Category Archives: Musings

Where Are We Now? (or ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Career?’) – part two

Continuing my article surveying my fellow graduates from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Class of 1998…

Fritha Goodey (with Duncan Bell) in Remembrance of Things Past at the National Theatre

Fritha Goodey in ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ at the National Theatre

What were our expectations of training and the life beyond LAMDA? And how reasonable were they? Were we really prepared for the realities of the profession?

I think we all knew it was a tough world, and we had all heard those oft-repeated statistics about how many actors are out of work at any given time. But I wonder if most of us thought, ‘Well yes, but that won’t be me – I’ll be fine’. I know I did. After all, I’d been chosen from thousands to attend one of the world’s finest drama schools, that had to count for something, didn’t it? And what’s more, I loved acting – we all did. But, to quote the big man himself, ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’… What happens if your love isn’t requited?

 

 

More than half of my respondents no longer regularly act, although things aren’t always quite so clear cut when I ask if they still call themselves actors:

– I call myself self-employed – that’s it.

– Hmmm… Sometimes!
– I never say never. I’m not acting and don’t plan to, but I might start again in my sixties!
– I don’t know. It is still something that I want to do, have a passion to do, hope to do, crave to do, but don’t do. Are you entitled to keep the title after so many years?

 

 

Of those still in the profession, only one said they had funded themselves solely from acting in the 19 years since we graduated. Other answers ranged from ‘ZERO’ to ‘about 7 years’. I liked this response:

– It took me 16 years to make a living.

All but one of those still in the profession said they have, or have had second-string jobs alongside acting, ranging from copywriter to fitness instructor – although as one respondent says, ‘These are jobs though, not crafts or careers.’ Another friend points out, the ratio between acting work and other jobs ‘differs month to month, year to year’, and the same is undoubtedly true for all of us:


– Currently 5% acting and 95% the other work.

– About 50/50.
– I’m now lucky enough to be acting 100% of the time.

 

 

Of those who no longer act, most stopped within ten years of graduating from LAMDA, and their reasons were mostly to do with changes in lifestyle:

– The requirement of securing a regular income to support a young family.
– I wanted stability for my kids.
– I had got married… My lifestyle and outlook had changed.

Although ‘the pram in the hall’ wasn’t the only culprit:

– It just wasn’t going anywhere.
– I fell in love with directing.

One response will strike a chord with many actors, I’m sure:

– I just became jaded by the business… I was in a play and I remember a fellow actor in his late 60s without any money/house/family, and he was saying, ‘This time next year I’ll be in films…’. I didn’t want to be like that.

When asked if they regret stopping, most said they didn’t, although some still feel a pang…

– Yes, enormously. It felt, and still feels to a certain extent, like something of a bereavement.

 

 

And again, when asked if they hoped to return to the profession, most said no but some were more ambiguous:

– Always.
– I never say never.

– Yes, I have so many stories and ideas whirling around.

When we were students, going to the theatre was an essential part of our lives – to professional productions, as well as endless in-house shows at LAMDA. I shall never forget one performance of ‘Macbeth’ by some of the One-Year students, in which the witches’ brew made a particularly gruesome crunching sound as the weird sisters stirred it up. Unfortunately, we discovered that the cause of this grisly effect was nothing more than a handful of Wotsits, revealed when some rather over-enthusiastic grinding caused one to fly out of the cauldron and land on the floor. My friend Jack Tarlton and I spent the rest of the show waiting with bated breath to see who would tread on the offending cheesy snack first… In the end, as I recall, it was the Scottish King himself. Cursed from the very start.

wotsits

We probably saw more plays in those three years than most people will see in their whole lives, but I wanted to know how frequently my fellow 1998-ers visit the theatre today:

– By choice I’d never go, but I’d go to the cinema every day if I could!
– Straight theatre rarely.
– Once a month.
– Between 6 & 10 times a year if I’m lucky.
– Hardly ever! Not because I’ve lost interest, but I have 4 young children.
– When I can afford to, or if mates can get me in cheaply.
– NOT ENOUGH!!!! A few times a year…3 or 4.
– At the moment, only once or twice a month. But usually I try to go more than that. It’s really important.
– 2/3 times per month.
– 4 or 5 times in the last 16 years.
– 3, 4 times a month on average.
– I never used to go as it was too painful – watching others doing the thing I wanted to do – but now I go as often as I can.

 

 

In many ways, it feels like a lifetime since we left LAMDA, but all those who still act said that they consciously use elements of their training when they work:

– I use my training all the time.
– DEFINITELY.
– It feels more integrated than that now, but yes, my training has influenced who I am as an actor.

Those among my respondents who no longer act felt that the training was useful in other areas too:

– It gave me the confidence as I grew older to stop judging myself.
– Awareness on so many levels.
– Drama school improved me. Made me a better version of myself.
– It taught me about me.

 

 

So maybe a drama qualification is just another applicable skill after all. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect it to lead to an actual acting career. Come to think of it, I do remember one of my year being told that their training could still be useful, ‘even for amateur acting’… Those skills that make a good actor – confidence, sensitivity, an understanding of human nature – are eminently transferable and highly valued by employers. And after the indifference of the acting world to most of its fellows, and so much relentless rejection, it is good to feel appreciated at last.

When I think of those 28 people I trained with, I know that they are the most capable, intelligent and talented people I have ever met, any one of whom had the skills to have a thriving acting career. But they also were capable enough to have a good career in any other walk of life, as many of them have since proved.

 

 

It is hard sometimes to think of any other profession that trains its students to such a level, that boasts so proudly of the talent within its ranks – indeed, claims to be the best in the world – and yet offers so little support to those talented people as they try to develop and maintain their careers. I have written about this before, but I really feel that, if the showbusiness world values its actors so much, it should do more to stop so many of them from giving up. Or, as one of my respondents observed in Part One, it should consider training fewer students in the first place.

Perhaps this is all just so much luvvie whinging. Nobody said it was easy, snowflakes! Life is hard, get used to it, etc. True, you really should enter a career as insane as acting with your eyes open. But that’s harder than it seems, certainly at the beginning. Everything about the profession is seductive. Oh, the lights, the glamour, the applause… A good drama school like LAMDA inevitably offers an idealised view of the profession. For three years, you are constantly ‘in work’, playing good parts that challenge and stretch you. How many actual careers can ever match up to that?

 

 

In such an unequal, unfair walk of life, it is hard to stay positive and resist cynicism. I wanted to know how my friends – whether still acting or not – viewed other actors, and the profession as a whole:

– I am quite weary with the industry but still not at the point of turning my back on it – though I am close.
– I’m amazed at actors’ bravery… Full of admiration.
– I have the utmost respect for actors.
– I’m most moved and impressed by those who consistently produce work of great sensitivity and integrity, though they are often not truly recognised for it.
– I don’t really follow what happens any more.
– I will always treat other actors with total compassion. I see them as so delicate.
– The profession is brutal and requires an enormous amount of work and dedication. I respect actors who put in the work and I recognise the shysters a lot quicker.
– I realise how much you have to do to generate work, and how important it is to network. I couldn’t bear that before – I used to hide in the loo after shows at LAMDA when the agents came. As for other actors – I think I’m less judgemental now.
– I am less scared, I feel less competitive.
– It’s painful but today I’m far better at championing others – if one of us gets there (wherever there is) then that’s something to celebrate, isn’t it?
– It’s the ones from our year and countless others… who still yearn to tread the boards, those guys are the ones I admire.
– I also have huge respect for anyone that has had the guts and perseverance to stick at it.

– I was living the dream…but reality will hit you hard in the face once you leave those walls of safety! Good luck to them if they go into it not expecting anything. Because more than likely the skills you learn won’t be for the industry you want to be in!

 

 

Trying to maintain any creative career is a journey of constant rediscovery, of questioning yourself and asking if you still want it. Even though there are certainly days when I’ve had my fill, and often given serious thought to what else I could be doing with my life, it doesn’t take much to reaffirm my love for the job.

But, at nearly twenty years distance from our graduation, all the illusions we once held about the acting world have fallen away:

– I put a strange pressure on myself when I trained. I kept trying to be what I thought they wanted. It’s taken me time to reconnect with my own instincts.
– Fame is bullshit. Nobody should do this if they want to be famous – go on Big Brother, because it’s just a lot easier.

As far as sticking with the job is concerned, does it really just come down to that one rather patronising cliché, ‘You have to want it enough’? Should it not be, ‘Is there anything you want more’? To stay in the profession for 20 years means making sacrifices in many areas of life – family life, holidays, money – all of these things can suffer or just pass you by entirely.

Finally, to address the question in my title, ‘Where Are We Now?’ – the answer is that we are all over the world. My fellow 1998-ers who are still treading the boards could be found this year on stage at the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Lyric Hammersmith and overseas in Boston Bridge Repertory Company and on Broadway. Others have headed for the screen, and featured in recent major TV hits such as ‘The Night Manager’, ‘Hannibal’ and ‘London Spy’, and films like ‘Selma’ and ‘The Imitation Game’. Those who have stopped acting have carved out a wide variety of careers: some have stayed in the arts as writers, directors and film-makers, while others run successful businesses as varied as production companies, ice cream parlours and fashion houses. I’m deeply proud of all of them.

 

 

I’ll bring this to a close with two of my respondents who have very contrasting attitudes to life as an actor. The first left the profession, the second is still acting:

– I failed at being an actor because it wasn’t the last thing I thought about at night or the first thing I thought about when I woke up. I wasn’t in love with acting. I wasn’t in love with being an actor.
– I still think working with a great bunch of like-minded actors on something that everyone is excited by is one of the best things ever to do in life.

Many thanks to all my respondents for their contributions.

Where Are We Now? (or ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Career?’) – part one

 

tower house

LAMDA at Tower House

I first moved to London in 1995, when I won a place on the Three-Year Acting course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). During those next three years, I got to know West London pretty well. Earls Court, High Street Kensington, Hammersmith – my fellow students and I owned those mean streets. We strode down Chiswick High Road in our baggy dance trousers and character shoes, talking too loudly about David Mamet and Alexander Technique, confident in the belief that in just a couple of years, we would be far too famous to get around without security and a smoked-glass Range Rover.

But there was one place we got to know better than anywhere else. From our first audition to the very last performance, all the most significant events of our time at LAMDA took place at the MacOwan Theatre. If I walked through those doors today – the scene of so many pivotal moments in our young lives – I could still confidently give you a comprehensive tour of the place.

Macowan theatre

LAMDA’s MacOwan Theatre

Except, of course, I couldn’t. The MacOwan Theatre no longer exists. LAMDA moved from Earls Court to its current location in Baron’s Court in 2003, and finally sold the MacOwan in 2011. The bulldozers moved in, and now its place has been taken by the usual block of West London luxury flats (Logan House). Which no actor could ever hope to afford.

When I read about this a few months ago, it set off a little chain reaction of nostalgic explosions in my mind, so it seemed like a good time to track down my fellow Old LAMDArians, and try to find out what we all feel about our time there – and the years since.

Hair LAMDA 1998

LAMDA class of 1998 in ‘Hair’

As is inevitable with any year group, we have scattered far and wide in the years since we graduated – Wales, Mallorca, New York and – yes – LA. A few still cling on in London, while many have succumbed to the verdant charms of The Regions. There were 29 of us when we left LAMDA in 1998 – now, a quick survey of Spotlight shows that 15 have kept up our subscriptions. Not too bad a showing, I suppose, but I wanted to dig a little deeper to understand the forces that have either kept us in the profession, or driven us out. So, I sent off a list of questions.

Not everyone responded, but in the end I heard back from more than half – 15 in total, and they were all very honest and frank – on the promise of anonymity.

I started at the very beginning, and asked why they had wanted to act in the first place…

LAMDA word cloud

When we started at LAMDA, we ranged in age from 18 to 26 – some fresh from school, some straight from University. I was 23.

IMG_3455

Your author at LAMDA in ‘Hair’

I look back on our LAMDA years with great fondness. I felt I was at the centre of everything I wanted to be part of, and I spent those three years feeling stimulated and challenged. Inevitably, when I asked my friends what their own feelings are about that time, it elicited a range of responses, some very positive:

– It was the first time that I really learned ‘how to learn’.
– I met some wonderful people who have stayed in my life for a long time.
– I was as happy as a pig in shit. Sooooo happy to be there. One of the most profound and rich experiences of my life.

LAMDA 1998 3

Some of the LAMDA class of 1998

Some less so:

– I found it quite tough… I found their methods for the most part to be very undermining.
– I don’t think I was rated particularly highly by the staff, and as such often felt somewhat overlooked and neglected at times.
It certainly seemed to be the case that the squeaky wheels got the most attention.

Some felt they hadn’t taken full advantage of their time at LAMDA:

– I didn’t make the most of it. I was very young – first time away from home.
– I could have gotten so much more out of it if I hadn’t let my self-doubt and lack of confidence get in the way.
– I do regret not making more of the opportunity.

I asked what they valued most about the training they received:

– The opportunity to work continuously on productions for a year is something outside of the RSC or NT you rarely have the opportunity to do.
– LAMDA allowed me to love what I do. In a messy, imperfect but deeply passionate way they put me on the track to my profession.

– It was a celebration of one’s idiosyncrasies.
– The cleverness of people. The humour. The importance and value of work. As Colin Cook said (this is my working mantra to this day) ‘Work is your armour’. And above all I think – my friends. It doesn’t matter where we are or where we go – I would do anything for any of those people that I shared those three years with.

LAMDA 1998 2

More of the class of 1998…

This is a view I share. It seemed to me that LAMDA encouraged us to be ourselves – we had all heard about the schools that ‘break you down to build you up again’, and LAMDA didn’t feel like that at all to me. But others disagree:–

– I don’t feel I was ever encouraged to keep the quirks that I entered with.
– I do not honestly know whether the whole “take you apart to put you back together” approach is now being over-exaggerated in my memory, but I did find it quite tough at times, and not particularly productive.

I asked what they felt the training lacked:

– Screen acting for a start.
– Vocal technique

– Weirdly, lack of acting classes.
– I can think of two teachers that had their favourites. It was frustrating to watch them fawn!
– I don’t think it lacked anything, actually. Like, how much more could we have actually done in three years?

LAMDA 1998 1

The rest of the class of 1998.

It seems that much has changed since we left the Academy. Our screen acting training felt cursory at best, although I did learn that it was best not to volunteer to smoke in a scene, unless you wanted to work your way through a whole pack. These days, to quote from the current LAMDA prospectus:

‘All students who graduate from LAMDA’s BA (Hons) Professional Acting leave with a professionally-shot show reel and a voice reel.’

It’s very important to bear in mind that this was all nearly 20 years ago. LAMDA is a different school now, with a different Principal, mostly different teaching staff and in a completely different location. It still calls itself LAMDA, but much like Trigger’s broom, all the significant parts have changed…

 

Even the qualification you graduate with is different: the three-year acting course is now a BA (Hons) degree course, whereas we left with a diploma. In a perverse way, I’m rather glad it was that way round, as it gave our training a kind of rarity, a refinement if you like, whereas a degree just seems rather everyday. And I already had one anyway, for all the good it ever did me. But I am aware that the ‘employment landscape’, as we must call it, has altered a lot since those bygone days, and a BA degree must help when the graduates are propelled blinking into the light of the Real World. Because there is a big difference between the idealised world of a drama training and the harsh realities of an actor’s life.

I asked if they felt prepared for an acting career by the time we graduated – and perhaps unsurprisingly, most did not:

-No I didn’t feel prepared
-NO NO NO NO NO. It does not teach you how to survive as an unemployed actor, how to see yourself as a product
– I question now if I would have done better not to have pursued what I was already doing.
-Definitely not! We spent 3 years in a bubble.
-Noooooooooo!
-yes and no..because it destroyed my confidence… but i learnt a lot of tools that then helped me to be able to direct
– business wise no. As an artist, yes. I wasn’t – but that was to do with me.

LAMDA 1998 4

Pages from an ancient artefact: our LAMDA Prospectus

There is a distinction here, to be sure. Those of us who were lucky enough to land work straight away were able to apply all the skills that were fresh in our minds. I went straight into a nice TV job, and despite my sketchy experience in front of a camera, I felt very comfortable and understood what was required of me. But I was pretty clueless about how to generate work.

– I was prepared for the jobs I got eventually – yes. There is only so much they can do at drama school – after that it comes down to practical experience.
-for an acting career, yes. For the non-acting part, no.
-Well, no. But I think that’s more to do with where I was, personally, Not because of anything that they hadn’t done.
-Yes, apart from the business side
-In many ways, yes.
-On the whole, yes.

We were part of a different generation to today’s drama school graduates, with no significant social media element to our lives; the internet played a much smaller role, and we didn’t even all have mobile phones yet. Some of us had pagers, for heaven’s sake. Off we went into the world, clutching our A-Z’s.

London-A-Z

Significantly, almost all of my respondents did not feel supported by LAMDA after graduation:

– No.
– Not at all.
– No. Once you leave you are on your own. They are happy to bask in the glory of actors who do well and have a glittering career, but for all the thousands of unemployed actors that they helped produce there is nothing.
– Honestly no. I think they were interested in the people who got famous quickly and could be used to raise funds. Sorry that’s cynical but that’s how it felt.
-Not really, no.
-No. There was kindness and love, but not enough rigour.

Although others felt differently:

– Yes I do. I worked in the reception there for a while and I helped around for a bit of extra cash – they were very good to me like that.
– I haven’t had any support, but I haven’t been in contact, so it’s just as much my fault. In my first year after leaving they supported me by giving me temp secretary work.
– Not really … but then, I never asked for support. I’m sure they would have been there had I asked.
– I did not feel that it was the school’s role to support me once I had graduated.

IMG_3454

Another groovy scene from ‘Hair’.

Inevitably, this raises the question of just how much responsibility institutions like LAMDA have to their students once they have completed training. No drama school can predict which student is going to ‘make it’ – as William Goldman’s useful maxim goes, ‘Nobody knows anything’ – but they could confidently surmise that a good half of any yearly intake will never make a living in the profession.

At no point do I remember any staff member sitting us down and saying, ‘Most of you will never work’. Of course, it would have been a bummer of positively cosmic proportions if they had. But maybe it would have been a necessary reality check.

Actors have often proposed a cull of their own number – I imagine Benedict Cumberbatch and Olivia Coleman on the rooftops of Wardour Street, armed with high-velocity rifles, picking off the weakest:

cumberbatch gunolivia coleman

But should Ben and Liv train their sights on the institutions, rather than their fellow thesps? One of my respondents thought so:

‘I feel they have a responsibility not to churn out so many actors in a market that cannot cater for them.’

Mind you, success as an actor is so random that perhaps the only sensible attitude is a scattershot one – throw out as many young hopefuls as you can, in the hope that at least a few will stick.

This being the case, drama schools surely have a duty of care to the students they send out into an unforgiving profession.

It does seem that colleges are doing much more these days to incorporate an element of career counselling – RADA has what it calls its ‘Buddy’ scheme, where graduates are paired up with alumni who are established in the profession to offer guidance and support, and I spoke recently to Rodney Cottier, Head of Drama School at LAMDA, who told me about their own new Mentor scheme, which will be launched at the end of June 2017, and which, like RADA’s initiative, will offer support for its students, ‘for the last 6 months of their training, and the first 6 months when they’re out there. It is the beginning and we have received funding for it from the Genesis Foundation, so hopefully this will really work.’

rodney cottier

Rodney Cottier

The Academy also has an industry liaison in the form of casting director, Laura Dickens, who is responsible for the final year professional preparation, as well as its own ‘Buddy’ system, although unlike RADA’s, this one is for new students rather than graduates. Rodney explained:

‘When people are offered a place, they are buddied up with somebody who is already at LAMDA so they can pick their brains – ask them any questions before they arrive, rather than feeling completely terrified on day one. So we’re servicing both ends…’

I think we would have benefited from this sort of scheme; ideally, it would stretch beyond the first six months and further into a career. It’s so easy to feel alone and powerless in this job.

Of course, as Rodney points out, ultimately most of the responsibility to develop a career lies with the individual:

‘There are a lot of things you cannot prepare people for – I occasionally have to throw in the statistics when somebody is late for yet another voice class.’

LAMDA 1998 Emma Bernbach Richard Morrison Joanna Van Kampen Sandra Paternostro Ayesha Mirza Gregory De Polnay

A LAMDA voice class with Gregory De Polnay

But no matter how well-prepared you may be, Real Life has a way of complicating things, as we will see in Part Two

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?

Close Encounters with the Third Age

pigeon fancier

Who has a job for life these days? That fondly-remembered (probably mythical) era when you’d start work in the factory at 17 – the same place your father worked, and his father before him – safe in the knowledge that you’d be clocking on until you were 65 and it was time to retire and give your days over to your racing pigeons or the rhubarb in your allotment… Those days have now gone. Nobody can really expect to stay in a job for very long. But at the same time, the ‘default retirement age’ as it is known, which had been set at 65 for decades, has been phased out, and UK workers are under pressure to work for longer.

They’re all getting a bit more like the humble actor. We theatricals must be more familiar than most with this sort of work landscape. Let’s face it, much of the time in our profession, as soon as we get a job we’re preparing for it to be over, eyes always on the horizon. Along with a flexible attitude to work comes a very loose approach to retirement. If you stay the course and battle through those difficult early years, chances are you’re in it for the long haul. Most of us are not waiting for the day we can throw in the towel – it’s far more likely that we are travelling hopefully, always waiting for the Big One and fully expecting to keep going until we finally peg out live on stage. Tommy Cooper, Sid James, Eric Morecambe; the profession is full of romanticised tales of seasoned pros breathing their last in front of a paying audience.

But as we know, the profession itself often has other ideas. Despite our ageing population, the acting world doesn’t seem all that interested in old people. In an industry that is passionately infatuated with Youth, is there a place for an actor over 50, 60 or 70?

sam and auriol

I spoke recently to directors Sam Walters and Auriol Smith, who founded the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, and ran it for 43 years. Sam retired as Artistic Director of the theatre in 2014, and although both he and Auriol are still active in the profession, he was sounding rather ground down. ‘My desire to be involved in the theatre at all has diminished enormously recently,’ he said. Describing himself as ‘considerably less enthusiastic’ about the profession, he decried the theatre world’s obsession with youth: ’The New is concerned with the Young. And the tendency is always to denigrate the past.’

Auriol Smith has always acted as well as directing, and says she is ‘just as enthusiastic, but more cynical about the way theatre is heading.’ The contribution Auriol and Sam have made to the profession over the past four decades can’t really be overstated, and yet they clearly feel side-lined.

There is much talk these days of the ‘Third Age’, which is defined as the period of ‘active retirement’, post middle-age. I imagine most actors in their late 60s and 70s would take issue with the suggestion that they are in any sort of retirement at all, rather that they are trying to engage with work in the same way as ever – we all know the stories of John Gielgud changing agents at 96 in his determination to keep working. But if the work isn’t there, how can actors stay engaged?

A number of recently-established companies are trying to grapple with this issue. The Visible Theatre Ensemble, under artistic directors Sonja Linden and Sue Lefton, is one such endeavour. Their intention is to create ‘exciting contemporary theatre that both represents and transcends issues of older age. Our vision is a future where the contribution of older actors is honoured by British theatre.’

WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE

Visible recently worked with playwright Sonja Linden and a cast of older actors to devise their very successful production, ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’, which was presented at Southwark Playhouse in 2014, and they are currently running a season of workshops under the heading ‘Gravitas’, for professional actors over the age of 60, led by seasoned practitioners such as Mike Alfreds and Max Stafford-Clark.

Visible contend that ‘there is a lot of negativity about being older in our society, and this is heightened for actors, continuously in the public gaze. What is missing is the recognition of what is their most powerful resource – life experience.’

james roose evans

Another company set up specifically to create work for older actors is Frontier Theatre Productions, led by veteran director James Roose-Evans. James’s extraordinary career spans 60 years; among many other achievements, he was founder of Hampstead Theatre, and adapted and directed the original production of ‘84 Charing Cross Road’ in the West End and on Broadway.

James told me that, while running a workshop in London with actors over 70, he’d had been struck by how open to exploration they were. ‘This set me thinking about what a huge bank of talented actors in their sixties upwards we have in this country, which is largely untapped.’

jake murray

James’s experience led to the establishment of Frontier with director Jake Murray, who was Associate Artistic Director at Manchester Royal Exchange from 2001 to 2007. ‘The Third Age is as rich and profound as any other phase in our lives,’ says Jake. ‘In the past, old age was seen as a great achievement, a time of wisdom and new insights. Now we have drawn a veil over it. As a consequence a vast amount of people have been made invisible. We must give them a voice.’

mercy

James and Jake hope to achieve this both by reviving plays, but also finding new writing. Their latest production is ‘Mercy’ by Clare Whitehead, part of the So And So Arts Club’s EverHopefull Repertory season. ‘Since Frontier was launched, we have been getting scripts from New Zealand, Australia, America, Canada, as well as from the UK,’ says James. ‘Clearly we have touched a nerve.’

James is also keen to involve younger actors in Frontier’s work, to give them the chance to learn alongside older actors. ‘Clearly older actors, if they have talent, have a greater experience of the craft of acting, which they can impart to younger actors.’

There are plenty of young actors out there, of course, but one of the industry’s main preoccupations has always been the need to attract young audiences. This in turn has fed a negative attitude towards older theatre-goers – the cliché of the ‘blue-rinse brigade’. During their time at the Orange Tree, Sam Walters and Auriol Smith built up a fiercely loyal – and very theatre-literate – audience. ‘Theatre-going is a habit,’ Ariol points out. Sam agrees: ‘It is something they have known and grown up with. For the older members of the Orange Tree audience, their theatre-going was an important and meaningful part of their lives. That is why I always reacted strongly to any disparagement of them.’

I asked James Roose-Evans if he thought theatre was generally more appealing to older audiences. ‘I don’t agree with this. When I directed Christopher Fry‘s ‘Venus Observed’ at Chichester, Patrick Garland included it in the season but not expecting it to do well at the box office. The production was sold out, and what amazed Patrick and myself was how many young people responded, discovering Fry for the first time‘.
Jake Murray believes it is a complex issue. ‘It’s partly generational, as theatre was part of the older generation’s landscape, educational standards were higher back in the day and theatre didn’t have to compete with Netflix, Playstation, Facebook, etc. But there is still a strong, dedicated young theatre-going audience out there who are excited by what they see on the stage.’

Maggie Gyllenhaal

Discrimination against older performers is also being raised more and more – actress Maggie Gyllenhall recently spoke out against ageism in Hollywood, and revealed she had been told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year old male actor. She is 37. It is certainly still true that women have a far tougher time of it as they get older. As James Roose-Evans observes, ‘After sixty, women tend to become invisible.’ His work with Frontier hopes to improve this state of things by producing new work specifically designed for older actresses. ‘One example which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been tested in the theatre,’ says James, ‘is the rich relationship between grandmothers and granddaughters who are in their late teens, early twenties.’

For his part, Jake Murray is optimistic. ‘There are more writers writing great parts for older women,’ he says, ‘and not just female writers, but men too. I tell writers to write for women, especially older ones, as there will always be more talented women in the profession than men.’

In cinema, as Murray points out, the ‘grey pound’ is being served targeted more than ever:
‘There is an increasing presence for big movies that deal with the older experience. The ‘Marigold Hotel’ films are a case in point, and movies like ‘Quartet’ and ‘Amour’. I think when people love a screen actor they enjoy seeing them still doing it in their old age, especially if they can be playful with their image.’

Diana-Rigg game of thrones

Television, most of all, seems willing to embrace its older audience. Shows like ‘Last Tango in Halifax’ and even ‘Game Of Thrones’ clearly recognise the value of casting older actors –performers like Diana Rigg and Julian Glover bring decades of experience, but also carry with them the weight of earlier roles.

The entertainment industry deals in dreams, ideals and fantasy, which often means avoiding the harsher realities of life. But we have an ageing population – a community which can’t be ignored and which has an abundance of life experience, time to consume entertainment and in many cases, more money than the young. And perhaps the tide is turning after all. Companies like Visible and Frontier are showing that the older actor still has an important place in the theatre, and one of the hottest tickets in recent years has been Theatre Royal Bath and Tricycle Theatre’s production ‘The Father’, starring Kenneth Cranham, which explores the devastating effects of dementia on an 80-year old man – although, there is a danger that the theatre treats older characters only in terms of declining faculties: as James Roose-Evans warns, ‘It is not all about Alzheimer’s.’

It’s time we embrace fully just how important stories about older people can be to our culture – and this means we need to support older storytellers, both actors and writers. Theatre should be a window onto the whole of life, not just the first part.

Frontier Theatre’s production of Clare Whitehead’s ‘Mercy’, directed by Jake Murray, is part of the EverHopeFull repertory season and runs from September 1st to the 26th at 6 Frederick’s Place, London EC2R 8AB. Tickets are priced at £10.

Fringe benefits

royal-mile

Just back from a thrilling week at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Lots of good stuff, some not-so good… Such an exciting place to be; it’s so wonderful to see young actors – often students – striking out and gathering experience of performing, and also of the buzz and whirl of Edinburgh at Festival time.

I’ve never performed there myself, but have always enjoyed the atmosphere of the place – the obstacle course of the Royal Mile, the spontaneous street performances, the risky business of choosing which shows to see, never quite sure if it will be a hit or a dud… Anyway, here are a couple of picks:

annabelle

For my first choice, I have to declare an interest – I am very good friends with the writer/co-performer, the wonderful Howard Read. But his show is still an utter delight: ‘Annabelle’s Skirting Board Adventure’ at Just The Tonic at the Community Project – a fantastic kid’s show which follows the trials of Annabelle, the smallest elephant in the world, as she tries to make her way across Arthur’s (Howard’s) living room floor, with the help of her easily-distracted friend, Icarus the moth. Hopefully touring soon to a town near you… Here are Howard and Annabelle being interviewed on STV:

Second choice, the very impressive ‘This Will End Badly’ by Rob Hayes at the Pleasance Bunker One:

this will end badly

– a tremendously exciting and darkly funny new solo show about the state of modern man, with a fine performance by Ben Whybrow. I would call him ‘one to watch’, if everyone wasn’t already watching him. Wonderful stuff.

So, to the deafening sound of the Tattoo fireworks exploding overhead, we bid the Edinburgh Festival farewell once more…

tattoo fireworks

To Take Arms Against A Sea Of Mobiles

cumberbatch hamlet

Once again, tonight at 7.15pm, the lights will go down and a certain Mr Cumberbatch will begin to intone the most famous words in theatrical history.

I haven’t landed a ticket for ‘Hamlet’, sadly, although plenty have (I’m looking at you, Naomi); the rest of us are awaiting the critical verdict in a couple of weeks’ time. But then, maybe we don’t need to wait – ‘Hamlet’ may be sold out, but it sounds like the whole thing will be up on YouTube soon.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s new show is the latest victim of the entertainment world’s most virulent blight: the unauthorised use of the mobile phone.

The theatre can offer many examples of device-based bad behaviour, and we frequently hear about actors stopping the show to complain.

Richard Griffiths in ‘The History Boys’ at the National

history boys richard griffiths

Kevin Spacey in ‘Clarence Darrow’ at the Old Vic

clarence darrow kevin spacey

and, famously, Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in ‘A Steady Rain’ on Broadway were filmed (in character) berating an audience member whose phone rang repeatedly:

And, like most actors these days, I have many of my own stories to tell.

me and julian in the woman in black

I spent a year in The Woman In Black in the West End, and we often had great hordes of school parties in the audience. Their theatre etiquette might not have been as fully-formed as the average play-goer, and we would often be troubled by phones going off, people texting, playing games and so on. I remember delivering one of my many direct-address speeches and seeing the ghostly blue face of a girl in the front row of the dress circle, illuminated in the dark by the screen of her smart phone. I was particularly proud of this speech, and I became infuriated that here was I, giving my all, and this child wasn’t paying the slightest attention. I delivered the entire speech to her – or rather, at her – determined to get her to look up, even just for a moment. But she gave me not so much as a flicker. Eventually I realised that there were a few hundred others who actually were listening to the speech and left her to her Angry Birds.

But the really modern problem – and Benedict’s main gripe – is not simply phones ringing in the auditorium, people actually taking the call or even the freak event of a dolt mounting the stage to try and charge his ‘device’ from a dummy plug socket:

The main event these days is the audience trying film the show. The Cumberbatch ‘Hamlet’ has been plagued in preview by super-fans attempting to record the proceedings, with the result that, when the actors look out into the darkness, they have been greeted with lots of little red dots winking back at them. Benedict himself paid a visit to his gaggle of stage-door Johnnies in an attempt to halt this sort of thing:

Of course, this isn’t just a theatre problem. The world of live music has become completely au fait with this troubling phenomenon over the past few years, and at any gig you choose to attend, a hefty chunk of the crowd will be holding their iPhones or Samsungs aloft, determined to capture every precious moment in perfect HD – wobbly, poorly-framed HD with bad sound.

cameras at a gig

Why is this? Have we become so wedded to screens that we can’t really experience anything, unless it is safely contained within a frame? Perhaps a live experience is just too unpredictable – after all, who knows what emotions might be stirred up in us if we surrender to the moment completely? At least when we watch it on the train later on there‘s no danger of our being surprised by anything.

Perhaps we should just accept that the creaking old tradition of live performance will have to adapt to survive. Maybe, when we visit the theatre in the future, we should expect our neighbour to be watching the whole thing on a screen the size of a packet of fags.

But then, maybe not. Last year’s hottest ticket – someone who had hardly been near a stage in 35 years – had other ideas.

Kate Bush

When Kate Bush announced her ‘Before The Dawn’ shows in Hammersmith, she made a specific request of her fans:

“It would mean a great deal to me if you would please refrain from taking photos or filming during the shows. I very much want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iPhones, iPads or cameras. I know it’s a lot to ask but it would allow us to all share in the experience together.”

I was delightfully lucky enough to be able to score a pair of tickets to the second night – cue unflattering photographic evidence of myself with my pal Lisa (from outside the venue):

Me and Lisa at Kate

and I don’t remember seeing a single phone, iPad or camera all night. But I know I shall never forget that extraordinary moment when Kate shimmied onto the stage, her backing singers conga-ing behind her. Or the thrill of recognition as the first chord of ‘Running Up That Hill’ began to grow. Or the breathtaking coup-de-theatre when her blackbird finally took flight. Those moments were all the more powerful because they were shared by everyone there, as they happened. That can’t be captured by a little electronic box.

As Kate Bush knows, performance, at its purest and most affecting, is about the artist communing with the audience. ‘Hamlet’ is the ultimate example – with those soliloquies, the Dane isn’t just talking to himself, he is asking for our help, our counsel. You can’t do that if your audience is just waiting to watch it when they get home.

cumberbatch hamlet 2

Fox Hunting

a theatrical fox

The poor fox has always been a beleaguered beast, chased from pillar to post and constantly living under threat of being torn to shreds. And without wishing to add to the misery of this handsome creature, there are a pair of foxes that I, too, feel tempted to hound.

The foxes in question come from a familiar theatrical skulk (collective noun, don’t you know) – namely father and son actors, James and Jack Fox. These two have lately been roaming the English countryside in a play called ‘Dear Lupin’. The imminent opening of the show in the West End has occasioned an interview with the Daily Telegraph, during the course of which the rather weary topic of ‘posh’ v. ‘common’ actors was raised. Now, this is something I have written about before, but at the risk of going over old ground, I think it’s worth another look.

james and jack fox in dear lupin photo by Manuel Harlan

When it was put to them that there are too many ‘posh’ actors about these days, the Foxes barked, almost in unison:

‘‘Complete balls!’ James exclaims. ‘Balls!’ his son echoes.’

Is the resurgence of ‘posh’ actors really, as James Fox suggests, just the pendulum inevitably swinging back the other way – from working class types like ‘Albie’ Finney (and dear Mickey Caine) back towards young toffs such as Eddie Redmayne and Jack Fox himself? I rather think it’s less a question of shifting tastes and fashions, and more about the ‘posh’ kids being the ones who can afford the lifestyle of an actor. It’s all very well to quote Lillian Gish, as Jack does, and suggest that all you really need is ‘taste, talent and tenacity’; these days, having an enduring acting career is more about being able to afford to support yourself while you try to find work – and once you do find it, to supplement the usually pitiful actor’s salary.

lillian gish by edward steichen

I have no desire to cast aspersions on Jack Fox’s acting ability – indeed, I haven’t seen him act. But he doesn’t seem to have been too busy thus far – certainly not as busy as his father

James Fox, actor. By David Levene 28/2/2008

or his brother Laurence

Laurence-Fox

or cousins Emilia

emilia fox

and Freddie

freddie fox

and definitely not as busy as uncle Edward

Daily Mail - FEATURES

He has had some work on TV and short films, although his only stage acting work to date has been ‘Dorian Gray’ at the Riverside Studios, not a high-paying venue. Often by this point, an actor might be staring at his dwindling bank balance and asking himself if the writing was on the wall. But I wonder if money worries are such an issue in the Fox household. Perhaps sensibly, Jack Fox lives with his parents – mother Mary and father-and-fellow-cast-member James – at their home in Wimbledon.

But regardless of all this, I think Foxes Senior and Junior are barking up the wrong tree anyway. The ‘posh’ issue is quite a separate thing from the ‘Fox’ issue…

The Foxes live in an alternative reality to that experienced by all other actors, with the possible exception of a Redgrave or two. On the cruise liner of the acting world, they have a standing invitation to the Captain’s cocktail party, while the rest of us queue up at the buffet. In Jack Fox’s case, it really isn’t a question of being ‘posh’, it’s about being a member of a showbiz club far more exclusive than the Groucho or Soho House. When asked about getting the part in ‘Dear Lupin’ alongside his father, Jack employs the traditional cry of the cornered Second-Generation actor: “I had to read for the part like everyone else,” forgetting that for ‘everyone else’, just landing the audition in the first place is as hard as getting the job.

Of course, the Foxes have an inevitably skewed take on the acting profession. In order to have a true insight into what it’s really like out there, perhaps young Jack should have changed his name, refused all financial help from his parents, moved out of the family home and gone it alone. Then his career really might be about taste, talent and tenacity. All right: luck, talent and tenacity. But even then, tenacity is only any good if you can afford to feed, clothe and house yourself while you hang on, waiting to be lucky enough for someone to recognise your talent. So if you really want to succeed in the acting world, perhaps the best answer is a simple one – change your last name to ‘Fox’.

fox escapes