Archive for the ‘Actors’ Category

Dear Dear Dickie – 4 ways to remember Richard Attenborough

The Great Escape (1963)

This one (from the year I made my debut on earth) is for me his most memorable role as an actor – as Bartlett, who can forget that tragic end, machine-gunned in a field by the heartless Nazis alongside his stalwart Scottish buddy, MacDonald (played by the ever dependable Gordon Jackson)?

The Great Escape poster Richard Attenborough

 

In Which We Serve (1942)

His fresh faced debut, already a screen presence to be reckoned with. Directed by David Lean and Noel Coward, a suitably English place to start.

In_Which_We_Serve richard attenborough actor

 

Chaplin (1992)

My hero well captured by the talented young Robert Downey Jnr. under the assured direction of Dickie.

richard attenborough chaplin robert downey jnr director

 

Cry Freedom (1987)

I remember this one opening my eyes to the outrages of apartheid South Africa back in my university days. Denzel Washington was powerful as Steve Biko and first came to international prominence under Dickie’s direction.

cry_freedom_denzel washington kevin Klein steve biko donald woods

Richard Attenborough was instrumental in the establishment of Channel 4 – Deputy Chairman from 1980 to 1986 as it got on its feet and Chairman from 1986 to 1992 through its golden age.

He was also a key leader in BAFTA, associated with the Academy for 30 years and President for over a decade.

richard-attenborough oscars academy awards

I interviewed Lord David Puttnam about him recently for my book, When Sparks Fly. I was thinking of including him in the Film chapter (Choose Life) which focuses on Danny Boyle. With its central theme of the creative rewards of openness and generosity, Attenborough struck me as the cinema embodiment of British public service values. Channel 4 and BAFTA are just two of many appointments which demonstrate his prodigious energy and unfailing commitment to public service media/arts, from the brilliant Chickenshed Theatre to the Mandela Statue Fund.

1964

1964

 

 

Stuff Done (Phase 2: Weeks 3 & 4)

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.

Barbara Windsor with Victor Spinetti

Barbara Windsor with Victor Spinetti

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.

Movement was central to Joan Littlewood's approach to directing

Movement was central to Joan Littlewood’s approach to directing

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.

Steve, put in a word with the Big Man for me

Steve, put in a word with the Big Man for me

So progress made, even if a little unevenly.

The Play’s The Thing (Day 80)

Brendan-Behan irish playwright

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 hostage brendan behan thaeatre royal stratford east poster

The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

Music & Light (Day 69)

St Marylebone Parish Church London W1

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.

soho hotel

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.

Inside-Llewyn-Davis Oscar Isaac

A Gaye Daye (Day 40)

a-clockwork-orange-graphic design

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.

the_goodies logo

Hostage to Fortune (Day 32)

Oh What a Lovely War {Photo: courtesy of Theatre Royal Stratford East Archives}

Murray in Oh What a Lovely War {Photo: courtesy of Theatre Royal Stratford East Archives}

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…

murray melvin

A Taste of Honey

A Taste of Honey with Rita Tushingham

Treasure in Hackney (Day 31)

archive

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.

brendan behan

4 reasons to see Silver Linings Playbook

silver linings playbook

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.

Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence

Meg Tilly

Meg Tilly

Jennifer in 2010s dancing gear

Jennifer in 2010s dancing gear

Meg in 1980s dancing gear

Meg in 1980s dancing gear

A Hitch in time plays fine

As a fat man in ‘Hitchcock’

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.

As a bad man in ‘QB VII’

Farewell 2010

Milkshakes never tasted so good

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

Malcolm & Vivienne

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