RSC Dream 16
John Chapman gives his last account of an eighteen-month Dream-come-true as he shows his Bottom to the RSC one final time.
Our newspaper-style section brings all of your local stories, articles & news items.
Heritage for Hire
After an eight-year gap, Paul Johnson re-visits Khaki Devil, military supplier to the theatre, film & TV industry and discovers some ambitious plans.
All Aboard for Entertainment
Richard Evans follows up last year’s popular article ‘A Theatre Lover’s Guide to New York’ with a look at the world of cruising.
Derek Jacobi – cover story
Pat Jones teams up with Editor, Paul Johnson to interview one of the world’s best-loved and most critically acclaimed actors – with whom she has been friends for 56 years.
Smoke and Mirrors
Two years ago Nick Bennett offered some space in his ‘man-cave’ to his brother-in-law. For Nick it was the start of a strange journey.
Phil Lowe pops over to Nottingham University to speak with Laura Jayne Bateman and Nick Gill of the uni-based Nottingham New Theatre.
One Step Beyond! – No.1
Stamp Your Feet! The Musical came from humble beginnings, to a sell-out performance last year, but it took over four years of hard work to get it on the stage.
One Step Beyond! – No.2
Neil Knipe of ‘Bite My Thumb’ – an amateur theatre company – tells how they took their production of Jim Cartwright’s Two on the road.
What is the perfect recipe when it comes to making theatre for the sternest critics on the market? We ask the experts…
- As a children’s author David Walliams has had enormous critical and commercial success and, since 2008, has taken the children’s literary world by storm. Diane Parkes looks at Gangsta Granny’s adaptation to the stage.
- Freelance journalist, author and former teacher, Susan Elkin, specialises in education and performing arts which includes a lot of theatre for children.
- Neal Foster launched the Birminham Stage Company in 1992. Since then the BSC has staged over seventy productions and become one of the world’s leading producers of theatre for children and their families.
- Regular columnist, Richard James, takes time out from performing on Gangsta Granny’s UK tour to give his opinion on how to master the art of keeping children on the edge of their seats for two hours.
- Julia Donaldson has been the UK’s top-selling children’s author for the sixth year in succession. Two companies have successfully adapted her stories for the stage such as The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and Stick Man.
Making It Up As You Go Along
Imagine performing a show without a well-rehearsed script. No lines, no directions – just you and your ensemble. Angelini Castellini looks at the growing popularity of improvisation.
I’ll Be in My Trailer!
Continuing our focus on Improvisation, Paul Johnson speaks with Ruth Bratt & Philip Pellew from West End performers The Showstoppers.
Hands Off! Vulnerable Venues
These are potentially worrying times for societies that don’t have the convenience of running their own performing space. Chris Abbott takes a look at the growing issue of vulnerable venues.
Strike Up the Band!
Raymond Langford Jones’ final round-up of activity in professional musical theatre.
New Books, Plays, Musicals
New publications and performing rights from Samuel French, Nick Hern Books, Bloomsbury, Josef Weinberger, Theatrical Rights Worldwide, Oberon, R&H… and more.
Above: Sir Derek Jacobi CBE and Pat Jones have known each other for fifty-six years. Photo: Paul Johnson
You never quite know when being a super-fan will pay off do you? (That’s a 60s style super-fan, by the way, rather than one of today’s Twitter-crazed fanatics.)
For Pat Jones – whose contribution to amateur theatre sees her stage manage several shows a year for Bromley Little Theatre – it has just bagged her a cover-story with one of the world’s most famous and critically acclaimed actors.
In the fifty-six years that Pat and Sir Derek Jacobi CBE have known one another, their relationship has gone from fan – to acquaintance – to friend.
Just over a year ago Pat persuaded the publicity-shy actor to appear on BLT’s stage ‘in conversation’ for charity, much to the delight of Bromley Little Theatre’s members.
Well, Derek and Pat really must be good friends as he has now taken time out from his busy schedule at The Garrick, where he is appearing in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s production of Romeo & Juliet, to talk with Pat and Paul Johnson…
During the early sixties a friend and I used to see every show put on by The Birmingham Rep Theatre. One evening in 1960 a blonde young man walked onto the stage, and afterwards we decided to go and ask for his autograph! After the following show, we snuck backstage to his dressing room to ask for a photo. The next time, we went for a drink with him …and so it went on.
Three years later, my Mum writes to Derek at the Rep inviting him to my birthday party – to which he comes!
When Derek went to Chichester and Stratford (actually, wherever he was performing) I continued to meet up with him. To date he has appeared in more than fifty theatre productions (400 performances of Hamlet alone) more than fifty films and numerous television ventures. I’ve seen nearly all of them and, whenever possible, I’ll still try to meet him after a theatre performance. Even though ‘Sir’ Derek is now an internationally-acclaimed actor, loved and adored by millions, he is still the kind, gentle man he always has been.
Over the years I have collected a pile of letters and postcards from our correspondence, not quite tied up in pink ribbon, but I have saved them nonetheless. Nowadays, of course, it’s emails. Not quite the same as hand-written letters, but at least we can keep in touch. In one letter from the early 70s he says that his tour with the Prospect Company was so exhausting, he would never tour again! Today, some forty years later, the seventy-eight-year-old shows little sign of stopping.
Currently appearing at The Garrick eight times a week, surely the word ‘exhaustion’ has taken on a whole new meaning?
EIGHT TIMES A WEEK
Oh, and isn’t it quite unusual for Mercutio to be of your… erm…
“…Of my advanced years? Yes it is,” says Derek, saving my blushes. “It was Ken’s idea and I did ask him, ‘Why? It’s a bit odd isn’t it?’ But he’s always been fascinated by a story he heard many years ago about George Orwell. He went to Paris one weekend with some friends, and they were in a bar and noticed an older gentleman in the corner. So they bought him a drink and he came over to join them. They had a few more drinks and he was a lot of fun, he was witty, and they all got on very well. Then the old guy left. And they asked the barman whether he was a regular, and the barman said, ‘Yes.’ So they said, ‘Do you know his name?’ to which the barman said, ‘Oh yes! That was Oscar Wilde.’ And that would have probably stayed with Ken who might have thought, ‘Yes, Mercutio could be the older man, a more experienced man, a man whose got a likely story to tell. And it works very well in the death because there’s no way he’s going to beat Tybalt. It’s perfectly obvious.”
As he speaks it’s obvious that Derek’s voice is feeling the strain a West End run demands. He takes a Vocalzone from his pocket and continues: “My heart has always favoured the theatre, although now at this stage in my life I am opting, I think, for the easier option of acting for the camera. The stress of theatre with which I have been able to cope for fifty-six years is beginning to be a little too stressful. Not that I’m forgetting my lines; I’m not doing a Gambon. But vocally it’s getting more stressful as you can probably hear; I had to even think twice about doing this interview because I need to save my voice. I’ve probably got five or six more years of active acting.”
NATURE OVER NURTURE
Around the time Derek and I first met I worked in libraries and I’d personally renew his library books to save him from any fines (I still have his library ticket!). There’s also a very tenuous connection there with his first-ever experience on a stage. “I think a lot of actors are born as actors. It was certainly not nurture, it was nature. I was in the local library aged about six or seven taking part in the Christmas production, The Prince and the Swineherd – and I played both, ha, ha!” From such an early age he knew exactly where his strengths lay: “I had no talent for anything else, certainly no creative talents in any other way; I don’t write, I don’t paint, I don’t play an instrument. But I did have a lot of creative acting talent; it just seemed the natural thing to do. Nothing else attracted me. I got to university really because I wanted to act, not because I wanted to be an academic, and it was a hotbed of acting.”
A hotbed might be something of an understatement with the likes of Ian McKellen and Trevor Nunn also at Cambridge around the same time. But it was Derek’s next move opting for Rep theatre rather than drama school which was to forge the beginning of an illustrious career. “Well yes, I was very young at the time, just nineteen,” recalls Derek. “So when I left I thought ‘do I go and spend three years at drama school or do I try and get into the business?’ I was very lucky and got into Birmingham Rep where I stayed for three years, and that was my drama school – in front of a live audience.”
With the huge swathe of acting talent that rose up in the sixties through Rep Theatre it’s hard to understand exactly how and why so many Rep companies have vanished over the years. With the highly competitive drama school industry now so prevalent, today’s young actors have a much more recognised path to follow into the profession.
So how would a nineteen-year-old Derek Jacobi fair today? “I don’t think… In the theatre, nearly so well as I did because I was very lucky; I’ve been dogged by good luck my entire career,” is the modest answer from the man whose autobiography is entitled As Luck Would Have It. “I think nowadays I would probably take the television route. When you’re performing eight times a week you have a whole other set of disciplines, and obstacles to overcome. It’s harder on stage, much harder. Much more stressful. Much more frightening. Much more rewarding!”
Derek has so much experience in comparing the benefits of theatre over those of television and film: “Also, in the theatre the actor’s in charge. Anything to do with the camera, the director, the editor, they’re in charge. In the theatre it is down to you and the choices you make, the artistic decisions, the creative decisions are yours. Of course you’ve rehearsed and have been directed but when you’re out there it’s you and them, and that is frightening and exhilarating all at the same time. That is a job satisfaction you cannot get in front of a camera because, as with anything to do with camerawork, you are reliant to somebody else responding. You can’t actually tell yourself how you’re doing because how you’re doing is ultimately irrelevant and is given to somebody else to fiddle with; the music goes on, they can change your voice if they want to. A moment you thought was maybe one of your best, maybe the camera wasn’t on, or it was on your left ear – it’s about pictures, it’s about photography. What the public eventually sees is somebody else’s version and not necessarily yours.”
Nowadays Derek can make the leap between genres look easy. “As long as you accept the parameters, but the biggest job satisfaction comes from theatre,” he reassures. “And it’s much easier to go from the theatre into television than the other way around. If you’re used to the intensity and the smallness of a camera space and you’re suddenly put in a 5,000-seat theatre then it’s much harder to fill that space when you’re used to filling such a smaller one. It’s much easier to play it down then for someone that is used to this tiny space to get it all out.”
And of course he’s worked with them all – something a lot of amateur actors might also boast although for different reasons; actors, directors… as amateurs we often have to play whatever hand we are dealt. I can’t resist asking Derek if he’s ever found it hard to take direction or if he’s ever disagreed with a director’s vision for a particular character. “I think it’s very dangerous for an actor to say ‘my character wouldn’t do that!’” he says – so I listen. “We spend our lives acting out of character and I think actors are lazy when they say, ‘Oh no, my character wouldn’t think that’ or ‘my character wouldn’t do that.’ Of course they would, in the right circumstances, in the right situation. We are all capable of anything. So to say you are so aware of who you are by playing a role you limit yourself enormously; you have to go down blind alleys to find out they are blind. ‘So let’s think of those circumstances and see what happens.’”
Faith in your director from the outset is a prerequisite then? “Oh yes! And directors do come in all shapes and sizes,” Derek enjoys telling us. “In my early career I came up against one of those directors – actually there were two in particular – who believed an actor’s creative juices would only flow if they were in a state of abject terror. They were the sort of directors who terrorised a show out of you. And there are remarkably a lot of them around, and they’re awful. You’re performing just for your director because you’re frightened of him.” We sense a story is about to be spilled. We are right.
“There was a frightful director called John Dexter in the early days of the National Theatre. It was the very first production of The Royal Hunt of the Sun and during the dress rehearsal he fired the boy who had one of the smallest parts, the role of the Head Man who I think is only in one scene, saying that he was bad. It wasn’t that he was bad. And it was a terrible moment for that actor. And then we fast forward years later and that boy is now a movie star, and is having tea in New York. And John Dexter walks in. So, there sits Michael York… who cuts John’s balls off! I wasn’t there but Michael told me all about it; I was his best man when he got married.”
DOGGED BY LUCK
Derek revels in storytelling so we ask him to explain further why he’s so convinced that his success is all down to luck. “It was 1963, it was the 50th anniversary of The Birmingham Rep and to celebrate they were going to do the three Shakespeare plays they have never done: Titus Andronicus, Cressida and Troilus, and Henry VIII. They offered me Aaron in Titus, Troilus and Henry VIII – for fifteen weeks in repertoire. And it was while I was doing that, that Laurence Olivier came talent scouting.” One of us suggests to Derek that surely you have to put yourself in the right place for good luck to happen, but he’s having none of it. He continues: “In Henry VIII I was sharing a dressing room with Cardinal Wolsey, and I used to get out very quickly after matinees and go for my tea. After this particular performance I had changed already. As Henry of course I’d have all this padding, the lot! There was a knock at the door and in HE came. Arthur, who was playing Cardinal Wolsey, was still in full drag, so Laurence Olivier came up to me and said ‘Well done, well done,’ and then went over to Arthur and raved about his performance, and then he left. About thirty seconds later he came back in and said ‘YOU… were Henry?’ I said ‘Yes, love.’ And then I got a bit of a rave – and a job!”
A VICIOUS TANGO
Just before I garner Derek’s opinion on ‘we amateurs’ I have to mention his recent television successes namely Last Tango in Halifax and Vicious, both of which signal a departure from his default image as a classical actor. We suspect he treats these shows as a breath of fresh air? “Oh, wonderful!” and his face instantly lights up! “When Tango came along I was over the moon because of this label of being classical and Shakespearean; BBC2 rather than BBC1. And somebody had the foresight to see an ordinary bloke in me. My background is ordinary – I’m from East London. So I jumped at it, it was wonderful. I love doing it. It’s coming to an end though, we are doing a ninety-minute Christmas special and that will be it. And then Vicious came along completely out of the blue. Of course Ian and I have known each other for fifty-odd years, we were at university together, and when my agent rang up and said ‘What do you think about doing a sitcom with Ian McKellen?’ I said ‘Fantastic!’ It was originally called Vicious Old Queens and I rang Ian and said, ‘Are you going to do Vicious Old Queens?’ And he said ‘Well we can’t have that title, it gives us nowhere to go.’ So we ended up with it just being called Vicious.”
After such a long friendship, Derek and Ian McKellen certainly know each other well although their personalities are quite different. “Vicious is actually from an American writer who also did things like Will and Grace, and Family Guy. Of course sitcom in America is a lot stronger. We were taken out to dinner by the writer who said ‘I’ve got these two characters, which one you want to play?’ And Ian immediately said ‘I’m the actor!’” Considering Derek is very quiet and private while Ian is loud and gregarious, they probably got Stuart and Freddie the right way round. “Yes, they did. We’ve filmed the final episode that they’ve hung on to and is also going to be shown this Christmas.”
Just to demonstrate his friendship with Sir Ian, Derek can’t resist one last swipe at his old university chum when I ask if there are any acting boxes he still would like to tick off: “I’d love to do Coronation Street, certainly. They have offered me a couple of parts in it but I was so miscast in both of them, it wouldn’t have worked. Ian had the perfect part, somebody who was not connected with The Street. He was just a visitor, a conman. Six weeks in. Perfect!
“What else can I tick off?… Oh, a big franchise movie, so I could earn a lot of money! Ian’s got money coming out of his ears!” Derek’s probably not wrong either – just Xmen, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit would fill a career in itself for most actors.
AMATEUR THEATRE (and the gossip)
No star-interview would be complete for Sardines without asking a member of acting royalty to share their opinion on the UK’s amateur theatre scene – probably because you never quite know what they’re going to say. Little did we know Derek had been keeping a bag of gossip gold up his sleeve for this very moment: “I love it! I think it’s great. People are so keen and immersed in drama,” enthuses our lunch guest. “At one time or another actors were considered bohemian and strange, and then when television came along acting was fed into people’s sitting rooms all over the place. People sat and they watched early sitcoms and comedies and stuff like that and they thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that, it looks easy.’ And actors became part of everybody’s life rather than a world apart, a magical world. It engendered the actor in everybody, and I think that’s very good because people who are immersed in amateur acting also support the professionals – and I think it feeds into each other. It’s marvellous. And the fact that there are so many amateur companies around the country means it’s vital and therapeutic for people.”
When I ask him – as a genuine fan of the film – how close he thinks the fictitious ‘Stratford Players’ got to a real village am-dram society, in the 2008 film A Bunch of Amateurs, Sir Derek Jacobi told us: “I loved making that film and we all had such fun. There were some great actors in the film, although we had problems with HIM [Burt Reynolds]. Because the rest of us, of course, were all company actors; some were pretty well known but company actors nonetheless. So we ‘loved him up’ and one day he turned on us all – and that was horrible!” Talk about life imitating art! If you know the film’s plot – a Hollywood superstar accidentally agreeing to do King Lear in Stratford, thinking it’s the RSC, only to realise too late that it’s with an am-dram society instead. So they bend over backwards to keep him happy, while he treats them like something he’s just stepped in.
Derek had plenty more to say on the subject: “He was typically American. I remember in Much Ado about Nothing the way Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington would come onto the set, and Burt was exactly the same. Apparently Keanu would stand facing the wall for half an hour getting into the part while Ken Branagh, who could be laughing and joking one minute, and the next, ‘All right everybody!’ …and turn round on a sixpence and do the shot. Americans need ‘space’ and ‘silence’, and one day we were all joking around and Burt screamed at us!
We didn’t pay too much attention to it because we had been giving him EVERYTHING. The man was a zombie. That film could have been marvellous, but his performance was… he was a total zombie! He was on pills, antidepressants, anti-pain, he was held together with pink string and sealing wax. He gained over forty injuries in the course of his career. He had a corset and it took them half an hour to get his costume on. He was almost a dead man walking. So we’d love him up and then he suddenly and spitefully turned on us because we were being a bit naughty. It was a shame.”
When I tell Derek how previously, I’d also heard a Burt Reynolds / Bunch of Amateurs story where his lines had to be stuck up all over the film set, he merely announced, “Darling, at one point I had one of his lines written across my chest!”
Speaking of words and lines, something all actors can suffer from is stage fright and the dreaded thought of drying up mid-scene. And just to show it can happen to absolutely anyone, Derek bravely tells us about the two-year break in his career when he was too petrified to walk out on to a stage. “It’s something I did to myself, I put a web of doubt in my head and it took me two years to get rid of,” he remembers rather reluctantly. “I questioned my ability and my desire to act; my enjoyment of acting. You often hear people ask, ‘How do you learn your lines?’ or, ‘How do you get up in front of 1,000 people?’ And I asked myself, ‘Yes, how do I?’ And the moment I asked that question I couldn’t do it. And it was only because of an offer I couldn’t refuse that I was able to get out of it.” Derek describes the exact moment things went terribly wrong: “In 1979 I was coming to the end of a world tour of Hamlet in the Theatre Royal in Sydney. It was the last day of the tour and our interval came just before the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech. I was waiting in the wings thinking ‘this is the speech, these are the first few lines. Everyone in the world knows them. What would happen if the actor forgot them?’ So on I went, I started the speech, I got about four lines in and went totally blank. Fortunately I had played it so often that automatic pilot kicked in and I carried on, pouring with sweat, and I got to the end of the show, and I didn’t go on stage again for about 2 1/2 years. I was catatonic with fear that I would forget the whole thing.”
Wow! You’ve really got to know yourself to break out of such a self-induced condition. When you’re that famous, you might know yourself but can you ever see what the public sees? “I know who I am, but I don’t think I know the person the public think I am. A word I think describes me very well, I think is ‘timid’. I’m told a triple Libre, if you believe that sort of thing, which means I am very anti-confrontational, I’m very placid, I don’t get angry. In fact I’m rather lacking on the personality stakes and my public life is virtually restricted to my work. I don’t front campaigns, I don’t relish public speaking. I love my work, that’s what the public sees. The rest of me is mine, and I don’t share it publicly. On occasions you have to, like this interview, but I don’t relish interviews and don’t particularly like talking about myself… so you’re very lucky to have me, aha! I wouldn’t do a chat show. Some actors enjoy it; Ian is a master at it and he enjoys it, but that’s not me.”
ADVICE & ADIOS
What a great way to finish up, but just before we wave Sir Derek off, and by way of tradition, we tap our cover star for some invaluable parting advice exclusively for the amateur performers amongst us: “Well, I always say ‘If you want to be an actor, don’t! But if you need to be an actor, then do!’” he says, before elaborating. “Amateur actors who are successful… they obviously don’t need acting; they’ve got another life, a job. But you’ve got to think of life without acting, and if you can’t conceive of a life without acting then you’ve got to be an actor. You’ve got to do it.
“But it’s a vocation, you’ve got to have the fire in your belly, you’ve got to need it. It’s an extremely risky decision to take. It doesn’t earn you a living but it can make you a fortune. It’s a risk.”
Fifty-six years ago, way back in 1960, we realised Derek Jacobi was someone special, but who could have predicted the career he has had …so far, with more to come. Sir Kenneth Branagh is remaking Murder on the Orient Express next year for which he’s already invited Derek to step into the role Sir John Geildgud previously played. Before that, he’s recording a romantic CD with Last Tango co-star Anne Reid (another reason he was voice-conscious during our chat); 12 songs – Gershwin, Porter, Sondheim etc. So that’s another box ticked off too.
Signing off I really feel like that young girl all over again, fifty-six years ago. Good luck with all you do, Derek.
I am thrilled to have had the chance to interview you – twice! And I am so proud to be counted as your friend.