Winter: where are the snows…?
Rough winds test the Sunday School at the sailing club, first daffodils nod by the weir – it’s high time, almost too late – for the Winter Blog. Spring already lurks by the Thames, while down in NZ autumn tornadoes trigger a State of Emergency, and in Ukraine dark rumours of a spring offensive echo 1916 as trenches are dug and weapons primed. And to the east earthquake survivors huddle in bitter, freezing lands already shattered by years of vicious warfare. The horrors spawned by even the likes of Putin and Assad pale beside the real Terrors of the Earth, once unleashed by Nature.
So here in this corner of the Home Counties, what’s to be done? If you’re like me, you send what donations you can, and try to swallow grumblings about inflation. How on earth can we feel sorry for ourselves when we see such utter, desperate misery elsewhere?
In our own country what’s left of a corrupt, incompetent governing party struggles forlornly to reclaim dignity before a weary and cynical electorate, certain only in knowing that however well-intentioned their post-election replacements may be, the rest of the 2020s are likely to be grim. So, if spring is not far behind, what hints of hope, what green shoots are to be seen?
Well actually, rather too many. Here in southern England we’ve had a season so mild you could hardly call it Winter. A few mornings of freezing fog, almost no snow, just grey drizzle and sometimes a restless, chilly wind. Daffodils and crocuses are under foot, there are buds on the trees, and on the river swans already sway their long necks in courtly ritual. The spring of 2023 is precocious, it comes early, ahead of its allotted time…
Right now at Kingston University there’s a nostalgic gateway from present troubles to a lost, happy world, one that readers of a certain age – especially those in the theatre trade – will recall fondly.
There was a time when wherever you lived in the UK, you were likely to be in striking distance of a theatre with its own professional company, offering new productions every few weeks – sometimes even a new one every week. As a wide-eyed seventeen-year-old, I had my first paid job with the Richmond Theatre Company, whose producer Frederic Piffard presented a summer season of “weekly rep” at the New Theatre Hull. My pay was a princely one pound per week as “student assistant stage manager” – and I had a fabulous time, learning how to run a prompt corner, begging loans of furniture and props from local shops, liaising with designers and technicians, dealing with real-life professional actors -whom I even joined on stage several times in tiny supporting parts. My boss was Janet Chapman, a graduate from the stage-management course at RADA. Janet made sure that our budget always included real “prop” food so that her assistant “Taffy” had his weekly pound supplemented with a daily practical meal. (My nickname had, I guess, been triggered by my name and the lingering echoes of my childhood Cardiff accent.) I finished that first season as a proud member of both British Actors’ Equity and of NATKE, the technicians’ union – long-since absorbed by BECTU.
Three years later, after studying drama in Manchester and a season with Stephen Joseph’s company at Scarborough, I pocketed both union cards and made my way to London. Then, as now, an essential factor in trying to build a career was a subscription to “The Spotlight” Casting Directory. Your fee bought you an entry in one of their weighty volumes of actors’ pictures and credits (in my case sub-classified as “Younger Character”) and also access to their professional advice service – with an interview with their senior advisor, Cary Ellison.
Cary was a RADA graduate who became effectively Counsellor to the Profession – he was kindly, perceptive and wise. I remember his advice to me was to “join one of the big companies – you need to learn work discipline…” He made it his professional duty every year to tour productions at the regional reps, to take notes and offer advice. His comments were lucid and succinct, often written on the theatres’ printed programmes. Over the years he build up a substantial archive – which, after Cary sadly died in 2002, his family gave to Kingston University. The collection is beautifully curated and preserved – and is now introduced by an exhibition in association with Anstee Bridge, an organisation supporting local teenagers, some of whom have responded with visual images – such as the above postcard. There is a link to further information at the end of this entry.
Cary’s programme notes on a production of “Filumena” at Cheltenham. I notice the cast included Wilfred Harrison, who went on to create the extraordinary Century Theatre – the famous “theatre on wheels” – at which in its later, stationary years in the Lake District I directed several seasons of plays.
I’m writing this on the first anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. On Tuesday next (February 28th) in Whitechapel there is a fund-raising showing of two short features by young Ukrainian film-makers, Irina Shumaieva and Anastasiya Yevchenko. This will be at the Genesis Cinema in the Mile End Rd, and below is a link through which you can buy tickets. There is a now a pool of brilliant refugee talent in our city, so supporting their work is at least something we can do.
An interesting phenomenon in today’s digital world is the rise of “podcasts” – it seems that many of those people staring blankly into the middle-distance while sitting opposite you on a tube or on a train have heads full of sound from their headphones – and are almost as likely nowadays to be listening to the spoken word as to music. Hence the rise in audio book-sales, and the use by “influencers” of the Podcast Medium. These are interesting linguistic arrivals. A podcast is “audio material made available for downloading from the Internet, which often may be presented in “serialised” form” – and it seems the word has its roots in soviet-era propaganda distribution in Russia. According to Wikipedia the English-language term “podcast” was first coined in an article in “The Guardian” by Ben Hammersley. This was in February 2004, so next year will 20th anniversary celebrations generate another new word, something like “Podcastival…”?
The term “influencer” is a bit more elusive, in that people have always “influenced” other people’s actions, be they in religion, politics or commerce. But the idea of someone being an “Influencer” by trade, as it were, has come into use with the rise of “social media”, with people able to run sales and marketing campaigns using instantly available moving images, slogans and music. You don’t even have to wait till people are sitting down in front of their TV – you can get at their eyes and ears whenever and wherever they switch on their phone. I just read that this year in America something like five BILLION dollars will be spent on “influencer” campaigns.
So it’s little wonder that politics are spawning podcasts. One that I tune into while doing my ironing is Chris Wright’s “Wright on the Nail” – a regular hour-long discussion, in which the previous week’s news is chewed over by a panel of potential “influencers” from across the spectrum, a different group every week. The producers’ “casting” of panel members really is genuinely broad-church – unlike the content in some of the new right-leaning news outlets such as GB News. It’s refreshing to hear civilised – even polite – exchanges of often quite extreme views from both socialist and conservative corners of the landscape, all of which Chris chairs skilfully. Being myself left-leaning, I find attending to observations from right-inclined minds quite enlightening. For instance, a couple of weeks ago on this podcast you could actually hear the words “Liz Truss” and “respect” contained within the same sentence…Remarkable. Link below.
And so – leaving politics and going back to culture – as if….RADAgrads from my time are in the news, on the left, the right and in the middle. Maxine Peake is using her status as one of northern England’s most respected artists to rally protest against the shamefully threatened closure of Oldham Coliseum Theatre – a priceless Lancashire treasure. Interviewed in The Guardian Ben Whishaw says of the NHS “I so wish we would fund it properly, but I don’t know what we have to do to make the government wake up.” Andrea Riseborough, a terrific actress, finds herself at the centre of a major controversy in America over an Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, at the aforementioned GB News, one of the current presenters is a certain Laurence Fox…
If you scroll back to last summer’s blog, you will see a rather jolly picture of aspiring actors in a “mask workshop” at the Kalamata Summer School in Greece. Now listen – should you feel inclined next summer to explore aspects of our craft with expert tutors in sun-swamped surroundings amongst olive-groves near the sea, and should you feel discouraged by the relentless Cost of Living – the stop-press news is that some grants are available. Link to further information below
And finally a nudge to readers who might wish to explore acting skills in London. I am increasing my schedule of workshop sessions at the Theatre Deli Studios, close by the architectural wonders of the Gherkin and the Lloyds Building – just seven minutes’ walk from Bank tube station. If you’d like to find out more, be you an aspiring or established actor, or someone needing to boost your confidence in speaking in front of other people – just get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of our workshops will explore How to Speak Shakespeare – so let me leave you with another quote from Ben Whishaw in The Guardian:
What made Shakespeare revolutionary is that he allowed real rhythms of speech to come through within the iambic pentameter. Characters in Hamlet forget what they are saying, or change their minds, just like real people. It should sound as natural as someone chatting to you. It’s poetry, but natural and everyday…..
KINGSTON UNIVERSITY CARY ELLISON COLLECTION
TO VISIT CARY ELLISON ARCHIVE: 0208 417 7054
UKRAINE FILM SHOWING TICKETS:
THE POLITICAL PODCAST:
KALAMATA SUMMER SCHOOL:
TROUBLE IN BUTETOWN by Diana Nnaka Atuona at THE DONMAR WAREHOUSE THEATRE
“A gripping ensemble drama… richly involving, warmly and wittily observed, and immensely moving – and the performances are gorgeous.”
RECOMMENDED NEW RADIO SERIES: