The south side of London Bridge, Southwark, Borough Market, Cathedral & Borough High Street were the first part of London I got to know well when I came to live here in 1998, it's become more gentrified and smarter in the almost 20 years from when I got to know it, but it still remains my favourite part of the capital.
I am from Manchester and like other Mancs have been in shock about what happened in my city a couple of weeks ago, and then on Saturday night I could not believe that this particular area of London, which I have always felt closest to, had become the new back drop for large scale murder.
The magic of history and literature first made me fall in love with London, and this area is as crammed with it as borough market is with people at weekends. Yes it has lost a little of its character in 20 years, where hasn't? It's shabby earthiness has been tarted up, and today the pubs are frequented by young professionals and tourists and there's some uber trendy restaurants, but it still largely retains its magic.
I'm an actor, who's also been working on and off as a tour guide around London since I first came down here from finishing drama school in Birmingham.
My first acting job on arriving in London in May 1998 was playing members of the crew on the replica of the Golden Hind in St Mary Overie dock by Southwark Cathedral. I was playing the ships Barber Surgeon, entertaining groups of school children who'd come with some of their teachers and spend from late afternoon to the next morning on the ship, with stories of the horror of Tudor medicine, and threatening to cut their gangrenous legs off!
They'd come to have the full Tudor navy experience, (well apart from the weevils in the ships biscuits), sleeping in the hold after a favourite part, the telling of bedtime ghost stories and wearing jerkins & caps. It was fun, and educational in a horrible history, ( before those books had become famous), kind of way. I had great fun playing the full pirate type of character of Sir Francis Drake's crew. Eventually I graduated to playing the ships master engaging groups of kids with the basics of Tudor seamanship, navigation as well as all about Drake's famous 3 year voyage of circumnavigation on this ship between 1577 & 1580. I loved telling them about the small flightless black birds with white heads observed on the Magellan straits, that had first been named penguins by Welsh speaking members of the crew!
That replica ship which I'd seen as a kid being built down in Devon, and which had travelled far more nautical miles than the original had, wasn't going anywhere now as it was in a dry dock, but still I felt, and think the groups of children that spent time on board felt,that the glass windows of the office blocks that closely towered above the vessel where really reflecting the ocean and we were thousands of miles away from home without having really gone anywhere.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre with Mark Rylance in charge had opened just a few bridges along up river, (wish I'd bumped into him back then I'd have pleaded for an audition),for the full Tudor playgoing experience, so the area was starting to buzz with excitement. The nearby Clink prison, as in the expression "in the Clink" had opened as an attraction, I was always amused by the bored looking young lad dressed as a Norman soldier, earphones peaking out from under his hoody chain mail and helmet amplifying the tinny sounds of hip hop as he hung around outside it giving occasional leaflets out promoting it. Just yards from the Golden Hind were the remains of the canny 13th century Bishop of Winchesters palace. He'd found that by allowing prostitution his side of the river he could make a good extra living from taxing his "Winchester geese". I learned that Southwark, where Chaucer's tale of pilgrims journeying to Canterbury had started, was London's first suburb, and long been the rough & ready part of the capital where things went on that we're disallowed or disproved of on the City side of the river. This was where Londoners for centuries had come in search of a good time!
In the late 80s there'd been a wonderful two part film adaptation of Dickens Little Dorrit by Christine Edzard, (still one of my favourite films), set in this area where the then 12 year old Charles' own father had been imprisoned for debt in the former Marshalsea prison. I'd read the book after seeing the film, which had also been partly shot around this area. and these same streets for me were alive with the character and characters of that book.
After the Golden Hind I worked for many years for a variety of companies doing hop on, hop off open top bus tours, always crossing London Bridge. Today's concrete bridge despite being the most boring looking of the many London bridges that have spanned the Thames here since Roman times evokes all sorts of historical references from the nursery rhyme to the favourite and oft told tour guide story, almost certainly a myth that the rich American industrialist, Robert P. McCulloch who bought the bridge, thought that when he heard London Bridge was up for sale, that he was getting Tower Bridge! It is certainly not iconic to look at compared to neighbouring Tower Bridge most often thought of as being London Bridge by tourists, but I always see in my mind, for me the infinitely more iconic 13th century London Bridge with all the houses on it, the wonder of medieval London, the only bridge across the river in London until the middle 1700s. A tunnel under the approach to the bridge has some of steps from the 1831 bridge that now stands in Arizona and many tour guides call these Nancy's steps after Bill Sikes' girlfriend in Oliver Twist sealed her fate in being later bludgeoned to death by him for what an informant had told him was Nancy's betrayal of him at this location.
Yes a lot of this areas history and fictional history is dark, and at the point where dragons either side of the road guard the southern entrance into the city and where that old, old bridge displayed on pikes above the gateway entrance the heads of alleged traitors as a warning to people entering the city to behave themselves.
I had just returned to London from a day coach tour to Stonehenge & Bath last Saturday evening and was far too tired to go out, but watching the news about the horror of the attacks on London Bridge & borough, whenever I cross the bridge again on a tour bus, I don't think I'll ever again be able to describe with such, engaging gusto the former macabre spectacle of its southern gate without thinking of the very modern, though inherently medieval slaughter that went on here last Saturday night.
History reminds us something more terrible has always in the past, the quarter of the then population, around 100,000 that died of the plague 1665-66, and the over 40,000 killed in the blitz of 1940-41, London today of course feels the loss of seven on Saturday evening and the suffering of many more just as acutely as the London of those times past felt.
My thoughts will be with the victims and their families of this new and genuinely horrible history of the bridge and its environs and when I guide people from all over the world across London Bridge again they will always be foremost in my mind.
Finding my mojo in Salford 25 years ago, what's R&D?..NO MONEY!!! & an old, hopeful face in a new Manc ensemble!
Being back in Manchester again checking out whats going on is great, but inevitably gets me feeling all reflective and comparisons with the past are inescapable, but there are a lot of positive things going on drama wise in Manc at the minute, sadly though of course, as is depressingly the norm everywhere else, no one seems to have any bloomin money!
I went to meet with 'Northern rep' a week last Monday, a new company that has pretensions to be the first repertory company in Manc in over 50 years, well me and about 70 others. They had what was billed as a face to face, which wasn't as the name suggests a face to face interview, and I was disappointed about this at first, but quickly got drawn into the infectious enthusiasm and big plans for the place. Standing around in a big circle listening to Tom who's the artistic director talk reminded me of my first day of being in Manchester Youth Theatre 34 years ago. Tom wasn't scary & formidable like Geoff Sykes, the AD of MYT was, but it was looking round at the big group of young faces looking hopeful. Even though I lacked the youth, I certainly shared their hopes for the thing to succeed. I wanted to be a part of it, I saw myself as the confident young actor that I dreamt of being when I was 19/20, but never was. I only got the minuscule parts where I could seemingly do as little harm as possible while at MYT!.
He wants it to be like a co-op where we all own it, even though of course we won't get to just be in it without auditioning. Everyone is encouraged to be a member of the ensemble from which they will cast future shows and hopefully have money to pay everyone a bit later in the year. Yes money, or the lack of it was the elephant in the room, well at this early stage of their development anyway. Such a shame that no, big commercial sponsor can be found, like all those years ago MYT had Ciba-Geigy, but the bottom has fallen out of such arts sponsorship and every enterprise hopes and competes for increasingly depleting arts council money.
I went to see their show, Midsummer Nights Dream in the space where they intend to build two theatres, with the setting in the sparse space being a nightclub, and even though I can think of at least 1 other immersive Shakespeare show set in a nightclub running at the mo, I thoroughly enjoyed this, was drawn in completely. It was fun, didn't seem like Midsummer Nights Dream, nor Shakespeare, and if they want to attract a bigger audience than just friends and families of the actors maybe that's a good thing. It helps if you know the basics of the story, but it really did immerse you and deserves hugely to be better attended than the 40+ people that were there on the admittedly probably quietest night I was there, Tuesday. I'm really glad I went to see Northern Rep, as it's reignited my interest in creating theatre for the first time since the huge disappointments of self producing my own play Beatle Mal over 2 years, and I really hope this is the genesis of something big.
Last Friday I walked into the past, down Bridge street and crossed the Irwell for the first time in ages and ages, in search of the genesis of my acting mojo and well my mojo generally I think, in Salford, 25 years ago!
I'd gone over to Salford for an audition held at the Kings Head pub theatre for a company called Lion Tamers, very short audition, very hurried. I could tell from this lad in charge's awkward demeanour, that I wasn't what he wanted. Anyway not disappointed as they're unsure of money, and only have enough to do what they call a 2 week R&D in the summer & even if they do get the cash to do a tour at some point, it's pretty small scale, no lions roar glory, in fact all a bit too tame! I wasn't familiar with this term R&D until recently, but a lot of theatre companies seem to be doing this, very in vogue. What they call Research & Development, as I understand it a workshop to interest schools or what have you in the project. The current R&D buzzword reminds me of a line from a favourite Peter Sellers film 'After the Fox', one of his funniest for me, with some great lines written by Neil Simon. In it Martin Balsam's character Harry cynically explains the then current creative buzzword 'neo realism' to the vain film star he manages, Tony Powell, (a very funny Victor Mature, sending himself up wonderfully!)
"What's Neo Realism?" asks Tony. "No Money!" replies Harry.
But anyway it wasn't to prove a wasted trip across the Irwell, with this year being my silver anniversary of my finding my acting mojo! my confidence to act, in actual fact, my confidence generally after awkward teens and so far tense twenties where I didn't have the confidence to even ask directions or pick up a phone, ( I'm still a bit rubbish at both of those if truth be told).
I was introverted and intense, desperately shy and added to this, roughly from the ages of 17 til 26, until ultra violet light treatment at Salford Royal eliminated it, my chest was covered in large areas of psoriasis resembling a primitive map of the world, which didn't help. Girls? Women were dreams. In actual fact they still are!
I walked past the Mark Addy pub by the river, where we all used to go, we being the first intake of students of the newly founded 'City Acting Studio', based initially in a warehouse in Salford, can't remember where, and ran by theatrical agents Laine Management. Inside what was quite a biggish space we established a theatre, then latterly a move to an old bank building on Chapel street, when the agents fronted by Elaine, moved into offices upstairs, the ground floor was cleared out & painted by us and what we called 'The Old Bank Theatre' was established. This was early 1992, I was working at the then Granada studios tour attraction and getting occasional extra work through Laine in Coronation Street, Cracker & Medics etc.
It's funny because even though I do spend a lot of time thinking about the past, I usually have a reticence about actively going back, seeking out old haunts or having reunions. Maybe because I'm making Manchester my permanent home again for the first time in 24 years, I'm acutely aware that my connections to the place are all past ones, even though I've come back sporadically over the years, I haven't lived permanently in this city since I left to go time drama school in Birmingham in 1994. For 5 years I've been thinking whether to reestablish myself in Manc, after 15 years or so living in London, but lack of friends, contacts, and of course not least job opportunities put me off, until now. So my little pilgrimage down Salford the other day is me re establishing my links to Manc, (and Salford) again!
Back in 1991 acting dreams came back to me 7 years after my first unsuccessful attempts to audition for drama schools and 2 unspectacular years with MYT, prompted by working on tv sets a lot, I wanted to act again.
We had Andy Devine, who's now best known for his time in Emmerdale, as our acting coach, studying Stella Adler technique, the method as some have called it. I liked Andy a lot, do remember having a fair few clashes with him artistically, but he was a good teacher, better than all but one of the people I was to have a few years later at drama school & that person wasn't an actor as Andy was.
For the final half of what I think was 6 months, (though in a good way it felt like a year), of these I think maybe only once a week night classes, after getting the new theatre space ready, we were rehearsing for our final showcase which was to take place for a few weeks over Easter 1992. Every scene we worked on had always filmed by a video camera on a tripod which we all took in turns to use, I remember Albert, in the class early on before he dropped out, always wanted to be camera man!
It was frequently painful looking back at this video footage afterwards, but it was meant to be, not just the mistakes, but the just watching yourself. Hugely useful though, picking up on all the nervous ticks & personal mannerisms that still crept in to the most unrecognisable characters that you created! I still have my video tape from back then and will eventually get round to watching it again. Sure it will probably help me as much now as it did 25 years ago!
Every month or so of the course we'd have a show open to friends & family usually, showcase scenes selected from plays or written and devised by us, with Andy of course directing.
For this last showcase excited that I managed to get Sophie Marshall, the then casting director of the Royal Exchange Theatre to see us one night. Anyone who knows me knows how I've always been obsessed with working in this theatre, and this night was the closest I've ever come to potentially working at my theatre of dreams.
I've a strong feeling she didn't stay till the end and I never heard from her afterwards what she thought. Although I do remember after this I did audition for something non Royal Exchange related in a warehouse opposite the old Granada HQ on Quay Street, for which she was sitting on a panel for with others, anyway at least she always seemed approachable, not the like the current caster there sadly.
For this final showcase in the new Old Bank Theatre, Andy Devine had us all do scenes from 'Feiffer's People', comic & bittersweet sketches about American domestic & marital life written by Jules Feiffer, who's probably best known for writing the screenplay for the movie Carnal Knowledge in the late 60's. We had our work cut out to adapt these, even for then I think rather dated and very American 2 or 3 hander sketches into a more familiar setting for all of us. Come to think of it I do remember doing a lot of other pieces at City Acting Studio with an American accent though, including Jack Nicholson's devil monologue about women from The Witches of Eastwick film script. "Eat Broccoli!"
In this final showcase I was in 3 scenes. I did a scene with Lucy who was a lovely girl who I had an almost brother and sister like friendship with. The scene was called Brewers Droop about a couple of course who can't get it on because the fella had consumed too much booze & couldn't perform in bed and Lucy's character in a sexy back underwear attempts to reassure me, playing him. I remember it was a hard.. ha ha scene to do. Just overcoming shyness at performing an intimate scene with her, even when nothing actually happens and indeed just before anything does and my uptight Woody Allenesque character comes to the realisation that "Sex is dirty!" the scene comically ends.
Another scene from Feiffer was called a "A Rose in her teeth" I did this with Pauline or Erina,
Dear Pauline, she helped my confidence grow enormously, and although I know it wasn't a particularly happy time for her personally, I've often thought of her over the years, hoping she's good, hoping she's happy, because the last time I saw her she was desperately unhappy.
She was a nurse, a stewardess for British airways, and she was a wonderful, sexy, generous, and just generally fabulous woman, and I'll never forget her, She believed in me and quite honestly the confidence I got from City Acting Studio was as much from her as from the course itself. All these years later I still buy Eternity aftershave because of her, I remember she told me she could shag a man all night, (or maybe for eternity), with that on!
I did find her on Facebook while writing this blog, and glad to say she looks likes she is happy. I have thought about contacting her, as well as the so far, 3 others I've found in the pictures of for our final show at the Old Bank theatre, which I have posted below. 25 years is a long time though and I'm not at all sure I should bother her, she'll maybe think I'm raking up the past for no good reason, and I worry whether she or the others will be receptive to what is intended as a friendly, good intentioned overture after all these years, I know they've all moved on and so have I. Maybe the past should stay past, and it's only me that is proud of this positive and important moment in my life, I do hope not. I do hope everyone else at least shares fond memories of this time.
Earlier at our previous base, (wonder where that was?), we'd had quite a few more people, many more than the 10 of us in pictures below, but we were the die hards who completed the course, survived to the end! As for Andy, It'd be nice to speak with him if I could find him, I read that since leaving Emmerdale 7 years ago he's been living on a boat up in Stanley, near Wakefield, West Yorks. I liked that he said in an interview I found with him, that he always wanted to be a pirate. Me too, must be something in 28th February born pisceans water wanting to be pirates, as she shares the same birthday with me!
Pauline's mum was from Ireland and she strongly identified with the Emerald Isle, as indeed do I, so she wanted to give 'A Rose in her teeth' an Irish setting. I loved playing this imposing Bill Sykes like Irish labourer character in donkey jacket and flat cap who when he enters the pub everyone notices. I love playing intimidating and supremely confident characters, a million miles from me. But this was Pauline's scene completely and I remember she played it beautiful and subtle, while I was chewing the minimalist scenery! I still have somewhere the red rose used as a prop, a fake one, plastic, though there was nothing fake about the emotions at work in that piece.
Everyone was good as I remember, that last showcase was full of high standard pieces, far better than the creaky source material sketches deserved to be, and I think allowing for the limitations of what showcases allow it was entertaining for our audiences to watch, better than any showcase I've seen ever since and I've seen a fair few. The best thing of all was, I think we'd all seen our confidence grow as the course had progressed.
I walked down Chapel Street trying to decide where The Old Bank Theatre had stood, I'd read somewhere it had been demolished, knew it stood roughly opposite Salford Cathedral and took a picture of a couple of bits of likely wasteland where there had been a big curved corners into side streets. I've since tracked down pictures of it before demolition, so I can. pinpoint exactly where it stood and the pictures I took, (the ones below), were spot on, I knew it!
Oh I'm there imagining standing there these big double doors on the corner of the building, where once certainly the most dramatic thing in the buildings history as a theatre took place.
One evening, I want to remember it as mid performance in one of our shows, but it might just have been us rehearsing, these doors were ram raided! Must have been strong doors especially made for Salford banks under attack back in the day, as they didn't fall, but the whole building shook and dust fell from the ceiling, (I'm fairly sure onto an audience), before the vehicle, never saw what type, backed up and sped off. Did they think the bank was back in business or did they just hate actors in Salford? Never found out, but whichever way you look at it, they severely dented their vehicle or their egos for no good reason!
I've read that the building which had been condemned as unsafe, (maybe our ram raiders had started something back then), was gutted in a fire before its eventual demise about 4 years ago. Apparently only one of many things it had been back in the day, was an Irish bank, looking after the accounts of a lot Irish Catholics in the city, including the Cathedral just opposite. Pauline & I had been spiritually at home with our Irish themed piece then!
Did hear a few years ago that there was a nice plan to build a wall, 'The Salford Wall', a nice non divisive, but creative kind of wall, but I hadn't really appreciated that the wall was to be built with this very buildings bricks which were salvaged and numbered by a local artist!
I feel as though I want to go and perform a piece on The Old Bank Theatre's derelict site as a tribute to its importance to me, very sad it's gone and that I didn't come looking for it sooner.This is indeed the first time I've been back in those 25 years.
I wonder how long it continued as a theatre after we were there, and I wonder about the hopeful actors who used it after us first lot. Hope they felt as positive about it as I did/still do.
For me my time there paved the way of having the confidence to try to make my own theatre. With Pauline's help, I tried to found a theatre company called Mischievous Fools, together with Lucy, my good friend Simon Lind, Chris Joyce who'd been with us at City Acting Studio, and a nice friend of Pauline's called Nigel. I had big plans to do an open air production of a little play I'd written called Robin Goodfellow. And a year later in the summer of 1994, just before I went to drama school in Birmingham, I did my own Treasure Island street show in Edinburgh. None of this and getting into drama school would have been remotely possible without what came to an end on this now, sadly bit of derelict wasteland in Salford in the week after Easter, at the end of April exactly 25 years ago!
Blimey 25 years since City Acting Studio, 20 years since leaving drama school, the anniversaries are racking up, but are they to be celebrated when I'm still so woefully struggling?!
It's bittersweet looking for ghosts of your past, being somewhere where once those people were close besides you, but are now are far, far away. As I look at the pictures of my dark haired younger self, I wonder how much I've changed apart from the obvious stampede of crows under my eyes, fairer hair, ( I must stop dying it, Trump has killed my desire to be a blonde), not to mention my considerably less slimmer outline. But not that much really inside, still living the dream that began here! I wonder about the others. Sadly I lost contact with everyone from City Acting Studio within a few months of Mischievous Fools finishing and Pauline too went out of my life.
That really saddened me even though I understood and I retreated into myself for a while, wrote Morrissey-like love poems as I've often done at such times. Added to this I'd lost my sister-like friend Lucy too. If I remember correctly she had joined a Christian group or something like that and apparently shut everyone out, wasn't contactable. Can't remember exact details of this now, but I lost 2 friends in quick succession and to lose a good friend is as bad if not worse than losing a lover, doubly so if they're both. But my confidence to keep acting kept on track.
Now with all this looking back, some might easily accuse me of being mawkish...urgh horrible word, maudlin….even worse. well lets just try over sentimental then? You're not on my wavelength if you do! I think sentimentality is good, it embraces detail, the little things, savours the moments of pleasure. Some might say don't dwell in the past, go forwards, not backwards, I am looking forward, that's a lot of what this blogs about. Going back is in actual fact a valuable way of re evaluating your life, and you have to look back to go forwards at decisive moments in your life, and as I do have the feeling that I've come to another of life's cross roads after a fair amount of time on a long, uphill road that's been in places scenically very lovely, and full of great things, but ultimately still has led to nowhere!
Sunday 22nd January 2017
Now is the time for fairytales, they have let a monster into the White House, a friend said to me at the beginning of this month. Well surely If this is possible we can believe all our wildest, most beautiful and creative dreams coming true.
With all the bad elements of fairytale terror and weirdness infiltrating real life you can ask yourself legitimately, what is real? The old bad smells of prejudice, fear, hate and disrespect are returning close to home, ignorance is rife, isolationism acceptable, and an epidemic of intolerance, fundamentalist zeal and easy violence has infected large parts of our planet. Morality has been side stepped for corporate and economic gain, hypocrisy and compliancy seemingly know no ends with the people we elect to lead us. Integrity is danger of becoming an endangered word and the phrase humanitarian crises has become so widely used as to be barely noticeable in a news report anymore as widely used in fact as that ugliest new word in the English language, the appropriately terminal sounding Brexit! Oh I'm so angry that our ever so poorly, in fact chronically badly managed country is lining itself up to jump off a cliff, and our only supposed lifeline is a madman who is intent on destroying us all in a spiteful tweet! Makes me ashamed to be anything to do with this country.
And on top of all this John Hurt has died, beautiful voice and one of the actors who's inspired me most from first being transfixed by him in his tiny role, that for me was enormous, in Midnight Express. I remember doing some extra work years ago when I worked at Granada tv, I had to play part of a gaggle of press swarming around him, and I had to keep flashing a camera in his face. It was the morning after he'd punched a photographer for invading his privacy. He'd recently just done Scandal, where he played Stephen Ward, who was hounded to suicide by a ravenous press in the wake of the Profumo affair, and the part as was clear in his beautifully judged performance had understandably affected him. Anyway when the camera stopped rolling after flashing him in the face till he was blind, smiling, he mimed a playful punch in my direction!
In my little world, I still don't have my own place to live and no light in the world of acting work opportunities and I can't get an agent for the cliché of not having any gaps in their books.
Dreams of acting success are a fairytale and seem more of a far fetched one than before I entered the drama school that I left 20 years ago this year. Oh I have fun, I mostly keep positive, Toby Belch and Captain Hook kept me out of trouble last year. But I still have to convince myself I am an actor by googling myself on Spotlight and having this website and I'd be too embarrassed to admit how much money I earn from acting in an average year, even to myself as I know no one else will read this.
I'm not going to go on whinging about acting disappointments, but my point is that my personal fairytale is, although self centred, at least a good, creative even. It is the Billy Liar-like dream world of that, my favourite film. Billy as played by Tom Courtenay, who was very much associated with my theatre of dreams, the Royal Exchange Theatre early on. My Billy dreams of a major role in Manchester's real theatre of dreams. I have always believed because of huge emotional attachment to this theatre, that I'll never feel I'm a proper actor til I get to work there, but maybe in itself that is fanciful.
The Exchange might as well be a fairytale castle, that just happens to look like the Apollo moon missions lunar module. I have for 30 years dreamt of conquering but frustratingly beyond mention I am only a tourist, there. Late last year I mounted a mini campaign that looks just fanciful now, to try and get seen for their Twelfth Night this April. I contacted the director and caster innumerable times, but I knew all along that I was just playing out a fanciful hope. My only way ever in there is to be previously known and well thought of both by director and caster. But I still allowed myself to be carried along in my Billy Liar dream world, fairytale, actually believing I could get seen. I even imagined climbing up to the top of the lunar module and refusing to come down if they didn't see me!
I guess It's like the boys and indeed girls who dreamt of being astronauts but who only ever saw the Kennedy space centre, except that they grew up, got over their disappointment. I know I'm skilled enough to be allowed onto that craft, I've done my training for over 20 years but it's still just orbiting my earth and I might as well have to do a space walk to even get a look in. I'm fuming rocket fuel frustration at what I have to do to get seen. Not just by this theatre but a host of other prominent employers.
With Acting you walk a fine line between being in your own optimistic and isolated bubble, (which this vanity website wholly represents), and the very real realisation that your chances of even getting seen for tv and regional theatre are akin to winning the jackpot in the lottery!
Of course it's hideously unfair, but you get yourself in your space bubble and almost gleefully temporarily forget, before you come crashing down to earth again, and you never learn, or want to!
I may have been to Mars in a recent short film, but the Royal Exchange is still a universe apart!
Meryl Streep was right it is a privilege to act, it's actually more than a blessing, it;s a miracle that someone will pay you to do what you love. Having Sally Wainwright, Terry Gilliam, Mike Leigh or Sarah Frankcom, want me to work with them... that would be like me lying in a liquorice fountain with mermaids reclining on sugary sherbet Edinburgh rocks and my mouth watering with the taste of kisses from their cherry lips!
My biggest fairytale dream has always been the most common, love, many, many times it's got in the way of and at times completely disrupted me giving it the large with acting, sometimes I even feel I might have even been wonderfully successful by now, if I could've set it aside.
Real love took me a long time to recognise and I was in love last year for the first time in ages.
I should know, I've had more crushes than a.....? A world record crushing car crusher! I read once that if you go on having feelings for someone after 4 months it must be love, I always thought that "As soon as I wake up, any night, any day, I know that it's you I need to take the blues away" but maybe that was just Madness!
My niece said today when I was talking about monsters with her, that we're only early on in this particular fairytale and I thought that's right, the darkness before the light returns, fairytales traditionally play out well and already we're seeing people positively mobilise and come together as they generally do after a big shock!
Really what we need is to see our beautiful hopes realised like little chinks of sunlight, burning through the mist in all our little worlds.
And if I didn't believe in the prospect of those hopes I'd climb on top of the Royal Exchange's lunar module tomorrow and attempt a space walk! x
Sunday 9th October 2016
I was reading a silly piece a few months ago that suggested that Hollywood has ruined method acting as reported excesses like Jared Leto as prep for playing The Joker in The Suicide Club, gave used condoms & dead animals as gifts to his fellow cast members. The suggestion in the piece was that this was more a cynical marketing tool than an aid to performance.
I perfectly understood why Daniel Day Lewis slept with his rifle in his excellent Last of the Mohicans and why Christian Slater lost so much weight on The Machinist. Of course Robert De Niro famously gained a lot of weight for Raging Bull, (incidentally I love De Niro of old for never being pretentious. never trumpeting his prep for a role, it was the film company who did but this to.. you guessed it, market the film!)
Whatever helps you and I don't like talking about prep either. So yes if helps him and more importantly if it helps him be fucking brilliant in it. Course just like life you've got to be careful, considerate, if you're playing a selfish bastard, make sure your fellow actors know what to expect and also that you're not just wanking away for affect with a total disregard.
Of course you've got to be aware of the funny side, that excesses are sometimes questionable and laughable. A teacher at drama school told me about Mike Leigh insisting his actors all lived their roles for the whole duration and a woman secretly rushing into a supermarket to buy her cat some Whiskers and Mike Leigh suddenly appearing behind a stack of tins to say , NO...you're character doesn't have a cat!
Of course arguably…no not arguably..definitely… you can't even ever get near Heath Ledger's brilliance in The Dark Knight anyway for the psychotic/homicidal approach to the Joker, maybe Jared should've gone for a completely different approach, like not nuts, but a comedian without a sense of humour, a bit dour, deadpan like.. I don't know Rich Hall?
The desire to genuinely immerse yourself in a role is a great one, believing if I believe myself I am a poor, grumpy farmer, would be poet from County Monahan haunting Dublin's pubs, everyone else will. So you do your research, I absolutely loved playing Patrick Kavanagh. Research is fun. I really, really love researching a real life character, meeting people who knew them, walking their streets, getting into their skin. or if fictitious you look for clues, base them on people, imagine their life.
Also you practice their accent until it sounds like native and make sure all pronunciations are the correct ones. What you wear is key I think, really vital for me and many's the time I've bought my own clothes for a show. Many's the time I've bloody had to, or wear nothing anyway!
It's really exciting to do all this, often much more of a buzz than actually the giving the finished performance, allowing yourself to be completely transported off on this dream world. Prep isn't always fun though. I did a solo show about a man who had been kidnapped in Iraq and was being held in solitary confinement contrasting in his own mind the family tragedy that brought him
to work in Iraq with the predicament he was now in. I became my most lonely self, imaging all the people I missed, from my dad, to a dead friend, to lost loves. I immersed myself in regret and self imposed isolation and found the Cat Stevens song 'Moonshadow' that was used in the show enormously helpful, so much so that I have difficulty listening to that beautifully haunting song
today. The piece although only about 3 quarters of an hour long did effect me and I became very down and negative, so after initially being sorry that the short run at Theatre 503 was done, it quite quickly became a relief not to dwell in despair any longer.
So anyway I was watching all the Shakespeare 400 commemorations this April and dreaming that Will Shakespeare would hear my wishing that I was in a Shakespeare play this year, that he'd have a bit of influence or my dear dad, who I strongly believe watches over our family and helps when & if he can!
I do love me Will Shakespeare, but of late it's been extolling his worth as tour guide in Stratford and in London, rubbishing the Oxfordians and inflicting a but of Prospero or Henry V prologue on my captive audience on the coach. It's been almost 10 years since I did a Shakespeare and then another 10 years before that, so Will Shakespeare has been denied to me despite auditioning for lots!
So I saw an open air tour of Twelfth Night for the summer is advertised, that could potentially rescue me from my seasonal tour guiding.
Funnily enough I'd been reflecting on Twitter back in April how Twelfth Night was not only the first Shakespeare play I ever saw, but also my first time in a theatre to see a straight forward play, that wasn't a Christmas panto. It was at the fabulous Royal Exchange in Manchester, my Royal Exchange! I gush about this theatre to anyone who will listen and will continue to gush about it until the end of time. The best Shakespeare I've ever seen there from that earliest Twelfth Night in 1977 or 78? to this years King Lear, far, far superior to anything I've ever seen at the RSC. Always feel I'll never be a proper actor until I get to work in Manchester's true theatre of dreams.
Anyway I remember finding the actor playing Sir Toby Belch hilariously funny, even overshadowing one of my all time favourite actors Tom Courtenay, who was Malvolio in it. Didn't understand a word of what he was saying. ( If I'm honest I still don't even now after working on him for over a month! ), but found him just brilliantly funny. I'm looking at the programme I kept in front of me, he was an actor called Wolf Morris and God love him (he died in 1996), he probably more than anyone else made me love Shakespeare. Never did Shakespeare in school, (thank God) nor had seen a Shakespeare movie or tv dramatisation up til then. Him then and the Royal Exchange Theatre ever since brought Will Shakespeare alive for me and I'll always be grateful for that.
SO THANKFULLY my wanting to be in a Shakespeare play back in April was heard. Will Shakespeare rescued me this summer. Open Book theare company or Open Bard on this occasion. Nicky Diss, Vicky Gaskin & Ellie Cope rescued me and I love them dearly for that. Vicky even said It was I who had rescued them when I told her this, which was very sweet of her and made this soppy old kweg near cry I can tell you!
I hope these selfish yearnings aren't too rationed as that I want, yearn for...need a major role at Royal Exchange…or any role!)
I've always wanted to be a hell raiser! A lot of actors I grew up loving lived life to excess, Errol Flynn, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Peter Finch & Richard Burton. Fine, fine actors and real life characters all and growing up I wanted to be all of them. I am a natural rebel, don't conform easily. When restrictions are imposed the devil in me is roused to flaunt them and I do like a drink, the womanising is admired rather than aspired to, but having being always pretty hopeless with approaching girls and also even a hint of misogyny, an anathema to me.
Oh yes I definitely coveted the idea of being thought of as a hell raiser at drama school, drinking myself often silly at parties, whole bottles of spirits downed resulting in frequently the party being a write off after 20 minutes, feeling like death and yawning in technicolor on doorsteps.
Like my last year at school, smoking and a general disregard for rules, urinating through the old drama schools letter box as a dare, (confession all these years later: yes it was me Mr Bill, not the imaginary school cat!) Close friends even called me Withnail after the titular character in fave film Withnail and I and I also got called Father Jack, because of red faced resemblance to David Kelly's great character in Father Ted.
So with applying for Twelfth Night I thought they're probably not going to even see me because I don't play a portable instrument as is de rigour for outdoor Shakespeare's these days and also because of my age, as it's mainly seems to be young uns in open air shows.
I wrote to Jane Frisby, who I knew to be a lovely, approachable casting director, went to the audition, did my best drunk act in another Shakespeare, (Stephano in the Tempest) and got the job. By the way on the first day of rehearsals ukeleles were brought in and we were taught simple chords, all of which I learnt...though not necessarily in the right order!
Excellent. I started planning my hell raising Sir Toby Belch, from wardrobe first. I've been in so many fringe plays where I've had to supply my own costume, so even though I knew I wouldn't have to for this I wanted to. As I said earlier Clothes are so important to a character, as I had a clear idea that this modern dress Twelfth Night, Sir Toby should look like a cross between Richard Harris and Oliver Reed off set and in the pub! Ollie Reed liked rugby shirts & country tweeds, but it was when I watched a lovely clip of Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole carousing in the beer tent at Twickenham at the Rugby World Cup that my costume was decided. Harris proudly revealing his red Munster rugby shirt from when he'd had a cap as a young man, fiercely proud that it still fitted him, complete with vintage mud stains on it. He wore a tweedy jacket, so I bought a vintage Munster rugby shirt and on eBay a second hand green, tweed jacket (funnily enough a Harris tweed) like the one he had worn in the clip in honour of him.
So I not only got to do some Shakespeare, I got to channel all my favourite hell raisers into Sir Toby, happy times!
Course this particular hell raiser actor knight took me over, felt very comfortable as him, although risked being thought a dirty old man lusting after a Maria young enough to be my daughter!
Of course I seriously did have to watch dropping lines and frequently wasn't considerate to others & buggered up the timing in favour of downing pints to get to the real Richard Harris/Ollie Reed edge of inebriation!
Boast me no boasts, but having often liked a drink or double figures and knowing and seeing much drunkeness over my years it's an easy thing for me to do well. One problem though was despite being called Belch and practicing, never did I effectively belch on demand! Nice comments though, many got the Ollie Reed carousing & compared me to him, a few Irish guys got the Munster/Richard Harris connection & I also got compared to Rik Mayall, who's a hero of mine. Many more thought I was actually drunk!
Sure enough I was reigned in for sampling too much, talk of being a risk assessments do bring out the devil in me, none of the audience ever complained, quite the reverse, I was offered full bottles of wine and the biggest cheers were when I downed pints, which only made me worse.
Quite certain that I'll never get away with this again, but honestly all hail the method, it's the only bloomin way!
Sunday 3rd July 2016
I remember having a drink with Caroline at a poetry caberet event organised by a group called 'Stand & Deliver' at the Tameside Theatre, Ashton under Lyne 30 years ago. I fancied her, but was too painfully shy even to flirt, never mind read my silly poetry & that I seem to remember is what we talked about, can't remember much, but she was shy too, but hadn't let shyness stop her. I do remember she was very funny and lovely and totally genuine.
She wasn't a household name in those days, it was long before her Mrs Merton tv shows, she was on the comedy circuit around Manchester. I seem to remember I recognised her, so maybe she'd done a few spots on tv, but maybe not. I can't remember how we got talking.
In the end despite encouragement I didn't get up to read my poems but over the years I've wished more that I'd flirted with her because I had a big crush on her. Oh Regrets I've had a few! Now I don't kid myself for a minute that if I'd flirted with her she'd have reciprocated, I can't remember if she was with anyone at this time. I think she was just being her naturally friendly, lovely, genuine self.
Of course in my Billy Liar dreamworld we would have definitely gone out together and been good for each other and just lived and loved and laughed!
It's hard for me to remember specific details of this as it is to revisit my 1980's self, I look back at my poems from them, most of them quite awful, unrequited love nonsense & maybe even now my feelings now are a throwback to that, but that time has stayed with me ever since and over the years I've enjoyed regaling people with name dropping anecdotes of those 80's Manc days, where for a brief time I was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Steve Coogan and of course I've embellished them a bit.
I saw her only intermittently over a period of about 6 months in 1986, as she was part of a circle of people on that poetry cabaret circuit in Manc which I hung out with, having first designed posters for some of them when I was working on a government scheme as a graphic artist at Tameside College. Strangely I can't remember seeing her perform live, but she must have been at those gigs to perform on occasion, or maybe she was just there for the crack, I only vaguely remember subsequent conversations where much to my excitement, she sought my shy, yet desiring 20's self out and wanted to know how I was getting on on my government scheme at the college!
Never saw her again when the scheme finished and I lost contact with all that circle (more regrets).
But over the years her face has of course became so familiar on television, but I still just about see past that, as if light down the end of a tunnel, to this very pretty Irish looking girl then, warmly encouraging me to get up and read my poems. I don't even remember showing them to her to see if she thought they were actually worth getting up to perform, but that didn't seem to matter!
I never did get up to perform my poems, (well apart from that time when I inexplicably rattled one off when auditioning for Granada Studios tour a few years later, but we won't talk about that!) But it was a long approach road to the performance motorway that I sought to join that night, a performance motorway which in the last 20 years I've been chugging along and weaving like the can can girl dreaming weaver bird motorist of a 1970s public information film!
Over the years I've had lots and lots of crushes, (and by the way I do think the word crush to be much more a potent description of desire than just plain fancy) and certainly the reason I've remembered Caroline is because she became famous and yes I'm a soppy old Hector anyway, but still her warmth, her loveliness, her generosity of spirit, coupled with being as funny as fuck, has meant that unlike others that crush has never and will never die.
I can't bear to read stories that she was apparently alone when she died, that she just didn't want to make a fuss by telling people she was very ill. I can't believe she, the same age as I is not around, she is just still is, it just cannot be. She's a total genius in everything she does.
footnote: 30 years on she's inspired me to imagine that early meeting with her in a short poem. (below)
It's probably better that I never have the opportunity to get up and perform it, as I'd just fucking cry like a baby and that wouldn't do me confidence any good.