Poetry Readings – #4: John Keats – ‘Bright Star’

A very beautiful sonnet from the quintessential British Romantic poet, John Keats. ‘Bright Star’ was written around 1819.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

Poetry Readings – #3: Ted Hughes – ‘Wind’

This has always been one of my favourite poems. Wonderfully evocative, I think it really conveys the mixture of thrill and fear we feel when we realise how vulnerable we can be in the face of nature at its wildest.

This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

Poetry Readings – #2: Charles Hamilton Sorley – When You See Millions Of The Mouthless Dead

The second in an occasional series of poetry readings,this is a stunningly effective poem from the First World War by the Scottish poet Charles Hamilton Sorley. Sorley was killed during the Battle of Loos at the age of 20.

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

How to meet your hero (and keep your childhood intact…)

bros

Bros are back, Back BACK!! and the world unites in celebration. A whole generation of 80s children (well, maybe a small sliver of a tiny British slice of one) will have been propelled back into their teenage selves at the news, and that tidal wave of nostalgic feelings will lift them up and carry them, purses open, all the way to the Ticketmaster website.

Most of us idolise performers as we grow up. We can all remember covering the walls of our childhood bedrooms with posters of our favourite singers and actors, and we’ve all fantasised about meeting them, and becoming their friends. I used to dream about meeting the Beatles (all four of them; how on earth this could have happened in 1987, I don’t know) and being asked if I’d like to join the group. Who knows what they could have achieved if I’d been there too… Of course, sometimes this strays into rather less healthy stalker territory, but for most of us, it stays within the normal bounds and is just another part of childhood. And as much as we cling to the hope that our longed-for meeting will happen and we will be whisked off to a glamorous and exciting new life, deep down we know how unlikely this is. The years roll on, and those crushes and fantasies fade away, the posters are taken down and put away with the gonks and Smurfs. Outside attending an enormo-gig at the O2 or Wembley, most of us will never share the same air as our heroes.

There will be the odd exception to this rule, of course – there’s always an outside chance you will stumble across one in the real world. I remember being in the menswear department of House of Fraser and seeing none other than Jimmy Page – Jimmy Actual Page – presumably shopping for something a bit more day-to-day than his dragon-embroidered trousers or rune-covered jerkins of yore.

jimmy-page

In that situation, there is a quick decision to be made. Do I allow the all-conquering rock God to track down that pair of comfy elasticated Gant slacks in peace, or do I barrel over there and invade his personal space, biro and crumpled Sainsbury’s receipt thrust forward ready to be signed? In this case, I left Mr Zeppelin alone, and it was probably for the best. These things can go one of two ways, after all… There can be nothing worse than launching yourself at the hero of your youth and being told to bugger off. In that brief moment, your happy childhood dreams are blown to smithereens.

However, for some of us, things are a bit different. If you somehow scrabble your way into the same profession as your childhood heroes, your chances of meeting them, and, indeed, working with them, increase massively (or dramatically, if you’ll forgive the pun). This is where things can get dangerous, as they suddenly stop being superhuman. You can even find yourself sharing a dressing room with them, and as we all know, there’s nothing more effective than that for finding out what someone’s really like. As you progress through an acting career, more and more of what you hear – or discover for yourself – shows you that all those towering  idols of your youth are just as depressingly human and normal as you are. Feet of clay, every one.

There is also the sobering thought that, even if you did want to work with those people, the chances to do so are diminishing with every passing year. I’ll never work with Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing now, will I?

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee

But recently, the chance to meet and work with my ultimate childhood hero fell squarely in my lap…

Allow me to take you back in time. If you had happened to stumble across me in 1977, you would have met a small boy obsessed with ‘Dr Who’. Saturday evenings at 6.15pm would invariably find me transfixed on (or frequently, behind) the sofa, as that iconic title sequence unfolded on BBC1:

The succeeding 30 minutes were probably the most important of the week for me. I had been watching the programme for a couple of years by this point, and now, at the age of five, my devotion to the show was absolute. I loved it all: the monsters, the sets and props, the music – but at the centre of it all was the Doctor himself, as played by Tom Baker:

tom-1977

The idea of travelling through time and space with this extraordinary alien – someone funny and eccentric and brave, who could face down the most terrifying monsters with nothing more dangerous than a jelly baby, seemed the perfect life to me. Like all superfans, I had the posters on my wall, the novelisations and annuals, the long scarf (albeit brown rather than multi-coloured and stripey), and the TARDIS pencil case. I even went to our Silver Jubilee street party dressed as a Dalek:

Self as Dalek c 1977

My best-ever Christmas present came in 1979 – a signed photograph from Mr Baker himself. ‘Happy Christmas, Christopher’.
What I wanted most of all, of course, was to meet the great man. I suppose I must have thought that it was a possibility; ideally, he would enlist me to help him defeat some horrible alien creature – a Rutan, perhaps:

rutan

or a Krynoid:

krynoid-1

– but I would have been happy enough if he had simply landed his TARDIS in my back garden, offered me a jelly baby and dematerialised again. However, it was also the beginning of an awareness that, as well as day—dreaming of being a real Time Lord’s assistant, I could conceivably appear in the television programme ‘Dr Who’ as an actor. Around the same time, I saw ‘Star Wars’ and started to think about what it might be like on a film set, and to pretend to be someone else. So it was a pretty significant time as far as determining my future career was concerned. Later on, James Bond joined in, and Sherlock Holmes, and then Shakespeare popped up – and on and on…

But Dr Who was where it all started – and, for me, that always meant Tom Baker. This wonderful actor personified the character in a way that, in my opinion, no other incarnation before or since has managed to do.

Of course, Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor came to an end in 1981, and so did my fixation with the show. I moved on to new obsessions (the afore-mentioned martini-swilling super-spy being foremost amongst them). The Doctor always hovered somewhere in the background – he was even the subject of a recent painting of mine:

IMG_2739

(prints available here, print fans)… But once Tom left the show, it was never the same.

I did once actually meet the great man, on Chiswick High Road, and he patiently listened while I attempted to put into words what he had meant to me. It was just a brief encounter, but I was still thrilled by it, and I suppose I would have been happy if that had been that.

But, for once, the acting gods decided to smile upon on me, and one day not too long ago, to my amazement and joy, my agent called with an offer to appear in a new ‘Dr Who’ adventure – with none other than Tom Baker himself as the eponymous hero. I have had many calls from my agent – some of them happy, many of them not so happy – but this will probably always remain the happiest.

The offer had come from that estimable company, Big Finish, who specialise in producing wonderful new audio adventures featuring many of the best-loved genre characters and series of the past – ‘Blake’s 7’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Prisoner’ amongst many others. But they are best known for their original ‘Dr Who’ stories, featuring many of the surviving Doctors.

big-finish

For years, including the period when the Time Lord was off our TV screens, Big Finish has kept the ‘Dr Who’ torch alive, creating wonderful new adventures in Time and Space. Initially, Tom Baker resisted a return to the role that made him famous, but since 2012 he has enthusiastically donned the scarf once more.

When the first day of recording came, I was very nervous, more than normal. I think my nerves came partly from a fear that I would embarrass myself in front of the great man: give a bad performance, make a fool of myself by unleashing my inner fanboy – or worse, clam up and not be able to talk. Most of all, though, I think I was afraid that Tom Baker would let me down. What if he was a bully, a dreadful bigot or a monstrous egomaniac? My childhood memories would be stomped to pieces by the very man who made them: Dr Who himself.

Thankfully, none of the above came to pass. Tom was an utter delight. He was immediately welcoming to all the cast, an hilarious anecdote-teller in the green room (and generous in listening to others’ stories too), and best of all, when he was behind the microphone, he was still The Doctor. It was a strange and wonderful experience for me to hear that voice coming through my headphones – and for me to answer it. To call him ‘Doctor’ and have him respond! My five-year-old self could never have believed that one day, he would not only meet Dr Who, but actually act alongside him too…

dr-who-thedius-nook-day-2-afternoon-10

Tom Baker and Your Author, 2016

I met my hero – and he is still my hero. What a relief.

jelly-baby

Jelly baby, anyone?

Poetry readings – #1: Sonnet 60 byWilliam Shakespeare

Time for the first in a new series of poetry readings, beginning with Shakespeare’s sonnet 60, which I first performed for the estimable Guildford Shakespeare Company, as part of their Sonnet Walk earlier this year in celebration of the Bard’s work, 400 years after his death:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time, that gave, doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Portrait: #4 – Tom Baker

IMG_2739

Tom Baker was, in the guise of Doctor Who, the true hero of my childhood. From 1974 to 1981 he was, in my opinion, the ultimate embodiment of the BBC’s Time Lord – utterly eccentric, mercurial and unpredictable, but still filled with compassion, warmth and humour. An alien and a human at the same time.

He has gone on to enjoy a chequered career – he played Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ for the BBC, he provided the voice of BT’s spoken text message service, and gloriously, he played the insane, piratical sea captain Redbeard Rum in ‘Blackadder II’:

But to me, and millions of others, he will always be The Doctor.

Jelly baby, anyone?

Who am I today?

Sometimes, as an actor, it would be very easy to develop an identity crisis. Over the past few weeks I have been an ER doctor, a police internal affairs officer, a sleazy Tory MP, a museum visitor, a disgruntled airline passenger, a fisherman, a Vietnam veteran and a snooty restaurant critic. My life has been not unlike an entire season of ‘Quantum Leap’:

I am talking about auditions, of course. An actor’s existence can be bewildering, to say the least, because our impulse is to fully invest in every role, even if we only inhabit it for ten minutes in a Soho casting suite. Every good actor will have done her research before the meeting – who is the director? What’s the accent, the physicality, the context of the play? Who is the casting director and – crucially – have I met them before? (This gets harder to remember as the years go by, especially as they are often the ones you pay least attention to in a meeting, your attention being focused on the director and whichever actor is reading in.)

Inevitably, as you prepare, you will start thinking yourself into a part. Even if, on a first reading, the character might seem a million miles away from your normal casting, you can’t help climbing into it to see how it fits. After a second pass over the script, you start to find a voice emerging, and an attitude, and by the third or fourth reading you have convinced yourself that you were born to play the role. It is only a short hop from here to the dangerous waters of planning how you’re going to spend the fee, and what you’re going to wear at the premiere of the Spielberg film you will be cast in as a direct result of this two-line part on ‘Casualty’.

Acting is mostly about dreaming, after all. We were the ones who sat in class gazing out of the window, imagining ourselves piloting X-Wing Fighters or invisible planes…

Luke Skywalkerwonder woman

…and now we we have to keep dreaming. Any performance is kept aloft by imagination – it’s like a magic trick, really, a feat of self-hypnosis. We have to believe we are the character, or the whole enterprise will fall out of the sky.

So it is only right and proper for an actor to walk into the audition room thinking he is the part – we need to be buoyed up by that fluffy cloud of imagination just to get through the door.

The hard bit comes when we don’t get the part, of course, and we have to let it go. All those half-formed characters drift away, often never to be seen again, and we have to move on and forget we ever knew them. Mostly we don’t give them so much as a backward glance, but for all of us there will be some parts it is harder to say goodbye to. I coulda been a great sleazy Tory…