“Since almost everyone can talk, it hardly seems fair that only a few come to be admired for it.” Thus the great Clive James, who finally left us this week, after talking and writing brilliantly through many months – indeed years – of painfully borrowed time, and who anyone with ears to hear or eyes to read admired beyond description. What a talent. What a loss.
My evenings this week have been filled with a “binge” catch-up on the first two series of “The Crown” and one episode contains a re-creation of the legendary 1960s political satire “Beyond the Fringe”. This brilliantly cheeky show launched a quartet of amazing careers – Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller, who sadly also has now departed.
Among Dr Miller’s awesome range of achievements were many celebrated theatre projects, including in recent years directing final year students at RADA – however a much earlier production today swam back into memory. In 1970 one of my great pals was Norman Beaton, whom I went to watch deliver a super-cool Ariel in Miller’s post-colonial version of “The Tempest” at the Mermaid Theatre. I was quite surprised to track down this image a few hours ago – the show also featured Rudi Walker as Caliban.
There’s a 2015 conversation between Clive James and Jonathan Miller on Youtube – link below.
Ok, now please pay attention. This contribution is written in November, which is the AUTUMN – not, repeat not Christmas! For weeks I have fought my way through throngs of shoppers with ring-a-jing music swilling in the air, Christmas trees sprayed with fake snow stacked outside a church, a neighbouring house has sparkly lights and paper bells in the window. This is November folks, damp bonfire ashes still smoulder, bedraggled poppies are still pinned to lapels, why don’t we just enjoy this season – there are rich gold-brown leaves to be scuffed through, woodsmoke to be savoured, it’s the time of roast chestnuts and toffee apples, the football, hockey and rugby leagues in full – if muddy -swing.
Well OK, if you’re one of our Kiwi or Oz readers no doubt you’re just pulling the tabs off a few tubes while settling to a Test match under the springtime sun, while here in the Old Country we are fighting to keep the turning year’s precious traditions, as the Philistines drag us towards a Trumpian dystopia. If today’s alarming election polls are right, as Britain’s New Johnsonian Age unfolds next Christmas in the shopping malls green-masked Santas will sing of special-offer hip replacements and tinsel-bright teeth implants, available through US Big Pharma Finance! Ching-a-ling!
In September and some way into October here in London the summer fitfully lingered, long enough for my happy troupe of student visitors from New York to enjoy outdoor theatre shows in our capital – and the one which they all seemed to love was “Evita” at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. This paired-down, gutsy new version of the Lloyd-Webber musical is coming back in 2020 to be re-staged at the Barbican. Casting has yet to be announced – but I hope they’re bringing back Sarah Pauly as Evita – at the Park she was quite terrific.
We also caught “As You Like It” at Shakespeare’s Globe – with a brilliant, sparky Rosalind from RADAgrad Jack Laskey – but now the nights have drawn in the Globe’s actors have retreated to their indoor Jacobean playhouse, the Wanamaker. About to be on offer are candle-lit versions of “Henry V1″and “Richard 111” – but be warned! This is an exquisite space, and the experience of watching a play in flickering light with the honeyed perfume of beeswax in the air is pure magic – UNLESS you have been persuaded to buy one of the low-cost seats in the upper galleries, from whence you will see but a fraction of the stage, and the wooden bench on which you perch will get harder and harder as the play goes on…
As the afternoons shortened in October I didn’t take much persuading to spend a few days with my friends Doug and Kate down at Le Cap d’Antibes. The lingering sun allowed a couple of swims in the sea, and a wondrous al fresco lunch at the famous Colombe d’Or restaurant in St Paul de Vence, up in the hills above the Cote d’Azur. The hotel, its restaurant and terrace are littered with important works of art, the place echoes with shades of parties thrown in the 60s by Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, and the food – of course – is mouth-watering. The day we were there a rather up-market British vintage car club turned up for lunch, the car-park a-gleam with polished chrome…
And so back to a soggy Kingston, to my sofa and the box set. And talking of posh cars – where do they get the ones in “The Crown”? They must have raided every vintage car collection in Europe, finding glorious examples of spot-on appropriate vehicles, from an Austin A40 to a Silver Wraith Convertible. Talk about production values – Netflix don’t stint on budgets. If you don’t have Netflix you can now get the first two series on DVD and I think it would make anyone a great present – be they monarchist or republican – when the festivities do arrive (towards the end of next month, in case you’d forgotten.)
I now unreservedly take back any doubt I cast earlier on Matt Smith’s tackling of the nuances of class difference. His Philip Mountbatten, alongside Claire Foy’s remarkable Elizabeth Windsor, is totally convincing – and the pair of them deliver Peter Morgan’s extraordinary scripts with insight and great acting skill. The scripts are of course made-up private conversations and imagined events – but the research that’s gone into both well-documented history and the inevitable accumulation of gossip and rumour has clearly been intense, and Morgan’s writing matches his cast’s acting. So I salute all concerned, and a big hand please for Casting Director Nina Gold – not least for the utterly inspired choice of Vanessa Kirby as Margaret, giving as detailed and nuanced a performance as you’ll see on any screen anywhere this decade.
(I haven’t yet taken in all of Season 3 – it would be interesting to know how fellow addicts of the early seasons feel about the new cast.)
Earlier this month, as the all-too-real history of 20th century wars was recalled in the days around November the 11th, I was asked by Music Director Peter Broadbent to read some poetry relevant to remembrance at a concert given at St Gabriel’s Church in Pimlico. This was with the very distinguished choir, The Joyful Company of Singers, and it was a real privilege to work with such a fine, gloriously in tune ensemble. The work included superb compositions by the late Malcolm Williamson, which you can hear the choir singing on the link below.
Alas I never met Clive James – however in his later years his failing health wouldn’t permit him to fly, so on several occasions he crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2, during the time when I was in charge of companies of RADA graduates giving classical theatre shows on board. Two of our actors one day reported they had encountered Clive taking a morning stroll, and he’d approached them to say how refreshing it was to hear “Shakespeare spoken properly”. That’s a report which made all of us at Gower Street very, very proud, not to say Joyful.
Clive James talking with Jonathan Miller: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4BUp4AylZE
The Joyful Company of Singers: https://youtu.be/e-8nL02r-FE