Tag Archives: actor

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.

Advertisements

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?

Portrait: #3 – Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee by Chris Naylor 2016
Christopher Lee was a giant of the cinema in more ways than one. Of course, his 6’5” stature put him very literally head and shoulders above most other actors, but he was also one of only a few in the profession to achieve international fame through association with a particular role.

Lee was one of my great childhood heroes. This was partly because I shared a first name with him, but also because he was the ultimate embodiment of one of my obsessions, namely Count Dracula. The very fact that I have chosen to paint him as he appeared in this role would probably have irritated him enormously, as he frequently expressed frustration at being associated with the vampire king, and could be scornful about the later Hammer films in particular.

Bur despite this, he will always be Dracula to me, and to millions of film-goers the world over. The image of Lee striding through his castle, his eyes glowing red and his cloak billowing behind him will always thrill me.

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.

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