Esme Church

No gold medals were awarded at the Northern Theatre School in my hometown of Bradford, but the principal, Esme Church, a semi-retired West End and Old Vic actress who’d played Gertrude to Olivier’s Hamlet in 1937, took me aside to give me a pep talk: ‘You’re one of those students who one knows is going places.’ The Americanism was thrilling, spoken in her magisterial Edwardian English with the authentic ring of showbiz. Nevertheless I went on to miss completely the pivotal moment in twentieth-century British theatre. By 1960, seeking validation through a better agent, I sat in his spacious Regent Street office. Benignly he laughed: ‘You’re a throwback, a Leslie Howard type. I’m not saying there aren’t certain modern neuroses you couldn’t do …’

Portrait by Michael Boys

Earlier, in ’56, I’d left Esme’s school and got an interview with an agent in a minute office in Soho, regaled him with a speech from T. S. Eliot’s Confidential Clerk and a soliloquy from Richard II, after which he allowed his secretary to resume typing, saying: ‘You’re obviously West End material.’ Indeed he enabled me to play in a string of ‘West End Successes’ all thrown on in a week in that vanished treadmill, provincial tatty rep. I had the wardrobe, including dinner jacket, the knack of entering through French Windows equipped with the mandatory upper-class accent and optional tennis racquet. Rare excursions into the Bard meant two weeks’ rehearsal while playing the current Agatha Christie by night – rostra and staircases to negotiate, standing on two levels in tights, more wind in one’s sails for the verse.

As Algernon in The Importance

The apotheosis of this period was 1959, touring The Importance of Being Earnest in New Zealand, playing Algernon from Whangarei to Invercagill. The result of all this was missing the Royal Court’s ‘New Wave’ and the chance to use my modern neuroses and very own working class vernacular. But gleefully I quote Kenneth Tynan in an Encore interview at the advent of the National Theatre in 1963:

‘I would not like to cast The Importance of Being Earnest out of a cast of New Wave actors.’
Charles Marowitz: ‘What exactly does that portend?’
Tynan: ‘I don’t know. It’s a great problem.’

Cut to the NT 1967, my third year with the company. I was summoned late one afternoon to Olivier’s office in the ex-Coal Board huts. He already had his coat on, his chauffeur and car awaited outside as he handed me a script by someone called Stoppard, murmuring: ‘Guildenstern. Marvellous part. Marvellous play.’ Stoppard’s words scintillated all the way home on the bus to Peckham. I imagine I was thankful for the practice of playing in Wilde for three months in NZ, the opportunities to wear tights in tatty rep and in The Dream at Regent’s Park. I must have absorbed lessons in timing by touring with the glorious Dame Cicely Courtneidge, ignoring those involving her defoliation technique which withered any extraneous laughs threatening to burgeon in her vicinity. More recently I’d weathered the comic rigours of keeping my NT end up as Maggie Smith’s husband in Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ – enough to launch me into a Godsent play and a dream comic partnership with John Stride.

Photo by Anthony Crickmay

Today, on the crest of a new New Wave with Paul Hunter and the experimental Told by Idiot, I get to dream of and speak Lear (eschewing tights), use my contemporary neuroses and my native vernacular, mime, sing, paint …

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Lilian Baylis observed: ‘For all their conservatism, Old Vic audiences worship the god of novelty.’ Forget ‘wave’ and even ‘new’: what matters, as ever, is the shock of the Now.

  • Barry Coidan

    Just wanted to thank you for a wonderful show last night at the Young Vic. You will of course be aware of the joy you gave to a full audience at yesterday's performance of "My Perfect Mind".

    One question: why did you leave out Cordelia's death and Lear's final lines?

  • Linda Briggs

    The 1962 Regent's Park production of MND was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw, and I loved it. At my grammar school we had a drama society shared with the boys' equivalent, called Convergence. One of the prime movers of it was Francis Matthews (who for his theatrical career had to change his name to Matthew Francis). He invited John Stride to come to talk to us, and we enjoyed a fascinating evening with him. Subsequently some of us went to see him in the all male production of As You Like It at the NT. I wish he had continued with more stage work than he did. I loved the work of The Actors Company, particularly Knots. I can still sing "I can't win"!

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