THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
A few weeks ago I was speaking to a very talented young student who was about to enter the business, and asked him where, in order of preference, he would place the live theatre in his plans for the future.
Without a moment's hesitation, he said, "Seventh". He'd not gone on to account for the other six, and when I was alone I tried to identify them. Films, first, of course, nowadays, and television; voice-overs, perhaps, a quick way of making a lot of money - but the other three? Corporate entertainment? After-dinner Speaking? Standing perfectly still in Leicester Square painted silver? I was baffled.
It did, however, make me think what a plethora of opportunities there are for a young actor today, compared with how things stood when I entered the business fifty-two years ago.
My social involvement with the theatre began some twelve years before that, when as a small child I regularly visited the Little Theatre, Bristol, to watch my father, Lockwood West, performing in weekly rep. My father - and indeed my mother - had spent most of their lives either in touring productions of recent West End successes (they met in one of three companies that were on the road simultaneously with The Ghost Train); or else in that curious anachronism Touring Repertory. Barry O'Brien, Frank Fortescue, Harry Hanson and others toured companies presenting short seasons of repertory, sometimes twice-nightly, all around the country; during one of which, at the Prince's Theatre Bradford, I happened to be born, only narrowly entitling myself to be called a Yorkshireman, because a month later, Mr Fortescue's Company had moved on to Eastbourne.
My father's life in the theatre was, I believe, typical of his time. He'd gone into the business when he was twenty, throwing over a desk job at Doncaster Collieries. But it was not for another twenty-five years that he finally got to tread the boards of Shaftesbury Avenue. Like hundreds of equally respected and talented actors, for years his ambition had stretched no further than a slightly-better string of parts, at a slightly better salary, for a slightly better Management in a slightly more convivial town.
In 1946, The Stage Guide, in its first published edition since the war ended, reported that there were now once again 238 resident or travelling repertory companies operating in the UK, and prophesied that the number was bound to increase. But of course, it did not increase. Over the next few years, as we all know, television, and more significantly general ownership of the motor-car, sharply reduced the number of people who were prepared, like the audiences at Bristol's unsubsidised Little Theatre, to settle each week into their regular seats and watch their friends the resident company performing the weekly round of Vernon Sylvaine, Ben Travers, Esther McCracken and Agatha Christie.
These companies were now being forced to take an honest look at the quality of what they were doing. It was generally decided that today's actors and audiences demanded a bit more time for preparation; and to survive, Weekly Rep would have to take a big risk and go Fortnightly. ('What's he going to do with the extra week?' some of the older actors would ask, 'I suppose it'll just be run-through after boring run-through').
I myself was caught up in this readjustment, having spent my first couple of years doing the familiar weekly repertoire spiced up with very occasional excursions into Chekhov, Ibsen and Oscar Wilde.
Forty-five plays a year. We didn't do them very well, I'm sure, but we did them; and for an actor, learning how to cope with so many different texts, different styles, different manners in 45 weeks (plus the pantomime), is something you don't get from drama school.
Some companies went to the wall. Others survived, and the actors would put down roots; they made their homes in Salisbury, like me; or in Northampton, Bristol, Nottingham, Sheffield. They got married there, bought houses, found employment for their partners and schools for their children.
And then of course it all turned round. It was regarded neither as economically possible nor artistically beneficial for regional companies to keep a permanent group of actors. So thousands of us from across the country set out, Dick-Whittington-like, to try our luck in London.
But what did London Theatre mean? There was the Old Vic Company, now just coming to the end of Michael Benthall's six-year Shakespeare canon; there was the English Stage Company at the Royal Court. But apart from that, what 'London Theatre' really meant was the Commercial West End of H.M. Tennent, Bronson and Donald Albery, Henry Sherek, Peter Saunders and others, and they weren't promising much to the young repertory-trained actor. Mainstream West End plays tended to be about middle-aged authority figures: bank managers, judges, politicians, Company Chairmen. Detective Inspectors were plentiful, indeed, but Detective Inspectors were much older then than they are now; and the routine family doctor was always in his late fifties.
Youth was indeed waiting in the wings, but still on stand-by. It would be a year or two yet before they were given the 'go'.
However, there was now of course Television. Play of the Week. Armchair Theatre. The Grove Family. Dixon of Dock Green. But while most of my contemporaries leapt at this chance to put on a white coat (yellow, actually, the cameras couldn't cope with white in those days) and pick up stethoscope and public profile for Emergency Ward Ten, I for some reason decided to buck what was the logical trend; which brings me round, at last, to my title 'Good Service on All Other Lines'.
J B Priestley, in The Good Companions, writes "Nothing would ever have happened, forgetting as we all do, that the one road we have chosen out of a hundred is not the only one lined with adventure.
Geoffrey Lumsden, a leading member of the Salisbury company, had written a farce Caught Napping, which we had performed and had then been bought by the West End producer Peter Bridge. Those who played the major parts were replaced of course by London names, but one or two of us were retained in the minor roles.
My part was that of a bookie's runner called Talky, precisely because he did not talk, he conversed in tick-tack signals. We came off after a few weeks having lost the battle with what was believed to be the hottest summer on record (1959), and I took the first job I was offered, which was to go to Northampton to play the Japanese Prisoner in The Long and the Short and the Tall. My character saw no point in speaking to his captors in Japanese; and so remained silent; and at a subsequent interview with a casting director I had to admit that it was some months now since audiences had actually heard me open my mouth.
Just occasionally Mr Priestley's byways will lead you to an adventure which, afterwards, you hope may be recognised as the nadir of your professional experience. We took The Long and the Short and the Tall for an extra week to Wellingborough, to the Palace Theatre, hardly ever used at the time except occasionally as a cinema. It was filthy dirty, and three distinct images remain clear in my mind: an ice-cream seller beginning loudly to advertise her wares just before the end of the first act; a small rat - or large mouse - trudging disconsolately over my dead body as I lay on the stage after being shot; and on the door of the ladies' dressing room - as an all-male cast we used both rooms - a message in lipstick declaring I'VE SUGARRED IT FOR ELVIS. I'm afraid I don't quite know what that means.
Then I heard myself agreeing to go on a twenty-six-week tour of another farce Simple Spymen. which had just finished a five-year run at Brian Rix's Whitehall Theatre. Charles Cameron, who had been playing the part of the elderly Army Intelligence Officer, Colonel Gray-Balding, had finally decided to retire after twenty-two years' continuous service at the Whitehall, in which time he had performed a total of just five parts. I was his replacement for the tour. Colonel Gray-Balding. I was twenty-seven, and cheap.
Not many people today would be asked, even by Bill Kenwright, to go on a twenty-six week tour of a straight play, but for me touring has always seemed vitally important: there is an enormous, enthusiastic, critical audience right across the UK, and in too many official quarters it is assumed that those audiences, if they want a cultural treat, will happily get in their cars and drive a hundred and fifty miles to the metropolis. This is outrageous, and completely unacceptable.
So I was happy to embark on this marathon. And, lo and behold, my unfashionable path did indeed lead to adventure. We were playing a week at the New Theatre, Oxford (now the Apollo), and round the corner at the Playhouse was a young actress whom I had met briefly in London. Her name was Prunella Scales.
It was jolly good boating weather, and the rest is history.
A little later, while I was rehearsing in Lady Windermere's Fan at the New Theatre, Bromley, the director Clifford Williams surprisingly asked me to be in David Rudkin's dark and extraordinary Afore Night Come, for the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1962 experimental season at the Arts. Rehearsing as a homicidal Worcestershire pear-picker during the day, and then catching the train to Bromley to get into white tie and tails and scintillate as Lord Augustus Lorton in the evening is a therapeutic experience I would prescribe for any actor who feels that his or her life is getting into a rut.
Rudkin's play made quite a stir, but in fact I was not asked to be in anything further in the season, and I decided once again to change on to the branch line and explore. I had done a few things on the radio, and love the medium, and so I thought I would apply to the BBC Drama Repertory Company, in those palmy days a 42-strong body containing many of the great names of radio.. I got the job, and being I suppose essentially a Words Man, spent a blissfully happy year doing a wide variety of programmes for not only the Radio Drama Department but also for BBC Features, an eccentric, tweed-jacketed assembly of poets, philosophers, historians, economists, alcoholics and spies, all of formidable intelligence. On the Rep we were required not only for plays and serials, but stories, poetry programmes, schools broadcasts Mrs Dale's Diary, every aspect of the World Service, and even occasionally acting as a feed for comedians.
What's more, as we got a lot of evenings off, I was able at the same time to rehearse (and play on Sunday nights at the tiny British Drama League Theatre in Fitzroy Square) a new play called The Trigon, directed by a leather-jacketed, iconoclastic New Yorker called Charles Marowitz, whose adopted Lee Strasberg style of direction I found hilarious, and to whom BBC Drama Rep were the three dirtiest words in the English Language. But as so often, the unfamiliar turning was to lead to happy places; Charles and I became great friends and we did two or three very interesting shows together. I didn't meet up again with the RSC until 1964, when they revived Afore Night Come at the Aldwych, and suddenly found they didn't like the actor they had chosen to play my original part, and rang me up in a panic a week before they opened. This led to my joining them for the famous 'Dirty Plays' season, which included The Birthday Party, The Marat/Sade, Beckett's endgame and Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. I loved the Aldwych, always bursting at the seams trying to cope with a repertoire and an energy slightly too small for the space. The 1964 season involved five designers and as many lighting designers, with a change-over practically every night. When the company at last took possession of their roomy, sophisticated new home at the Barbican, there were nonetheless many who heaved a nostalgic sigh.
My decision to part company with the RSC after the next Stratford season came about in an unusual way. Every autumn at Stratford, once all the plays were on, your friends had all been to see you, the cricket team had lost every match, there was fog on Clopton Bridge and the November rain leaked steadily through your cottage roof, it was natural to become anxious and fretful about next years' casting, and discover what, if anything, was in it for you.
When we had a long wait during a show, there were three of us who used to creep upstairs to the secretarial offices and go through the waste paper baskets for discarded Gestetner stencils. On one of these I discovered a list of the current acting company, divided into five columns, A, B, C, D and E. Column A was the undoubted stars of the season, Paul Scofield, Eric Porter, Janet Suzman, David Warner; 'B' was the principal supporting players, 'C' one category down from that, and 'D' one further down still. 'E' was the walk-ons, a species that for both economic and humanitarian reasons, has long been discontinued.
My name was in the 'D' column. I sat on the floor of that dark office, querulously appealing for sympathy from my two colleagues, and then, with a grand symbolic gesture, erased the RSC from my mind. The next day I accepted an invitation that I had received from Toby Robertson to join the Prospect Theatre Company for a season of two plays, which developed into a further season of three plays, and then by degrees into a relationship with that company that continued off and on for the next sixteen years.
Prospect, run by Toby, Richard Cottrell and Iain Mackintosh, was the leading, indeed the only established, classical touring company going round the country and, as it grew in stature, taking advantage of the DALTA-promoted national face-lifting campaign for ailing provincial Theatres, and then later accepting an annual invitation to form the Drama centre-piece to the Edinburgh Festival.
I have already said something about the national importance of touring. But I want to add something about the personal experience for the actor, at least as I see it. Every Monday - or maybe Tuesday - night is a new experience. A new place, a new stage, new staff, new auditorium, new people sitting there, some of whom you will meet later in the paper shop, in the bus queue, in the pub; identifiable people, as opposed to the mainly tourist audience you play to in London. And, without in any way wanting to be patronising, perhaps there is a greater chance that a lot of them may be first-timers to Henry V, or Three Sisters or The Wild Duck.
We hope they may come out of the theatre not saying, yes very good but do you remember so-and-so at the National, and did you see Trevor Nunn's production in '73, and what about that extraordinary set by John Bury, when was it? No, we want them to say what an amazing play - what an astonishing evening in the theatre.
When asked to say what is the secret of a long and happy marriage, I tell people "Long and frequent separation." Touring of course is the perfect answer. However, we do have to recognise I suppose that there are those who panic at the sight of a suitcase, don't relish even going out of the front door to put the milk out, and would be really delighted if all acting could somehow be done on the internet.
To such people, the task of selecting theatrical lodgings can assume terrifying proportions. Well, it is an adventure. You can have bad luck, such as a place we found in Newcastle, where the woman was rude, the bathroom filthy, the sheets damp, the breakfast uneatable and the tariff outrageous: our response was to go out and buy a screwdriver and a pair of kippers, unscrew the back of her brown rexine sofa, insert the kippers and screw it up again. I imagine she is no longer in business.
On the other hand, you can find charming premises, run by delightful people, and form an attachment to an area of the country that perhaps you never knew before.
And anyway, you can add to the profession's fund of Landlady Stories. Probably the most famous of the genre in recent times must be Mrs Alma Mackay, of Astra House (the Home of the Stars), 10 Daisy Avenue, Manchester. Her brilliant malapropisms were renowned throughout the profession. "I've got that Allan Cuthbertson coming next week," she told me. "I hear he's a bit pendatic." I used to press her about her famous guests, and she confided that an archaeologist from the Middle East had stayed with her while making a documentary for Granada, and that she believed herself to be one of the few people in Manchester to have clapped eyes on the celebrated Deep Sea Rolls.
Famous guests were important to another landlady I knew in Leeds, who kept a handsome visitors' book to which some of the distinguished entrants had added the initials 'L.D.O.' I was mystified - some sort of decoration perhaps, or diploma? 'Licentiate of Dramatic Orthodoxy'
didn't sound likely, so I asked our elderly Company Manager. "Coded information for future guests," he explained. "Landlady's Daughter Obliges."
The most inhospitable place I have ever encountered for lodgings - and indeed for most other things - was Billingham in Tees-side, where I was invited to form a company and present a season of plays. Not one of my more profitable detours. The Billingham Forum - now I believe in process of reconstruction - was an enormous leisure complex, housing a swimming pool and an ice rink of international competition standard, with squash and badminton courts, boxing rings, cafeterias and bars. Oh, and a theatre.
Yes, a very well-appointed theatre, with a large stage, and a production manager and two carpenters paid by the local authority. But no audiences, it seemed.
When the place first opened in 1967, the aim was cross-fertilisation among the building's users, so that all-in wrestlers and patrons of Opera North could get together over a companionable gin-and-tonic. The management soon realised they were being rather unrealistic, and so decided to keep the facilities from now on completely separate, and while badminton players entered one way to tread their linoleumed way up to a large matey bar with formica-topped tables and a juke-box, theatregoers were quietly ushered in the opposite direction to a soft-lit carpeted cocktail lounge with imitation Jacobean furniture and little nuts in the ashtrays. It was a bizarre situation, and I was immensely proud of our company, whose tireless recruiting efforts eventually persuaded the townsfolk that it was okay to come in without a suit, and that their wives really didn't need to go to the hairdresser first.
Foreign touring I find exciting, (particularly after Billingham.) Prospect - and as it became later, the Old Vic Company - in addition to their responsibilities in the United Kingdom, toured Europe, the Middle East, Hong Kong, China and the Australian Continent, on many different occasions.
Once or twice it was startling to realise that what we'd thought of as just a good example of our English dramatic heritage might strike a resonant and explosive chord in some politically sensitive part of the world.
We took Richard Cottrell's Richard II starring Ian McKellen to Bratislava
in the Czech Republic in 1969, very shortly after the country had been invaded by Russian tanks. The story seemed their own - the overthrow of the nationalist premier Dubcek (Richard) and the installation of the usurper Husek (Bolingbroke). At the curtain call people stood, wept, shouted slogans, threw flowers at Ian's feet. The authorities were dismayed - we were hustled out of the theatre into our hotel, and subsequently into another (secret) one; our press conference was cancelled, and we were kept under house arrest on a diet of overdone mutton chops, always surmounted, for some reason, by a poached egg.
Taking conventional productions abroad, often to be performed in the open air, can, as many of us here know, be fraught with difficulties. At a performance of Hamlet in Istanbul, Marcellus' reflection that something was rotten in the state of Denmark was answered by a next-door muezzin's amplified call to prayer. In Split, in the former Jugoslavia, we performed Antony and Cleopatra on the steps of Diocletian's Palace. A magnificent location, but with a technical problem. To make an exit on one side of the stage, and subsequently to re-enter from the other, an actor had to go down some steps to a courtyard and along a narrow public alleyway to a side street, thence to regain the palace by a side entrance.
On the night, one of Cleopatra's court, wearing a very bulky robe, had got as far as the alleyway when he found his path blocked by a very fat local citizen coming towards him. Time was of the essence. "Back up, back up!" shouted our actor, but the man, muttering his rights, refused to give way; whereupon the resourceful actor drew his heavy sword and brandished it above his head, and at that his opponent turned and ran, screaming.
I feel very strongly that those of us who have been around for any length of time owe it to the younger generation to pass on some of our ideas, whether they agree with them or not. I'm involved with a major drama school, and until very recently with the National Student Drama Festival. I have taught Elizabethan Drama at the University of Western Australia, and took sixteen third-year students to Russia, to work with the Moscow Art Theatre School.
This was a fascinating experience, I think for all of us. We met an elderly lady who had actually studied under Stanislavski and Nemirovitch- Danchenko, and declared, as I thought she would, that the teaching really just amounted to common sense. We went on a private visit to Chekhov's estate at Melikhovo, and I was allowed to direct our students in some scenes from Uncle Vanya inside the house. In those tiny, simple, unfussy, utilitarian rooms, every movement, every look, every word spoken, had a rightness, an authority, a truth.
What a shame we so seldom have the opportunity to play Chekhov in rooms that are the right size. The trouble is, the man wrote famously good parts that appeal to popular actors. Popular actors attract big audiences, big audiences need big theatres, big theatres have big stages, big stages require big sets, and before you know where you are, the first act of Three Sisters seems to be happening in the ballroom at Grosvenor House.
Occasionally, invitations to represent the flag abroad arrive from unexpected sources, and for unlikely occasions. In October 1985, the Vatican presented an International Cultural Symposium to mark the one- thousanth anniversary of the Martyrdom of St Cyril and St Methodias. People from all over the Catholic world were invited to take part. I am not a Roman Catholic, but was nonetheless proud to be selected to represent this country by reading the Thomas-à-Becket Christmas Sermon from Murder in the Cathedral.
I had envisaged this taking place in some exquisite candle-lit chamber deep in the heart of the Vatican, with a Michelangelo ceiling and perhaps a Bernini lectern for me to read from; His Holiness in immaculate white, flanked by the crimson outlines of perhaps a dozen of his best-loved Cardinals. But no. The Sala Nervi, the modern public auditorium holds 8,000, seated, or 12,000 if some of them are prepared to stand. The far end of the room was shrouded in mist, it was so far away. Rather to my surprise I was directed into an Archbishop's mitre and robes and given a thurible to swing, radiating incense as I crossed the vast expanse of stage till I finally got to my microphone.
At rehearsal, the day before the performance, I demonstrated my incompetence with the thurible, and was told to take it home and practice.
As my British Council driver paused at the city gate, one of the Swiss Guards noticed the thin trail of smoke issuing from a supermarket bag on my lap. He asked me to get out, and motioned me into the Guard Room. Inside the bag he found this beautiful example of Episcopal hardware - for all he knew it could be solid gold, and those red glass stones genuine rubies. I tried to explain what I was doing with it, but his English was even worse than my Italian. Then I thought, well, Swiss Guard, maybe he speaks French, so I said, "Non, non, je ne suis pas voleur - je ne suis que comedien!" His face lit up. "Comdien anglais, vous? Connaissez-vous Benny Hill?"
I didn't, but I lied. And then we were all right.
I have talked a lot about straying from the main line. But I am no longer quite sure what the main line is, nor where it goes. I am uncomfortable about the term career, because it seems to me to suggest a predetermined linear path towards a chosen goal. It seems to me hardly ever to work like that. Usually one zig-zags about, travelling hopefully, but sometimes failing to look out of the window once one arrives.
The unpredictability of the live theatre is surely one of its allurements, for practitioner and public alike, so I'd like to finish with an account of what should have been a perfectly incident-free opening night of Hugh Whitemore's play It's Ralph, in its prior-to-London week at the Theatre Royal, Brighton.
The curtain went up to reveal an empty stage. A country cottage, to which owners Connie Booth and myself were, at the start of the play, arriving for the weekend. The front door - the only door on to the set - was fitted with a practical Yale lock, to which I had the key. Unfortunately, one of the stage crew, while doing something to the door beforehand, had inadvertently pushed up the catch on the lock so that, try as I might, I couldn't get in.
The audience could see Connie and me through the glass panel of the door, but that ceased to be interesting after a while. I turned in desperation to our company stage manager, Brian Kirk, who said he would bring the curtain down, and went to find the flyman who, having taken up the tabs initially had nothing else to do till the interval, and was no longer at his post.
While Brian was trying to find him, our very slim ASM, realising what was wrong, squeezed round the edge of the set, smiled reassuringly at the audience, released the catch and retired back to the prompt corner. So I turned the key, opened the door, and walked into the room.
At the same moment, the flyman, having got the message, brought the tabs in. Audience bemusement was now giving way to open laughter, and Brian announced that he was going to go in front of the curtain and reassure them. I was dubious about this, but agreed to go back
outside the door, closed it carefully, and through the window watched Brian fight his way through the gap in the heavy velvet curtain.
This was only ever used now as a drop curtain, and over the years the parting folds had become thick with dust and festooned with cobwebs. When he finally emerged, the spectral pallor of Brian's face, hair and dinner jacket caused actual alarm in some of the more nervous patrons, but finally he managed to explain to them what had occurred; they gave him a round of applause, he fought his way back again, came off stage, and after a moment, the curtain rose once more. I opened the door, and Connie and I walked in.
Whether it was delayed panic that made the board operator hit the blackout button at this point, or whether it was just the next logical step in the nightmare, I cannot say. The timing was impeccable. The stage, on which I had not as yet been permitted to utter a word, was plunged into inky blackness, and our author, sitting at the back of the stalls and wishing he were anywhere on earth other than where he was at this moment, got up to leave the theatre.
As he opened the door, the exit sign fell on his head.
Timothy West, May 2008
2008 AGM Report
Lecture Report Archive Index
21st May 2008