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Bow Down to Crowden

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Graham Crowden, who has died after a stroke aged 87, was one of those actors who could make you giddy with delight when he walked on a stage. He was warm, wise and perfectly potty. He seemed to vibrate like a well plucked mellow cello.

He famously appeared in the National Theatre premieres of Tom Stoppard's first two hits, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Jumpers, and in three great satirical films by Lindsay Anderson -- If..., O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital.

In the latter he was a dotty doctor, but he was often a cantankerous patient, too. In his old folks home television series, Waiting for God, he railed against the authorites as much as his own family, finding companionship, even bordering on the carnal, with fellow inmate Stephanie Cole.

One of his unjustly forgotten stage appearances was in Bed, too. Bed, that is, as written by Jim Cartwright for the Cottesloe in the National in 1989, when Cartwright conjured a world of dreams, fancy and reminiscence in a land of nod on a mattress as big as the Great Bed of Ware itself.

Seven veteran actors were placed in this gigantic sleep-time environment flanked by a pile of sofas and a staircase of heavy wooden chests of drawers while an eighth, Graham Crowden, scowled and scoffed, visible only from the neck up, as a red-eyed Sermon Head on a tilted bookself suspended against the bedroom wall.

He looked like the head of Salvador Dali as photographed on a plate by Man Ray. The aim of this sprightly insomniac was to cock up their kip, but he was forcefully advised to quit while still a head.

Some of the exchanges were spoof Beckett: "Are we happy?" 'I've forgotten." Have you put the cat out?" "Twenty years ago." And the physical images of Lilliputian senility enhanced the mood of a second childhood, and of an exit from life through deep but troubled sleep.

One old gal returned in her mind's eye to the Music Hall and danced on the ceiling like Jessie Matthews, having tried to hide in vain underneath her counterpane. That chorus was taken up by the astringently daemonic Crowden, peeking up through the mattress, with a death's head leer, and by the other wrinklies, flat out, wiggling their feet in choreographic unison. Bigger musicals achieve lesser results.

There was more here than just senile pillow talk. The disconnected arias of old age found a new form in the comfort of juxtaposition, and the old age of these particular actors was itself celebrated.

Crowden was the best possible advert for growing old, still stomping about on sticks to the end, until he was struck down at -- and by -- one mighty stroke.

It was one of this year's nicest coincidences that, fifty years after he appeared at the Royal Court in Bill Gaskill's production of N F Simpson's best play, One Way Pendulum, his daughter Sarah appeared at the Jermyn Street Theatre in Simpson's latest play, If So, Then Yes. And she looked and sounded just like her dear old dad, too.



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