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