27 November 2011


Yet there are moments when the walls of the mind grow thin; when nothing is unabsorbed, and I could fancy that we might blow so vast a bubble that the sun might set and rise in it and we might take the blue of midday and the black of midnight and be cast off and escape from here and now.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves (1931)

Photo by EP

Photo by EP
I have been searching through over fifty years of unsorted sound; my backlog of cassettes is a chaotic Tower of Babel, containing chanted lines of old parts, family recordings of Christmases past and golden summers. I even have some tape over forty years old of my elder son. There is dictation from the days before I taught myself to type, and of course the odd radio play. Actually Emily has a very thorough set of her old radio plays. I still remember her wonderful rendering of the line ‘Take me home’ at the end of Michelle Magorian’s Back Home (1995), which recently, on waking, I heard repeated on the radio and which you can hear in my homemade radio talk One’s Own Voice.

This afternoon I decided it would be a treat to hear Bernard Shaw’s play Candida, with Hannah Gordon in the title role, Christopher Guard as the young poet Marchbanks, and myself as the Reverend James Morell. The performance was first broadcast on Radio 4 in 1977 and I find it has been repeated no less than seven times in the last two years on Radio 7 and Radio 4 Extra, without my knowing! My treat was to sit with the afternoon sun pouring through the windows, Shaw’s astringent, witty and sometimes very touching dialogue pouring out of my battered old radio cassette player whilst I finished off my painting of The Allegory of Acquaintance.

Photo by EP

It strikes me that Candida, the ideal woman whom everybody is in love with, and Marchbanks the young poet are genuinely, refreshingly ‘new types’ and remain so. Gordon and Guard are superb. It strikes me, too, what a world of difference there is between Wilde’s Canon Chasuble (whom I’m currently rehearsing) and Shaw’s Reverend Morell, both in their own ways unique as well as being clerical clichés, both in love, both delightful to play. I am disappointed in Shaw for not appreciating The Importance of Being Earnest, but the light touch and the emotional imagination with which he creates the story of his characters in Candida is wonderfully alive.

Athene Syler played Miss Proserpine ‘Prossy’ Garnett on stage in 1937, and told me in her ninety-ninth year that, in the scene where she is tipsy, having tasted champagne for the first time, Shaw wanted her to trip over the mat on her exit. ‘I refused to do it’, she said. ‘“I’ll show you what I’ll do”, I said. And I made for the door from down left to up centre in a sort of controlled curve and got a round every night!’

As I listened, and painted, I imagined … well the play of course, all oddly familiar yet coming as a series of dramatic surprises, and Shaw himself walking up the road to our local train station, which, as we know from his diary, he did at least once. And I read the other day in Trent’s Own Case, the 1936 whodunit written by E. C. Bentley not five minutes’ walk from the same station, his Police Detective Bligh describing Shaw as his favourite ‘literature of escape’ – a phrase coined by a gaolbird who recommended Shaw to the detective:

‘I had to interrogate a prisoner some years ago about a certain matter. A confirmed criminal he was. They used to call him Pantomime Joe, on account of the cheek he used to give everybody from the dock … Joe was an educated man, and it was no surprise to me, when I visited him in his cell, to find him reading a book from the prison library. He showed it to me – Plays Pleasant, by G. B. Shaw. “What’s this?” I said. He grinned at me. “This is the literature of escape, Blighter,” he says, using a silly nickname he and his sort have always had for me. I thought that sounded a funny sort of reading to be put in the hands of a man who spent half his time in gaol, but he explained his meaning.’
‘And what can that have been?’ Trent wondered.
‘Why,’ the inspector said, ‘Joe meant, and I agree with him, that Shaw takes you right out of the beastly realities of life. I can tell you, after a hard day at our job, with all the spite, and greed, and cruelty, and filthy-mindedness that we get our noses rubbed in, it’s like coming out into the fresh country air to sit down to one of Shaw’s plays. … And there’s never a dull moment. Every dam’ character has something to say; even the stupidest ones. … Who ever had the luck to listen to anything like it in real life? I tell you, it’s a different world.’

The recommendation charmed me and I realized this afternoon how fresh an escape Shaw still is, and the characters all do have something to say and say it so well. True escapism, as I observed only last week in speaking of A. L. Kennedy’s The Blue Book, never lets you go.

And talking of prison and libraries, I’ve been re-reading Oscar Wilde’s letters to the Daily Chronicle, written after his imprisonment, with his plea that prisoners should be provided with good books:

Deprived of books, of all human intercourse, isolated from every human and humanising influence, condemned to eternal silence, robbed of all intercourse with the external world, treated like an unintelligent animal, brutalised below the level of any of the brute creation, the wretched man who is confined in an English prison can hardly escape becoming insane. (23 March 1898)

The painting is an attempt at mythography, inspired by Titian, and – as in Titian’s Allegory of Prudence – there will be a Latin motto added by next week. It is a story of another West Hampstead happening: our dog effecting an introduction to one of our notable elderly characters who recounted tales to me of his young and exotic self. I had seen him about the place for twenty-eight years but never spoken to him until Bean introduced us!

Photo by EP
You might like to visit the newly styled homepage of Peth’s Staging Post which features a lovely new portrait of Edward by Bronwen Sharp.

21 November 2011


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness.

Shelley,  ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (1820)

Season of mists ...

and mellow fruitfulness. Photos by EP


It has saddened me on this perfect autumn day to hear from Harriet Walter that Richard Morant, who of course played Bunter in our Dorothy L. Sayers Mysteries, has died at the age of sixty-six.

Actors make so many transient, relatively intimate working relationships with one another and, so often, move on. I had only come into chance contact with him once since those days and, as usually happens, we took up the reins of our good humour and comradeship as if we had just finished a scene together.

The first time Richard and I worked together was in a BBC TV 
production of The Merchant of Venice. I played Lorenzo and he Solanio.

I do not recall from 1986 that we discussed the relationship of officer and batman in the trenches as it developed into man-about-town and gentleman’s gentleman, amateur sleuth and technical assistant. The books had given us chapter and verse and we seemed to come to an understanding, a modus vivendi by some process of osmosis. We developed a supreme tact between us. I remember something about Richard that seemed reliable, benign, with always the twinkle of a possible smile.

Here is just a handful of our scenes together. In the one in which I am tying my bow tie, I remember we made up most of our dialogue.

14 November 2011


And they buried him in the citie of David among the kings, because he had done good in Israel, both towards God, and towards his house.
2 Chronicles, 24:16 (1611 King James Bible

Photo by EP
Some mornings this last week have been grey and the poor shred of a no longer protected ancient orchard, hemmed in by the local railway line and overrun with Japanese knotweed, was hardly visible and more disregarded than ever.

The train journey to Barnes for Importance rehearsals is convenient in theory but often very long in practice. Never mind! Since A. L. Kennedy mentioned and quoted from my book, Slim Chances, on her Twitter page on 27 October, I have sought out and been reading on my Kindle her latest novel The Blue Book and thus enriching my daily commute no end. In fact I have often been annoyed at the disruption caused by my arrival at Barnes station.

Photo by EP
It is one of those almost folly-like stations, Victorian cottage Gothic with impressive chimneys.

The strange, delicately intense – hopeless adjectives –‘fierce’ would do as well and still convey nothing of the world of The Blue Book … anyway it is a world that has been separated from Wilde’s Act 2 and the charms of Cecily’s garden by a ten-minute walk through Barnes Common, which is pleasant enough in the mists but positively uplifting when the summer decides it is not yet over.

Photos by EP
Failing sunshine, there is nothing like a good couple of hours of a full-cast singing rehearsal to lift the heart.

Actually I thought it might not be too late to lift the spirits and take up Tai Chi this morning when I was observing a local exponent on the edge of our green. Tai Chi is related to the martial arts, but a world away from the martial deportment I had been watching in the Remembrance Day ceremony minutes before, televised from Whitehall.

The remnants of the foundations of a WWII air raid shelter were dug up on the green recently; hardly anyone knew what they were. I happened to notice a Jewish boy happily kicking a football nearby.

Photo by EP
On Saturday night in Trafalgar Square, when I emerged from a late-night viewing of the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, there was another exhibition of grace on the wide pavement in front of the National Gallery Portico.

Kathleen reminded me today that the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is the only tombstone in Westminster Abbey’s floor that one cannot walk over.

I remembered a moment from The Blue Book which I will dare to quote here: 
They used to say that there was one time when a king would have to salute a private soldier and the soldier could ignore him – which is when the private soldier is dead.
The Burial of the Unknown Warrior. Painting by Frank O. Salisbury, 1920
King George V and, behind him, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII),
the Duke of York (later George VI) and Prince Henry.

05 November 2011


Without assuming that the world, or a tiny fraction of it, awaits my weekly blog, I feel I ought to post something, come what come may, by each weekend. I have done two days of research and development on the King Lear project, and start rehearsals for the musical of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest on Monday: perhaps I scribbled whilst Rome burned, attempting a drawing class the other morning … I say if a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing not very well, as long as it’s the best you can manage at the time.

The art school is the former home of a forgotten but once famous late Victorian and Edwardian playwright, Henry Arthur Jones. Kathleen tells me that Oscar Wilde quipped: ‘There are three rules for writing plays. The first rule is not to write like Henry Arthur Jones; the second and third rules are the same’.

The top-floor studio of Hampstead Art School in Kidderpore Avenue.
Photo by EP
Saw Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass on Friday night, done superbly well. It was for me a somewhat late conversion to the extraordinary talent of Antony Sher.

The children used to like a supper called bits and pieces; my diet has included this last few days bits and pieces too numerous to mention and piecemeal work on my painting. Here’s a hasty snap of work in progress showing a stab at the young Oliver Cox. One of Kathleen’s last achievements before flying back to Sydney on Saturday night has been to Latinize my motto for the ‘Allegory of Acquaintance’: canis meus erat qui me in hunc antiquum militem induxit, triginta annos hospitem exoticum (‘It took my dog to introduce me to this old soldier, thirty years an exotic stranger’).

And talking of bits and pieces, I end with an attempt in sonnet form to justify my temerity in approaching Lear:

How can one have the courage to approach
The magnitude of Lear’s history
And yet the actor’s pride’s beyond reproach
For all the play’s great depths and mystery
Its raw, severe and storm-lashed language springs
Alive on to the paper to be spoke
Its tender limpidness so gently wings
While limps and swerves the Fool’s dry bitter joke
All tailored to the actor on the stage
To strut his flawed path, recognized and shared
By followers in youth and seasoned age
The audience, all captive and ensnared
All bound by mere pretence and play, to see
That pity for a while can set us free.

Benjamin West’s depiction of Lear and the Fool in the storm scene, 
commissioned for the first illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s plays - 
a project conceived in Georgian West Hampstead.