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.
(Chapter 28: A Plea for the Perpetuation of Stage Posh.)
Edward Petherbridge has, in his own words, ‘a reputation for playing well-bred, sympathetic, asexual losers’ or – to put it another way – ‘classy wimps’. It may therefore come as a bit of a surprise to many to learn that he is the son of a warehouseman, born and raised in Bradford in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire – amidst dye works, woollen mills and back-to-back housing. At the age of seven, he saw his first theatrical performance at the Bradford Alhambra – a pantomime featuring veteran northern comic Norman Evans as the Dame, Marjorie Manners as the Principal Boy, the Twelve Little Sunbeams and an extraordinarily agile dwarf as the pantomime dog.
His passion for the theatre was born on that day, high in the balcony behind the limelight man. It was a passion that took him to Esme Church’s Northern Theatre School and would, eventually, lead him to Stratford-on-Avon, the West End and Broadway.
Slim Chances is a rara avis in the world of actors’ autobiographies in that it’s light on the personal details, except where they relate directly to his career and the direction that it took, and concentrates on the actual craft and graft of acting; which is not to say that he hides behind his actor’s facade – far from it. Petherbridge the Man emerges very clearly from the five hundred-and-some pages, warts and all. He’s not averse to telling stories against himself – such as the time he was playing the eponymous Misanthrope, Alceste, with the National Theatre and was apparently being a bit of a pain in the proverbial. The production went on tour and, at Nottingham, he took advantage of a free afternoon to visit Newstead Abbey:
As I drove into the large patch of grass that served as the car park, I saw the entire Misanthrope cast, minus me, sitting on the green sward having a picnic together. I gave them a charming wave, which they, some of them, returned a little awkwardly. I parked the car and, with as much casual dignity as I could, wandered away through the grounds – as far away as possible.
Many people, not otherwise familiar with his career, will probably know him for one of two roles – Newman Noggs in Nicholas Nickleby and Lord Peter Wimsey in the BBC’s adaptions of three of the four Wimsey novels covering his courtship of Harriet Vane – and anyone picking up Slim Chances in the hope of learning more about either or both won’t be disappointed.
The birth pains of Nickleby in particular are covered in considerable depth – from conception to triumphant realization. I was slack-jawed at the hoops the actors had to go through before the production got anywhere near a stage – and the conditions they had to work under while on tour.
I’ve always been fascinated by acting and actors (whilst having absolutely no desire to be one) – the mechanics of it, the training, the nuts and bolts – much of which has always seemed pointless, bordering on arcane. He therefore had my full attention with this passage:
People, real people as opposed to actors, may have wondered why it was – and still is – that students of acting should improvise a day in the life of a gnat … or an autumn leaf in the wind, or observe a lion in the zoo and then improvise a silent encounter with a colleague who had been observing vultures or an emu. They may have wondered why, if coming through French windows was – and still is – such a stock-in-trade, or striding up and down the rostrum in a cloak or a farthingale, or poking the fire in a D H Lawrence kitchen … why ballet class on Friday mornings and modern dance on Wednesday should have been, and are, important.
The answer is that anybody who has seen a ‘real’ person on stage knows it, and knows, for example, how Lord St John Stevas, who has looked perfectly presentable and convincing as an eccentric toff on television, should look, at first, slightly out of focus walking onto a stage (not even in a play, but to make an announcement) and then, alarmingly, like an attentuated prune that has shuffled on in an ill-fitting dinner jacket.
Slim Chances covers Edward Petherbridge’s career from his first public performance, at school in Bradford as Barney Blue Eyes (a triumph by all accounts), through his formation with Ian McKellen of The Actors’ Company and the subsequent creation of the McKellen-Petherbridge Group at the National, right up to the sad debâcle that was The Fantasticks (but from which he personally emerged with glowing reviews). By turns acutely observed, funny, self-deprecating, slightly scurrilous and occasionally waspish he shines a vivid light on the weird and wonderful world of acting and ‘Actaws’. Along the way, we meet some of the true theatrical ‘greats’ – Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen, Trevor Nunn to name but three – together with the supporting players, so essential but so frequently unsung.
I loved the story about the exercise the cast of The Cherry Orchard at the National were set, wherein each of them had to watch the rest of the company, en masse, illustating their ideas of that person’s character. So, Edward Petherbridge had to sit and watch a roomful of Gayevs and Ian McKellen a group of Lophakins. Roy Kinnear’s ‘Gayev’ was wonderful – fussing around with papers on a table – arranging his butterfuly collection, EP thought. Ian McKellen thought his ‘Lophakin’ was equally superb, poring over his invoices and accounts. In fact, Roy Kinnear subsequently admitted that he was actually taking advantage of the moment to complete his VAT return.
Five hundred pages long and weighing in at over a kilo, this is not a lightweight book in any sense of the term, and is almost impossible to skim for fear that you miss a little gem, zipping in under the radar – but for anyone remotely interested in acting, actors and what makes them tick, Slim Chances is worth every penny of its cover price.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite stories from it – taken from his childhood, when he and his friends staged their own plays in their back yard, next to the outdoor privies – which people inevitably wanted to use:
Mrs Thingumybob, looking neither left nor right, would disappear inside her lavatory and close the door. The action was suspended, disbelief was not: not exactly, but there was a tension in the air as if disbelief were swinging out of kilter, like the pendulum of a grandfather clock in an earth tremor. In time, the sound of the flush would be heard, like a bar bell at the end of an interval, and Mrs Whatsit would re-enter stage left. Without a word or a look, she would close the lavatory door, leave the prompt-side proscenium, cross the auditorium, exit at the gate and proceed down the Bowbridge Road pavement to the door of her front-end house, and our stage would become a stage again and the entertainment would be resumed.
If Mrs Thingumybob had but known that one day, The Washington Post would say of one of the small boys in that yard …
Petherbridge raises his eyes to stare out over the audience with the expression of a man who has just realized precisely what that unfamiliar pain in his left chest is. It’s a small moment, almost nothing. Like the playwright, this actor is a poet of stillness.*
… she might have lingered for a while.
Indepenpress Publishing Ltd. 2011. ISBN: 978-1-78003-125-5. 524pp.
* Lloyd Rose, Washington Post, 19 June 1998 – Review of Krapp’s Last Tape.