You may perhaps have heard of the ancient River Thames ritual of “swan-upping”, when in the summer time gents dressed in archaic liveries conduct a sort of census of the Thames swan population, on behalf of the Queen? (If not, there’s a helpful video link below.) Meanwhile, a hundred yards or so along the river from where I live, a less-publicised Thames Wildlife Survey has quietly been taking place, involving checking the health of – and presumably assessing the effect of pollution on – our local swans.
I joined a small crowd admiring the procedure – at the top of the picture is the vet, assessing the swans one-by-one, handed to him by the young assistant in the foreground, whose job is to lift the bird from the water, and calm it down so that it’s ready for examination. Have you ever tried to lift a large aquatic bird out of the water against its will? Not a task I would relish, but this young woman was a joy to watch – deftly lifting the protesting animal onto the shore, then sitting astride its back and murmuring words of comfort into its ear until it settled down – which each swan did within a few minutes, and then allowed itself to be handed over to the vet, as docile as you please. What and where next for the Swan Whisperer? In this fraught world, there is so much need for the still, small, calming voice…
This summer, as the UK may – or may not – slip out of the clutches of Covid, is truly a time out of joint, where normalities have evaporated, when extremities and oddities no longer surprise. As we in the UK prepare to “staycate” (how the virus has expanded our vocabulary!) we pack very small bottles of sun-lotion along with rain-hats, mackintoshes and welly boots, while downloading lists of “Stories for Wet Afternoons.” But hey, we mustn’t complain – those of you out there in the west of America, or on the Greek mainland with your scary temperatures and billowing forest fires – would, I know happily embrace just one of our fitful downpours. I can’t begin to imagine what living with fifty degrees Centigrade could be like – especially when you quantify it in “old money” and realise we are talking over one hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit!
As with so many, the pandemic has changed my work pattern, inevitably leading one further into Zoomland. A welcome band of new on-line coaching clients has appeared, and a surge of “self-tape” auditions sent by my lovely agents has set the long-dormant acting career sputtering back into life – through modest, “supporting” roles, but supplying happy, much-missed fun along the way.
Following the excursion mentioned in the last episode – into darkest Somerset to be harassed by dogs and cannibals courtesy of a new “Blair Witch Project”style scary movie due for release in the autumn – I was cast as the elderly dad of the main character in a four-part “real-life” drama to be screened by ITV early next year. My “screen wife” Carrie Cohen and I had a terrific time in a range of locations, including Holloway Prison and Clerkenwell Crown Court, finishing in our own, “ordinary” northern living room – except it wasn’t, it was a cunningly adapted interior in a once-stately home – Stoke Court, Buckinghamshire!
For some of the shoot, we were on one of the George Lucas sound stages at Elstree Film Studios, where “Star Wars” was created, and where “The Crown” happens. After several uncertain decades, the UK film studios are all expanding like crazy, to meet the huge international upswing in TV “box-set” viewing figures during the pandemic. Investment is pouring in – on the way home one day my driver took me to see the Hertfordshire building site that will become the new “Sunset” studios (announced in last week’s news) and it’s MASSIVE, hundred of acres devoted to the creation of new drama. Despite Covid, despite the Brexit backwash, parts of our trade are in a healthy, optimistic state – long may it last and may it augur a soon and rapid recovery for our “live” stage, not just movie sound stages.
All at once, reader, things turned very Welsh. I am an illustration of the old Jesuit insistence that the crucial years in a man’s life are the first seven. Although in my eighth year I was transported from Cardiff to northern climes and had, to survive my new schoolmates’ taunts, to acquire a Hull accent, I still slip in a trice to a south Welsh persona, complete with accent. Which is handy from the acting point of view, and once we’d done the filming for ITV I nipped off down to the Valleys, to play a tiny part in Steve Spiers’s English-language sitcom for BBC Wales, “The Tuckers”. This show isn’t yet fully networked across the UK, but you can catch the whole of Series One on the iPlayer, and it’s great fun – tales of a disreputable family’s usually disgraceful adventures in Welsh village, by a cast led by Steve himself with Lynn Hunter as his fearsome mum, and Robert Pugh as her especially disreputable brother. It’s hugely popular in Wales – they’re now recording Season Three, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to gain a place on the BBC national schedules before long. Steve Spiers is a quite ubiquitous actor and writer – I’m especially a fan of his work as Shakespeare’s leading player Burbage in Ben Elton’s “Upstart Crow”.
Although this visit to the Land of My Fathers was very short, it was rich in scenery and interest. I was staying in Caerphilly, I had a couple of hours to spare before being needed on set, so – on the first scorching day of the recent heat-wave – I went to wander in the local medieval castle, the largest in the UK outside of Windsor. I must have been taken there as a child, but I had no recollection of just how impressive Caerphilly Castle is – a sprawling, looming fortress originally built by warlike English aristocrats to intimidate the Welsh, and restored in romantic Victorian times by the Scottish coal billionaire John Crighton-Stuart, Marquis of Bute, who also restored Cardiff Castle and commissioned William Burgess’s gothic fantasy, Castell Coch.
Going on to join the crew and cast of ” The Tuckers”, I found myself again brushing against Welsh history, of a more recent and distressing kind, for the show is currently being filmed at Senghenydd, the site of one of the worst mining disasters of all time. In 1913, 439 men died as a result of an underground explosion. There is a “green room” for the actors in the local museum, so while waiting to be called on set I could browse the photos and memorabilia of this horrific event – and reflect on how many of its survivors then went off to perish in trenches in Flanders. Not, you might think, the best frame of mind in which to perform comedy…but life goes on, and “The Tuckers” has all the wry, dark humour that echoes in Welsh culture, after centuries of pain and oppression – alongside so much beauty, poetry and music.
Elements of course distilled in Dylan Thomas’s great 1954 “play for voices”, “Under Milk Wood” – which shortly after getting back to London I went to see at the National Theatre as part of a socially-distanced audience in the Olivier auditorium, the production directed by Lindsey Turner. In this version the piece is extended by the Welsh poet Siân Lloyd, and the play emerges from scenes in a Welsh care home. As in the 2014 BBC TV version, narration is by the great Michael Sheen, full of honest passion, with delicious character work by the likes of Alan David as Mr Pugh and Anthony O’Donnell as Captain Cat. I’m told the piece has been recorded for broadcast, so if you missed it presumably it will be available in the autumn or winter TV schedules – and if it is, let us know what you think.
So the theatre is starting to emerge in the UK – isn’t it? Is it? Some shows are already under way, many more being bravely advertised to open in October and November. Others have been squashed out of existence by so many actors being “pinged” to isolate at home – for instance Kenneth Branagh’s “The Browning Version”, slated to raise funds for RADA at the Riverside Studios.
All we can do is keep our fingers crossed, and reach once more for the TV remote. The papers are full of columnists’ lists of the “best pandemic/lockdown shows” and I’ve banged on quite enough about my passion for the great French products “Call My Agent” and “Spiral”. So just two series to mention this time – I can’t avoid “The Kominsky Method” on Netflix, which is about – well, it’s about a once well-known actor who survives as an acting coach, has had several attempts at marriage, and has a grown-up daughter who worries about him….Crackling, witty scripts, super acting – with Michael Douglas, and for the first two seasons, veteran comic genius Alan Arkin. Glorious, brilliant – however for this particular viewer, perhaps just a little too much resonance…
The other series I rejoice in is Channel Four’s “We Are Lady Parts”. Amidst all the noisy “woke” debates, amidst all the tiresome misconceptions and blustery accusations, here’s a show about an all Muslim female punk-rock band, with no preaching – just honestly-drawn characters and a clever storyline, delivered by a group of wondrously talented actor-musicians.
I laughed loud and frequently through the first 5 episodes, and in episode 6 wept joyfully at the (spoiler alert) happy, merry ending. This is work created (as writer and director) by Nida Manzoor, a brilliant graduate of UCL – who found herself obliged to close all her social media accounts because of abuse following the series being broadcast. What a sad, mad world….
Swan-Upping explained (British Pathé News, 1953)
We Are Lady Parts: