Early in his long and illustrious career, actor Kenneth Cranham was a regular leading man at the Royal Court, where he starred in the premiers of plays by Edward Bond, Stephen Poliakoff and Joe Orton. It was Orton’s Loot that gave him one of his big breakthroughs, appearing in it in the West End and on Broadway.
Cranham is also well known to theatregoers for his creating the role of the Inspector in Stephen Daldry’s multi award-winning reinvention of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, which he played for over 800 performances at the National, in the West End and on Broadway.
Cranham’s many other stage credits – at the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Almeida and elsewhere - include The Iceman Cometh, The Entertainer, The London Cuckolds, The Doctor’s Dilemma, Entertaining Mr Sloane, Cardiff East, Flight, The Novice, Passion, Paul Bunyan, The UN Inspector, Endgame and, last year at the Old Vic with Rosamund Pike, Gaslight.
On television, Cranham remains well-loved as the title character from the 1980s series Shine on Harvey Moon. Amongst his myriad additional TV credits are Z Cars, Danger UXB, Softly Softly, Therese Raquin, Brideshead Revisited, Reilly: Ace of Spies, Rules of Engagement, The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter, Murder Most Horrid, El CID, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Heartbeat, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, The Sins, Killing Hitler, Hustle, The Line of Beauty and Rome, in which he played Pompey Magnus.
Cranham’s films include Hot Fuzz, Blackball, Layer Cake, Born Romantic, Shiner, Gangster No. 1, Under Suspicion, Prospero’s Books, Vigo, Up Pompeii, Oliver!, The Boxer, Women Talking Dirty, Stealing Heaven and Hellraiser II.
The actor is also a long-time associate of Harold Pinter, having worked with the Nobel Prize-winning playwright on both stage and screen. He’s now returned to the role of Max, the irascible head of an all-male household in Pinter’s The Homecoming - his fifth go at the 1965 modern classic. The production at the Almeida Theatre, directed by artistic director Michael Attenborough, also features Neil Dudgeon, Danny Dyer, Nigel Lindsay, Anthony O'Donnell and as Max’s seductive new daughter-in-law Ruth, Jenny Jules (the first black actress to play the role).
Date & place of birth
Born 12 December 1944 in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland.
Lives now in
I actually live a quarter of an hour away from the Almeida, in Islington.
The National Youth Theatre and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
What made you want to become an actor?
It was so long ago – I think I’m in my 42nd year of it now. There was an exam at the age of 11 – the 11-plus - when myself and a friend failed a paper called the ‘intelligence test’. To be told at that age that you failed your intelligence test was very damning. So I never thought that I’d go to university – I thought I was either going to go to art school or drama school. They were the two areas I was talented in. I was very attracted to art school. The boys, older than me, who went there all had wonderful-looking girlfriends and the art teachers seemed like such interesting people who had an easier take on things. You used to get grants which meant I had to go to one or the other and couldn’t do both like I’d wanted to. I went to a comprehensive school where generally boys didn’t want to do plays so I was sort of made to be in play – Henry IV Part II – and I found it was something I could do. It completely changed my relationship to everybody in the school. My status changed. Teachers wanted to speak to me! From then on, I stayed on at school because the parts were good. I played Macbeth, Bamforth in The Long, the Short and the Tall, I did revues, I did Ionesco. This was all at school. At the same time, I joined the National Youth Theatre and moved up from fourth soldier to Bottom in Dream. By the time I finished RADA, I had a pretty good idea of what I was good at.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done
Maybe music. I was on a film in my mid-twenties with a group of guys, and I learnt my three chords on a guitar – I had a lot of fun with that. In school, I had a job in a record store at the weekend. Bill Wyman worked in the garage down the road, so I saw the Rolling Stones very early on! In my school days, the groups were instrumental groups, which didn’t really interest me. Had I seen an R&B group, I might have gone in that direction. I went to Broadway with Loot and had a full head of hair and a proper English boy look. So I had a marvellous time there. The girls used to wait at the airport for English planes arriving, and I had a good shape back then. It was a fantastic time. I met Hendrix, Joplin – all of them. It was all happening in New York then.
First big break
It was the break that got me Loot. There was a play called The Ruffian on the Stair - an early play of Joe Orton’s, very Pinter based. Actually, I have to go back further than that. At school, I had a teacher called Ray Jenkins, who had directed me in Macbeth and later became a writer. He’d written a two-hander for the radio and he wanted me to do it with an actor called William Squire, an established middle-aged actor then. Because I took the first two days off from my teacher training college to do the play, they kicked me out. But Joe Orton heard that play, and then he wanted me to do his play The Ruffian on the Stair. Then when I was at the Royal Court we did a Sunday night production of that play, and Joe Orton saw my name outside the theatre and asked for me to play the part. So that night, with just one performance, it was like a galleon with wind in its sails – it just ran so smoothly. And from that, I got Loot, which set me up for years. You need something to get you noticed. So really it comes down to daring to get kicked out of teacher training college.
Do you have a preference between working on stage versus screen?
What you do is you make a decision about what you’re going to do next. You just choose the best offer that’s there. With luck you get a decent job, like the one I’ve got at the moment. I’ll be 64 this year – a famous age, “Will you still feed me, will you still need me…” – and here I am playing this really huge difficult part on stage. Having got four of them under my belt, it’s got better each time we’ve done it so it’s actually quite exciting.
When I was a drama student, my great acting hero was Colin Blakely, who was a leading man in Olivier’s National Theatre company. He was a passionate actor from Northern Ireland, before the Troubles so people always thought he was Canadian or something because they couldn’t place the accent. I saw him play Proctor in The Crucible at the National, directed by Olivier in fact. He broke my heart that night, I was so moved by his performance, so I always followed him and saw him whenever I could. Then I got to do Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter with him, which is a two-hander. If I was a footballer, the person I’d admired from the terraces would have not been playing by the time I was playing football. But you can do that with acting, you can actually do a two-hander with your hero.
Who were your other heroes growing up?
Talking to younger actors reminds me of how intense I once was about acting. When I was a student, I saw On the Waterfront nine times. My knowledge of London was based on going all over to cinemas showing Marlon Brando films. I was very lucky in that I was born in 1944 so I had as heroes the young Elvis Presley, the young Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan and I had Brando. In their heyday, those people were extraordinary. That’s why I was so thrilled to go to America in 1968 – to go to the country that all of us aspired to. I listened to the Beatles arriving at JFK on the radio. Because the Fifties were quite drab here, every image you got from America was just so exciting. Acting gave me a chance to go and work there. Throughout my career, it has really thrilled me to get paid to travel. I’m even excited going to Birmingham. I just like the event. But it’s much more interesting to go to other places to work rather than as a confused tourist. I don’t think I’d ever emigrate because I love London, it becomes more and more interesting – an incredible place. I had a year in New York with An Inspector Calls and thought “This is an incredible place, but I actually feel more comfortable in London”. I can get vertigo standing on the ground in New York!
I’ve been fantastically blessed because of the era I’ve worked in. I did the Edward Bonds, I did the Joe Ortons. Leonie Orton, Joe’s younger sister, is creating a website for Joe. I’m going to write a piece for it. I was a friend of Joe’s, like I’ve been a friend of Pinter’s and I also got to know Bond. So I’ve actually collaborated with the great, recent British writers. I haven’t seen The Sea at the Haymarket yet, but I did see it with Corale Brown in the original production at the Royal Court where I was then. I was a leading young man over a 17-year period at the Royal Court – my best young work was there. That’s the only club I’ve ever identified or felt I belonged to. It’s odd, the Royal Court. It’s on its own, not near any other theatre. People have such a passionate relationship with that building … like a first love. I have been offered things there in recent years, but nothing that’s really appealed to me. If you’re going to do a stage play, which won’t earn you any money and really going to wipe you out, it’s got to be something you really want to do. A year ago, I was lined up to do a police show, I agreed with a heavy heart because there are so many bloody police shows. Then suddenly this thing came along which was to play Captain Turner in a drama-documentary about the sinking of the Lusitania and I got a month in Cape Town! That’s what’s known as a result!
What was the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I saw a strange collaboration – it was partly improvised – at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I saw Martha Wainwright and somebody called Teddy Thompson – they’re the offspring of very talented parents. They did a duet of a country song and it was beautiful. If people harmonise, it’s beautiful. I love music. I think that because my relationship with theatre text is pretty arduous, I like to see is something musical. I’m not talking about Sondheim here, I’m talking about vernacular music – the music of the people. But not folk music. I love music hall.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I would quite like to be Muhammad Ali in his prime. I did actually get to meet him, and was able to shake his hand. I used to be very famous when I was in Shine on Harvey Moon, which over 13 million people used to watch. He’s fucking big! The width of him was extraordinary! When you see these boxers, they’re usually up against someone of their own size and you don’t realise, so when you see one on their own it’s extraordinary!
Mr Horner, a teacher of mine from school, once gave me list of books to read – 45 years ago – which had The Catcher in the Rye, Absolute Beginners and Clockwork Orange on it. I was ahead of the game for so many years. But Catcher really hit something. It’s a great book.
Favourite holiday destinations
I have so many favourite places I’d like to go. What I did last year when I had Gaslight ahead of me, I got a train up to a place called Alnwick – half an hour north of Newcastle. I walked the coast from Alnwick to Seahouses then the next day to Berwick-upon-Tweed. That’s a considerable walk, but I did it all on the coast. I set off at 8.30am and walked until 9.30pm that day. In your sixties, you can do that. I don’t really like MTV and gymnasiums – I find that all really dispiriting - but I do walk. On Sundays, I walk from my home to Oxford Circus. London is a great walking city. I love walking through Clerkenwell, Bloomsbury. I slightly adjust my route each time. You always come across things you’ve missed before. It’s so exciting getting lost.
Favourite after-show haunts
When I was at the Old Vic, I was near a place called the Anchor and Hope – to call it a gastro pub would make it sound slightly mundane. But I got to know Rob who runs it and would check what was on that day and say, “Would you save one for me, I’ll be in later!”. It’s really smashing food and it’s so hard to get in there as they don’t take any bookings.
What made you want to accept the role of Max in this production of The Homecoming?
This is my fifth time doing this play. The two great elderly challenges in the Pinter canon are Davis, the tramp in The Caretaker, and Max in The Homecoming – the two monster parts. In your sixties, you’re going to suit one or the other. The way I’ve turned out, I think I’m more of a Max than a Davis, because of the size of me and what I look like now. There are three sections of the play where I speak for about eight pages. Max has got very few redeeming features. It’s extraordinary - you try and find something decent in him and it’s very hard. In Gaslight, I was the hero, which I quite liked. I like playing the knight in shining armour. I like playing good people rather than villains. Michael Billington said that I make goodness interesting!
What’s your relationship with Harold Pinter?
I’ve had a long relationship with Pinter and his work - I was in The Birthday Party with him, I played Stanley and he was Goldberg. All the things I’ve done of his, he’s been involved with, even if he hasn’t always been in them with me. He’s been around. His advice has always been available. Obviously, he knows more about his stuff than anyone, so I’ve always had him to refer to and to help me. In this production, Pinter was less involved than he would like, and less than we, the company, would like because he’s not been well. But I did manage to have a lunch with him, just the two of us, before I started so we were really able to talk it through. In the past, he’s given me fantastic leads and pointers on the characters I’ve had to play. When you talk to Pinter about one of his characters, it’s like talking to him about a friend of his. He’s dreamt these people up and knows them all very well. He was an only child. I was too until about age ten when my brother arrived. As an only child, you conjure up company because you spend quite a lot of time alone. It’s probably the best background you can have for an actor or a writer, because they’re both crafts where you invent through layers of imagination.
What are the challenges returning to the same play multiple times?
I know more about being in one play a lot than most people. I did 800 performances as the Inspector in An Inspector Calls. I did Loot some 400 times. It’s actually like sculpting. You go on working at it. You find out more and more about how to do a role the longer you do it, and if it’s well written it’s enjoyable to return to.
Why do you think now is a good time to revive The Homecoming?
It’s a great black comedy. Having done the major Orton plays, I know something about black comedy. Pinter did this sort of stuff first, I think. There’s a concentration, a compression, a sparseness to the writing, an economy which I think Pinter got a bit from Beckett. But he’s got his own take on things too. We’ve really got it working well now throughout as a comedy. Some of the audience is going to feel very uncomfortable for quite a lot of it.
Jenny Jules is the first black actress to play Ruth. Do you think that’s significant?
I think it’s very significant. I’ve got lots of dialogue that doesn’t refer specifically to Ruth’s race but it could do. There’s an obliqueness to the writing that could accompany all sorts of things. Max is very shocked when suddenly there’s a woman in house – there hasn’t been a woman in the house since his wife died, so it’s been this awful masculine household. He reluctantly takes on the role of cooking for them all and he’s on his pension and really pissed off about the whole thing. In the second half of the play, it transforms all of them because of the feminine element in the household. Her being black gives it another sort of dimension. I say to my oldest son who married her: “I know why you didn’t tell me you were married, it’s because you were ashamed. You thought I’d be annoyed because you married a woman beneath you.” You see?
What's your favourite line from the play?
I’ve got some corkers throughout. “Look what I’m lumbered with, one cast-iron bunch of crap after another, one flow of stinking pus after another.” The dialogue is partly like that because Pinter wrote this play at a time when you couldn’t swear on stage because of the Lord Chamberlain’s office. So he’s written language which is like cursing but isn’t. I think it’s more interesting actually. I’ve done five gangster films where there are a lot of “fucks” in the script, and the other actors add in their own, so the word becomes worthless. If you use a word often enough or too much, people stop noticing it.
What was the funniest thing that happened in rehearsals?
Nothing really. It’s like working on a piece of music, like an epic poem. You have to learn it properly and then find a rhythm to it. You work away at it. Michael Attenborough is a very sweet-natured man, which I do enjoy because some directors aren’t. He loves the play, he’s quite content to watch it over and over again. Some get impatient early on and want some sort of finished project before you can get there. Michael really has nurtured it well.
What are your future plans?
My immediate plan is to survive The Homecoming! If you go and see it, you’ll know what I mean…
- Kenneth Cranham was speaking to Terri Paddock
The Homecoming opened on 7 February 2008 (previews from 31 January) at the Almeida Theatre, where it continues until 22 March.