28 December 2014

DAVID RYALL, 1935-2014

Today I turned up the notes I had written after my visit to Bille Whitelaw at Denville Hall and found David Ryall’s name too. David had played a small part in Trelawny of the ‘Wells’, I recall.

Proudly, Billie showed me her room. They’ve built a fine new extension since I was last there in the 80s and the rooms are spacious with en suite shower rooms and Billie particularly enjoys her view of the garden. Amongst her pictures I noticed a series of photographic studies of her thirty-eight-year-old son when he was about nine, a photograph of ‘Sam’ of course, who is always photogenic, and old posters of Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ –‘You must have contributed to them; the company gave them to me when I left’. Yes, faintly I remember. When I left, after six years – it was a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern night I remember – there was no ceremony of any kind, except that some bunches of violets were thrown at my feet from the gallery (I pressed and framed them with their note and kept them for quite a few years – who threw them, I still wonder). David Ryall, who’d understudied me for the three years plus I’d played the part, came into the dressing room at the last minute and presented me with half a bottle of whisky, the result of a quick whip-round.

So on that day at Denville Hall, as well as talking with the woman who had danced for Diaghilev and Fred Astaire [Wendy Toye], I talked with the woman who had walked down the Boulevard with Samuel Beckett; as we had stood amongst the throng round the table of cakes and savouries, she had suddenly spoken to me the opening chunk of Not I in a hushed breathless monotone whisper with ‘no acting’ as Sam had wanted it, but it had its own special music.

I have a longish letter David wrote to me ten years ago. It was written on stage at Wyndham’s Theatre during a performance of Michael Frayn’s Democracy when David had a long period as one of several politicians, sitting upstage and working at a desk as I remember. He was very convincing in the part, and no doubt on the night he wrote to me he seemed to be addressing a constituent – which, in a way, he was.

He had joined Olivier’s National Theatre company just a year after me. He took over from Frank Wylie the role of Pedro de Candia in The Royal Hunt of the Sun and we appeared together in Strindberg’s Miss Julie as part of the Chichester season of 65. On the NT tour of Canada for Expo 67, where we performed Feydeau’s A Flea in her Ear, he begged me to accompany him by train – as he loathed flying – from Winnipeg, through the Rockies at dead of night (so we never saw them), to the West Coast. He remained grateful that we had shared that long, tedious journey.

Laurence Olivier with David Ryall in a 1966 rehearsal for A Flea in Her Ear.
Photo by Chris Arthur 
We last appeared on stage together in 1998, on another North American tour, in Matthew Warchus’s production of Hamlet for the RSC when he played Polonius and I doubled the roles of the Ghost and Player King. I remember a particularly moving matinee in Brooklyn to a tough audience of local kids. David’s 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: ‘F**k – he shot him!’ and you could still have heard a pin drop.

Alex Jennings (fourth from left left) as Hamlet; EP (centre);
David Ryall (third from right
). Photo by Donald Cooper
I heard too late, some months ago, that David had done a run of King Lear in a fringe production at the Cockpit Theatre, bravely reading much of the part as he had recently undergone chemotherapy and his memory was defective. Touchingly his younger daughter Charlie played Cordelia.

As Lear at the Cockpit in March 2014

26 December 2014


Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently makeshift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the still, frosty air. 
Rifleman Graham Williams, of the 5th London Rifle Brigade

A Merry Christmas to You All!

Photo by EP

22 December 2014


Photo by EP
I know that we both took acting classes for young amateurs in the same upper room in Bradford - a disused wool-sorting room it was in Chapel Street, the least theatrical street imaginable but the cradle of a surprising number of theatrical careers. She must have preceded me by about three years. But we were to play husband and wife (Ferdinand Gadd and Avonia Bunn – character names to conjure with) in Arthur Wing Pinero’s magical backstage comedy Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ at the National Theatre in 1965/6.

Trewlawny of the ‘Wells’, NT, 1965. L to r: Louise Purnell (Rose Trelawny); 
Graham Crowden (Augustus Colpoys); Billie Whitelaw (Avonia Bunn);
EP (Ferdinand Gadd). Photo by Angus McBean
I last saw Billie when I was invited to a function at the actors’ rest home Denville Hall a few years back. We had not seen each other since 1976 when I was in a reading of a script by her husband Robert Muller at their home. At Denville Hall, after a lapse of over thirty years, in a way she looked just the same but she told me she had a condition that made her balance unsteady. We chatted as we helped  ourselves to tea at a buffet and she quite naturally – in parenthesis – went into a short section of Not I and then continued reminiscing about Beckett and Pinero – one might say two figures at opposite poles of the drama. I remember the quiet speed and clarity of her speech as she gently launched into the part for which she is still famous. They played a clip on the radio last night and I heard every word, not something one can say about every rendition of that ‘impossibly’ challenging role.

Samuel Beckett with Billie Whitelaw in Not I at the Royal Court in 1979.
Photo by John Haynes

09 December 2014


Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance.
Marcel Proust, Time Regained 

Heart of the Gothic Quarter, Barcelona.
Photo by EP

30 November 2014


    The Advent wind begins to stir
    With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
    It’s dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
    And in between we only see
    Clouds hurrying across the sky
    And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
    And branches bending to the gale
    Against great skies all silver pale …

John Betjeman, ‘Advent 1955’

These photos of the last two dates on our tour, Scarborough and Barcelona, tell their own contrasting story in light.

Photo by EP
Photo by EP
On my return to London, having recovered from a well-timed cold, I took myself to the the National Gallery by Tube to see Rembrandt: The Late Works. On the homeward journey these were just some of the Santa Clauses I saw making their way up the escalator to Trafalgar Square. Two brave ones ran up the stairs.  

Photo by EP
The hotel at which I stayed in Scarborough had once been owned by Charles Laughton’s brother (Scarborough was Laughton’s birthplace, and Edith Sitwell’s no less!). And there’s a connection between this seaside resort, Rembrandt and West Hampstead. The surrealist artist John Armstrong lived in a room near Fortune Green, NW6 in the early 1920s. In 1936, the year I was born, he was the designer for the Alexander Korda film Rembrandt, with Laughton in the title role. The same year he created a mural for Tom Laughton’s Royal Hotel in Scarborough.

L. One of Armstrongs costume designs for Rembrandt.
R. Laughton as Rembrandt
Furthermore, in 1936, Charles Laughton opened the Odeon Cinema in Scarborough – for years now the home of Ayckbourn’s theatre-in-the-round, the Stephen Joseph. 

It has a studio theatre where My Perfect Mind played, fashioned from the dress circle of the Art Deco cinema.

Photos by EP

23 November 2014


Barcelona, an admirable city, a city full of life, intense, a port open to the past and future.
Le Corbusier 

The autumn tour of My Perfect Mind has ended in true Catalan style with two shows at the Teatre Lliure (Catalan for ‘Free Theatre’) in Barcelona. We had a lovely reception with capacity houses both nights – entrades exhaurides (sold out) in fact!

In this city of opulent eclecticism, where Roman ruins coexist with Gaudi’s Modernista flights of fancy, the state-of-the-art 400-seat auditorium, in which we performed, is housed in an impressive heritage building, the old Palace of Agriculture constructed for the 1929 Barcelona Exposition.

Photo by EP

Photo by EP

Edward being interviewed at Teatre Lliure
A few of the tweets that greeted our Spanish two-night stand:

Riure inteligentment a ‪#MyPerfectMind al ‪@teatrelliure. Boníssim.

‪#MyPerfectMind Brillantísima e hilarante. Dons monstruos en el Lliure. Geniales!

Brillant ‪#MyPerfectMind al ‪@teatrelliure. Classe magistral d'humor i discurs corrosiu.

It is by no means the end of the road for My Perfect Mind as we have another international ‘gig’ lined up for next summer. More of that anon along with more pictures from Barcelona ...

09 November 2014


Fragment of the Berlin Wall.
Photo by EP

02 November 2014


Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance.
Marcel Proust 

Belatedly the finale to our State of the Art triptych:

And as British Summer Time has not long ended, a short round-up of the PA (Petherbridge Academy) Summer Exhibition:

Portrait of Proust, aged twenty-one
by Jacques-Emile Blanche
Having been absorbed for the past couple of months in the world of George Eliot, I am at last reading the greatest twentieth-century French novel, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). And I’m reminded of a limerick I wrote when I was beleaguered for days on a dull film set in a south London backwater, doing an episode of a police series for TV. Worried at on point about some continuity issue with my breast-pocket handkerchief, I was told it didn’t matter for the next shot because I was going to be in the back of it.

    To the back of the shot I am used
    Where my image is vague and diffused
    I do not demur
    At being a blur
    But I could be at home reading Proust.

As it happens, Proust was as absorbed as I by the novels of George Eliot and once admitted to the diplomat Robert de Billy ‘two pages of Mill on the Floss reduce me to tears.’ 

01 November 2014


So mild has this Halloween been
The warmest one ever recorded or seen
We should be brainstorming
About global warming
Should we go for the party that’s Green?
Photo by EP

27 October 2014


My birthday began with the water-
     Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
        Above the farms and the white horses
                And I rose
            In a rainy autumn
     And walked abroad in shower of all my days …
Dylan Thomas, ‘Poem in October’

An experiment in pastiche to mark the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth.

‘Dylan Thomas, the other speaker on this occasion, was equally as evocative as Dr Sitwell, with his more rhetorical and annunciatory lines … “There were great oscillations of temperature … You knew there had once been warmth.” It was a joy and a privilege to hear the English language spoken with Dr Sitwell’s and Mr Thomas’s intense feeling for the beauty of words.’ (Neville Cardus, ‘The Story of Hiroshima in Music: Setting of Edith Sitwell’s “Shadow of Cain”’, Guardian, 18 November 1952)

Portrait of Dylan Thomas by Rupert Shephard, 1940

20 October 2014


‘Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse’
by Joshua Reynolds (1784)
Last week in Leeds, while staying at the Ibis hotel a short walk from the West Yorkshire Playhouse, I was astonished to learn that the manager of the sister hotel across town was a Mrs Sarah Siddons. The Mrs Siddons, the great eighteenth-century tragedienne, first appeared in Leeds in 1786 and seems to have subscribed to actor-manager Wilkinson Tate’s view that Leeds was ‘the actor’s Botany Bay’. Her opinion was no doubt influenced by the following unfortunate incidents:

During an engagement at Leeds she played with the elder Mathews, who describes what she suffered from the barbarous frequenters of the galleries. When she was about to drink the poison, one called out, ‘Soop it oop, lass!’ When she was playing the ‘sleeping scene’ in Macbeth, a boy, who had been sent for some porter, walked on to the stage and presented it to her. In vain the great actress motioned him away; in vain hoarse voices called him off. The house roared; the whole play was spoiled. No wonder, when the curtain came down, on the last night of her engagement at Leeds, that she said, ‘Farewell, ye Brutes!’ (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1872)

Up until last week, I too might have had my doubts about Leeds, but My Perfect Mind was most warmly received by wonderfully witty and sophisticated audiences at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Paul Hunter and I have been gratified indeed by the lovely ‘tweets’ about the show and to know that people continue to find such a profound connection with it:

Still basking in the pure unadulterated joy of ystrday’s My Perfect Mind frm ‪@toldbyanidiot93 If you only see 1 show this year make it this.

That was just possibly the most brilliant thing I’ve seen this year (and I’ve seen a lot of brilliant shows recently). ‪#MyPerfectMind

So many comic, poignant and meta-theatrical layers to ‪#MyPerfectMind that I want to go straight back to ‪@WYPlayhouse and watch it again.

ICYMI ‪#MyPerfectMind ‪@tftheatres is a joy of a show full of theatrical anecdote that thrills. 

Lear self-portrait, West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Photo by EP
Last Thursday I did a Desert Island Discs-style interview for BBC Radio Leeds, choosing pieces of music with special associations for me – quite a few of them to do with my boyhood in Bradford, just eight miles away.

Mural of Leeds-born Alan Bennett on the wall of the BBC
building in Leeds. In 2000, I appeared as Sir Anthony Blunt in
Bennett’s A Question of Attribution. Photo by EP
An afterword or two on Sarah Siddons. Some years ago I met her great-great-great-great-grandson, Michael Corby, founder of the 1970s group The Babys and son of the founder of the Corby trouser press company.

Portrait of Dibdin by J. Young
And, as always, there’s a link to West Hampstead. The prolific dramatist and godson of David Garrick, Thomas John Dibdin (1771-1841), who had a cottage at West End (as it then was), played Cupid at the age of four to Mrs Siddons’s Venus in Garrick’s revival of his Shakespearean pageant The Jubilee ‎at Drury Lane.

This week we travel north again, to Liverpool where we played last March at the Unity Theatre and where I made this little film as a memento of the tour.


    With his chaste designs
    On classical lines,
    His elegant curves and neat inclines.
    For all day long he’d measure and limn
    Till the ink gave out or the light grew dim ...
Hugh Chesterton, ‘London Calling Christopher Wren’

A few photos in honour of Sir Christopher Wren, born 382 years ago today.
49 Bankside, Cardinal’s Wharf.
Photo by EP
It is said that Christopher Wren stayed here so that he could have an overview of the City of London and of the church spires and towers and the dome of St Paul’s rising above the houses as London was rebuilt after the Great Fire – a claim now challenged. It is also said that, in an earlier house on this site, Catherine of Aragon rested before she went up the Thames to meet her husband-to-be, Henry VIII.
Photo by EP
The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Christopher Wren. 
Photo by EP
Speaking of Henry VIII, in 1546 he founded Christ Church College, Oxford and 135 years later Wren designed the college’s famous bell tower. ‘Great Tom’ is still sounded 101 times each night at 21:05 ‘Oxford time’, i.e. five minutes past 21:00 GMT, the time when the original 101 students were called back for curfew.
Tom Tower, Christ Church College, Oxford
Photo by Kathleen Riley
The roof in the foreground is part of Christ Church Cathedral School, birthplace in 1893 of Dorothy L. Sayers whose Lord Peter Wimsey proposed (finally and successfully) to Harriet Vane in the shadow of Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre – and with the very word uttered for centuries inside the Sheldonian, ‘Placetne?’