Tuesday, January 9, 2018

My Log 576 Jan 9 2018: Chronicles from (almost) the Tenth Decade: 13; Whatever else I may think of the English, their theatre, writing and acting, is second to none: I have a storehouse of memories of great performances, and the education they gave me

On some of these Chronicles I have given rather off-hand expression to how I never took to class-conscious Britain, even after living there for eleven years.   I hope I have not given the impression, by these remarks, that I denigrate everything British, because that would be far from the truth.
From my first arrival there in 1951 as a callow colonial youth of 23, I got into the habit of attending the theatre in London as often as I could, and not only did I thus get the equivalent of a university education, but I developed an immense admiration for the British theatre, and, especially in those early years of the 1950s, for the wonderful quality of British acting.
Furthermore, my wife and I were dirt-poor when we first arrived in Britain, and the fact I was unemployed for seven months did not help much. But nevertheless, attendance at the theatres had been organized in such a way that even the poor could afford to go. Seats in the upper reaches of the great London theatres in what we called “the Gods,” were on sale on the day of the performance for 1/6 which even in those days must have been equivalent to about 25 cents today. Furthermore, with the well-known British love of the orderly queue, admission for the poor was organized in a unique way. One turned up at 10 am, paid the price of admission, and was given a little stool bearing a number that was placed in a line with other stools, to be claimed at any time after 5 pm that one could manage to get there. Usually the doors would open about 6.30 for a 7 pm start.
You had to be there at a reasonable time to ensure that your stool was not pushed back out of the way of the raging queuers, and then, when once the doors opened, it was all in and the devil take the hindmost, a free fight to rush up to the Gods first so that one could claim a seat in the front row. I remember those days of leaping over the seats from the back down to the front, as if they were yesterday.
In this way, for a pittance of money, we were able to watch the greatest actors of their time --- Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh, for example, perhaps the world’s most admired actors --- as we sat leaning forward, straining to hear every word, which was no problem with actors such as those: I vividly recall a moment when Olivier, standing with his back to the audience, whispered a line delivered under heavy emotion to a deadly silent theatre in which one could have heard a pin drop, and every word was as clear as a bell, even up in the Gods: talk about a man who knew his craft!
But he was not alone. John Clements and his wife Kay Hammond ran a series of Shaw plays in I think it was the St James theatre, running the gamut from Man and Superman to The Doctor’s Dilemma and it was from these performances by these actors who never missed a comic beat in the script, that I developed my admiration for the amazing GBS. 
In Pygmalion, Shaw's great play about accents and class, it was Stanley Holloway, vaudevillian turned serious actor,  who pointed out to me that when Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney barrow girl undergoing Prof Higgins's experimentation, delivered the play's most famous line --- "Wot? Me walk? Not bloody likely" ----  the second part of the joke was never spoken, because the roar of audience  laughter would have drowned it out ..."I'm takin' a taxi!"
I saw Gielgud in Shakespeare --- mind you, at first I didn’t understand much of it, having been turned off by high school teachers, who tried to ram it down my throat. I ended my unemployment by going to Scotland to take an adult education course, and while there I saw the pivotable Shakespearean production of my life, the one that made sense of all that followed: it was Romeo and Juliet with Alan Badel, an unbelievably emotional actor with a marvellous voice, and the luminously beautiful Claire  Bloom, fresh from her triumph in Chaplin’s film Limelight, and hearing them speak the Shakespearean lines with such eloquence and perfect diction, enabled me for the first time to understand what Shakespeare was all about.  I never forgot Badel, whom I saw later as Ariel in Midsummer Night’s Dream, when he was painted in green from head to toe, somehow appearing to have just whooshed to the centre of the stage as if he had been magically transported there. I was thereafter struck with an admiration for him that placed him, at least for me, among the greatest actors of the age. I may not have been exaggerating either, for I remember that years later, in the 1960s, I was one of those transfixed like almost everyone else in England, every Sunday night as he played the lead in the Count of Monte Cristo. Would the poor fellow never get out of that damnable prison?  Just another of the many British theatrical occasions that have lodged in my mind forever.
Later, when I had a job as a reporter in an ancient weekly newspaper, The Coventry Standard, I occupied much of my spare time covering the two local theatres in Coventry, the nearby Stratford-on-Avon Shakespearean company, then, riding our scooter the few miles to take in Sir Barry Jackson’s famous Birmingham Rep, where I saw an unforgettable representation of Moliere’s Tartuffe, starring an actor called Redmond Phillips, in a play that is no doubt the theatre’s leading disquisition on hypocrisy. In all of these places I was able to interview many of the actors, and although I was still a star-struck idiot, I remember having some wonderful conversations with such as Stanley Holloway, although I remembered him for his working-class monologues I had heard by radio in New Zealand (“wif ‘is ‘ead toucked, underneath ‘is arm, ‘e wal-l-ks the Bludy Tower….”), Anthony Quayle, Coral Browne, Joss Ackland, and many more, who gave me as much time as if I was from a Fleet street paper. When I returned to London in 1960 to represent the Montreal newspaper, I got into the habit of going to the theatre at least once, sometimes twice, a week, and writing a column on it every Saturday.
By this time I was more engrossed in the tremendously vital writing being done by Britain’s new young dramatists, than by the acting and production, which had so bedazzled me in the 1950s. Playwrights like John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, John Arden, Alun Owen, and many others, not only electrified the stage, but electrified the political discourse in the nation.  The directors Peter Hall and Peter Brook brought the Royal Shakespeare Company to London, where they staged a series of social-realist, socially-conscious plays, not only from Britain but from European countries as well. For the only time in my experience, one of their productions about war had such a powerful effect on the audience that after the final curtain fell, we all sat there in total silence for a good three minutes.
In the east end of London, Joan Littlewood ran a working-class theatre such as had never been seen in London before, and has not been seen since, so far as I know. Her play against war, Oh,What a Lovely War! I am sure still hangs in the memory of everyone who saw it. Then there were the comedians, the four young men from Cambridge University --- Peter  Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller --- who got the British to laugh about the war they had recently emerged from as a nation of self-regarding heroes, in a way that they had never laughed before. Nor can I forget the brilliant, pitiless humour of the BBC’s weekend satirical shows such as That Was the Week That Was, using a number of graduates from Joan Littlewood’s theatre, such as the hilarious Roy Kinnear, in TV that reached a level never equalled anywhere in the world.
Also at this time I was entranced by how the theatre became central to the political discourse of the time. These small islands, the same size as my homeland of New Zealand, contained 60 million people, for whom most intellectual activity, especially the serious magazines and periodical journals, was centred in London. This meant that a play of ideas that might run for a couple of months on the London stage would be written about, discussed and analysed repeatedly by intellectuals and others in a way that would be quite impossible in a vast, strung out country like Canada. So in this way the ideas seeped into the current political discourse.
Whatever else I might have said about the English, their class-consciousness, their snobbery, and the brutality with which they conquered the world,  I have a huge admiration for the quality of their theatre, their writing, acting and performance. One can see this still: a week of watching Netflix will expose anyone to a feast of the humour and superb craftsmanship of British authors and writers.

No comments:

Post a Comment