20 Questions With...Edward Woodward
Date: 2 September 2002
After a 15-year absence, actor Edward 'The Equalizer' Woodward returns to the stage this month to tour the new play Goodbye Gilbert Harding. He talks to us about Olivier, Gambon & the appeal of villainy.
Actor Edward Woodward originally trained as a journalist but was steered towards acting when he realised his shorthand skills weren't quite up to scratch.
During a career lasting nearly five decades, he has become best known for his numerous screen roles, probably most familiar internationally for his own TV persona in the American series The Equalizer. His many other film and television roles include Callan, The Wicker Man, Breaker Morant, La Femme Nikita, The Professionals and Common as Muck.
Having made his stage debut in 1955, Woodward went on to seasons with the RSC and the National as well as appearances both in the West End and on Broadway before moving primarily into screen work. His many stage credits include The Dark Horse, On Approval, The Male of the Species, Richard III and Private Lives. His last major stage role was in 1987, starring alongside his wife, Michele Dotrice, in A Dead Secret.
This month, he returns to the stage for the first time in 15 years to take the title role in Leonard Preston's new play, Goodbye Gilbert Harding, based on the life of the eponymous Harding, a journalist and broadcaster and famed as 'the rudest man in Britain' in the 1950s. The production opens its two-month touring schedule in Plymouth on 12 September 2002.
Woodward was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1978.
Date & place of birth
Born 1 June 1930 in Croydon, Surrey.
By Sheperton near the Thames. We also have a small house near Cornwall, right by the sea. We try to live half and half between the two.
First big break
I suppose the first big break was The Queen and the Welshman at the Edinburgh Festival a long long time ago. From that, I got the sort of fantastic notices I've wanted all of my life. All the people who were then running the RSC (what was then the Stratford Memorial Theatre Company) came to see me and I was asked to go to Stratford to play Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and Laertes in Hamlet and that was my first real break.
In theatre, doing Cyrano de Bergerac at the National when Olivier was leading it. That was one of the greatest first nights I've ever had, a truly wonderful wonderful role. In film, it was Breaker Morant, which has become a cult movie, and on TV, Callan.
Cyrano de Bergerac. It was such an exciting thing to do, working in the same theatre as Olivier and he'd asked me to do it himself.
I've enjoyed working with a great number of actors. I especially enjoy working with Michele (Dotrice) my wife.
My age of actor is very lucky - I've lived through some decades of wonderful directors, there are so many really good ones. When I was doing TV in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, almost every director in those days came directly from the theatre. It would be invidious to pick one out.
I've loved doing Shakespeare obviously. I love Ayckbourn even though I've never been in one of his plays. He turned me down but I won't hold it against him, he is a master of his craft. Pinter, of course, as well. There are so many. We're very lucky in this country, we still have some very good playwrights. We don't lack good TV writers but what they lack is a larger canvas for their craft. More and more players are being cut as producers become inclined to use the same people over and over again.
You're known for a variety of television & film roles. What brings you back to the theatre now?
The play. I never thought I'd come back. Theatre is the toughest part of our craft of acting, it really is, and I just thought to myself I don't want to go back. But then I was sent the script for Goodbye Gilbert Harding. The play is so marvellously written and crafted, and my thinking changed from "I don't want to go back" to "I've just got to do this". I'm working with director David Giles, someone who, when I was younger, everyone wanted to work for. That's another reason why.
What roles would you most like to play still?
There are no particular roles I have ambition left to play, but there are some kinds of roles - heavy villains, that'd be great fun to do that. Every time I see The Equalizer, I think how much better the villains were always written.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
The funniest and by far the best was The Play What I Wrote. It's one of the cleverest things I've ever seen, marvellously crafted and pure theatre. It has been many a long year since I've heard that sort of laughter from an audience.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I don't think the government are at all interested. Theatre is almost invisible it's so far down their list of priorities. All MPs in any of the parties basically consider theatre to be a bit of a frippery. There are very few people who look on it as being an essential part of the nation. It should be at the top of the list because everyone has a right to theatre. In the good times, when the tourists were there (and they are coming back), the money the Inland Revenue make from theatre was quite astonishing. I've found through all my life that the situation has got worse and worse, but politicians aren't interested at all. It's up to us to fight for it, which is exactly what is happening - the Arts Council are fighting for more money from the purse. I'm not saying it's a losing battle, but it is very hard.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Michael Gambon. I always watch him on stage with the utmost joy. He's a man of tremendous perspicuity and insight and yet, at the same time, his performances are unshowy - he doesn't show off, he plays the roles. I find him absolutely superb!
Favourite holiday destinations
Where I live in Cornwall, it's in and around that area. Our house is on the sea and we have a boat. There is a real winter and summer community there, lovely old cottages, the sands are beautiful and the sun shines quite a lot.
Any book of Dickens'. His books are pure theatre. The most wonderful thing about him is that, everything you read, with very few exceptions, translates itself immediately into your mind. Reading his books is like watching a play or a film - the characters are astonishing and the stories extraordinarily good.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
Strangely enough, I was going to be a journalist. I went to commercial college and took a journalist course. I was scared out of it when I was told that I was on about two words an hour in shorthand. One of my teachers told me that I ought to be an actor and she steered me to the academy.
Why did you want to accept your part in Goodbye Gilbert Harding?
Because it's an astonishing play and role. I, along with everyone else who had TV in those days, watched Gilbert Harding all the time, all we were watching for was his rudeness. He was an erudite man when not drunk, but he was a drunkard. He was a homosexual desperately trying to fight the iniquitous laws of his time. He couldn't come out, though, as his whole life would have been over, they were such strange laws. Gilbert was a bright bright man, he loathed himself and loved himself, he was pompous yet attacked pomposity. His friends, of whom he had a small group, completely adored him. Yet, because of his own attitudes, he was loathed by most people. He's an amazing character.
Goodbye Gilbert Harding is based on Harding's personal memoirs. Have you ever kept a journal yourself? Would you publish your own memoirs?
Yes, I have. I did an RSC tour to Russia and I kept a diary of the whole time I was there. I did a tour of India and kept a journal, too. But, otherwise, no. I've only kept diaries for noting how much money I owe or making dentist appointments. I have tried to write my own memoirs, but I got up to the age of 19 and more or less gave up. All I could write was about the life of boy during the war; I found myself recalling everything that happened during that five years. The rough draft of my memoirs is still hidden away.
What's your favourite line from Goodbye Gilbert Harding?
I won't tell you or else it won't get a laugh - everyone will be expecting it!
What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that has happened during rehearsals for Goodbye Gilbert Harding?
We do hear operatic singing at odd times. It sounds like a woman in the rehearsal room. We haven't tracked her down yet; it could be a ghost.
What do you like/dislike most about touring?
I haven't done it for so many years, but being away from home is always the worse. Michele is there and I can live at home sometimes when we're around London. I've been to all the places on this tour before, and they are all very nice.
What are your plans for the future?
I don't plan work wise. The next thing I've been asked to do is a film in America, touring around a bit shooting it. If we transfer with Goodbye Gilbert Harding to London, then they'll postpone the film until I'm done, but if not then I'll be in America in January.
-Edward Woodward was talking to Sarah Beaumont
Goodbye Gilbert Harding opens its UK tour on 12 September 2002 in Plymouth before continuing until 2 November to Richmond, Guildford, Cambridge, Eastbourne and Brighton.