Archive for the ‘Actors’ Category
Still not really in my rhythm but getting some stuff done. The highlights of the last couple of weeks (The Story conference displaced last week’s entry) are primarily interviews. Today I did an interview with Barbara Windsor who was one of the third generation of Joan Littlewood’s acting ensembles doing Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1959, before transferring to the West End, as well as Oh What a Lovely War on Broadway in 1965 (where Barbara was Tony-nominated). It was fascinating to hear how tricky Barbara found Joan’s loose, improvisational approach after a training in the West End where the script was the script and you did exactly what the director told you to do. But what emerged from the experience ultimately was the actress getting more in touch with her real self, after years of playing down her East End background. Joan really admired her work in EastEnders - and thought she was the only one with a decent Cockney accent. Barbara learnt from Joan during Fings at the Garrick when she was drifting into artifice and over-blown performance, too Judy Garland, not enough Bethnal Green, and carried that lesson forward for the rest of her career.
Last week I interviewed Hamish MacColl, son of Joan’s first husband Ewan MacColl (folk singer and playwright), brother of singer Kirsty MacColl. He was kind enough to share some of his memories of Joan from his teenage years. He has his mother living with him, Jean Newlove, the third corner of an artistic triangle at the core of the Theatre Workshop with Joan (director), Ewan (writer/music) and Jean (movement). Hamish arranged for me to interview Jean too. Jean is an associate and champion of Rudolf Laban’s analytical movement work, using people’s physical actions, in the theatre context, as a key to their character and portrayal. She is 91 now and sounded incredibly energetic and youthful, quite inspirational. She told me a bit about the early years of the Theatre Workshop including when they were camped out at Ormesby Hall near Middlesborough in a kind of proto-hippy thespian commune.
I also sent my Proposal document off on the start of its journey to a potential publisher which would be a real coup if it all comes off. I sent it on a particular day to mark the memory of a friend of mine who checked out way too early.
So progress made, even if a little unevenly.
Day 80 was just a couple of hours really. It was the day after Boxing Day so didn’t count 100% as a working day. I carried on pulling the research material together into the first draft of the Joan Littlewood chapter. Then I had an urge, mid flow, to try to write the emblematic scene which opens each chapter, designed to capture the essence of the protagonist. In this case I opted for a scene from the performance of The Hostage at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1958. It’s based on my interview with actor Murray Melvin. It’s actually the bit of the interview where my recorder crapped up on me for the one and only time so far but luckily I wrote down the main points on the Central Line home from Stratford – just as well as I’d already forgotten the finer details which surprised me. Even though it’s only been a couple of months I forgot which play it is associated with and what Behan actually said. The first draft I wrote from memory. Then thought to check my record and now I’m fixing it this morning (Day 81).
The point of the scene is that Brendan Behan regularly attended the production and had a habit of interrupting from the auditorium much to the delight of the audience. This meant the actors were put on edge which is something Littlewood liked as it kept the play fresh and alive during the run and underlined the participative nature of her theatre in that the audience, the actors, the writer and her as director all had significant contributions to make to make the play the best thing it could be.
The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.
I’m writing this post in the sunlit, leaf-strewn churchyard of St Marylebone Parish Church, with the bells ringing. That’s a stark contrast with where I did most of my work on Day 69 which was in an armchair by a fireplace in the Soho Hotel off Dean Street. I’d been to a meeting at King’s Cross Station, beneath the new fan-lattice glass roof which I’d never looked at before, with a British-based academic/innovation expert originally from Kiel. She is focusing on the shift from the self-centred world of work to a group/team/pluralistic focus, concentrating on corporate contexts. Whilst there is without doubt an interface between her research and what I’m writing about, coming at the subject from the perspective of individual artists or creative catalysts and their immediate (usually friendship) circle is an angle I feel much more comfortable with. Making rewards and performance relate to sharing, open and altruistic behaviour in corporate contexts is not simple and without that in place it is easy to conjure up an exploitative scenario.
So back at the dimly lit fireside I tapped away for several hours on Factory and Tony Wilson. I also landed a class interview with a key member of a prominent band of the era. I was reflecting earlier in the day how many of my teenage heroes I’d ended up meeting and working with during my career. In almost every case it seems a highly unlikely scenario [Word of the Day] from the perspective of those youthful days, which is what always makes it a kick.
Rounded off the day at a film screening downstairs in the hotel (hence the choice of venue) – the Coen Brothers’ latest one, Inside Llewyn Davis. Enjoyed the film, especially the music performances set in 1961 Greenwich Village, though suspect I will be among a relatively small appreciative audience, it’s quite far from the mainstream and I have a particular interest in Dylan and his precursors.
After the movie my Other Half and I had a drink upstairs in the hotel and got a chance to chat with both Oscar Isaac, the talented young star of the movie, who plays a character based on Dave Van Ronk and was very nearly the second Bourne after Matt Damon (finally losing out to Jeremy Renner by a whisker), and T-Bone Burnett whose soundtrack graced the picture. Both of us are fans of T-Bone’s Crazy Heart soundtrack and we had a terrific chat with him about both music and modern day surveillance (a subject he seems currently much bothered by). He was a total gentleman in both his elegant, tall bearing and his easy manner. The perfect person with whom to end a week of writing about Music, openness and generosity.
I’m writing this post in the grounds of University College London (of which one of my forebears was a founder – I found out earlier this year whilst researching my family tree online) – opposite Birkbeck College where my dad got his PhD (having arrived in London from Leipzig in 1938). It’s a nice spot to write, with its air of bookishness and naively optimistic youth.
Day 40 was centred at BAFTA where I am No. 26 member of the Interactive branch. I don’t really use it often enough as a pied-a-terre. Maybe because it’s so close to Hatchards (est. 1797) which always costs me money. I went in there for a browse between meetings and came away with a signed copy of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. As I looked around the enticing book displays, the sheer volume of material published, the wonderful variety of subjects, I oscillated between: I can do this – No I can’t – I can do this…
My first meeting was a last minute addition through Alfie Dennen (who I’ll interview for the contemporary/digital strand of the book) with a TV producer from CCTV in China. I gave him a few ideas to help with a series he’s doing on European cities (London, Paris, Berlin).
As he was leaving he got to meet my interviewee who had just returned from a long stint in China as voice coach for Nicholas Cage on his current movie. Gaye Brown acted under Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East as well as touring with Oh What a Lovely War around Britain. She was in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange as well as in some classic TV from On The Buses to The Goodies. She also worked in The Establishment, Peter Cook’s club in Soho, alongside Jason Monet, grandson of Claude and the person my youngest brother was named after. She’s the first person other than my mum (who was at art school with him) I’ve ever heard mention that name.
Chatting to Gaye was a delight – story after charming story of acting in the 60s and 70s in particular, and of hanging out in London during that era, all framed by a rich mix of a life.
The rest of the afternoon involved reverting back to the Advertising world and tapping away on Paul Arden as the autumn sun raked along Piccadilly.
Headed East for the afternoon to meet actor Murray Melvin who was a key player in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE). He was in the original and West End cast of Oh What a Lovely War in 1963 and played the hostage in Behan’s The Hostage. He started working with Joan in the late 50s when he was an office worker and untrained in acting beyond some am dram. He was born in Kentish Town (as was ArkAngel Productions) and he grew up in Hampstead High Street, when it was a very different place from what it is now. Joan spotted something in him and took him on. He now pays that back by maintaining and building her archive at TRSE and has done assiduously for 22 years. After the interview he was going to see the latest production so he can give his notes which the director appreciates, plenty of wisdom to tap into there.
Murray brought me up to his room, a rich red den containing Joan’s library which he has rescued (it’s around a quarter of what it once was) and housed in specially made shelves also in TRSE red, that traditional theatrical red that goes with gilt. He emphasised that she was a voracious reader of broad range. The volume that jumped out at me was Alvin Toffler’s FutureShock which for me screams 70s - my mum had the US paperback edition on recommendation from some hippy-type, it may have been Pete, the lifeguard at the Thatched Barn swimming pool with the cool earring. That’s why she also has Trout Mask Replica among her records.
We spoke for just under an hour in a free-flowing way (though hitting all the points/questions in my notes) about many aspects of Joan’s work from her attitude to community to her process of collaborative creation, from Brendan Behan to Shelagh Delaney, from her take on Ego to her relationship with Gerry Raffles, from the influence of European theatre to the fact you never touched her, she maintained a block of space around her. I hope to publish the interview in the online archive for this book.
On the way home I received an email from Toni Arden, wife of Paul, which opened up another interesting vista…
A theatrical day. Started with a performance in front of 20-year old University of Syracuse students illustrating the principles of multiplatform TV creation. Went smoothly though the fella who was sitting for some reason with his red trackie bottoms round his ankles, mercifully with running shorts on underneath, did distract me momentarily. Otherwise a friendly and respectful class. That warmed me up for a trip to E8 to a quiet back road off Kingsland Road in Dalston to immerse myself in the thespian world of Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop.
I went to interview two women who worked closely with Joan at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE) in the 60s and 70s. When I arrived a Stratford native who had been part of the army of kids who gathered around the Theatre with Joan and her partner Gerry Raffles’ encouragement, keeping them engaged and as much as possible away from trouble, was sitting having a quiet cup of tea with the interviewee who was kindly hosting. Her job revolved around the community outreach work which kept the Theatre and company in close touch with day-to-day reality and relevance. The 45 year old connection between him and her was clearly still strong and affectionate. She could recall the name of every child in every photo from back then.
A long table had been carefully arranged for me with documentation from Joan’s activities extending from just after the War til the 70s – photographs, clippings, letters, programmes. A bottle of water and a glass was left thoughtfully by the chair. It took me two hours, fuelled on the coffee and chocolate biscuits that kindly followed, to get as far as 1963 where I parked up tantalisingly at the cliff-hanger of Oh What a Lovely War. The two things that most stood out for me was the material on Brendan Behan, which for all the tragedy of the drink and the pantomime Irish stuff, drew attention to what a wit he was, a worthy compatriot of Wilde; and a photo album of Great War photographs which served as research/source material for Oh What a Lovely War. It ranged from prints of Haig and the high command via aircraft and newly emerged tanks to nurses and troops in wrecked churches – no idea where Joan acquired these from but it was no ordinary collection. Detailed research and a documentary sensibility were critical to the evolution of the landmark show. I’m going back for Round 2 in this extraordinary archive in a few days, accompanied by Adrian Dunbar who has recently been playing Behan on stage in New York.
The double interview – the two women specifically requested to be interviewed together as they enjoy the fact they have slightly different perspectives on TRSE and naturally fall into a bantery double act – was illuminating and free flowing. They both preferred not to be recorded (which surprised me, I’d have expected the opposite in the interests of accuracy) so we had a not over-structured chat from which the complex character of Littlewood emerged strongly if not clearly. She evidently had at least as many contradictions, ambiguities and complexities as the rest of us, probably many more to match what the second interviewee described unequivocally as her genius. Our host made it clear that the total focus Joan had on her theatre work, that her genius, was only possible because her partner/lover Gerry in particular (and her colleagues to some extent) dealt with all the everyday demands and realities – cooking, shopping, paying the bills and rent, transport, the lot. A gender reversal perhaps but a common dynamic – behind many if not every creative genius lies a person who cares and supports in a quotidian, quiet way.
The thing that most struck me during the afternoon was a photograph by the door in. It showed Joan working hard on a patch of waste ground by the Theatre which they were preparing to squat as a venue for kids and community activities. An army of urchins were lending hands. Over Joan’s shoulder is a beautiful dark-haired teenage girl. Radiating energy she is marshalling the younger children. This was my host back in the late 60s. Despite her youth, she’d already made a name for herself racing scooters and setting speed records. She still has 30 scooters out back of her tardis-like house. For all her energy and friendliness, her edge and integrity, I’d never have guessed from her outward appearance when I first met her on stage at the Theatre Royal a couple of weeks ago that such stories lie behind her. I am constantly amazed and shaken out of my assumptions by the stories of ‘everyday’ people.
I’m just back from a screening in the plush, cosy screening room under the Covent Garden Hotel in Monmouth Street (which has the best Christmas lights in London). I’ve been chatting with the very charming, unpretentious, part-Irish Bradley Cooper who I mainly knew beforehand from great silly films like The Hangover and Wedding Crashers. Silver Linings Playbook is a very different kind of comedy, subtler, more authentic and more romantic. I laid my newly hatched theory on him that Jennifer Lawrence in this movie is very like Meg Tilly in The Big Chill, that vibrant young sexuality allied with a strong individuality, they even share that slightly oriental look – and she does a load of stretching and dancing stuff in that movie, Bradley kindly added to the theory. I think he was convinced – or just very polite. Especially for someone who’s just arrived this evening from LA (where he half lives, the rest of the time residing in his native Philadelphia). We talked a bit about acting with De Niro (he said how generous De Niro was on set to support his performance) and how strong De Niro’s performance is in this film, standing out from almost all of his recent roles. And then a bit about NFL, the older Enfant Terrible being the proud owner of an Eagles shirt from before his defection to the Patriots – which got us into teens and how this film has much of use to say about resilience and taking control in adversity. It’s a pretty much flawless script from David O. Russell, complemented by perfect, judicious improvisation. I asked him about the latter and he highlighted scenes where they went most to town, though within well defined parameters, De Niro’s method, like the parlay betting scene and the comparing meds scene. So the 4 reasons are…
1 The powerful chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, not least in the dancing scenes
2 The exquisite direction by David O. Russell, which has the confidence of a man with a real vision (and a script he’s spent five years honing)
3 A fantastically diverse soundtrack which makes great use of Led Zep (What Is and What Should Never Be), the recently departed Dave Brubeck (Unsquare Dance and Maria) and the classic duet of Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash from Nashville Skyline (Girl from the North Country)
4 The uplifting treatment of a difficult mental health issue, highlighting the ubiquity of craziness and how positive and energising it can be.
Good evening. I was first turned onto Hitch by the playwright David Rudkin. He was doing a residence at my alma mater (that’s a throw-away Hitchcock joke) and gave a talk called something like A Common or Garden Guide to Hitchcock’s Birds. He brought along his chum Alastair Reid who was starting work directing a new series called Morse. (Years later I’d work with Lewis). He also had a producer friend in the audience, Nigel Evans, who produced the movie Walter for the first night of Channel 4 (directed by Stephen Frears), 30 years ago this month. (A year later Nigel and his business partner Stephen Mellor gave me my first break with a runner job at AKA in Clerkenwell). Rudkin was an interesting character in his seaman’s knitted sweater reeking with tobaccy. I’d seen odds and ends of Hitchcock before then but fell in love in the wake of that literate, illuminating introduction.
Last night I went to a screening at Fox in Soho Square of the new movie Hitchcock about the making of Psycho. After the show Angie Errigo (a gentle reminder of my Empire-reading days) interviewed its stars Helen Mirren (Alma Reville/Mrs Hitchcock), Anthony Hopkins (Hitch) and James D’Arcy (Anthony Perkins). In the rather cosy viewing theatre I was four feet from Mirren, six from Hopkins, very much in the glow of British acting royalty.
Hopkins told how he saw Psycho when it first opened in Britain – he had the proverbial scared out of him in Piccadilly Manchester on arriving in the city one rainy night for a spell in rep. His anecdote ended with him climbing the stairs on this first night in his lodging house, run by some lone old lady, and the light clicks off as he’s half-way up.
In among the audience with me was a fella who had been in the publicity department at Paramount when Psycho was released. He described how Hitch conceived the whole promotional strategy (or exploitation as the department was charmingly named then), how this fella’s team made a How To Exploit Psycho film for exhibitors which Hitch had to approve personally, instructing cinema managers how to enforce the No Entry Once the Film has Started rule and generally dramatise the whole experience.
After the Q+A chat, I found myself in Fox reception staring into the strikingly pale blue eyes of one of the great British screen actors – Hopkins has played everyone from Richard Nixon to Yitzhak Rabin, Hitler to Quasimodo, starring in all manner of wonders from A Bridge Too Far to Magic, The Bounty to Shadowlands, Hannibal to Dracula. As we chatted together he was gracious and warm, telling me more about Hitch’s relations with actors – from the ones he seemed to ignore (Doris Day who was anxious about lack of feedback) to the ones he gave too much unwanted attention to (Tippi Hedren).
I was asking him about whether he’d got the impression Hitch and Alma’s relationship was always so weird or dysfunctional and we discussed whether in effect the movies were their kids. The film argues that they were very much a double act from their early days on the movies together when Alma Reville was young Alfred’s boss. Mirren had used their daughter Patricia’s book about her mother as insight into her character.
I took the opportunity to thank Hopkins for QB VII, a 1974 TV mini-series which made a big impact on me when I was young. It was the thing, alongside a World at War episode, which first made me aware of the Holocaust (an episode produced by Jeremy Isaacs, first boss of Channel 4 – there was a facsimile of the Well Done Everybody memo he sent to “All at 4″ the day after the launch night with Walter [3 Nov 1982] left on our desk on the morning of 3rd November a couple of weeks ago. “The real work begins today” wrote the first Chief Exec. Paper memos – another world, more Paramount 1950s than Horseferry Road 2012).
Hopkins met Hitch once in a Hollywood restaurant with his agent. The Master of Suspense was very ill by then and trapped in his huge body, downing brandy in quantity. Nonetheless he pulled out the charm and greeted him with the familiar Good Evening.
To conclude, 4 reasons to go see Hitchcock directed by Sacha Gervasi (who also made the heavy metal feature documentary Anvil):
1) Hopkin’s Hitchcockian accent – he gets the Leytonstone in there under the elocution, always reminding us of Hitch’s London roots.
2) Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh – an uplifting portrayal to avoid the whole thing getting grimy.
3) A touch of humour – the film captures Hitch’s wry, filmic humour without becoming pastiche.
4) A well refined script tying together the story of the making of a movie (Psycho) with an eccentric love story (Hitch and Alma) and the portrait of a driven genius who was never more thrilled than when inventing the movies, techniques and ways of story-telling that no-one had thought to commit to celluloid before.
A New Year’s Eve last sad farewell to some inspiring people who ascended this year…
- Malcolm McLaren – who helped make my teens the best music decade possible
- Tony Curtis – cinema doesn’t get much better than “I’m Spartacus!”
- Jean Simmons – great though the Love Theme in the aforementioned gladiatorial epic is (especially as played by Bill Evans), her highpoint for me was as Sargeant Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army babe in Guys & Doll – and she had another brush with genius in Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. She was technically a local, born in Crouch End.
- Dennis Hopper – Apolcalypse Now is the best film made in my lifetime and Dennis played his part to perfection
- Eric Rohmer – the one and only time I went to see a film in the cinema on two consecutive nights was for Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune (Full Moon in Paris) at the now dead indy cinema in Camden High Street whose name sadly I forget now (think it belonged to Artificial Eye)
- Harry Carpenter – his connection with Frank Bruno was heart-warming
- J.D. Salinger – Catcher is something really special
On Thursday evening I joined Channel 4 colleagues at The Courthouse Hotel [formerly the Marylebone Magistrates Court, was glad to see cells have been imaginatively retained] opposite Carnaby Street (a resonant area for me as just round the corner from my very first workplace, Solus in Marshall Street, Soho, whose attic contained hidden gems like footage of Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight and James Baldwin in Paris) to view as it was broadcast a programme I had (deliberately) only seen as raw footage – Alone in the Wild. Since the beginning of July we have been publishing online the rushes of the show as they came out of the wilderness of the Yukon, where cameraman/film-maker Ed Wardle was living and recording his experiences himself, completely alone in the wild. My part of the cross-platform commission also involved publishing daily out-going only short messages from the wild via Twitter, which were subsequently used to punctuate the three films in the series. [Next one is this Thursday at 9pm on C4]
One scene in Episode 1 saw Ed delighting in a skinny-dip in the lake where he had made camp, frolicking like a child, immersing himself with joy in the place he shared with a stately moose and grayling destined for his frying pan.
I’ve been equally struck recently by accounts of poet Rupert Brooke’s skinny-dipping activities in Granchester, a place made magical for me after a lone moonlit cycle-ride to there in the middle of one Romantic night. In particular, accounts of ‘The Midnight Swim’ when this proto-hippy young poet shared the waters of Byron’s Pool with the unstable, radical woman of letters Virginia Stephens, later Woolf, who finished her life alone in the underwater wild of a Sussex river.
It was 1911. They were both single. Rupert was 24, Virginia was 29. It was the year Poems 1911 was published (clue in the title), Brooke’s one and only volume of poems to appear during his actual lifetime. (Woolf’s first novel appeared four years later.)
Christopher Hassall describes the incident in his biography of Brooke (Rupert Brooke: a Biography 1964):
“It was the end of August. Virginia Stephen arrived at the Old Vicarage and occupied Ka’s bed on the other side of the house. The garden room was strewn with scraps of Strindberg, pages of Bland Vassen and fragments of verse. Probably the guest had brought with her an early chapter of The Voyage Out to revise while Brooke was reading or writing stretched out on the grass. One warm night there was a clear sky and a moon and they walked out to the shadowy waters of Byron’s Pool. “Let’s go swimming, quite naked,” Brooke said, and they did.”
Brooke mentions in his well known poem The Old Vicarage, Granchester this pool where his poetic forebear Byron swam when no-one was about:
Still in the dawn waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool
The painter Augustus John, who lived nearby with a caravan load of hot women and brown children, was also a naked frequenter of the pool, as was the philosopher Wittgenstein.
The Midnight Swim is also fictionalised and extrapolated upon in Jill Dawson’s recent novel The Great Lover which I read on holiday this August (exactly 98 years after the skinny-dip in question), kindly given to me by Aysha Rafaele (a fellow C4 Commissioning Editor from Documentaries) who spotted it in the Richard & Judy Book Club pile.
So any action between the two of them, both swingers-both-ways? Rupert, I get the impression, was more inclined to the hetero. Virginia must be well documented but I’m not sure exactly how her bi was balanced. Lytton Strachey had proposed to her two years earlier but they both realised, in the cool light of day the next morning, it wouldn’t work out. I don’t think any one knows or ever said quite what occurred, which leaves it as a lovely little mystery…
The Midnight Swim wasn’t their first watery encounter. In April 1899 (Rupert was 11, Virginia was 17) the Brookes went to St. Ives on holiday, where Leslie Stephen was also vacationing with his family. The two of them played together by the sea.
Yeats called Brooke “the handsomest young man in England”. By the year of The Midnight Swim, Brooke was secretly engaged or attached in some fashion to Noel Olivier, a fascinating character in her own right (Rupert was 24, Noel was 19) here’s her Wikipedia entry.
I had a go recently at drafting a Wikipedia entry for her sister Brynhild who seemed a promising character, the most beautiful of the Olivier sisters, but there’s very little to go on. This is what I have so far:
”’Brynhild Olivier”’ (1886 – 13th January 1935) was a member of [[Rupert Brooke]]’s circle before the First World War and associated with the [[Bloomsbury Group]]. She was the fourth daughter of [[Sydney Haldane Olivier]], 1st Baron Olivier, and Margaret Cox; she was sister of Margery, Daphne and [[Noel Olivier|Noel]].
She married art historian [[A. E. Popham]] (Arthur Ewart Hugh Popham, known as Hugh) in 1912 (becoming Brynhild Popham). Hugh Popham was a friend of Rupert Brooke. They were divorced in 1924. She married [[F. R. N. Sherrard]] in 1924 (becoming Brynhild Sherrard).
She was the mother of [[Anne Olivier Popham]], who became the wife of art historian and writer [[Quentin Bell]]. She was also the mother of the poet, translator and theologian [[Philip Sherrard|Philip Owen Arnould Sherrard]] (born 23 September 1922, Oxford).
Brynhild was the first of the four Olivier sisters the poet Rupert Brooke met. Although she was reputedly the most beautiful, it was her sister Noel Olivier for whom Brooke fell.
She was first cousin of the actor [[Laurence Olivier]].
If there’s anyone out there in internetland who knows anything more about Brynhild (Bryn) Olivier, please do let me know via comments or however so I can get enough substance in the article to make it acceptable for Wikipedia – i.e. more information on what she achieved in her adult life.
Rupert and Noel met in 1908 when he was 20 and she a 15-year-old schoolgirl at the then fashionable, progressive Bedales in Petersfield. Noel’s father was Lord Sydney Olivier (uncle of dear, dear Larry), a prominent Fabian and high-ranking civil servant, serving in his time as Governor of Jamaica and Secretary of State for India.
Bedales was something of a centre for getting your kit off. Various members of Brooke’s circle had been there, the first co-ed public school, which encouraged a passion for the open air and healthy outdoor games. Nude swimming and sunbathing (segregated) made it on to the curriculum (hoorah!). The Sun Bathing Society’s Annual Summer Conference was held there in 1931 and naturists used the Bedales grounds out of term in the wake of their starting to organise in Britain during the previous decade.
Noel went on to have a long and interesting career as a doctor, politically active in a way reflecting her Fabian roots. Rupert had a short one as an early crash-and-burn teen hero, paving the way for everyone from James Dean to (fellow Cantabrian) Nick Drake to River (appropriately enough) Phoenix. He didn’t quite make 28. He cast himself as a Neo-Pagan (becoming a central figure of an eponymous group of writers and artists) and Virginia confirmed this: “He was consciously and definitely pagan.” They were the original Teddy Boys, the reckless youth of the Edwardian era, rebelling against the constraints of stiff-collared Victorian ways.
Embodying the Neo-Pagan ideals of youth, comradeship and the Simple Life, Brooke revelled in going barefoot and skinny-dipping: “Two miles from Cambridge up the river I wander about barefoot and almost naked. I live on honey, eggs and milk.” (letter to Noel Olivier, summer 1909). A bit of Romantic exaggeration of course, but Rupert certainly enjoyed casting off a few layers.
This summer I had the Simple Pleasure of bathing in Lough Hyne, just outside of Baltimore (the one in West Cork as opposed to The Wire one). It is pretty much unique as a salt-water lake, quite the place to go if you want to hang with a goby, shanny, blenny, three-spined stickleback or clingfish. Its salty water reminded me of another top bathing experience – the Blue Hole, East of Port Antonio, Jamaica (aka the Blue Lagoon since Brooke Shields skinny-dipped there in 1980, directed by Randal Kleiser, who I had a ridiculous phonecall with when I was working at Solus – for some unaccountable reason I turned momentarily into The Player, luckily old Randy couldn’t see the tenderfoot at the other end of the transatlantic line). The Blue Hole is a mixed salt and fresh water lagoon, fed by cold underground springs. When you swim you have the unique experience of one stroke warm, next stroke cool, warm, cool, warm, cool, warm, cool. Divers and scientists say it has a depth of about 180 feet. Local islanders say it is bottomless and a monsterous creature lives down below. The mixture of intense physical pleasure and underlying anxiety of the sheer extent and unknowableness of Nature is an experience common to skinny-dippers the world wide.