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.
How delighted I was to see a new edition of one of my favourite books in the window of Samuel French, theatrical booksellers! Especially as I have no idea where my 50 year old copy of the original is.
Michael Green is an author close to my heart, as I’ve known his writing for most of my life. His background is in journalism, and he used to write news stories and sports reports for the wonderful daily of my childhood home, the Northampton Chronicle and Echo. His first ‘Art of Coarse’ book was on Rugby (1960), and it was an immediate success. Coming from Leicester and working in Northampton, he inhabited the heartland of the game in those pre-élite times, when the fêted stars of the ‘Saints’ or the ‘Tigers’ were as likely as not to be local working lads. The Art of Coarse Rugby‘s domain though was not Franklin’s Gardens or Welford Road but all those other fields where teams of players turned out on a Saturday in a doomed attempt to cling on to the last vestiges of youth and fitness.
He had a personal interest in amateur acting, so his next book, published in 1964, was The Art of Coarse Acting. This was followed by a series of other ‘Art of Coarse’ books, but the first two remain the most affectionately remembered I think. His invention of the idea of the coarse participant enabled him to document with kindly humour the peculiar dignity of the player who is doing his or her best, even when that requires a measure of low cunning. The essence is to expend as little effort as possible for the maximum effect – but for a twisted sort of love of it all, with the aim of being noticed by your friends and family and still have time to be first in the boozer. Michael Green’s comic gift is to describe all the incompetence and failure and wild resourcefulness in such a way as to make the coarse participant into a loveable hero who does not let the lack of ability and talent stand in the way of a sort of personal triumph.
The concept of coarse acting is both wider and more subtle than a synonym for am-dram. But the backbone of coarse acting will of course be those who act for fun (or if not, for reasons other than earning their living by it). The stage is a scary place (I couldn’t possibly … not conceivably ….) and the coarse actor’s strategies are aimed at survival with the merest shreds of self-esteem in place. As a coarse actor you will never begin to emulate Sir Ian, or Dame Judi, but with a knowledge of stock characters 1-3 and their appropriate make-up, an all-purpose coarse medieval costume, and a knowledge of which props and flats you can hide your lines in, you can be the underpinning of a production to be proud of (another trait of the coarse actor is the capacity for self-delusion).
Elements of coarse acting can be seen in the most slick and professional settings, though – witness Madonna’s cape-malfunction this very week at the Brit Awards. The unfortunate result was pure coarse acting disaster by prop failure, and her brilliant recovery pure coarse acting situation-salvaging. One of the techniques that is given some consideration (with hilarious illustrations) is the best way to die onstage, to achieve both pathos and comfort for the corpse (tip: if you are murdered on a piece of furniture, roll off it so you can spend the rest of the scene mostly hidden behind it). A common killing technique is called the The Royal Shakespeare Armpit Death, and now I’ve seen the photograph again I am seeing it everywhere (most recently, watching the final death scene in Carlos Saura’s searingly tragic Flamenco version of Bodas de Sangre, where the late, great Antonio Gades both deals and receives a classic Armpit Death by knifing, in slow-motion. Reading this book is rather subversive.).
The skilled coarse actor has to be prepared to improvise wildly when there are failures of coarse scenery (doors get stuck/fly open), coarse lighting (blackouts where they should not be, and vice versa), coarse props, and coarse prompters and ASMs – not to mention being alert for the totally unexpected behaviour of other coarse actors. And then there will be the time when the experienced coarse actor may be called upon to become a coarse director. The best advice is to summon all your experience of being directed, and keep it very, very simple (louder, quieter etc.).
I came back to this as to an old friend and read it chortling on every page at its mixture of advice laced with anecdote. The publisher’s blurb describes it as ‘an outrageous spoof that ridicules pretentiousness, pokes fun at incompetence, revels in disaster, and lifts the lid on life backstage.’ Indeed, it does all these things, but that, to my mind does not do justice to its kindliness and its tribute to the trouper spirit. I think I’d settle for that sentence without the two words ‘outrageous spoof’. I think the element of spoof is little more than a coarse fisherman’s exaggeration of the one that got away. I hope I can find in what deep pit my original 1960s edition is hidden, as the author has updated the text to take account of changes since then (no censorship now – believe it or not, in place until 1968, and no smoking – evidently a problem these days when the play calls for it as today’s non-smokers no longer know how to light, and keep alight, a cigarette). I’d love to go back to the vintage text and remind myself what life looked like then. Meanwhile, I am just so pleased to be reunited with an old and very, very amusing friend.
Michael Green: The Art of Coarse Acting. 50th Anniversary Edition. London: Samuel French, 2014. 126pp
First published 1964.