Because most people’s focus is at present on the death of our Head of State, and because of a coinciding tragic event closer to my own life, I’ve delayed full publication and notification of this post, the first draft of which was written on September 6th. An update, as of September 14th, has now been added at the end of the post.
A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was briefly involved in ridding the world of Autons.
At a secret location – suffice to say not very far from Stratford upon Avon – some of the survivors of this series of desperate events from long ago gathered together on a sun-filled day.
It couldn’t have been more timely…..as I write there are disturbing images on the television news of blank-eyed, robotic creatures assembling near Downing St…
So yes, folks, this was a “Dr Who” convention – for your blog-pilot today is one of the few cast members still around from the 1970 series “Spearhead from Space”, notable as the first story featuring the late Jon Pertwee as The Doctor, also notable as the first story to be shot in colour, and on high-quality film as opposed to video-tape – and even more notable since the first character to appear colour in it was played by me! But don’t let me spoil it for you – DVDs are still available….
We met at a fine hotel right next to the Very Secret Location where we filmed the story back in the autumn of 1969, a site which even now is a real-life High Security part of the BBC, into which at one point I wandered, and was briskly turned around by a very starchy uniformed guardian. My fellow cast members facing an amiable q&a with a hundred or so “Whovians” (some of whom were zooming in questions from as far afield as Australia, where it must have been the middle of the night) were the majestic Michael Kilgariff – a veteran of several “Dr Who” series, complementing a distinguished stage and screen acting career – plus the leading Auton himself – see the picture. This was the gifted writer Robin Squires, who as a young trainee on the production team, found himself encased in a full plastic head-mask doing a robotic character-walk to terrorise the inhabitants of late sixties Warwickshire. And a most effective Auton he made – and he can still do the walk!
There were other sessions during the day, featuring for example, actors involved in more recent audio versions of the stories. This is an interesting dimension of which I admit I wasn’t aware, but it has a big following. In that q&a team was Daisy Ashford, who plays the part of The Doctor’s companion in audio recordings of stories in which the rôle on TV was played by her mum, the late, much-missed Caroline John.
Another exciting aspect of the day was the presence of The Doctor himself, in the incarnation of the brilliant Sylvester McCoy, with his human companion Sophie Aldred. As well as a chance to ask questions, the fans were able to be photographed with the stars out on the lawn, where the Tardis had conveniently landed…
This summer I had as guest an old, old schoolfriend, now resident in the antipodes, so there have been excursions to the many and various Places of Interest around these parts.
In the first of those somewhat unsettling heatwaves we took an upstream boat from Kingston’s Turk’s Pier for a special open-air performance in the Courtyard at Hampton Court Palace. Now when I first heard about “SIX” – a musical about Henry the Eighth’s wives performed by an all-female rock band – I was at pains to avoid it, as I thought it sounded a really NAFF idea.
In 2017 at two Cambridge undergrads, Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow put the show together as an idea for the Edinburgh Festival – where it became a festival hit, then a London hit, then Covid struck, then it re-emerged in London, then became a smash in New York. It’s become a cult, as happened with “The Rocky Horror Show”, with a growing band of faithful disciples willing to turn up and buy repeat tickets – in London and on tour in the UK, on Broadway and on tour in America, and it’s now touring New Zealand and Australia.
The album of its songs attracts sixty thousand “streams”on the Internet every day.In a rave review the New York Times called it “a lark and a provocation”. Why am I going on about it”? With those figures the chances are you’ve already seen it. But just in case you haven’t, ignore any misgivings you might have about a show mixing A-level history with post-Spice Girls feminist rock’n’roll – seek it out and enjoy!
This summer has brought a new treat for visitors to these parts, in the shape of a wondrously restored Marble Hill House in Twickenham, reached from my side of the river by Hammertons’ Ferry (an ancient amenity now run as part of a cheerful family business – see link below.) The house was gifted by George the Second to his mistress, Henrietta Countess of Suffolk, who became the centre of a circle of local creatives – including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and John Gay, who wrote “The Beggar’s Opera” (of which more in a minute). It’s been superbly refurbished – a terrific example of a compact 18th century villa, with a fine collection of paintings – plus a remarkable recreation of Chinese silk wallpaper – and at present entry is free.
It seems the recreation of the Countess’s dining room wallpaper took a thousand days of work by modern Chinese craftsmen. Or something. Must have cost a packet – English Heritage must be in funds, especially as – for now at least – they’re not charging to see it.
I’m sure her neighbours would have enjoyed their visits – below is a bust of the poet Alexander Pope, with pictures of his Irish satirist pal Jonathan Swift and playwright John Gay, all on view in the house . The latter’s smash-hit “Beggar’s Opera”produced by John Rich, “made Gay rich and Rich gay” – in fact it made Rich so rich he built a new theatre in Covent Garden, on the site of what is now the Royal Opera House.
“The Beggar’s Opera” was the first final-year production I directed as Head of Acting at RADA. Last week a young colleague, Anastasiya Yevchenko, invited me to watch two excellent short plays in English by two of her fellow Ukrainian playwrights, reflecting life in their wickedly tormented country. (The Finborough is still functioning as an adventurous, innovative theatre while the rest of the building undergoes transition from pub to restaurant, see link below.) The first play – called “Take the Rubbish out, Sasha” by Natal’ya Vorozbhit – included a very strong, moving performance by Amanda Ryan, a distinguished graduate from my early days at the Academy. While we waited to go into the show, I was suddenly pounced upon by another beautiful and successful woman: “Ellis, it’s Rachel Pickup – I was your Suki Tawdry in “The Beggar’s Opera”! What a joy!
I was so, so lucky to have helped steer, over more than a decade, so many incredibly talented young people towards creative and inspiring lives – exemplified by a reunion of the RADA “Class of 2000”, organised by Emma Lowndes at Gower St a couple of weeks ago. To say that it is twenty-five years since Nick Barter and I welcomed this group onto the RADA Acting Course is to underline how remarkable an event this was, which a good two-thirds of the group were able to attend, some flying in from as far afield as Australia and America. This was the year-group who coincided with the Academy’s major Lottery-funded re-build, and who thus had to rehearse in a converted garage in Kennington, and perform their final shows either at Kennington or at random venues around London. The new Vanbrugh Theatre didn’t open until September, by which time they’d all set off on their careers. Some of them are now “household-name” actors, all of them following brilliantly creative, valuable pathways – not least, in many cases, as parents of equally creative offspring – two sets of couples who met during their training with us are still happily and productively married! Emma showed a fine collage of video clips of photos and video messages from their tutors – which, as you can see, held everyone’s rapt attention.
Meanwhile, back in Twickenham, your starter for ten – which local resident painted this nude?
The answer is none other than J.M.W Turner, he of amazing light-drenched landscapes, he of “The Fighting Temeraire”, who built this quiet, unobtrusive little house as his country retreat. He actually designed the building himself – albeit with some help from his architect pal, Sir John Soane. My friend from the antipodes, D.A.Townsend, was impressed by the exhibition currently on show there, of some of the great man’s more, er, private creations, and posed modestly beside this relic of the old country, sitting as it does in one of the borough’s quieter back streets.
According to my almanac, Autumn doesn’t actually start until the Equinox on the 21st, so this is still, by the skin of its teeth, my summer blog. But Autumn is, after all, when wheels start turning, when projects come to fruition, albeit this year under many lowering clouds – including, for instance, the far from unrealistic question as to whether our theatres are going to be able, as winter unfolds, to afford the electricity to light their shows? There are other more apocalyptic concerns in the world, from the perspectives of people in Kiev or Islamabad, but nonetheless one our trade can’t ignore. For the first time in over two years, I have just met a cohort of cheerful New York University students with whom I shall be exploring a season of London theatre productions from which I will report – it’s started well, with a terrific evening at Rebecca Frecknall’s zingy revival of “Kit Kat Club Cabaret” at the Playhouse – bold, challenging, and much more resonant of the original story than the brilliant but not-quite-right Liza Minelli movie. And later this week I shall be attending the press night of “Antigone” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (brolly already in bag) and a concert by the Philharmonia Orchestra in a (covered) car park in Peckham. Watch this space.
It’s a cliché to talk of unsung achievers as “backstage” heroes – and in the theatre the most unsung folk are so often indeed the stage-management team. The justly celebrated theatre school Drama Centre has, disturbingly, been allowed this year to disappear. The school which trained actors of the calibre of Tom Hardy, Geraldine James, Simon Callow and the late Helen McCrory had a laudable policy of final year shows being stage-managed by first-year students, giving the new recruits a sense of the practical realities of production.Each cohort of first year students was carefully and caringly overseen by a seasoned professional stage-manager, a rôle performed for many years by Diana Fraser. As the school dwindled and vanished, Diana’s contribution to the deep understanding and appreciation of their craft shared by several generations of fine practitioners has been honoured by the Stage Management Association, in the form of the David Ayliff Life Time Achievement Award. Diana and I have worked together several times, and I can attest to her marvellous efficiency, good humour, and ability to provide just the warm, concerned support every actor and director needs, so bravo the SMA!
Since commencing this entry, two cheering items have appeared. One is for the benefit of those visiting, or who are fortunate enough to live in, God’s Own County. Up there on the North Yorkshire coast, Sir Alan Ayckbourn has now produced and staged his eigthy-seventh play at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, “Family Album”. 87 plays in and he’s still clocking up a 4-star review in the Yorkshire Post, saluting “an outstanding cast” in a piece bringing joy and laughs, plus “profound and bleak things…wrapped up in Ayckbourn’s deft and light touch”. Link below.
Photo: Nikos Iliopoulos
And meanwhile from another idyllic part of the planet, a report has arrived of international performing arts students relishing the 2022 Kalamata Summer School. Under expert guidance from Andrew Visnevski and Gabrielle Moleta, young actors spent 3 weeks exploring varied acting challenges, including using masks as in the workshop pictured above, but also through swimming with horses in the sea! We never did that in my time at RADA – memo to the new Principal at Gower St… If you want a chance to join in creative fun next year amongst vineyards in sight of the Ionian Sea, then keep an eye on the KaDISS website, link below.
Marble Hill House: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/marble-hill
Turner’s house: https://turnershouse.org
The Ferry at Twickenham: https://www.hammertonsferry.com
Finborough Theatre: https://finboroughtheatre.co.uk
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough: https://sjt.uk.com/events/family-album
Kalamata Summer School: https://kalamatadrama.com/facilities/
But meanwhile, there has been one over-riding sadness. The same day that the Queen passed away, last Thursday, Gwyneth Powell also died. This has been the tragic event mentioned at the top of the post – we didn’t want to include it until a proper press statement had been released by her agent. She is mourned, of course, by several generations of followers of BBC Television’s school drama “Grange Hill” because of her eleven years as the stern but kindly Headmistress Mrs McClusky – but also to many, many admirers of her brilliant, commanding work in countless other rôles on stage as well as on the screen.
Gwyneth and her husband Alan Leith have been dear friends of mine since we all “cut our teeth” in repertory at the Connaught Theatre Worthing, back in the late 60s. To lose Gwyn has been shattering, of course for poor Alan, but also for all who have enjoyed her loving, ever-supportive friendship – the greatest of all possible gifts.
In all conceivable ways, one of the best.