A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the second of their occasional features “In Conversation with …”, Vulpes Libris talks to the British actor/director/writer/artist/poet Edward Petherbridge.
His theatre career spans over 50 years but he is probably best known as Newman Noggs in the ground-breaking Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby, as co-founder of the Actors’ Company with Sir Ian McKellen and as Dorothy L Sayers’ aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey in the BBC’s 1987 dramatisations of Strange Poison, Have his Carcase and Gaudy Night.
VL: Welcome to VL and thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us. I’ll try not to ask anything too fatuous, but I can’t make any promises. I was going to say we’ll start with an easy one, but if your memory is as unreliable as mine, it might not be: What did you enjoy reading as a child – and as you grew up?
EP: I read very little as a child. I was never read bedtime stories, and ours was not a bookish house, but as I grew older I dipped into books about the theatre in our local library on a quest to find one that would convey the secrets and the ‘smell’ of backstage I so longed to find out and experience, being stage struck since seeing my first pantomime at the age of seven.
My first intensive reading was when I was twenty and spent a month on remand in ‘57 in solitary confinement in a barracks guardroom (I had decided to become a conscientious objector early on in my National Service, in a bad piece of mis-timing, but that – like the answer to so many of these questions – is another story). I read the Penguin paperbacks my then wife sent me – Wodehouse, Aldous Huxley, Thurber (I fell off my bed laughing at The Night the Bed Fell) and Graham Greene – also Steinbeck – Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men. When they removed my books, once I was convicted of refusing to wear uniform, a kindly padre insisted I should have the bible and prayer book for my last week before transfer to a civil prison (Wormwood Scrubs, no less) and I read all four Gospels and St. Paul.
A friend (Paul Oestreicher, who was shortly to become Chairman of Amnesty International) sent me a hardback copy of War and Peace, and I got through two thirds of it in two months before I was released.
VL: I had absolutely no idea you’d been to prison for your beliefs. May I ask – were your family supportive?
EP: It is a long and complex story; my father was in the 1st World War and my brother was in the 2nd. My stand was out of the blue but they tolerated me kindly and without fuss and my father spoke simply and movingly at my tribunal hearing. There is much more to be said about this curious period. Anon…
VL: Wait for the autobiography? Fair enough . . . So – what do you read to relax, as opposed to what you read in connection with whatever your latest project is … or are they the same thing?
EP: I am a great BBC Radio listener. (This week I am hearing Cherie Blair reading her autobiography.) I love listening to books. I discovered a wonderful Renaissance Man on Radio 4’s ace programme Desert Island Discs – an author and a one time soldier in fact – Rory Stewart. His voice and his choice of music alone sold him to me and I am going to read his The Places in Between – about his 6000 mile walk across Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal in 2002/3 – that’s as soon as I have finished his Occupational Hazards, about his time in 2003 helping with the Governorate of Iraq.
I like to dip into volumes of old theatre reviews – James Agate is a favourite, writing imaginatively and perceptively and with humour of the early performances of Olivier, Gielgud, Evans, Ashcroft, et al – and with a fascinating take on the great playwrights – Ibsen – Chekhov – and glimpses of forgotten actors and plays of course. The brilliance of Tynan I can be nostalgic about, though his reviews are much more beguiling than he was when I used to meet him in the corridors at the old National in Old Vic days.
VL: Well, no … ‘beguiling’ isn’t the first word I’d reach for in association with Tynan the man … but he did write superb reviews. Have you ever revisited a book that you enjoyed years before, only to be hugely disappointed?
VL: Any classics or best sellers that you thought were vastly over-rated? (I nominated Captain Corelli’s Mandolin last time. I think I’ll go for The Catcher in the Rye this time.)
EP: Catcher in the Rye lies unfinished, but my education will not be complete unless… Actually it won’t be completed anyway.
VL: Recently on VL we had a special Valentine’s Day feature in which we each nominated our favourite romantic novels. I thought I was revealing my tragic fuddy-duddy credentials when I owned up to loving Gaudy Night, but it turned out I wasn’t alone. I was amazed by the number of people who held up their hands and said “Me too.” I wasn’t expecting that at all. Does it surprise you that Peter Wimsey – still has such a following in the 21st Century?
EP: Not at all. Gaudy Night is the best of the Wimsey-Vane novels (and the least well adapted in the TV series) – she holds the romance together with a wonderful astringency.
VL: Were you familiar with the Wimsey novels before you came to play Lord Peter – and do you have a favourite?
EP: I read them for the first time when they were sent to me by Michael Chapman of the BBC- ahead of there being any scripts. I bound them in brown paper and read them partly in the wings at The National during performances of The Cherry Orchard.
VL: Why the brown paper? (Mind you – I remember having a copy of Gaudy Night on my desk at work, and somebody got entirely the wrong idea about the contents …)
I didn’t want anybody to ask why I was reading the books – and to be caught out thinking about a future job whist doing another.
VL: You aren’t just an actor, of course … you write, too. There have been two recent one-man plays, one of which – the splendidly named Pillar Talk, you took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2005. It’s a comparatively unusual thing, I think, for an established actor to do … What moved you to do it, did you enjoy it, and would you do it again?
EP: I may have to – on my list of things to do is a radio version. Do you like the sub-title -‘Backcloth and Ashes’ – or is the phrase sackcloth and ashes lost to the American Church?
VL: I think it’s a pretty universal expression – and yes, I like the sub-title very much, having a lifelong weakness for puns myself. You have a bit of a reputation for doing slightly out-of-mainstream things. I remember (she said, showing her age terribly) seeing The Actors’ Company perform Knots – based on R D Laing’s rather dark book of the same name. Your idea, I believe?
EP: Yes – I’m rather proud of what Knots did for The Actors’ Company – and what the company did for Knots -mime, juggling, singing, playing instruments . . .
VL: While I was having a bit of a hunt on the internet to remind myself about your career, I found a reference to yet another one-man show that seems to have escaped my attention completely … You were reading Letters from the Clouds and other Residences – your own poems, I think, which were being released on CD. How long have you been writing poetry, and are you prepared to share any of it with us, because I’ve never found any?
EP: I will share it if you ask me – ITS ON THAT LIST.
VL: I’m asking. Nicely. Pretty please.
(Edward did eventually yield to continuous nagging … you’ll find his charming “Infinity and so on – A Piece of Light Verse” at the end of this interview, along with a photograph of a powerful little clay figurine he’s created of King Lear and The Fool in the storm.)
VL: After over 50 years on the stage, you’re finally writing your autobiography – Unscheduled Appearances – are you any closer to having a publication date? It should be a fascinating read and there are a lot of people waiting with credit cards poised …
EP: Getting there . . .
VL: Good. I hope it’s soon . . . You’ve recorded quite a number of talking books – including one of my personal favourites, The Go-Between. You do them very well, which is a talent that not all actors have. I’ve often wondered about the mechanics of the process. Am I right in presuming that you just sit in a studio with a book and microphone until it’s done? And do you record them cold, or pre-read each chapter before recording it, so you get the emphases right? You must have spent a long time talking to yourself when you recorded War and Peace …
EP: The abridged War and Peace is a mere five hours – 12 to 15 is standard. For the BBC one rehearses a bit – otherwise you start cold – having read it at home of course – and read ‘till its done, rarely revising if ever. You stop and redo fluffs of course.
VL: Oh. I found someone selling your recording of War and Peace on the internet claiming it was unabridged. I’ll bet he had some cross customers. You’ve done straight theatre, musical theatre, one man shows, poetry recitals and television … but not films. Deliberate career choice, or did it just not happen?
EP: It just didn’t happen very much.
VL: If you could go back to the beginning, to Bradford, and start it all over again, would you still become an actor, or would you take a different course – concentrate more on writing, or art, or something entirely different?
EP: I would go to art school as well as Drama school. I was in Bradford as a student at the same time as Hockney but we never met then.
VL: The pictures on your website are wonderful – especially the self-portraits.
EP: I intend to show some other subjects – it’s a bit narcissistic at the moment.
VL: If it isn’t a rude question … Any thoughts of retiring? Or are you planning on collapsing on stage, like Marie Lloyd?
EP: Neither retiring from nor collapsing on would be the best combination.
VL: I can see that. Well – Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies was still acting professionally when she was 100 – or possibly 101 – so … who knows?
Finally … we like to ask our guests to name their five favourite books – and give reasons for their choices. What are yours?
I would name Wuthering Heights and Bleak House and Hardy’s Tess.
I loved reading EM Forster – Howard’s End AND Where Angels … for talking books – amongst the most involving and fulfilling of acting jobs – oh, and The Picture of Dorian Gray – (re-released on CD I think). All the above are miraculous creations it seems to me – they intensify one’s experience of life.
I was 23 when I read Wuthering Heights on a ship, returning from working in New Zealand. I remember particularly reading of the familiar Yorkshire landscape – so wild and yet close to my home, the then sooty industrial town of Bradford – as I looked out on sand and camels on our way through the Suez Canal. I heard some of the book again recently on a sadly defunct digital station called One Word – the book was even better than I remembered – in fact there were whole tracts of it I’d forgotten. I add it to that lengthening list.
VL: Wuthering Heights is a book that gets better every time you read it, I think. It shouldn’t be forced on people too young – but that, as you say, is another story …
Well, that’s it. Thank you very much indeed for your time and trouble. It’s been absolutely fascinating.
EP: THANK YOU – It’s nice of you to find it so.
Also, don’t miss So Much for Buckingham … A poem by Edward, written on the occasion of his memorable attendance at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party, when rain stopped play …
King Lear and the Fool in the storm:
INFINITY AND SO ON – A piece of light verse
Our universe goes on each day expanding
Far beyond my tiny understanding
If our universe were finite
I daresay even I might
Sort of almost understand
From what to where it might expand
Is there then no ‘Nothing’
Into which things spread?
(I’m stuck with this idea of edge
As I’ve already said)
In fact, although they know there are
Some fifty thousand billion stars
And billions of planets beyond Pluto Neptune Mars
They think there could be more –
Other Universes –all existing just next door
How can what is endless get still bigger?
Nothing in my brain cells can quite trigger
A concept or a picture
I suffer this imaginative stricture
Wait: there is no Nothing
This something of vast size
Somehow finds more space
Which it can –colonise
As our great immensity gets even more immense
Matter’s getting thinner and isn’t quite so dense
Is this it?
The Universe exists
And there isn’t any place where it desists
Existence has an infinite persistence
There isn’t anywhere where the Universe ain’t there
There really is no end
And though there comes a subtle point
Where straight lines start to bend
In fact a straight line travelling for ever and a day
In fifty zillion light years might come back the other way
That doesn’t mean creation curves into a crescent
Without being all pervasive and completely omnipresent
This hasn’t made our scientists faint-hearted
Paradoxically they’ve asked just how infinity got started
It’s not for me to query
The ‘proven’ Big Bang theory
As it goes it’s far more winning
Than our entry in a garden
Fully formed and so originally sinning
Was God then unemployed
When things were formless and to quote the Bible
Somewhat at a loss without a cosmos?
Did he thunder “Oh God damn it
Won’t it start unless I bang it?”
But was there then no garden
No transgression and no pardon
Not the just and the unjust
Just a bang and lots of dust?
Which finally, as far as we have got,
Gave rise to you and me, and – er –
And we within this nexus
Know of nothing as complex as us
We think we’re highly rated
Just because we’re complicated
(Though our very convolution
Spawns our terminal pollution)
But of star dust we are made
And that’s clearly why we twinkle
When we start to make the grade
Oh! The latest theory, so new fangled, here’s the thing,
Is StringAnd I might mention – it has a 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th
And 11th dimension
In which we all are – so to speak – entangled.
Black holes do not exist – rather it’s Dark Matter
What the difference is I do not flatter
Myself I understand, I’m light years from the very faintest
Of how things came to be, what keeps the universe in motion
As I terminate my verse (is it too long?)
A robin quite out-classes me and sings his winter song
Up there upon a branch against the blue
What else this gorgeous morning
would a winter robin do?
Born knowing how to look and sound divine
In tune with universes far beyond the strains and discord
that have formed this verse of mine
Still my robin goes on singing
In the sunshine and the cold
Mysterious and beautiful
Although his tunes are old
No: there is no Nothing
Here is something, I surmise
That sings to claim its little patch of measurable size
So certain in his song that you would think him strong
Though he’s fragile, like our planet.
I hear him improvise
And marvel at this feathered ball of infinite surprise.
Copyright: E Petherbridge. 2008.