Last Friday night I spent 90 minutes watching a truly magnificent performance – moving, accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable. I wasn’t at the Old Vic watching Kristen Scott Thomas in ‘Electra’, or Harriet Walter in ‘Henry IV’ at the Donmar – actually, I was sitting at home watching ELO on BBC4.
Now 10 or 15 years ago, to make an admission like that would have been social death – it would have invited waves of derision to pour on my head. But now, it seems, we have happily bade farewell to those shame-filled days of the ‘guilty pleasure’ and we are able at last to enjoy things for their own sake – simply for the pure pleasure we find in them – in music, at least. But I wonder if this amnesty extends to the humble actor.
The acting profession has for some time been subject to a rather inflexible system of classification. There are ‘classical’ actors, i.e. the serious ones, like Ralph Fiennes, Tom Hiddlestone, Fiona Shaw etc.; the ‘musical theatre’ types such as Michael Ball, Julia McKenzie and Ruthie Henshall, and then there are the ‘light comedy’ actors. An interesting bunch, this one – over the years it has included such people as David Niven, Terry-Thomas, even Jennifer Aniston.
I suppose the implication is that the work produced by those at the serious end of the spectrum is somehow more significant, that it carries a greater cultural heft – that it is in some way better than what issues from the lighter end. It’s a bit like saying a serious music fan will be listening to Leonard Cohen, Captain Beefheart or Scott Walker rather than the Bee Gees, Kylie or – yes, ELO.
Personally, some of my greatest joys in the cinema or theatre have come from ‘light’ actors: Hugh Grant in ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’, Roger Moore in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, and perhaps the king of them all, Cary Grant in just about anything. These were all tremendously skilled performances, perfectly tailored to fit what was required of them, and consequently giving their audiences hours of pleasure.
To this end, it was very encouraging to read the film critic Anne Billson’s glowing profile of Hugh Grant in The Telegraph, in which she describes him as ‘an accomplished character actor who makes everything look so easy, and whose most extraordinary accomplishment has been hoodwinking us into thinking he doesn’t even try.’
Actors like Grant have always tended to be overlooked when it comes to critical recognition – indeed, when his illustrious namesake Cary was finally given an Oscar, it was an honorary one awarded four years after he had made his last film.
Some of the hardest work I’ve done in the theatre (and frankly, some of my least successful performances) have been in ‘light comedy’ roles. I was an instantly forgettable Sandy in ‘Hay Fever’ and a wholly unremarkable Tom the vet in Ayckbourn’s ‘Table Manners’ – the same role which, when it was originated by Michael Gambon, caused an audience member to actually fall out of his seat with hilarity. So I know how hard this stuff is.
Of course, I have spent many happy hours sitting in the dark contemplating the futility of life and the monstrous cruelty of man, as I watched Fiona Shaw butcher her children or Ian Holm descend into madness. But I’m not sure I found as much true pleasure as I did at ‘Noises Off’ in the Comedy Theatre, watching the magnificent Derek Griffiths sliding all over the stage.