The Thames at Kingston, November
As a long-standing Micawberist – we in our unsteady trade have constantly to remind ourselves that “something will turn up” – I find it unsettling to live in a country run by an Extreme Micawberist. Some high-profile actors cheerfully rely on “getting away with it” via charm and chat rather than talent – and good luck to them, say I. They don’t have the finger on the nuclear button, or the means to insult mendaciously and repeatedly the nation’s intelligence, blythely allowing the concept of a “caring” society to drift away and evaporate, like the autumn mist. A previous leader of our currently ruling party famously declared “there is no such thing as society”, and well – cometh the hour, cometh the man to prove her right.
This blog seldom wanders into political territory – God knows there is enough print and media opinion out there – however I recall the sadly late, gloriously talented actress Miriam Karlin at a big Equity meeting back in the 70s squashing a heckler’s cry that “actors have no business in politics” with “Darling, the very air you breathe is political…”
So, breathe, Jones, breathe….and lend an ear folks, to tales from an ageing character man’s diary. My latest cautious excursion back into the restless, uncertain Thespian jungle took me slap into the political swamp, in a ripely satirical short movie called “The Contract”.
This has a sharp, spiky script, written and produced by Harry Davies and Adam Howes, and directed by Stephen D’Arcy – a stem from the rich vein of Celtic talent which ran through Gower St in my time at RADA. There’s a cracking cast led by Max Brown and Elizabeth Bower, with surprise contributions from Harry Enfield and Dan Snow. Also included is a corrupt senior business operator with an unusual hobby – played by me. There will be a score by Isata Kanneh-Mason, and the project is currently in post-production, so watch this space – the release date and distribution t.b.a. The more this troubling year unfolds, the less absurd seem the antics of the imagined group of hapless business-types rejoicing in government connections as featured in this satire.
Meanwhile, in the quiet backwaters of my gently stirring, slightly bewildered acting career, the biggest project I’ve been involved in this year – alluded to in the last blog entry – has been “The Thief, his Wife and the Canoe”, a four-part drama inspired by real events, due to be broadcast by ITV early in 2022. You may remember the original news items, reporting a northern couple’s extraordinary insurance scam, featuring the husband faking his own accidental death in a sea canoe, and their attempt to use the ill-gotten life-insurance pay-out to set up a business in Panama. It’s an amazing chronicle of shameless lying and deception, poignant and current in the present political zeitgeist. Carrie Cohen and I make modest, almost wordless contributions to this re-telling of the tale, as the distressed parents of Anne, the wife in the couple played by the quite brilliant Monica Dolan. We had no words at all in the script, and those we spoke were improvised, but the fellow cast members and crew – and above all the excellent director Richard Laxton – made us feel very much integrated, essential team-members on a fine project. The humane, shrewdly observed script is by Chris Lang (who wrote Unforgotten) and Richard’s distinguished previous credits include other scenarios rooted in real-life events, including Honour (with Keeley Hawes) and Mrs Wilson, Ruth Wilson’s account of astonishing episodes from her family history, in which she played her own grandmother.
No hiding place for a canoeist…the beach at Seaton Carew, County Durham where the story begins.
A welcome result of the otherwise unwelcome pandemic has been, for this website as an online coaching resource, new connections across the globe, including mainland Europe, India and the Middle East as well as a range of locations in the UK. And as the business world clicks back into gear, demand for presentation coaching is re-emerging, under our new communications banner, Peterson Lane Training, so at this address anyway, these worrisome days have at least been quite busy.
Recent acting clients have been experiencing their first term at drama school – for instance, at LAMDA, at the Oxford School of Acting and at GSA in Guilford. The UK drama schools, like our profession in general, have been reeling from the impact of the pandemic, and are striving to contain it by observing social distance, working in masks, etc while confronting the challenges arising from the BLM and Me Too issues which surfaced not long before Covid arrived. At the time of writing two of the leading schools – LAMDA and RADA – are currently without Principals, although I gather appointments will be announced soon. Those accepting the posts will be brave souls – these have never been jobs for the faint-hearted, but in today’s climate they will need exceptional resources of ingenuity, sensitivity, imagination and acres of patience.
I guess one benefit of recent restrictions has been, both for the applicants and the schools, a reduction in the cost of recruiting. Audition fees have dropped, and almost all the schools are using zoom or other on-line platforms for the “first round” of the process. This means that the new generation of actors will perforce have learned the basics of performing on camera before they even start formal training – which is just as well, since the massive boom in “box-set” TV drama spawned by the pandemic means that once trained they will more likely be working on screen rather than for “live” audiences. Given today’s news of a scary new variant, it’s clear that the Virus is far from defeated, and thus that warnings and restrictions are unlikely be removed any time soon.
In September, grasping my Covid-test passport, I ventured into France, carefully taking all the required Covid tests on the way there and back, staying with friends on the southern coast and in the hills of the southwest. I can report that the beauty of that big country is undimmed, that the vitality of the citizens prevails in these trying times – and that they embrace the need for Covid awareness far, far more thoroughly than we do here. On all transport – planes, buses and trains – and in all gathering places, indoor or out – for instance in the open-air markets – everyone wears masks and all bars and restaurants require you to show proof of vaccination before you will be served. Although it has to be said that I did come across one, utterly charming exception – a small family circus on tour in the village of Mirandol, near to my friend Jenny’s lovely home in the hills above the River Viaur in the Département du Tarn, where audience participation over-ruled the masks!
As winter storms our islands, as the wretched and dispossessed perish in the waters we share with France while politicians blather, here are images of the calm and beauty we will, hopefully before too long, reclaim – irrespective of borders…
The coast at Le Cap d’Antibes, chez mes amis Kate et Doug
The River Tarn at Albi and morning mist at Mirandol
Yesterday Storm Arwen approached the Thames Valley, its outriders looming over Hampton Wick. Today windows rattle, waves rush and tumble on the river ahead of a wild, vengeful north wind.
On a wall at Toulouse Airport there is a poem, part of which translates as “On an infinite horizon/plays the theatre of our affections/At the turn of springtime/ we shall find each other once more…”
And in the meantime, Christmas will happen. If like me it’s now that you start scratching your head for ideas for presents, here’s a couple of book suggestions.
If you are trying to cope with bereavement, or someone you know is, “Good Grief” by Catherine Mayer and Anne Mayer Bird is a remarkable book of sane, helpful reflections by a mother and daughter both bereaved within weeks of each other, and will soon be available in paperback.
Another highly recommended best-seller, already in both hard cover and paperback, is Kadie Kanneh-Mason’s account of bringing up a houseful of seven wonderfully musical children “House of Music”, which last week garnered the 2021 Royal Philharmonic Storyteller Award.
Both of these books bring inspiration, and celebrate in totally different ways the need always to seize, cherish and use well our time on this bruised, uneasy planet. And yesterday we lost one of the most inspiring talents of all time, the great tune-maker and wordsmith, Stephen Sondheim.
“Wishes may bring problems, so that you regret them, better that though than to never get them”
Into the Woods, lyrics and tunes by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, 1986.
This morning as a tribute BBC Radio 3 played a recording of Dame Judi Dench performing “Send in the Clowns” from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. This you can watch at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvZex3Qf7QQ