Above: Michael Green in Bartholomew Fair (1986)
by Nick Smurthwaite
We’ve all attended performances where something has gone unexpectedly wrong. During a dramatic scene in Hedda Gabler, I once witnessed the great Glenda Jackson flounce out of the room only to be left holding the doorknob in her hand, not knowing what to do or say next…
Such delicious moments of theatrical panic – at least from the spectator’s point of view – are the meat and potatoes of The Art of Coarse Acting (1964), the funniest ever book about am-dram, still in print after fifty-six years, and now available as a podcast. Like Stephen Potter’s ‘lifemanship’ books a decade earlier, it skewered a particular aspiration of middle class British behaviour – in this case, the urge to perform regardless of talent – with an irrepressible sense of fun.
Journalist and author Michael Green scratched his own performing itch by joining the reputable Questors Theatre, Ealing, in 1953 – and remained a member until his death in 2018.
Though they’d always prided themselves on their high standards and professional edge, Questors embraced Green’s irreverent take on the amateur ethos with open arms.
The immediate and continuing success of his book led to the annual Coarse Acting Championships at Questors in which Green’s comical take on am-dram was brought vividly and histrionically to life in a series of specially written ‘coarse’ plays.
Luckily for Green, the founder and guiding spirit of Questors, Alfred Emmet, who died in 1991, loved his book.
When I interviewed him for The Stage in 2016, Green told me, “Alfred was always a fan. It was his idea to have the Coarse Acting Championships in order to raise funds for their new theatre. We had teams from the National and the RSC. Roger Rees and Tony Pedley did the assassination scene from Julius Ceasar as performed by the (fictitious) Hanwell Amateur Dramatic Society, in which Caesar started fighting back.”
Mike Langridge, a close friend, sometime co-writer and fellow Questor, says the Coarse plays were never played for laughs. “Our secret was to take them incredibly seriously, so that when something went wrong you’d go to enormous lengths to cover it up, which was much funnier than trying to be funny.”
So successful were the Coarse Acting Championships that Green and co put together a ‘best of’ compilation and took it up to the Edinburgh Festival where the two-week run sold out on the first night.
In 1979 Green and company took a second show to Edinburgh which was picked up by Brian Rix and the Theatre of Comedy, running for three months, along with two other Edinburgh transfers, at the Shaftesbury Theatre.
He recalled: “If we hadn’t been amateurs the run would have been a lot longer because Brian Rix really liked the show. But you can’t ask a deputy headmaster to give up his day job in order to fool around in the theatre.”
Green himself started fooling around in the theatre at the age of fourteen when he was chosen to play a schoolboy in a production of Goodbye, Mr. Chips at his local theatre, the Leicester Rep. He claimed it was an early example of Coarse Acting: “I went to open a door that was painted on to the scenery,” he said.
In the 1940s when he was working as cub reporter in Northampton, one of Green’s newspaper colleagues was involved with the Northampton Drama Club and roped him in to do open-air Shakespeare. He moved to London in the early Fifties to work on the Evening Star, and joined Questors Theatre, then working out of a corrugated-iron church in Ealing.
He recalled, “I had a small part in Alfred Emmet’s production of King John. It was my introduction to those awful cotton tights coarse actors wore in those days. They sagged dreadfully at the fork. One of the cast asked if we could have surgical supports but the wardrobe mistress replied firmly, ‘Jock straps will be issued only to those with large parts,’ so I failed to qualify on two counts.”
So who or what is a Coarse Actor precisely?
Green’s catch-all definition was “one who can remember the lines but not the order in which they come,” a line that was famously adapted by Morecambe and Wise for their musical sketch with Andre Previn.
Other definitions in Green’s wonderfully entertaining book include one who “brings down the scenery by forcing a door that won’t open,” one who plays all parts exactly the same, one who knows everyone else’s lines better than their own, and one who seeks out the early exit parts in order to spend more time in the pub.
In the chapter on The Director, Green pointed out that it was possible for directors to keep themselves in free drinks by dropping hints to people that “you look just right for the lead in my next show.”
Arguably the best ‘coarse actor’ profile was one he claimed for himself. It was the time he fell off the stage at a dress rehearsal while dressed as an 18th Century pirate with a wooden leg and a fake dagger wound in the chest.
According to Green, the nurse at A&E “started to deal with the stage wounds while ignoring the real one. When the doctor arrived he looked down at my wooden leg and said, ‘I’ll make an appointment for you to have a new one fitted tomorrow.’”
As with all the best comedy writing, you feel Green’s memory was creatively enhanced by his imagination, although he always insisted the majority of his anecdotes were rooted in reality.
A particular favourite was that early appearance in the non-speaking role in King John, where he was cast as ‘Second Citizen of Harfleur’. ‘First Citizen’ was an old trouper called Harry who had a box labelled ‘Scabs, Warts and Boils’. “Harry invited me to borrow one of his scabs. It took him three quarters of an hour to make up and he had one line, ‘Hear us, great kings!’”
“As I didn’t have any lines, Harry invited me to repeat his line, so I said, ‘Yes, great kings, hear us!’ It was a lesson I never forgot. In Coarse Acting, there is no such thing as a non-speaking role.”
Of the thirty books Green wrote, The Art of Coarse Acting was the most enduring and his favourite. It was one of a series of books that also included The Art of Coarse Rugby, The Art of Coarse Golf and The Art of Coarse Sex. Wary that the term ‘coarse’ might be open to misinterpretation, he was at pains to point out that it referred to “a quintessentially British attitude that involved losing and being rubbish and incompetent, while aspiring to so much more.”
The podcast came about by accident. In his late 80s Green was asked to read an extract from the book at a friend’s memorial service. Two people attending the service – a sound engineer and a producer – suggested he should record the whole thing as an audiobook. His wife Christine said he didn’t know at the time that it would be released later as a podcast. “He would have been so pleased in his modest, understated way,” Christine told me.
At the time I interviewed Green, one of the biggest hits on the West End stage was The Play That Goes Wrong, the inspiration for which was, in part at least, The Art of Coarse Acting. Indeed Green himself had mentored one of its creators, Henry Lewis, at Questors Youth Theatre.
Did Green have any regrets about not having enjoyed the commercial benefits of his creation in the way Lewis and his fellow actors had done? The convivial writer just smiled sweetly, saying “I’d love to have done what they’ve done but it wasn’t possible to achieve that with amateurs when I had the chance. They all had day jobs they couldn’t afford to give up. Besides I’ve been very lucky in my life.”
Mike Langridge says in half a century of friendship he never saw Green down or moody. “Nobody in the world made me laugh as much as Mickey.”
A fitting testament to a man who devoted his life to the amusement of others.
The Art of the Coarse Acting 50th anniversary edition is available from Samuel French Ltd and the podcast is available to download from Audible at: www.audible.co.uk/pd/The-Art-of-Coarse-Acting-Audiobook/1909277185