Michael Coveney: Golden anniversaries with Kevin and Bruce, Tim and Pru
Our chief critic enjoys a ''Lovely'' celebration with Babs and a new documentary about canal boats from Timothy West and Prunella Scales
Although the Stratford East revival of Oh What a Lovely War marks the show's 50th anniversary, as well as the centenary of the Great War itself, the golden milestone is more strictly applicable to the Broadway production in 1964, which was supervised by Joan Littlewood's company manager, Kevin Palmer, and which starred Barbara Windsor, who never appeared in it in London.
Kevin returned to his native Australia many moons ago but is back in London to re-visit Lovely War, make a documentary film about his life in the theatre and catch up with family and old friends - including Windsor, who joined him for lunch in the Brasserie Zedel yesterday along with other Littlewood colleagues Toni Palmer (no relation) and Peter Rankin.
Toni and Babs were the two good-time girls in Fings Ain't What They Used T'Be, soon to be revived at Stratford East, and Peter Rankin not only wrote plays and assisted Littlewood over many years, but also put together her voluminous memoirs, Joan's Book. They've all been along to see the Lovely War revival and are mostly enthusiastic, although there are several old Theatre Workshop members, including two of the original cast, who are rather more tight-lipped about it, understandably enough.
After Littlewood withdrew from Stratford in the early 1970s, Kevin moved on to work for Eddie Kulukundis and his Knightsbridge Theatre Productions, where his colleagues included Howard Panter, joint chief executive of the Ambassador Theatre Group, stage manager John Wallbank and lighting designer Mark Pritchard. He recently celebrated 40 years of domestic partnership by marrying his architect chum Bruce McDonough on a beach in New Zealand.
So that was another facet of our lunchtime celebration, and Bruce turns out to be the most delightful company. Barbara bustled into the restaurant dead on time as usual (early, in fact) and stayed on to complete an interview for the Palmer "doco" (as they call it in Oz) in the adjacent Crazy Coqs cabaret room. En route, she was sheepishly greeted by a young girl in the restaurant who was celebrating her 18th birthday with her mother; would she pose for a photo? Of course she would, and she had a long chat with the girl, too. What a trouper! Babs is an old-style star, never "off" and utterly professional and well-mannered.
Another significant golden anniversary is that of the wedding of Prunella Scales and Timothy West, which is being marked by a series of Great Canal Journeys on the More4 television channel. In the first programme, on Monday, the couple travelled along the Kennet and Avon canal in the West Country, going from Bath through Bradford-upon-Avon to Devizes, where the locals seem to have put on a carnival just for them.
It's a sort of genteel, very British odyssey similar to that undertaken a couple of years back by Timothy Spall and his wife, Shane, in their boat around the UK coastline. But there's added poignancy, not only in the sense of these senior narrow boat devotees re-visiting their past for the very last time, you feel, but also in Tim's running commentary on Pru's "slight condition" of "a mild sort of Alzheimer's" which means that's she's become, he says, "another version of the person I used to know."
This forms an unavoidable echo of their performance together in the last act of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, where the over-the-hill actor James Tyrone is left holding the ring with his two sons (Tim and Pru have two sons, one of them the actor Samuel West, who will appear in one of the later programmes) while Mary Tyrone drifts away from them all on sweet powders in her tragic reverie upstairs.
The extraordinary thing is that, while Tim mans the tiller and steers the boat through the locks, Pru is dancing about on shore pushing the locks open with a great backward push before nimbly jumping back on board. She sits stoically below deck, sipping a glass of wine and gazing vacantly into the camera: "We want to make sure that we make the most of our time together, enjoying what we do as much as we can." And that means making new friends and basking in the tranquillity of the English countryside.
It's very moving, and there's even a bit of dramatic excitement as they negotiate a notorious stretch of the canal which entails going through 16 locks in the one connected manoeuvre, climbing 150 feet over five demanding hours - just as in the O'Neill play, in fact.