14 September 2005
Q: I was interested to read that you were described as 'the Olivier from Wigan' by The Times when you played Hamlet in 1971. Do you think there was a regional/class bias in the press 30 years ago towards actors from the north?
A: When I was young so were Alan Bates, Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole, from Derbyshire, Hull, Lancashire and Yorkshire respectively. They collectively established that northern actors were to be reckoned with. They contributed to the triumph of the kitchen sink over earlier middle-class preoccupations of West End playwrights and by retaining their native accents, stressed the point.
Wigan has long been a music-hall joke invented by the comedian George Formby senior who was born there. I continued the tradition by naming Wigan as my Widow Twankey’s hometown in the Old Vic’s Aladdin last Christmas.
From: Danielle Kennell
Q: I am currently studying William Wycherleys 'THe Country Wife' and discovered that you were in it, just wondered if you had any particular restoration comedy / comedy of manners tips for acting as I have my performance exam coming up, at York St John College, York, University of Leeds.
A: Good luck with your exams as I don’t have anything useful to offer. Ours was an undergraduate production and the memory has faded. However try not to flounce and camp it up too much – much of the fun in Restoration comedy is recognising that the characters seem still to be around today.
Q: I had a chance to see you in Aladdin back in January. I am writing to you from Budapest, Hungary and I wanted to let you know what a joy it was too see you on stage finally. I was sitting in second row all the way to one end of it. I could have touched you at some point in time. The show was really a great experience and lots of fun for me! I even managed to spot Hungary on the map in one of the scenes!!! Thank you for the joyful time! By the way, have you ever been in Budapest or Hungary before?
A: Thank you for travelling to see Aladdin. I was last in Budapest filming Rasputin for HBO in 1996.
THEATRE MUSEUM/ACTING SHAKESPEARE
From: Jose Alberto Perez
Q: I am a long-time great admirer of your work on-screen but, as I live in Spain and don't travel often to the UK or elsewhere, I've not (yet!) had the opportunity of seeing your theatrical work live, though I've watched repeatedly some of your excellent theatre performances available in home video. Last summer I was in London for some days and could visit the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, where a brief fragment of your 1970 "Hamlet" (precisely the "Mousetrap" scene) was being screened in one of the exhibition rooms. Is there any chance at all of seeing this production made available commercially? I would also like to ask about your celebrated "Acting Shakespeare" show, which was filmed for TV in 1982. Is there again any possibility of a commercial release? Congratulations for your recent and superb Prospero for Naxos Audiobooks!
A: I didn’t know the Museum were sneakily showing Hamlet! At least you were spared the full three hours.
Many enquire about Acting Shakespeare. When I sold the rights in perpetuity universe-wide to David Susskind in 1974 none of us (least of all my then agent who negotiated the $5000 buy-out) expected an interest this far on. I have no control over the distribution and David’s estate seem indifferent. There’s always the script, available at a mere tap on the keyboard.
Q: I am an American from Los Angeles who had the pleasure of spending this past Christmas in London and seeing Ian McKellen in 'Aladdin' at the Old Vic. I was not aware of the tradition of Panto and had no idea what to expect. Serious theater it was not, but what fun... the crowd was involved and excited - the performances were so heartfelt... we could just feel the love of everybody involved in this yearly rite. Mr. McKellen was so into it and seemed to be having so much fun, in what was a very demanding part with all the costume changes, that we derived that this was surely a labor of love and that money and recognition were not the point. It was a wonderful experience for us "foreigners" seeing this for the first time... it was an honor to be there, see the involvement of the patrons young and old... it's a memory I'll always cherish. I am hoping that Mr. McKellen could share some memories and traditions involved in the panto's he attended while growing up in England.
A: Thank you. You obviously just got it. I used to think that pantomime has rarely taken off outside Britain because its eclectic humour is too anarchic and local. The mix is too rich like an English plum pudding, another Christmas treat for all the family. Young and old, rich and poor, across the races the Brits all love panto. And many very serious actors in UK trace their enthusiasm for performance to the pantomimes of their childhood -- the first theatre that most of us ever see.
The ones I saw were not the spectacular starry productions in London although these would subsequently visit the large regional touring houses like the Palace Theatre in Manchester where I saw the comic duo Jimmy Jewel and his cousin Ben Warriss (huge stars in the 1950's) fooling about as the Broker's Men in Babes in the Wood. Otherwise it was local lowly pantos that visited Wigan and Bolton for a weekly stay, so I could see four or five pantomimes over the season. The musical and comical routines were tired and the scenery crude and flimsy: and yet. . . .
Pantomime at its best uses a wide variety of theatrical conventions and devices. There is song, rhyme, dance, slapstick, romance, glamour, transformation scenes, cross-dressing all supporting a moral tale of good versus evil. I find it irresistibly entertaining and I'm glad you do too.