A Different Money

Posted Tuesday 07 Jun 2016 08:48 AM

The Brexit campaign constantly tells us that it costs about £25 million pounds a day to belong to the EU and, as an actor, I think of that money in terms of the loose change and crumpled five pound notes in my denim pockets but perhaps there are forms of currency which are beyond me.

Some years ago, I worked on a Royal Shakespeare Company tour visiting small British communities, towns and villages, of which the last port of call was, paradoxically, Tokyo, Japan; an attractive addition to an otherwise regular UK touring schedule, and indeed the reason why such adventure seeking actors as myself were keen to accept the engagement. However, the cherry on the cake proved elusive; producers prevaricated; Tokyo was ‘off’ or ‘back on again’ at various stages of the tour while our despair and elation fluctuated accordingly but, finally, a decision was made that Tokyo was definite and a company meeting was called to explain the details.

We were to enjoy three weeks at Tokyo’s Globe theatre in Shinjuku and would be staying in a five star luxury skyscraper hotel whose rooms, in 1991, cost upwards of one hundred pounds a night. At the mention of this, one actor - let’s call him Andrew - stood up and declared his position. He loathed all capitalist luxury and refused to be shoe-horned into the product of a system which he had fought against all his life. He would rather have the money, please, and fiind his own modest accommodation such as, perhaps, everyday Japanese family lodgings.

The room fell silent. Andrew repeated his impassioned request. Could it be arranged, please, that he could paid the cost of the hotel room, or even a half, or even a third of such an obscene amount of money and find his own accommodation. The company manager was speechless. Andrew made a further plea, his voice rising. The elephant in the room was asking for buns. A few of us offered Andrew our timid support which only thickened the silence, like so much cornflour. As work-a-day actors we knew only one form of currency; the loose change and crumpled notes in our pockets.

Poor Andrew, it seemed, had no option but to stay, much against his will, in the majestic skyscraper from which he pocketed as many sugars, coffee sachets, tea bags, mini-milks, plastic shampoo tubes, shower caps and disposable slippers as he possibly could.

These were the years of the Yuppie. I talked with Andrew - in Tokyo - of the compromising niceties concerning the fashionable currency of credit and debt, of the charge card, of corporate favour or ‘freebie’. Andrew said; ‘Of course I know about all that grace and favour finance; but what does it make of the likes of me? How can I ever be a part of that kind of currency? If I’m sent a bill, I have to pay it. Imagine me saying to the plumber or the builders, ‘Never mind about the money; why don’t I swing you a complimentary ticket for The Taming of The Shrew instead.’

My question is; in what form of currency is that £25 million pounds paid? Because if it’s in ‘non-money’, we are all Andrew, pathetically pleading a case for the NHS.

©David Shaw-Parker 2016

Remembering Alan Howard

Remembering Alan Howard

Posted Thursday 19 Feb 2015 13:59 PM



   There's a possibly apocryphal story about Laurence Olivier, on being asked by a drama student who was playing Henry V if he had any advice about the speech "Once more unto the breach ...", replying, after a little thought, to the bewildered young actor; "Shout the first two lines, gabble the rest; shout the last two." 

   My very first acting job was taking over the role of Captain Jamy in Terry Hands’ production of Alan Howard's world renowned Henry V and prior to the aforementioned speech, my fellow captains and I would leap over a raised wooden wall in retreat, clinging onto the slope by ropes followed by Alan Howard, urging us “Once More Unto The Breach...’, after which, we would haul ourselves back up and over, into the fray and out of sight. 

    Significantly, however, Alan Howard was also playing the roles of Henry VI (three plays) and Coriolanus that season and was often prone, due to understandable tiredness, to the occasional blip in memory. At one completely sold-out matinee, our leading man blanked out after the first two lines of this, one of Shakespeare's most famous speeches, his renowned vocal clarity and precision deserting him. Two of our captains (they'd already been in the production for three years) began to shudder and giggle, hiding it as best they could. And when Alan, lost for words but anxious to maintain the passionate energy of the speech began to improvise nonsensically, they spluttered aloud and shook visibly. We knew that he was always loathe to take a prompt but when his improvised verse ran dry, in fevered desperation Alan began to make what sounded like animal noises by which point we all four of us realised that we were so uncontrollably hysterical that we'd never haul ourselves back over the wall. 

    This was my first job; the Royal Shakespeare Company and this Tony Award winning associate RSC actor was making animal noises; lions, tigers, bears and possibly even Golden Eagles, they were all, to-a-species, deputising for Shakespeare's inexplicably absent poetry. Miraculously, Alan suddenly remembered the last two lines which he thundered out as if in triumph in that unmistakable and effortlessly resonant voice of his and disappeared over the top with a cry of St. George, leaving us poor captains to slither unceremoniously down the wooden rafter unable either to walk or speak, drowning hysterically in a Stygian miasma of stage smoke, steel and Guy Woolfenden's squealing trumpets. The hilarity continued as we collapsed into the Green Room: "but he made animal noises ' I kept repeating, 'Alan made animal noises!" 

    Two of my friends from drama school had been watching on that August afternoon but when I attempted to share with them the tale of Alan Howard's monumental dry their faces remained blank. "When was that?" said one. Incredulous, I went on to describe the event in detail. Still they shook their heads absently recalling nothing of what I described. "But he made animal noises!" I protested. One of my friends placed her hand on my shoulder and said, her eyes brimming with tears, "I’ve just witnessed the greatest Henry V I’ll probably ever see in my lifetime. His performance this afternoon will stay with me forever. The man is a genius."



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Alan Howard: A Tribute

Alan Howard: A Tribute

Posted Thursday 19 Feb 2015 13:15 PM

Alan Howard: A Tribute 


People often used the word magnetic to describe Alan Howard’s stage personality and, having spent two and half years playing messengers in Terry Hands’ award winning history plays in the 1970s, I believe the magnetism was due to a natural pulse that characterised Alan’s work, less a stage-presence than a seemingly effortless stage energy that made him unique among so many leading actors of his generation. Audiences were attracted to it when he walked onstage and actors onstage could feel it, too; it provided a subtle wave of rhythm which gave a vitality to the texts of scenes on which Alan’s delivery would ebb and flow buoyantly, at a lesiurely or break-neck pace and would often be the key signature of the many successful productions of what is often referred to as the RSC’s golden years . 

Audiences would leave the theatre quoting Alan’s line-readings from the memory of having seen him perform and he had that gift which most actors envy of making lines familiar to lovers of Shakespeare and classical authors sound as if one was hearing them for the very first time. I doubt that one could begin to teach the natural skills that Alan possessed but if you stood watching at the back of the stage carrying a spear, the was no end to what you could learn.

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The Unspoken Protocol

The Unspoken Protocol

Posted Wednesday 17 Dec 2014 15:20 PM



   Doing a play often affords an occasion in which famous actors brush shoulders with the not so famous. Most of the famous ("Hi, I'm Judi") are well aware that rank need not be asserted (‘Call me Ben; Benedick's such a mouthful”) but there exists an unspoken protocol (another famous 'Ben' prefers to be called 'Sir Ben') .

   Being lucky enough to be part of a radio comedy series which featured a handful of famous people, I was careful, as a non-famous cast member, not to abuse the privilege of calling Stanley Stanley, Barry Barry and Richard Dickie.

   A lamb occasionally may indeed sup with a lion and over the days or weeks, a professional intimacy develops and sometimes the unspoken protocol takes its leave to return only at the slightest gaucherie for when the line is indiscreetly crossed, the hushed intake of breath and stiffening of shoulders can be abruptly sobering.

   During a break in recording, one particular engineer, noted yet tolerated for his chippiness, patronisingly suggested to one of the most well known performers among us that, surely, his line might be funnier if he were to say it in a certain, less obvious way. The unspoken protocol appeared in full uniform, reducing us all to uncomfortable silence. The human right to make a suggestion notwithstanding, I could see by the surprised faces of the other legends of radio comedy present that they took objection on their esteemed colleague’s behalf. Had the suggestion been good, no doubt that particular actor would have been the first to accept it both gracefully and gratefully. But it wasn't and the elephant in the room was calling for buns.

With saintly inoffensiveness, our unassuming eminence-grise , renowned for his regular team place on 'I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue' averred gently; "I always find that analysing comedy is a bit like dissecting a frog: nobody laughs and the frog dies."                     




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Children

Children

Posted Monday 20 Oct 2014 11:30 AM

  "When the Romans built the Sistine Chapel they didn't begin with the ceiling!" These words may have some aphoristic merit but when spoken by an impassioned young actor to the up-and-coming young directors of a certain Shakespeare company, they are simply a proverb in the mouth of a fool; a self-coined proverb at that. Nevertheless I felt that this company's productions were sacrificing narrative for spectacle, content for form; for if Shakespeare had written 'the production's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king' instead of 'the play…' then Hamlet might not have pricked Claudius quite as effectively and so, in agreement with many of the elder actors in the company, I dismissed this new wave of theatre directors with their passionless self-congratulatory concepts of the classics, as 'children'.

  To the faint whiff of smouldering timber, I began to face the world as a lone freelancer until I found myself working at the National with an actor who was infinitely more successful than I was and I happened to ask him one day whether any young directors had tempted him with offers of work for the company in the Midlands which I no longer seemed to work for: he'd be a coup for them, after all. He gave me a long, frowning sidelong glance and shook his head dismissively. "Children" he said, almost in a whisper. After years of haunting self-doubt, it was invigoratingly reassuring that this award-winning actor shared my personal view. 

  I saw this actor again a few years later and I reminded him of the wisdom we shared with regard to the 'jeunesse d'orée' who were running the company for which we no longer wished to work and he recalled the conversation with an anxious look.

  "Oh, no', he said 'I was talking about leaving my wife and little ones to work away from home for months on end. I didn't mean the directors were children: what I meant was that I have children …"                    



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Access Denied

Access Denied

Posted Thursday 02 Oct 2014 12:12 PM



  When our tour reached the town of Spalding, the temptation to visit my old RAF family home in relatively nearby Manby proved too strong and as local transport seemed unreliable, Stuart, another actor in the company, offered to drive me there and pick me up again after two or three hours, during which time I could indulge my nostalgic wanderlust.

   At eight years old from my bedroom window at the rear of our modest quarters, I had stared out across the boundless airfield of RAF Manby and beheld my first proper football game in all it's vivacious technicolor splendour; at nine, I had nursed my first heartache over classmate Nicola Jones and learned how lethal a girl's charms can be; I'd read The Eagle and Valiant, watched Danger Man and Juke Box Jury; learned of John F. Kennedy's assassination and of Uri Gagarin's space flight, and listened to The Beatles and Telstar. One single glimpse of my old bedroom window would swathe me in a towelled robe of treasured reminiscence.

   In his brand new BMW, Stuart dropped me off at Grimoldby crossroads alongside my old school. My heart thrilled at the sight of it; the old climbing frame, the nook in the playground where I'd try to talk to Nicola Jones:   I walked past the old church on the way to the Manby RAF quarters and passed the sports field where I almost scored the most astonishing thirty yard goal in Lincolnshire sporting history. I felt an ache in my throat as I turned the corner into what was once Siskin Crescent, passing the park roundabout where I remembered seeing another boy holding hands with Nicola Jones. Even though the houses no longer belonged to the RAF, there was still a little pathway at the side of our old home which gave access to the wide airfield and as I approached it, my heart rallied and I knew that within a matter of seconds I would behold my cherished bedroom window from the field below.

   But the airfield was no longer a beckoning landscape of grass; it had become freshly ploughed farmland and the alley was a tuftless quagmire of thickly coagulated mud. A drawback, true, but my childhood window lay just around the corner, seconds away, and even my smart city Loafers could withstand a little country sludge but as I took a third step towards my lost horizon, this mud was reaching far above the welt of both my shoes. To continue was folly.

   With the painful resignation of forsaken opportunity, I thought of Stuart's immaculately upholstered BMW but in turning back, worse was to follow. The depth and cloying consistency of the mud effortlessly relieved me of my left shoe. In fighting to regain it by stocking-toe negotiation with my weaker foot, I only forced it deeper into the mire which now engulfed it and allowed mud into the insole, drenching my sock. In forcing a forward surge with as much of my foot in the shoe as I could manage, I almost compromised my balance. To save myself from falling, my half-shoeless foot found the mud, splashing my trousers. On unsteady legs, two further treacherous steps remained until I was free of the quagmire.

   My final hour was spent down a lane that offered no memory, gathering dock leaves damp enough with moisture to clean my shoes, making them as presentable as I could for Start's pristine BMW and myselfone sodden sock notwithstanding, fit once more for present purpose.                                                                                      

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An Actor's Notes

An Actor's Notes

Posted Friday 26 Sep 2014 13:53 PM

  

   The leading actor in the radio play we were recording was required to serenade his wife whilst accompanying himself on the piano but as he could only stretch as far as the serenading, for a £30.00 supplement to my fee, I was asked to supply the piano accompaniment which would only take two minutes to put down and could be squeezed in during the coffee break. The leading actor, however, refused to be taken for coffee and wished instead to supervise the piano recording. Even after further persuasion by the director, he insisted on staying to oversee what I played; the aural 'illusion' of radio notwithstanding, I was, after all, a part of his performance. I could understand that.

"You know?'' he said after I had recorded the sequence comprising the three necessary chords and passing seventh to accompany the ballad Galway Bay, 'I admire that. To play music just like that is a wonderful thing. A wonderful thing. I admire that. I can't do it. I wish I had the ability. But I haven't." His self-deprecation was beginning to sound like defiance, as if I were accusing him of not being a musician. 'I confess; I can't do it. Play music like that. Just to sit there and…I dunno. That's a thing, it really is.'

As we prepared to do a further take for what recording engineers call 'safety', I explained that I only learned what little piano I knew in order to have more success with girls.

'Ah, I dunno about that.' he said, 'To be able to just do that, just to simply play that music. It's a gift. A gift, I admit, I don't possess. I wish I did.' He sat beside me. "But you could teach me. It looks so simple, what you did just then. Can you show me how?'

The producer rescued me by calling over the intercom that the coffee was still hot. But the actor seized my arm gently as I made to stand up, 'but you know, if I could play…' he eyed me challengingly, 'I wouldn't play it the way you just played it.'                                                                                                                                                                                             
  

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Lacuna Jane

Lacuna Jane

Posted Saturday 20 Sep 2014 14:53 PM

   If my English teacher hadn’t asked me to be in the school play as Rauguel in Tobias and The Angel in1966, I doubt whether I’d have become an actor at all. He took the same chance on a girl in my school year called Jane Green, for that indeed was her name and, at only thirteen years old, he knew - and she proved - that she was, in no small measure, a promising actress.

   He encouraged her to play the part of Estella in Dickens’ Great Expectations in a specially prepared selection of scenes performed after morning assembly before the whole of our School. Even in a gritty industrial suburb of the Midlands, there could be no denying the talent that Jane Green possessed and as accolades abounded, her classmates were as supportive as their envy allowed them to be, for to be sure, should airs and graces suddenly attend her, they, of all people, would be the very first to take pleasure in letting her know.

   In our school production of Oliver Twist in 1969, no-one but Jane could possibly play the part of Nancy.    I held my own as The Artful Dodger but Jane Green was simply and irrefutably charismatic in her death scene with Bill Sykes and even the most cynical among her classmates would have been hard put to disagree. In a suburban industrial milieu where fame belonged only to film stars, pop singers and the occasional sportsman, it took only two public performances for Jane Green’s reputation to spread modestly in the community with the help of the local gazette but after the final performance of Oliver Twist, it spread for a very different reason.

  Jane Green suffered the fateful Dry. Not a fluff nor a stumble; not a stutter nor a split-second lapse of memory; she dried, as they say, stone dead, right in the middle of a speech. We watched in horror as she was given a whispered prompt from our school librarian in the wings after a seemingly interminable silence. Jane appeared not to hear it, as if too dumbstruck and terrified to respond. Taking a second prompt, this time audible to the spectators, Jane Green turned white. The audience of parents, friends and relations began to chuckle and shake their heads. The poor creature froze, she stood as if apart, adrift on a lonely ice-floe leaving the hushed gossip and giggles of others far, far behind. To make matters worse, one or two of the spectators actually called out the line they heard the prompter volunteer. This turned to open laughter as the prompt rang out a third time, for all to hear and Jane Green, fighting to retain her dignity turned in tearful desperation to the prompter, quite forgetting her character and hissed audibly, ‘I’ve said that!’

   The cruelly sudden uproar and tumultous applause that followed must have stayed with Jane Green for all the wrong reasons. Though she finished the scene onstage, afterwards in the wings she was bitterly inconsolable, even by teachers and the curtain call, which, as Nancy, she knew she had to take and sobbed throughout, only added to what she must have felt to be her eternally indelible shame.

   In a gritty industrial Midland suburb, actors who forgot their lines couldn’t be much good and during the remaining four years we shared at school, Jane Green never set foot upon a stage again.                        



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The Water Engineer

The Water Engineer

Posted Monday 15 Sep 2014 14:09 PM

   The tables for hotel breakfast were all occupied so I chose to share with a Japanese gentleman, as my one visit to that country had been a life-affirming experience. As he took trouble to create more space than was necessary to accommodate my breakfast tray, I remembered the studied courtesy and hospitality I encountered in the Japanese people.

   As we exchanged pleasantries, we learned that we were both in Cambridge for the rest of the week and having respectfully acknowledged my claim to be an actor with a slow nod of his head, he explained that he was a water engineer. Seeing my bemused curiosity, he said: "We learn by watching. Observing how the rain falls on a roof, for example, we can follow its natural gravitational path and, by a minimal diversion of that course, conceive a drainage system which is created simply by the water itself. It's not about the engineering: it's about the water."

   "When we prepare a play,' I said, after an appreciative pause, 'our work is perhaps like yours. We must approach the telling of the story as one would go about guiding the journey of a river to the open sea: we must shape its path by digging the earth around it's banks to maximise natural confluence to the running stream, taking care never to step into the water or put rocks in its way, but letting the flow of the story take it's most simple and unobstructed course to the audience. It's not about the acting, it's about letting the narration do it's work."

In the serenity of his Japanese countenance, I beheld an untroubled blend of salutary respect and wary incredulity. I never saw him at breakfast again.


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