18 June 2012


The past is the beginning of the beginning and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn. 
H. G. Wells

The charm of history and its enigmatic lesson consist in the fact that, from age to age, nothing changes and yet everything is completely different.
Aldous Huxley

I have been thinking globally recently, of the splendour of Greece (Ancient of course), of the Common Man’s life under the Roman Empire, but yesterday we did our final rehearsal-room work and tomorrow The Importance of Being Earnest rehearses on the stage of the Theatre Royal Windsor. I failed to make this precious, fitfully sunny Sunday creative, or even recreative, and certainly it was not global: chores mainly, though I managed three acts of charity.

First I decided to de-clutter my wardrobe and give a dinner suit away to a local charity shop. They seemed only faintly pleased, but perhaps they were surprised that I wanted to check its pockets first. What should I find but a name badge in the breast pocket: ‘Edward Petherbridge, Guest Speaker’. There was a crest that I recognized – Reigate and Banstead Borough Council – and I remembered then that I had actually bought from this same charity shop the very suit I was giving them back. It had been an emergency replacement because I’d found at the last minute that my old suit didn’t really fit (it had been so long since I had appeared in evening dress). On the way out of the shop I saw a very smart shirt with a Jermyn Street label, a snip at £6.50, so I bought it. When a lady called at our house later in the afternoon looking for support for St John’s Ambulance training courses in schools I though here was my chance to be charitable without an ulterior motive. 

But I still have the feeling that I have frittered the day away. I think it is because I came across a prop book in the rehearsal room last week, a slim volume called A Short History of the World by H. G. Wells. I told Kathleen how fascinated I was by it, and a copy arrived in the post two days later.

H. G. Wells, 1934. Photo by Howard Coster.
National Portrait Gallery

‘The Neanderthaler, according to Prof. Rutot.’
An illustration from Wells’s A Short History
I feel feckless when I am not making it my business to read such a handily succinct account of everything from the first stirrings in the primeval mud, through the evolution of man, the great personalities and eras up to the particulars of 1922 when the book first appeared (there have been additions in my Penguin paperback by Wells’s son and Raymond Postgate, taking us up to the mid-1960s). 

The book has made the long Tube journeys to rehearsal in Clapham a pleasure, and I was astonished to find in the Independent the other day, a photograph of 37,300-year-old Neanderthal cave art and the claim that ‘4% of every modern European’s genome is traceable to Neanderthal origins.’

The Panel of Hands, El Castillo Cave in northern Spain above
and detail below

Once again I feel disturbed that my life is not more … how can I put it? Elemental? True the little role of Canon Chasuble, with the added treat of his duet with Miss Prism, doesn’t seem on the surface to draw on my 4% of Neanderthal, but any rehearsal worth its salt requires one to live more concentratedly, essentially, and one only has to flick through Wells’s world history, or the Independent for that matter, to realize just how very fortunate one is and to be fired with the determination to make the very best of one’s infinitesimally small role in the great scheme of things, just as soon as one has de-cluttered one’s wardrobe, puzzled over those papers and sent them off to the accountant, etc., etc. … 

Cartoon by Herbert Samuel Thomas.
National Portrait Gallery

Just a few weeks ago Kathleen and I had the pleasure of a private viewing in the Houses of Parliament of some paintings executed by a former resident of West Hampstead, Victorian artist John Rogers Herbert. On our way out we stood under the magnificent hammer-beam roof of vast Westminster Hall, commissioned by Richard II and completed the year he was deposed, 1399, under which grew up the major institutions of the British state and Elizabeth II recently sat down to a celebratory Diamond Jubilee lunch. This medieval roof, the largest of its kind in northern Europe, seems to bear the weight of history lightly, but nonetheless impressively.

Photo by EP

03 June 2012


Photo by EP

‘Up to a thousand boats will muster on the River Thames in preparation for the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant.’ So says The Times today in its Jubilee Weekend Guide.

In 1956, three years after Elizabeth’s coronation, Kenneth Tynan wrote marvellously about a rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’. The occasion was the first visit of a theatre company from behind the Iron Curtain. I remember the almost feverish anticipation whipped up by those critics who had been to East Berlin and, as I stood at the back of the circle in the Palace Theatre, I heard the tantalizing fanfare the little pit orchestra of the Berliner Ensemble, weaned on Kurt Weill, made of our national anthem. It was played delicately, as if for a marionette theatre, and with a touch of Handel about it. If we felt our queen and country were being ridiculed, Britain could take it and enjoy the sophisticated, elegant joke. In any case, it was an improvement on the standard pit orchestra rendition. Tynan saw it differently:
The orchestration is backed by a trumpet obbligato so pompous and feeble that it suggests a boy bugler on a rapidly sinking ship.
Which brings me back to tomorrow’s enormous flotilla. We have had the last laugh. The Berliner Ensemble sails on of course but no longer as the cultural flagship of the German Democratic Republic. Of all the revolutionary demonstrations we have seen of late, none have been so benign and bloodless as the tearing down of the Berlin wall.

It so happens that I woke to the words of Gyles Brandreth this morning; he was on the monarchists’ side of the Today debate on Radio 4.

Then I arrived at Clapham for a rehearsal of the musical of The Importance of Being Earnest where he was already singing Lady Bracknell’s part in the number about the handbag. Later he told me he was gong to be the last person to board the last boat in the flotilla and that behind him would be the London Symphony Orchestra. The clue to the success of our Royal Family is, he had said on the programme, the combination of fairytale and history. He and Steve Bell (for the opposition) got nicely tangled in the last moments of their war of attitudes. Gyles had been talking about crowns and fancy costumes being no more real than the Archbishop of Canterbury’s earlier gushing words. ‘Nothing  is real’, and Steve Bell chimed in ironically, pity he didn’t sing: ‘Nothing is real and nothing to get hung about.’

Photo by EP
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ for National Anthem? Well, no. Perhaps they were both missing, or avoiding, the point. Only last night Kathleen and I were looking at a coin of the realm and marvelling that even one of the most recent date still bears the inscription DEI. GRA. REG. FID. DEF. (DEI GRATIA REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR), which, as all good subjects know, meaneth ‘By the Grace of God, Queen and Defender of the Faith’. Perhaps that is something to get hung about.

Photo by EP
Weather permitting, there is to be a community lunch on our green tomorrow. I rather liked seeing it at its quietest tonight: two young oriental men gracefully practising tai chi and a muslim praying to Mecca, though curiously he seemed to be facing south towards the River Thames.

Celebrations in Kilburn for the Royal Wedding, 1981.
Photos by EP