30 March 2008 | Paul Scofield, CH CBE (1922-2008)

My few connections with Paul Scofield were tangential, beginning with a near-miss. In 1952, on my first trip to London where my sister was at university, my father took us both to the Strand Theatre (now the Novello) to see The River Line by Charles Morgan. This play about escaped prisoners-of-war starred Paul Scofield, its main attraction. On opening our programmes, we discovered that he had left the cast the previous week.

The River Line, along with other of his long runs in West End theatres, were mainly ignored in the Scofield obituaries. His glories in classic roles at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon and the National Theatre were properly acknowledged but it's a sign of our times that the commercial theatre should, even in retrospect, be downgraded.

For actors of Scofield's generation, the West End was a prime source of income. He did little television and few major films so his fans probably saw him more in new plays on Shaftesbury Avenue than on screen or in Shakespeare et al elsewhere. For instance, between 1953 and 1960 he was in nine varied modern West End plays, including a musical (Expresso Bongo), a thriller (A Dead Secret) and culminating with his most famous success A Man for All Seasons, which he took to Broadway and then filmed for his Oscar.

He also took his 40-year-old Lear to America but then he never returned and that's how I got my chance, to take over from him as Salieri in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus when it transferred from the National Theatre in London to the Broadhurst Theatre in NYC. I went to see Scofield in the part but he was so charismatically individual, as usual, that I could only glimpse him through half-closed fingers lest a particular moment might be etched on the eyeballs and later inhibit me in rehearsing my own version of Salieri. He was, though, inimitable. I can mimic a version of his nasal yet throaty voice, swooping through the octaves: but he could land a speech on the ear thrilling as a bugle's call or soft and sexy as silk.

The voice wasn't his only distinction. He was beautiful and just camp enough in his gait and mien to appeal to men as well as women. Thick hair, volatile eyebrows, a face fit for tragedy and comedy, romance and farce. My favourite stage performance of his was as the hilariously queeny hairdresser in Staircase which I saw twice on adjacent performances, a play that could have run for ages commercially but didn't transfer from the RSC's Aldwych Theatre.

Onscreen his Ghost to Mel Gibson's Hamlet was exemplary — how to be of the walking, whispering dead, without recourse to technological trickery. I can still hear the range of his most famous performance as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. (My first professional job was a small part in a revival of the same play. The director handed 'round Samuel French editions of the play with the details of the original production interspersed with the text. "We'll do the same moves;" he said "if they were good enough for Paul Scofield for 18 months, they'll do us for three weeks."

I carelessly missed his renowned Lear onstage but fortunately John Tydeman directed him in it for a radio broadcast marking Scofield's 80th birthday. I listened to this while preparing for Trevor Nunn's production of Lear in 2007 and I pinched one of Scofield's effects — his wolfish, double, barking howl on the second two words of "You unnatural hags!" when Lear turns on his daughters before departing for the storm. Listen to the full orchestral tones on the record. I decided to treat the moment as an emotional and vocal climax and couldn't have done it so confidently hadn't I known that it had worked so well for Scofield.

I have no certain insights as to his working methods, though the first time I met him, he was preparing to play Hotspur for the sound recordings of Shakespeare, where undergraduate members of the Marlowe Society, like me, supported professional actors during Cambridge University vacations. Our rehearsals were minimal, just one read-through in front of the microphones.

Henry 4th part one: Act 2. Scene 3 — enter Hotspur reading a letter. Scofield took things slowly, often repeating a line until it sounded, until it felt, right to him. I sat against the wall. His chiselled nose buried in the text, it was as if he was reading it for the first time, that he'd done no homework, I thought. He got half way through Hotspur's soliloquising response to the letter and then made a gaffe: "By the Lord, our plot is a good plot as ever was laid; our friends true and constant: a good plot, good friends and full of expectations." As he first spoke it, he lifted out "good friends" as if he were addressing them, as if they were present, as if the line didn't mean "I have a good plot, I have good friends…" Then he tried it again, felt his mistake and proceeded. His ear and heart seemed to guide him as much as his brain. His acting intelligence was emotional and physical not rational.

I witnessed his final public appearance on 19th April 2004 at a charity benefit marking the centenary of John Gielgud's birth. The cast of soloists presented speeches from Gielgud's repertoire. Once I'd done my Richard 2, I went up to Judi Dench's dressing-room where she was serving champagne to Alan Bennett, Peter Hall, David Hare, Rosemary Harris, Barbara Jefford, Ian Richardson, Donald Sinden et al, re-telling their favourite Gielgud stories. Above the laughter I heard "Mr Scofield, this is your call" over the tannoy. Michael Pennington and I slipped out and down to the wings where Scofield was already waiting for his entrance, for the evening's climactic speech from him as Prospero.

At 82 he was upright and elegant as ever, lush white/grey hair falling onto the collar of his black dinner jacket. He tugged at the hair, and rearranged the hand-tied bow-tie, hands in trouser pockets and out again, checking his jacket pocket-flaps, gently clearing his throat. An actor preparing, in this case, nervously and I sensed he wished he were back home in the country, away from the nerve-making show-business he had virtually retired from ten years previously. The cue approached and suddenly Scofield turned 'round, a man determined and strode off to the loo for a final pee or adjustment in the mirror of his wayward tie. He emerged very soon, refreshed and settled, unaware of Michael and I close behind watching and affectionately wondering in some awe at the great actor who was feeling the strain.

On he went, the audience welcomed him with cheers and applause. He started the speech "Ye elves," stumbled momentarily halfway through but rescued all with "our revels now are ended…" his last words on any stage. The concert over, after the company bows which he led with panache, he slid away. I managed to shake his hand and say good bye and be rewarded with that generous glamorous gaze. — Ian McKellen, 30 March 2008

Paul Scofield
Alex McCowen (The Fool) and Paul Scofield (King Lear), 1962
Shakespeare Centre Library

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