Ready to go on

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Newcastle memories

The East Coast trains to Newcastle are bargain priced but they get their own back. The seats were designed by a brutal Victorian Sunday School teacher (sit up straight children!) with a fetish for hair shirts.

As always, on a long journey by train, I have booked the quiet carriage. Why are the announcements so loud in the quiet carriage? Surely they could make separate announcements from the rest of the train? In a whispered voice? "So sorry to disturb you. This won't take long and then you can get back to your book. This train is for the place you want to go as you know because you went to the lengths of booking it on the inter net, booking a seat in the Quiet Carriage, boarding the train having checked the timetable, etc, etc. So I won't insult your intelligence by telling you the details over and over again. Sorry to disturb you. Please turn off you mobile phones? I'm now going to shout at the people in the noisy carriages via a different intercom. Shhhhh!"

We've just been through York and are heading towards Newcastle or Newcastle as I shall call it all week in an attempt to fit in. We are performing at the gorgeous Theatre Royal until Saturday night.

The Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Travelling about like this on tour brings back memories of my younger days when I did quite a lot of touring. I haven't done this lark for years. I remember staying in York with Compass Theatre Company when it was under the control of Sir Anthony Quayle. We were touring a William Douglas Home play about Fox Hunting. What d'you mean you've never heard of it? The next year we toured The Tempest and St Joan in rep. Imagine that now? There must have been 20 actors involved. My most vivid memory of our second time in York is that that was where Tony, as Sir Anthony was known to all, offered to help us younger actors work on a piece of Shakespeare. It was only a passing comment - "If any of you want any help with a piece of Shakespeare for and audition piece I'd be happy to help. I've had quite a  bit of experience with Shakespeare over the years.". An extraordinary offer. Not only was Tony running this large company and doing most of the publicity, but he was also playing Prospero (brilliantly I might add. Standing in the wings watching him take a breath to deliver the "We are such stuff as dreams are made on" speech was a lesson to any actor in the need to learn to breath properly. His whole body filled with air!) Anyway, this lovely, selfless man had offered to school us in Shakespeare. This was the man who really started the RSC. Not Peter Hall as many think. He took over from Tony. Tony took the small provincial theatre, The Memorial Theatre in Stratford and turned it in to the RSC. He took O'Toole, Peggy Ashcroft and Richard Burton to this 'provincial' theatre and put it on the map. He had been part of the great Old Vic company just after the war playing Laertes to Olivier's Hamlet. He was the Ahenobarbus of his generation. And he was willing to pass it on to us! Astonishing!!

I rushed back to my digs and grabbed a copy of the complete works and began to search for a suitable piece. Ton y had told us to leave Hamlet alone. "Too difficult" he said. I chose a speech by Edgar from King Lear and by the next day I had learned it. I knocked on Tony's dressing room door after that evenings show and was invited in for a scotch and water, something that became a bit of a ritual between us. I asked if he had been serious about helping with the Shakespeare and he said that of course he had, "Why, are you thinking of learning something?" he asked. "I've learnt it. Edgar", I said. "Right, let's hear it?". So there and then I quoted the lines at him. "Right," he said after a pause, "stand up and do it properly."

We went through it several times with him giving a critique and arranged to meet again between shows (there was a matinee) and go through it on the stage. In the meantime I could work on the notes he had given me.

When I look back on that now my eyes fill with tears. Can you believe such privilege? And such generosity from a man who had already done so much for all of us just by employing us. Naturally, at the time I sort of took it for granted. I knew it was special,  that's why I jumped at the chance, but I thought life would be full of such things. Young twit.

Tony and I worked on several Shakespeare speech over the several years we worked together. Our last job was a trip to Hong Kong for the Hong Kong Festival. Tony had stuck to his guns and had always banned the learning of a bit of Hamlet. Just before we were due to get the plane he found me alone and quietly said, "Are we doing a speech in Hong Kong?" I told him it was OK as I knew he would be busy. He had been filming Antigone for the BBC right up to our leaving for Hong Kong and was looking tired. "Oh, no, we must do a final speech before the end of the tour." he insisted. "Right, what shall I learn?" I asked. "What about a bit of Hamlet?" he said, with a half smile. He knew what it would mean to me.

We only did it once between the final matinee and the final show before we flew back to the UK. Tony instigated it. "Shall we do the speech now, my Lord Hamlet?", he said. We went to the stage and he took a photo of me belting out "How all occasions do inform against me and spur my dull revenge". No notes afterwards just a small round of applause, the best I ever got.

After my dad died I found a copy of that photo in his drawer. Tony had sent it to him with a note which read, "Dear Dad, thought you'd like to see our boy doing Hamlet in Hong Kong? With love, Tony". I still have both. He was the sweetest man I ever knew and I miss him.
Tony and a young, gorgeous Fern Britton


 Tony on a junk in the South China Sea

Whiskey and water?


  1. Oh, that is just lovely. What an absolutely top bloke!

  2. Oh great memories!!! I have to thank you for giving me the opportunity to work with him, he was a joy!!! I have a great story from Government Inspector, I had been given some porn videos, and had arranged for several members of the cast ( average age 70 ) to see them, Tony calls me into his dressing room at the interval, and kindly asks me not to go ahead with the party, as he feared that it might kill them, and we were only a third of the way through the tour and there were not enough understudies!!!