20 Questions With...Tony Britton
Date: 18 February 2002
Veteran actor Tony Britton, who opens this week in a new touring production of Hobson's Choice, likens his new role to Lear & urges the government to sort out the country's dodgy drama schools.
Tony Britton made his professional debut with a repertory company in Weston-super-Mare at the age of 18 - after which he promptly entered the army. His career restarted nearly five years later, in 1947, when he was engaged as an assistant stage manager at Manchester's Library Theatre.
Since then, Britton has continued to tread the boards with amazing regularity and relentlessness in a career that has seen him play alongside the likes of Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave, Anthony Quayle, Leslie Caron and Judi Dench and which has included seasons in Bristol, Dublin, Stratford, Chichester, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh as well as London.
In the 1960s and 1970s, he became the most famous Professor Henry Higgins since Rex Harrison when he starred in not one, but two separate productions of My Fair Lady, touring the UK and North America and enjoying several years in the West End. Amongst his other London credits are The First Born, Gigi, The Night of the Ball, Kill Two Birds, The Seagull and, more recently, The Doctor's Dilemma at the Almeida and Jeffrey Archer's The Accused (Haymarket).
On television, Britton has appeared in popular series such as Father Dear Father, The Nearly Man, Robin's Nest and, most notably, Don't Wait Up with Nigel Havers. His films include There's A Girl in My Soup, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Day of the Jackal and Night Watch.
Britton is currently starring in a new revival of Harold Brighouse's classic comedy Hobson's Choice, which opens this week in Plymouth ahead of a four-month UK tour.
Date & place of birth
Born 9 June 1924 in Birmingham.
Lives now in...
Battersea, south London.
First big break
Without question, The First Born (1952) by Christopher Fry, in which I got the juvenile lead. It played at a theatre that no longer exists in London called the Winter Garden. It was a great barn of a theatre, on the site of where the New London theatre is today.
On stage, my highlights include being part of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford (1953/54), the two productions I did of My Fair Lady, A Man for All Seasons in Chichester (1987) and The Doctor's Dilemma (1998) at the Almeida. Also Hobson's Choice, which I'm doing now. On television, the comedy shows I've done, including Don't Wait Up (which ran for seven series), were certainly highlights. The lovely thing about that too is that people are more inclined to see you in the theatre if they've seen you on television.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
It's a toss up between my two years in Stratford and my second production of My Fair Lady. Damn near everyone in that company from Stratford became a name. It was a very different place then. The people who ran it really knew what they were doing with Shakespeare, the directors Anthony Quayle and Glen Byam Shaw were extraordinary, and we all felt very lucky to get to go to Stratford for two years and have that fantastic experience. While there, I was able to work with the greats - like Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave - and I learnt so much being on stage with them and watching what they did.
My Fair Lady comes very close to that as a favourite. It is one of the two best musicals ever written (the other being Guys and Dolls). I first played Professor Henry Higgins on a two-and-a-half year UK tour in the 1960s. Then I went away and lay on a beach to get over that. After a few years, I thought if anybody revived it in London, I'd be awfully angry if they didn't come back to me - then miracle upon miracle, the did. In the late 1970s, we played at the Adelphi in the West End and then we toured Canada. It was wonderful to find oneself in such a musical, and more amazing because it was directed by Alan Jay Lerner himself. He married my leading lady and became a good fried. He was a great man of the theatre.
Anthony Quayle - a great director and very fine actor, he put everything he could into the theatre, not to make money out of it but to give back what he himself had got out of it. He was a great friend and a lovely man. Peggy Ashcroft - greatest actress I ever worked with. Celia Johnson - a beautiful, wonderful woman. And, needless to say, Judi Dench - who can do now wrong.
Unquestionably, that's Frank Hauser. I've done three or four productions, the first of which was A Man for All Seasons. He's the best I have ever worked with, he just is. I suppose that's because he's the most intellectually brilliant, and he's a man who understands actors with amazing sensitivity and perceptiveness. He is able to give us all the help we need and more, to help us achieve our best in a part.
The fairly obvious ones - Shaw, Shakespeare, Christopher Fry. And, I know everyone will think, he had to say that, but also Harold Brighouse (who wrote Hobson's Choice). Last but not least, Alan Jay Lerner. The way he turned Shaw's Pygmalion into My Fair Lady. This was an American - a highly educated and intelligent on, but an American nonetheless - who understood Shaw to such a degree that he could have written it himself. And he wrote all those extraordinary lyrics as well.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I would like to have a go at Lear, but I don't know if I'd have the courage. If I did, it wouldn't be without great fear and trepidation. Also, please may I play Prospero one day?
How do you think British theatre has changed since you started your acting career?
We no longer have the repertory system, which is a very bad thing. There used to be hundreds up and down country where people could go and learn their jobs. Now what we have are lots of drama schools popping up all over the place, many of which should not be allowed. Really what they're doing is charging incredible sums of money and many are not teaching anything at all. With the reps gone, it's awfully difficult for young people to get experience. A good thing, is that drama is much more open now. When I started, 80% of it was written for pure entertainment alone. Now we've got a lot more writers writing extremely good, modern plays about life as we know it. Today's theatre speaks much more truthfully to people, it holds the mirror up to nature.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Sort out those drama schools, make them legitimate and don't allow any to open up that don't actually have the necessary, proper staff to run a school rather than just taking thousands of pounds off young people with stars in theirs. If parents haven't got any money, they write to actors like me. I get those kinds of letters a lot; we all do. They say they need £3,000 or something to send their children to drama school and they can't afford it. I sympathise with them, but you have to write and say, actually I've got three children and seven grandchildren of my own, and there's just me.
Also, the government must acknowledge, the pre-eminence of British theatre and acting. You only have to look at the recent Oscar nominations to see that the best acting on film is British too. Our acting talent is simply the best in the world. Everyone abroad knows that and can't wait to come here, either to see our productions or act on our stages. The government should acknowledge that in a very public way, and also support it in a direct way - not in roundabout fashion through the Arts Council, though they're beginning to do some very good work.
In your opinion, what's the best thing currently on stage?
I've seen very little productions of late. The last memorable theatre that I saw was the ensemble stuff at the National Theatre, under Trevor Nunn's direction. It was the best stuff I've seen in a long time.
There are so many, aren't there? One of the best is The Once and Future King by TH White.
Favourite holiday destination
Almost anywhere in the Caribbean, preferably Antigua.
I'm no good at that at all. Some of my friends are. Donald Sinden knows a lot - you should interview him and get him to tell you some.
Why did you want to accept your part in Hobson's Choice in particular?
Someone sends you a script and you read it and you say yes I'd like to do that very much. Then, the deeper and deeper you go, you think, my god, what a play. My god, I'll say, it's a hugely challenging part to play. Hobson is a cantankerous northern shoe shop owner from Salford in the 1880s. You wouldn't say that was exactly typecasting for Tony Britton. And the relationships with his daughter, who help him in the shop, are complex. It's a little like playing Lear, although that comparison didn't come to me for some time until I started rehearsing it. It's a remarkable play and one of the most beautifully written I've ever worked on. And we've got a lovely company and a very good director in Jonathan Church. I shall be very pleased if I pull the part off and hope that it might be the latest of my highlights in theatre.
What do you think distinguishes Hobson's Choice as one of the great English comedies of the 20th century?
It's a classic because it's such a fine piece of writing and a wonderful piece of theatre. Its construction is perfect and there's beautiful characterisation of everyone in the play. And it's human, very very real, and is as applicable today as when it was written in 1915. It's been successful ever since then too - Laughton did it on film, Redgrave did it on stage. It is a comedy, but it's only just on the edge of being defined that way; it has so much truth and reality.
What do you like/dislike about embarking on an extensive tour such as this?
I'm very fond of my country and I love getting about it. As actors, we're very lucky because we're able to see a great deal more of our country than most people. Also I'm a great walker and it's lovely to get out and see a bit of England - and Scotland in this case - on foot. That's what I enjoy most. That said, I don't enjoy the business of leaving my home to go on tour as much as I did when I was young. I don't really look forward to living in a series of flats or cottages, though I much prefer that to living in my hotel because I like to do my own cooking. I miss my home and loved ones so touring is a two-sided coin.
Do you find that audiences differ in different parts of the country?
I don't think they're so different from one place to the next. Except in London because it's such a cosmopolitan audience, with so many nationalities. Americans for instance don't really understand British humour. I don't mean that in a critical way, they lovely people and they come with such reverence to our theatre, which is wonderful. But they still don't understand it, which can make it harder with a play like Hobson's Choice that's so quintessentially English.
What are your plans for the future?
We've all got our fingers and et else crossed that Hobson's Choice will do well and maybe go into London. After that, my plan is to sit by the telephone and wait for somebody to offer me another play - after I've had a holiday in Antigua.
- Tony Britton was speaking to Terri Paddock
Hobson's Choice opens this week at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, where it continues until 2 March before continuing on tour through June to Birmingham, Sheffield, Darlington, Malvern, Nottingham, Aberdeen, Guildford, Cambridge, Coventry and Cardiff.