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Ayckbourn Flays Celebs on Stage

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In an interview in this week's Radio Times, Alan Ayckbourn reveals how a West End producer "who shall remain nameless" told him that Oliver Ford Davies couldn't possibly star in Ben Brown's Larkin With Women on its transfer from Scarborough.

Who was the bigger name the producer had in mind? None other than television comedian Harry Hill, presumbaly on the grounds that he was bald and wore glasses and therefore looked a tiny bit like the old Hull misery guts.

In fact, Ford Davies, himself bald and occasionally bespectacled, didn't look like Larkin at all in Alan Strachan's production, but he certainly gave a very fine performance.

I do feel Ayckbourn is being slightly disingenuous here, though. No disrespect to Ford Davies, but his name on a marquee on Shaftesbury Avenue isn't going to cause a stampede at the box office. Most of Ayckbourn's early successes -- and this still partly rankles with the playwright -- were hits because the Scarborough casts were replaced with the likes of Penelope Keith, Michael Gambon, Richard Briers, Julia McKenzie and Griff Rhys Jones.

And the absurdity of the idea of Harry Hill as Larkin rather outweighs the delicious incongruity of the idea. What next? Steve Coogan as Leonardo Da Vinci? Christopher Biggins as King Lear?

And here we come to the nub. For all we know, Harry Hill -- who is a projected persona of real life performer Matthew Hall, a fully qualified neurosurgeon -- might be a stupendously good actor. He certainly plays the ludicrous Harry very well.

He's done stand up and cites his chief influences as Burt Kwouk and Ken Dodd, so he's not entirely without good taste and thespian credibility. And there's something about Larkin -- his furtive sexuality, his hard-boiled reactionary outlook -- that chimes quite closely with Harry Hill's character.

And another thing's for sure: Harry Hill would make Larkin very funny, which is not something the academically inclined Oliver Ford Davies succeeded wholly in doing.

Anyone on film or television runs into the Ayckbourn factor to some degree or other. David Tennant, when annnounced as Hamlet, was (risibly) referred to by Jonathan Miller as that man off the television, as if he had no classical credentials whatsoever.

But no-one, so far, has dared raise a protest against Voldemort from the Harry Potter movies playing Prospero at the Haymarket. That's because Voldemort is Ralph Fiennes, probably the most naturally gifted Shakespearean actor of his generation, and box office magic to such an extent that the Haymarket annnounced a £1m advance ticket sale before last night's opening.

Fiennes and Tennant (until he injured his back) can and could be relied upon to turn up each night, too. The problem as we saw with Martine McCutcheon  -- what's happened to her, by the way? -- is the grind and routine of appearing in eight shows a week under very high pressure. That's something Harry Hill has never proved he can do. Oliver Ford Davies might play to half empty houses, but he would never let anyone down. 

But even the dignity of actors on television is seriously undermined by the treatment they receive in acknolwedgement. Most cast lists are printed in the Radio Times, but when the credits roll you can hardly catch a single name.

I was discussing this with Lawrence Till, whom I bumped into in a Soho coffee shop earlier this week. Till used to run the Bolton Octagon and the Watford Palace before moving into television five years ago and becoming both director and producer on Paul Abbott's Shameless (he directed an Abbott play at Bolton nearly twenty years ago).

He astounded me by revealing that there's now an agreement that the credits must finish in forty seconds. In addition, the continuity announcer is invariably speaking over them while the screen size is diminished to flag up the next programme.

Actors are so poorly treated, even if they are handsomely paid, by television, that you can hardly blame them for craving the dignity and cultural kudos of the stage.

And I can't imagine many producers, pace Alan Ayckbourn, would baulk at the prospect of having Harry Hill's name up in lights on a play about a great poet's complicated sexual affiliations. Bring it on, Nica or Sonia... it's a very good play and the Ayckbourn kerfuffle is very good publicity.


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