the famous drama teacher, Andris Blekte, became her mentor. In her second year, she played a lead role in Kent Andersson's play, The State, in which patients in a mental hospital tell their stories. 'It confronted me with my conscience. One night I was smoking hashish with a friend, while listening to the soundtrack of the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. When the crucifixion scene came, I thought I heard Jesus crying to me, "This have I done for you, Vendela. What have you done for me?" I thought of all the drug addicts in the square outside, who hadn't been as lucky as me, and I felt terribly ashamed.' She decided to quit drugs.
As she turned back towards her childhood faith, she got into arguments with her friends at theatre school, where a Marxist Leninist cell had been created. 'After one argument, I cried out to God, "I feel so lonely! I want to talk about you!" Almost at once I felt a presence which was very peaceful, which said, "I will be close to you always." '
Vendela's parents had been involved with the Oxford Group and Moral Re-Armament since the 1930s, when it had inspired a religious revival in Scandinavia. In December 1971 she went with her mother to spend New Year at the movement's conference centre in Caux, Switzerland.
'When I arrived there, I just cried. Everything was so wonderful. When my room-mate asked me what was wrong, I said that it felt as if there was a hard glass wall between my mother and me, because I could never tell her that I had taken drugs.' After three days, she found the courage to talk to her mother - who took the bombshell unexpectedly calmly. 'Being honest with the person of whom I was most afraid made me feel as if a stone had been lifted from my heart.' She returned to theatre school full of energy and with the determination to speak up for her beliefs in any company.
After her final exams, she travelled with the National Touring Company for a year and then, in 1974, landed a permanent contract with the prestigious Uppsala Stadsteater. 'By now I was 24, and ought to have been very happy, but I felt dead inside,' she says. Her work was exhausting and her latest boyfriend was becoming an alcoholic. Just when she had achieved everything she had hoped for, life didn't seem worth living.
Desperate, she went back to Caux, a place where she had found hope. There she found herself taking the only female part in a play, which placed the story of the New Testament in a modern context. The rehearsals were an eye-opener to her - 'I felt that the men I was working with loved me just for being me.' There was no need to flirt. 'God was the boss and this gave me a great sense of security, peace and excitement. I realized that this "clean" friendship, combined with the vision that people could change and that I could do something by beginning with myself, was what I wanted.'
When she thought about what this would mean, she realized fundamental changes were necessary. 'I decided to stop trying to make myself more popular, stop thinking that I had to sleep with every boyfriend, stop drinking alcohol and become open with everyone, especially in the theatre world, about what I had decided. It was like saying goodbye to my career.'
She returned to work 'like a new person' and found, to her surprise, that her colleagues respected her new values, because she was living them herself, rather than trying to impose something on them. The following summer - feeling that she did not want to spend her life acting other people - she gave up her contract so as to work fulltime with MRA.
During her first four months, in Britain, she suffered from depression - caused, she believes, by mercury poisoning after a dental operation - and, after returning to Sweden, a minor nervous breakdown. After recovering she went to Canada to visit her sister, and there became involved with MRA work once again, and was faced with the decision of whether to return to her career or remain available. 'I shut myself into my room for a "talk" with God. I had the most clear thought, "If you give the theatre to me, even risking never to do theatre again, I promise to give you a life that you could never dream of. Do you trust me?"' When the Uppsala Stadsteater cabled to offer her a part in a play, she replied that she had decided to continue to work with MRA.
Over the last 25 years, this decision has taken her to Africa, India, Russia and other parts of Europe, often acting in plays and reviews which challenge the audience to rethink their lives and values. In 1980, she married Philip Tyndale-Biscoe, an English actor whom she had first met in that play in Caux. In spite of painful times - not having children, her brother's suicide, her sister's and her own struggles with the kidney disease which killed their father - Vendela believes God has kept his promise to her. She and her husband now live in Stockholm, after 17 years of travelling the world together.