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.
Comrades! Today Bookfox Kirsty is joined by an honoured guest indeed: actor Stephen Greif.
Stephen is a familiar face (and voice) to generations of TV viewers, cinema fans, theatre goers and audio book listeners. His screen credits range from Citizen Smith and Blake’s 7 through Eastenders and Holby City to Casanova and Boogie Woogie. On stage, he has most recently appeared in Epitaph for George Dillon and Fallen Angels. No prizes for guessing what Kirsty wants to talk about first…
KM: Maybe I could start by asking: did you enjoy working on Citizen Smith?
SG: The short response is that I wanted to enjoy myself; and to qualify that fast food answer let me relate the circumstances that led me to do it on and off for three seasons and nearly a fourth.
During the spring and summer of 1977 I’d spent two gruelling months in Corsica and London filming five episodes of Treasure Island for the BBC, immediately followed by two more weeks in Elstree Studios and on location on an episode of Return of the Saint and then straight into four episodes of the first of the Armchair Thriller series for Thames playing the leading role in Rachel in Danger. A schedule that required me almost every day for about six weeks on location and in the studio. I was punch drunk by the end of it all, and when I was offered a friend’s mother’s house in Cornwall for a week’s rest I jumped straight into my car and drove off down to Flushing. Driving through St. Just in Roseland, where I had often stayed, I saw the familiar red telephone box ahead of me that seemed to pulsate a signal to my shredded brain to step inside it and phone my agent. That inexplicable but compelling summons had to be surrendered to, so I swiftly pulled over and made the call. Before I had any chance to fob off a feeble excuse for ringing them (just wanted you to know I’ve nearly arrived safely, as if they cared, or some such infantilism) Barry, my agent, said excitedly: “Stephen, thank god you’ve called. The BBC want to see you tomorrow at noon for a regular part in a new sitcom directed and produced by the legendary Denis Main Wilson (he discovered Tony Hancock). It’s four episodes plus a possible Christmas Special.” “Christmas Special”: those words sparkled like the tinsel that I imagined would adorn the opening credits. “ Oh bollocks… I mean, tell ‘em I’ll be there. By the way, when does it start ?” “In four days, and it’s location filming first on Barnes Common. They’ll give us a Yes or No after the meet.”
On the stroke of noon the following day I walked into Denis’s office on the fourth floor of White City Centre. He was famous for having his office appointed opposite the BBC Club, most likely due to his urgent passion for regularly checking the quality of alcohol was of a high enough standard. I was knocked out by his energetic and old English almost military style of welcome and warmth, and together with knowing that he’d discovered one of my heroes, Tony Hancock, I was already pretty well disposed to a project I knew nothing about. I was introduced to the shy, rather plump young scriptwriter, called John Sullivan, and my part was outlined as a shady but expansive pub owner called Harry Fenning, who had two permanent body guards and who delighted in terrorising the Tooting Popular front leader Wolfie Smith and his cohorts in any way he could. A pilot had previously been made and,as a result, a series of 7 or 8 episodes greenlit by Billy Cotton Jr. and Head of Comedy John Howard Davies. Robert Lindsay , Mike Grady, Tony Millan and Cheryl Hall (Robert’s real life wife) were signed, as were Peter Vaughan and Hilda Braid as Cheryl’s parents. I was a huge admirer of Peter’s and also had worked with Cheryl years earlier on the movie of No Sex please , we’re British. In fact I later heard that it was Cheryl who had suggested me for Harry by waving my Spotlight picture in front of Denis and John saying “Him ! Its him you want ! Him !” God bless her. I love her. It sounded fun, and I felt that the abandonment of my holiday for the chance of doing this was worth the risk. I didn’t have to wait too long. – a glance from Denis to John and back again was Denis’s cue to offer me the part if I liked the scripts, which they gave me there and then to read in an outer office. I laughed a lot at this odd medley of characters in bizarre situations, and a few days later pitched up on Barnes Common to do the first filming day, which consisted of yelling at Wolfie and co out of a van window where they, it is revealed by way of a slow camera pullback, are towing my van by hand along a main road. Madness.
A memory I have of that day’s filming was of the manic singlemindedness of Robert, Michael and Tony to try and extract as much out of these short moments as possible. There were no laughs that day… comedy being a serious business don’t you know! I wasn’t comfortable with it . I had had no time to nail the character of Fenning and his interaction with the other characters, who had at least had some period to get to know each other. I yelled over and over again as Denis asked, but it was acting by rote and in at the deep end with concrete shoes and blinkers. Now… I do realise that I’m looking at this a little too “seriously”, but what kind of man harnesses three kids to a van and terrorises them into hauling it along a main road ? I was put in mind of “Mad” Frankie Fraser and Ronnie Kray, whom I’d met, but these guys were far too gritty and real for a sitcom; also I came to see that there was something about Harry that careered between villainous charm and light hearted silliness … even naivety . I recalled a large actor in a comedy thriller that I saw when I was a kid whose voice and manner suggested these characteristics. Deep toned and sinister looking, but at the same time childlike at times, and that seemed to me, rightly or wrongly, to be a base to work from…
KM: Your description of Harry makes perfect sense to me, because that is very much how I perceive him and it is undoubtedly what makes him such a fascinating character in my eyes. Did you feel that this dichotomy between villain and comic relief was a problematic aspect in the writing, something you had to overcome in your performance? In other words, to what extent do you feel Harry Fenning was a creation of Stephen Greif, the actor, as opposed to John Sullivan, the writer?
SG: Yes… The Villain /Comic relief aspect was hard to balance . I hadn’t done much sitcom, and certainly not a recurring character, so my focus, as always, was on making the part believable. The absurd situations that John Sullivan had contrived for the Harry/ Wolfie relationship were challenging .
Harry was not written with any actor in mind, so inevitably whoever played him would bring their own personality to the mix. I guess I was cast because of my vocal and physical difference to the Tooting popular front. My way of dealing with the situations John put Harry in was to have Harry “toy” with Wolfie as a kind of amusing avuncular distraction to his other more alleged serious activities, and as a consequence Wolfie, through guile, would befuddle the big bad bear by slipping alcohol in his honey. BTW… I loved calling Wolfie “What a wally!” and so incidentally did Robert. It always made us chuckle. Even on the take.
When Denis stopped directing and Ray Butt took over, he wanted Harry played more realistically.. Less flashy clothes and more down to earth. Ray later produced sterling work on Only Fools and Horses, but I was fiercely loyal to Denis’ approval of the way Harry was played and disinclined, perhaps even unable, to make the switch. The BBC were very upset with me for not doing the fourth series after having sent me, I blush to say, eulogistic letters from John Howard Davies and Denis to try and get me to change my mind . I was adamant. I’d had enough and I didn’t work for them again for two years.
KM: Of course, by the time you were cast as Harry Fenning you already had quite a pedigree in TV and film. Dixon of Dock Green, Treasure Island, Play for Today, the first of the Armchair Thriller and Killers series; and of course the famous Blake’s 7 was filmed in the same period as Citizen Smith… I have to admit to being a Blake’s 7 newbie as I only recently saw any of it, in preparation for this interview, but I am hooked! To steal a line from my fellow Fox, Moira, do you feel that Blake’s 7 helped your career or hindered it? And do you ever get sick of people talking about it?
SG: I don’t think B7 hindered me . I only did four and a half episodes but because the character became popular I suppose it seemed like more. It gave me greater profile which is not bad for an actor in terms of negotiations. I think if anything hindered me it was me, because I turned down so much work over a five year period around that time for personal reasons, including ten more episodes of B7 in series 2. I had a ball doing B7, made lasting friendships, attended dozens of conventions and still receive letters and royalties to this day , so, no I don’t get sick of people talking about it . It would be foolish to.
KM: I’m interested to see that one of your earliest roles was in Nicholas and Alexandra, in 1971. Any chance of a word about that?
SG: Nicholas and Alexandra was a big budget movie adapted by James Goldman and the playwright Edward Bond from Robert Massie’s best selling book. It was quoted in the press as having the cream of the RSC and the National in it. I was called in (having been at the RSC, albeit residing along the bottom of the milk bottle) by Maude Spector, along with Miriam Brickman, the most powerful casting director in movies, to see Hollywood mogul Sam Spiegel for the role of Rasputin, which Peter O’Toole was going to play; but his contract with Sam had run out, and Peter couldn’t have been happier to be free of it. Maud was wonderfully supportive and told me I was going to be a big star. She will have said that to all the boys!
Sam was the image of my dad; they were both Austrian Jews and both larger than life. We got on famously, and I was re-called to see the Director, Franklyn Shaffner, who had just finished shooting Patton with George C. Scott. I was called in a third time to see Sam again, who told me regretfully that Franklyn thought I was too young for Rasputin, but I was definitely in the picture playing Martov, the leader of the Menshevik Party, if I cared to. I did. Wonderful experience. A month in Madrid just before Christmas, living with a model for Yves St Laurent and working with some hugely talented people. What a life for a young man and what a shame the picture didn’t turn out well. The press were very cruel misquoting lines like “Hello, I’m Stalin. Have you met Lenin? This is Trotsky!” I’m still in touch with Brian Cox, who played Trotsky. Fine actor and a great guy. The personnel in that movie was quite something. Olivier , Redgrave, Jack Hawkins, Ian Holm, Irene Worth, Michael Bryant, Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman as Nicholas and Alexandra and photographed by Freddie Young (who won 3 Oscars on David Lean and Sam Spiegel pictures) . Tom Baker eventually played Rasputin as a result of Olivier recommending him to Spiegel over supper in Madrid. And who took over from Tom when he left the National Theatre to do more movies?
You guessed it. Yours Truly. Life is truly strange sometimes.
KM: What a great reminiscence of Nicholas and Alexandra. I saw it years ago, when I was a student in my fourth year at Cambridge and it was on late at night. When Tom Baker was working his magic as Rasputin, suddenly the floor shook and my bed started moving across the room; I was well and truly freaked out (being somewhat sleep deprived from essay writing) but it turned out it was a very rare and very well timed earthquake. Other than that, I must admit I didn’t think much of it (being a Russian historian and a Trotsky specialist, as any fule kno by now).
Can I ask you then: How did you prepare the role of Martov (who was placed in a rather strange and unhistorical situation in Nicholas and Alexandra)? I would be interested to know what you made of him.
SG: Well, that’s a wonderful and fearful moment of yours and clearly the powers of Grigory Rasputin still linger in the ether. Tom had actually been a monk for a period in the 60s, and that might have helped a bit with his portrayal, but not I think with that extraordinary bit of timing. As a Russian historian and Trotsky specialist you might be interested to know that Richard Burton played him in a not too memorable film about his final days in Mexico called The Assassination of Trotsky; it’s probably available on DVD for a few quid. What a fascinating subject, Russian History and Trotsky and c1917. Quite a landscape.
KM: I have indeed seen it, but will reserve my hatchet (icepick) job on it for another time…
SG: To answer your question, because of the sprawling nature of the script – which was being rewritten every day by poor Edward Bond, who was bludgeoned into submission by Sam S. – us Revolutionaries were not given much dialogue or screen time with which to develop a character. I will tell you, and I blush to do so, that in my idiotic youthful ignorance, knowing that Rasputin had still not been cast even while we were about to start filming, I got the make up man to make me look as sinister as possible before going in to see Sam in his office in the Madrid studios, for final costume and make up checks with him before we did our first days shooting in three days’ time. I took full responsibility for this. Sam took one look at me and in his thick and most forbidding Austrian Accent said to the poor make up man: “Martov is an introverted , shy, unprepossessing intellectual. DOES HE LOOK LIKE THAT!!”
What on EARTH was I thinking of ? Anyway , that was enough for me in terms of character, given the bare bones nature of our scenes. Massie’s book was of no practical use and all us lot – Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Pankratov (Steven Berkoff with just one line of dialogue to his part and right royally pissed off about it) – just sketched in whatever little colour we could with what we knew about the characters historically. (Lenin positive, Stalin secretive, Trotsky questioning, Martov philosophical, Pankratov pissed off.) That was the problem with the movie. It never decided if it was a love story set against the back ground of Revolution, or vice versa, or a story of one man’s power over the Tsarina or indeed simply the story of The Romanov Royal Family during tumultous social times. In the end it became a bit of everything , a sort of patch work quilt which never satisfied in any department and fared badly at the box office despite some Oscar nominations.
KM: You mentioned the National Theatre earlier, and you have a long and impressive theatrical CV. Do you see yourself primarily as an actor of the stage, who also happens to work in other media? I do hope this isn’t a stupid question.
SG: Absolutely NOT a silly question. That is exactly how I saw myself throughout drama school and for the first twelve years of my career. Most of us emerging into the profession back in the late 60s and throughout the 70s felt that, for a serious actor, the tried, true and tested path was the theatre for at least some years before venturing into any other medium. How else could you properly learn your craft (by doing and watching others) which might then possibly lay the foundation for future film and TV work? I , perhaps to the cost of instant recognition just two years out of drama school ( I’d declined a Hollywood offer after one year but that’s another story), turned down playing the leading role in what turned out to be 39 episodes of a popular TV series in favour of going into a regional repertory company to do a Shakespearean part (Hotspur) that I had always wanted to play. There was never a scintilla of doubt in my mind that I was making the right decision. TV and films could wait for when I was ready for them. Talk about hubris! Doing a soap like Coronation Street or Emmerdale Farm or Crossroads would have felt like selling out, or heaven forbid dumbing down. Not now of course, but that’s the way it was, believe it or not, with most of my colleagues. Theatre was always first priority. Also, I would never have realised my drama school dream of being a “National Theatre Player” at the Old Vic under the wing of my great hero and inspiration for being an actor, Sir Laurence Olivier. That was the promised Land . Shangri- La . The Dog’s Bollocks. (sorry)
That is not the way it is now for me, nor has it been for quite some time. I go wherever the work is , whenever it is, whatever it is. And generally, to my heart’s ache, it is not theatre work . If you are lucky enough to have a family and are the only earner (which I was for a very long time) then the bills that you have elected to incur are not going to be paid by a theatre salary . (Private incomes, family or other benefactors or lottery and premium bond wins aside)
So, I’m now a media actor who from time to time happens to work on the stage.
KM: Bookfox Moira’s question seems to fit pretty well at this point, so here it is:
In ‘Epitaph for George Dillon’ you had a little zinger of a part – as Barney Evans the provincial producer who almost literally explodes onto the stage in Act 3. It was a terrific performance – but I’ve always wanted to know … and you don’t have to name names here … did you base it on anyone? I had a feeling it might have been drawn from life …
SG: I ‘m really pleased to be able to answer that one, as I did as much research on that part as any I’ve played. Clearly John Osborne had based him on someone he knew, rather than Tony Creighton with whom he wrote the play, and after I read every biography and autobiography of Osborne it emerged that Barney was a kind of an amalgam of a poshly spoken producer friend of his and one or two agents he’d come across. It was also suggested that he might be based on a colourful agent called Vincent Shaw, who it was rumoured had a bit of a reputation for backing salacious pieces that played around the country in cheap touring dates, so I researched him thoroughly. I also asked various actor colleagues who’d been in the theatre in the 50’s and another tatty producer emerged which led to more calls etc,etc. Of course, in the end you can go nuts trying to put all the bits together only to find you’ve created a kind of Frankenstein monster. So having assimilated all this, I sat down and wrote an imaginary background for “Barney” based on what I knew of a well known West End producer, who I had worked for and who might well have gone down the “Barney” path if he hadn’t succeeded so well in London.
Gradually a character emerges that inevitably contains a colour or two of ones own personality and speech rhythms,but supported by the pile of little gold nuggets left after constant sifting. I came to grow reasonably fond of Barney despite his appalling outspokeness and bigotry. There was no side to him . He simply was what he was.
I can tell you, for what its worth, never again will I wait all evening to come on in the third act to deliver what amounts to a 6 page monologue. The effect on my nervous system was truly ‘orrible. Thank God for Joe Fiennes, who, being the brilliant and sensitive actor he is, was a pillar of concentration and support to me in that scene. I can also tell you that I would never wish to work for that director again. He gave us not only word inflections but syllable inflections too. The kind of direction I despise and abominate and which never liberates you or makes you happy. Certainly not me.
KM: Thank you very much, Stephen, for your time and generosity in having this little (not so little) chat with us here at VL. We usually ask our guests to recommend five books, with a brief word about each of them. Would you mind doing us the honour?
SG: I love biographies of my Heroes, especially the “early years” part of them, so my recommendations are:
(1) Arthur Miller’s Timebends. He’s my favourite playwright and this book allows you into his remarkable life .
(2) Laurence Olivier’s Confessions of an Actor. He’s my idea of what truly great stage acting is all about. He was also an employer, a friend , and my inspiration for being an actor.
(3) David Remnick’s King of the World, about the greatest sportsman who ever lived, Muhammed Ali. It matters not a jot if you don’t like boxing, this is about triumph over adversity . He’s Superman and Batman, but twice as good as both put together because he’s real. He’s the hero to all of us.
(4) The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Just a joy to dip in and out of.
(5) John Gielgud’s Letters, edited by Richard Mangan. OK, I’ll come clean. One of those letters is to me, and I’m as proud as can be because that kind of thing doesn’t happen too often. Its also a chronicle of an Extraordinary Artist.
Ladies and gentlemen, Stephen Greif.