31 October 2010


O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound.

I prefer to think of pleasant ghosts at this turning of the year into darkness and cold (though I remember many sparkling winter days last year).

What I call ‘The Hamlet Corner’ – from a charcoal drawing I did in 2000 – seems appropriate and features my transparent Ghost to Alex Jennings’s Hamlet in Matthew Warchus’s production for the RSC in 1997, as well the ‘ghosts’ of performers waiting in imagined wings: Stoppard’s attendant lords, my Guildentsern, John Stride’s Rosencrantz and in the background Graham Crowden, of blessed memory, as The Player. (The full drawing can be viewed in the Image Gallery of my website.)

Warchus wanted Hamlet cut to the bone, lite for youngsters, with the atmosphere of a film. Not counting the opening filmed sequence of me and the Queen in the snow with the ten-year-old Hamlet running in slow motion into my arms (to be reprised at the end of the play), my first appearance as the Ghost was amongst the balloons and streamers of the wedding celebrations, the result of a startling jump cut as the grey wall, on which the film had been projected, cracked open on the Claudius wedding party in full swing. I materialized as the unexpected guest in dinner jacket to Hamlet’s amazement and to everyone else’s too, since they couldn’t see me.

With Alex Jennings as Hamlet. Photo by Zuleika Henry.

In the closet scene, I wore white pyjamas and a beautiful black shot-silk dressing gown and could almost have entered carrying a sponge bag and a safety razor, a refugee from a Noël Coward production. 

With Diana Quick as Gertrude. Photo by Zuleika Henry.

I remember being nervous at a schools’ matinée before this particular entrance when we were playing Brooklyn’s huge opera house to a tough audience of local kids. Of course, the audience who doesn’t know the play, or who is young enough at least to be seeing it for the first time, has almost forgotten about the ghost by that time and his ‘domesticated’ appearance, appropriate to the bedroom, did not cause the slightest hint of humour for these youngsters. It was, in fact, a most moving matinée for us. Polonius was shot, not stabbed, through the arras in our production. One would have thought the shootings every day in the streets of Brooklyn and every hour on US television might have desensitized our teenage audience. No. A single boy’s voice called out, ‘Fuck – he shot him!’ and you could still have heard a pin drop. At the end they lifted the roof off: ‘Hamlet, you are THE MAN!’

Our son Arthur and his actress girlfriend, Rebecca Loudon, got dressed up for a Halloween party this evening and, after I took this snap, braved the Northern Line Tube to Old Street. 

Arthur as Pierrot and Rebecca as Medusa.

I don’t think this photo quite does justice to Rebecca’s serpentine headdress:


All Hallows’ Eve

May our Halloween spirits and sprites
Rise not from the depths, but come down from the heights
Cast benign spells and mysteries
Golden tales of our histories
Inspiring our fancy’s fine flights.

24 October 2010


    Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
    Only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness.
    So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another.
    Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.


Charles Dickens was a hit when he toured America; so was the RSC’s eight-hour-and-forty-minute The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in the autumn of 1981. I remember the Manhattan sunshine and that curious energy that seems to rise up from the sidewalks and put a lilt in one’s step. My wife Emily and I were walking to the Plymouth Theatre on 44th Street, where Nickleby was playing, and a voice, the driver of a yellow taxicab, called out: ‘You guys are great!’ Shortly after we opened on Broadway, this cartoon appeared in The New Yorker

The production had always involved us actors in an unusual amount of interplay with the audience. We were encouraged, nay obliged, to move amongst them during the intervals. In New York, Emily, who played Kate Nickleby, met more than her fair share of stars; in fact it was Liza Minnelli who said to her: ‘You have got to take this show on a world tour.’ And I almost found out Andy Warhol’s opinion. One night in the evening interval, I was just about to walk the plank, literally, out into the audience and there he was, with his unmistakably fixed and flyaway ash-blonde hair, sitting in the stalls, about seven rows back and maybe six seats from the end, ravaged and wraith-like, though he was only fifty-three at that time. Well, one of his starlets had taken a pot shot at him in 1968. Such was the creative strain in The Factory.

Warhol was in placid, or rather constrained, interval mode, dressed in a nondescript dark suit, sitting below me on the right, perhaps fifteen feet away, amongst a few empty seats, the people around him not having yet returned. He was quite out of the celebrity-studded context in which he had been so frequently photographed, and remote from the goings on in his Factory bedecked in silver foil. For a moment I doubted my own eyes. There were no sense of a party, no movie camera, no adjacent teenagers in and, half or entirely, out of denim, nobody screenprinting, composing music or filming the proceedings. He looked astonishingly alone.

CHARLES DICKENS MEETS ANDY WARHOL. Could there be a more unlikely encounter? I sit here aghast at the lost opportunity because Newman Noggs could have met him. Was it timidity on my part? Actually, he was the one who looked timid and vulnerable sitting there, so much so that I felt as if it would be invasive, exploitative to take advantage of my opportunity. It was as if the time had come for him to experience his fifteen minutes of anonymity.

He wasn’t even reading the programme, always a useful theatregoing activity to defend oneself from looking friendless or at a loose end when alone in a theatre seat. There can be a special security, a dignity even, in sitting alone in a church pew, where one can elect to be in the Presence and not alone at all. Carefully bearing his burden of being Andy Warhol, he disturb his ever so slightly uneasy gaze to take me in; so I left him there alone, looking like a piece of flotsam that had floated away from its jetsam, when I could so easily have sat quietly beside him and said … what? In my make-up and aged, tattered Victorian clothes, selected from an obscure rail at Nathan’s back home in Camden Town, I don’t think I could have worked out what to say, or who to be, in relation to this fragile contemporary icon, whom the press and whose own publicity machine had made public property. In this context he seemed delicate and entirely private property. In what capacity would I have introduced myself? He was an artist and I one of the artistes, to give the term the French spelling I remember from notices bearing lists of backstage rules in the days when I played the kind of theatres where Variety was usually performed.

Just recently I have depicted visually this momentous near miss of a meeting – the latest illustration for Slim Chances.


Although he did not stay with the cast of Nickleby for the New York season, I still vividly remember the Vincent Crummles of Graham Crowden. Graham died last week aged eighty-seven. I particularly remember him in a tiny scene in the play’s second half. Crummles had been out of the story for some time and Graham had played another part (that of Walter Bray) in the interim, but he reappeared, ran into Nicholas or rather, like the figurehead on a ship’s prow, entered majestically on a moving truck from stage right and the audience invariably applauded – as though they were welcoming back an old friend. He was already my old friend for we had played together at the Old Vic, shared many jokes and eventually a dressing room with Jeremy Brett, Derek Jacobi and Ronald Pickup in Olivier’s National Theatre.

Trewlawny of the 'Wells', NT, 1965.
L to r: Louise Purnell (Rose Trelawny; Graham (Augustus Colpoys);
Billie Whitelaw (Avonia Bunn); myself (Ferdinand Gadd)

And, of course, in 1967 he had created The Player in the premiere of Stoppard’s first stage hit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Graham’s Crummles was all benevolence, but the theatricality of his Player was, if not malign, then somehow in possession of a dark fatalistic secret which glittered through the humour and flamboyance of his definitive performance. The look of his tatterdemalion figure and the bite and incisive wit of Stoppard’s lines I can still see and hear. He had a way with words: one afternoon a year or so ago I woke from an afternoon nap to hear him in a classic play on the BBC World Service, speaking the dialogue faultlessly. He was a classic! Eccentric and classic.

Myself as Guildenstern far left; Graham as The Player, 2nd from right.

18 October 2010


'I take it you won't need a microphone?' said Christopher Dean, Chairman of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society. Flattering of course, but I said we ought to have the option. For the luncheon party to celebrate the launch of The Attenbury Emeralds we were to be practically on the terrace of the House of Lords and I imagined, from the map Dean had drawn me, a long room with people spread to my left and right and the River Thames behind them. It turned out to be just so and to be a beautiful day. We spilled out onto the narrow terrace, narrow because the 'room' we were in was really a semi-permanent marquee occupying most of the width of the terrace. 

A view of the terrace in Edwardian times.

This famous spot affords views of the South Bank with the unremarkable 1980s addition to St Thomas’s Hospital opposite and the more attractive brick original obscured by trees. There are steel and glass buildings to the west, including the one with the most lovely view of the Houses of Parliament – from its choice lofty penthouse you feel as though you are hovering over the middle of the river: I know this because it is owned by Lord Archer and I have hovered there myself by virtue of being in his play, The Accused. On one of his walls there is another splendid view of the Thames, painted by Monet from the room he hired at the Savoy Hotel. What I am saying is that the Houses of Parliament themselves are surrounded by inferior views whilst providing a spectacular Victorian Gothic fantasy to the hospital patients, office workers, millionaire penthouse dwellers and the tourist hoi polloi.

View of the Houses of Parliament from the terrace of St Thomas's Hospital, 1960.

The fabric of the 'tent' absorbed the sound of the human voice very efficiently, even though there was a mike. The difficulty was compounded by a noisy ventilation system. During the speech of welcome I stood next to Norma Major; noting the problem, she told me she was off on a quest to get the ventilators turned off. She succeeded in time for Jill Paton Walsh's little speech. Jill confessed to being in love with Lord Peter Wimsey as Dorothy Sayers had been before her. The passage I read featured, amongst other things, a long speech by the Dowager Duchess and played like a marvellous light-comedy script. The 'luncheon' consisted of the most diminutive canapés I have ever seen. 

On the way out I was impressed by a striking portrait of Baroness Amos of Brondesbury, former Leader of the House of Lords and current UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator. 

The Baroness Amos of Brondesbury by Paul Benney. 
Oil on canvas, 48" x 44". 2004.

Brondesbury is in Brent – one thinks of the National Theatre of Brent. Modest areas of our land have become ennobled in these democratic times. Actually the National Theatre of Brent provides me with the perfect link – not to portraiture but 'modern art'. Did you happen to catch their hilarious history of contemporary art broadcast on Radio 4 in August – ‘Tracey Emin and How She Done the Bed’? So much more to the point than the trendy journalism about art and art curators and dealers, which pervades every paper I pick up at the moment. And so I come to my own small self-portrait – not to be mentioned in the same breath as all the talk in these modish articles with their impossibly modish personalities in their impossibly smart minimalist interiors.

This, I hope, shows an advance from last week's preview:

Vintage Seer and Yellow. Acrylic on canvas, 10" x 14".

I finish with a modest footnote on art from a 1953 weekly rep programme. My first professional job, at the tender age of seventeen and whilst still at drama school, was in Halifax, Yorkshire, playing Frith, the white-haired butler of Manderlay, in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. There was not much to read in those old theatre programmes, unless one was interested to learn, yet again, that wardrobe care was by Lux, nylon stockings by Kayser Bondor, cigarettes by Senior Service or Abdulla, and that Act 2 was the same scene four days later. 

But in coming across the programme of Rebecca, what I love and wouldn't have missed is the half-page letter to the members of the Theatre Club of the Halifax Theatre Royal, touching on a plan to adorn the walls of the theatre's corridors with exhibitions of paintings.

The current exhibition is by members of the Halifax Art Society whose members get their living in various ways. They help to keep their sanity by observing nature and trying to interpret her secrets in line and colour – in short by making pictures.

I rest my case.

If you would care to glimpse a portrait of the artist as a young man, I have recently uploaded to YouTube a few clips of my Lorenzo in the 1972 BBC production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Cedric Messina.

11 October 2010


You may recall an earlier incarnation of this self-portrait, which featured in my very first webcam blog back in March. Today I was inspired to revise the painting and so I offer here a detail of my work in progress.

Tomorrow a lunch reception is being given by Lord Cope of Berkeley for the Dorothy L. Sayers Society in the Cholmondeley Room and Terrace at the House of Lords. My wife Emily and I are invited and Jill Paton Walsh will be there. She will speak and I am to read from The Attenbury Emeralds. I am hoping to get an early night but want to get this painting's improvements … improved first!

04 October 2010


It is meat and drink to me to see a clown.
Touchstone, As You Like It, Act V, sc.i

There is rather a lot to contend with on my revamped website.* But in case anyone would like some light reading, this week's blog features an outtake from the manuscript of my book Slim Chances. I have seen an amazing span of theatre in the last fortnight, much of it proving that the realistic well-made play of then and indeed now is very much alive.

Some years ago, after a visit to a circus at Camden's Roundhouse, I wrote: 

I know that I saw something essential last night. It dispelled all tired, heartless, conventionalized routine, neither was there the faintest whiff of the pretentious, technically inadequate aspirations of so much theatrical experimentation, which hopes to tap the roots of Essential Theatre.

Watching the hair-raising results of what must be a prodigious dedication, I kept on being reminded of a movement teacher at the National Theatre in the 1960s, Yat Malmgren, who once said during a class, 'If you were performers in a circus, you'd kill yourselves every night.'

Last night, had we realized it, the avenging angels and wrathful gods of the United Nations, with deadly computerized precision, were aiming cruise missiles at the Serb positions around Sarajevo. High up beneath the Roundhouse roof, with wonderful precision, time after impossible time, the trapeze artists would swing and hurtle and revolve in uncountable somersaults. Then the dreadful drop and four hands would find one another in the air, two saving and two, belonging to a falling angel, saved. Landing back on their perches, they would look down on us and shout their triumph, smiling and happy.

Lower down, two frizzy-haired women defied gravity by grasping each other in unheard-of interlocking embrace, like a living chain-link puzzle. And the bicycle was ridden, like a leaping, prancing gazelle, and bounced off a trampoline by crazed genius, who clearly lives with it and has never been seen on any other form of transport.

The clown tried to net a butterfly, make spots disappear from a handkerchief, and displayed his shy cunning whilst wondering at us and the world. Finally, reading from a picture book to his inattentive baby, he manifest the truth of James Agate's proposition that 'puppetry is the point at which all schools [of acting] converge.'  

The circus comes to town in many guises. Allow me to quote again Harold Hobson's comment in 1950:
The span of time between The Second Mrs Tanqueray and The Winslow Boy is theatrically speaking enormous. Our characteristic contemporary drama is in its extreme old age. In its prime its vitality depended on the excitement caused by the new method of realism, which for the first time in many decades made stage characters talk, walk, speak, dress, behave and think like ordinary human beings.
Well its vitality survives, not least because ordinary human beings are so extraordinary. Sure, we dance and sing and mime them more than we did, but we have learnt to listen to nuclear physicists on a West End stage, after reading a crash course in quantum theory in the programme, learnt too that box sets can accommodate low-life vagrants who hold the mirror up to our nature. We have wept at puppet horses whilst their pragmatic puppeteers were plainly, ordinarily in view, and tussled with politicians and bankers. As I write, Coward and Rattigan beguile astonished young critics with their freshness. Old age? Well it is, after all, the oldest profession, 'Let's Pretend'.


The first impressive clown I remember seeing was Popov of the Moscow State Circus, who in 1956, in the vast Belle Vue arena in Manchester, seemed single-handedly to thaw the Cold War – he was the first Soviet clown to perform in the Western world. Our Northern Theatre School class was taken on a special trip. 

The slack wire must be infinitely more difficult to work on than the tightrope, especially if your act depends on looking as if you are in constant danger of falling off or getting clothes entangled. But the great moment was when he suddenly spoke just three words, an English North Country exclamation, in a voice we all heard: 'Ee by gum!' No doubt in London it was 'Cor, blimey!'

My favourite story, my Muscovite readers will be interested to know, concerns one of the workers' clubs in Kutuzovskaya Street. At the age of eighteen, Oleg Popov was called into the director's office of the Moscow Circus School and told he should go and see a clown at the Metro Builders' Club in Kutuzovskaya Street, the director having seen 'a young clown who was very like you only better.'

'I can't go and see him', said Popov.

'And why not?'

'Because it's me', he replied.

* Two brand new additions to the website: a Newman Noggs video compilation and another rare excerpt from Bill Naughton's 1963 radio play, November Day. And over on YouTube you can watch two scenes from R. C. Sherriff's Journey's End, filmed for television in 1988.