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Meeting the Ladies Who Lunch

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It was a great pleasure to be invited to address The Theatrical Guild -- formerly known as the Theatrical Ladies' Guild -- at their AGM in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, yesterday.

The TTG has been Whatsonstage.com's adopted charity this year, and it's hard to think of one more worthwhile or deserving of our support. People who work backstage and front of house in the theatre rarely have pensions, and the TTG, operating on a very small budget, does what it can to help out indigent colleagues either with medical care, payment of electricity bills or just kindly attention.

Jars of jams and chutney were on sale, too, yesterday, on a stall heroically manned by producer and photography agent Biddy Hayward, and other prominent TTG stalwarts flyimng the flag included the president Phyllida Law and new chairman Tilly Tremayne, who succeeds Joanna McCallum, Liz Robertson and Belinda Lang.

I used my speech to ponder the pitfalls and pleasures of sharing social space with theatre folk, trying to get under the skin of that famous conundrum behind our love hate relationship; we love the theatre, theatre hates the critics.

Nothing has given me such a warm glow all year as the applause I received. The audience -- a critic should have such an audience! -- included the former PA of Evelyn Laye, one of the TTG's most distinguished presidents; the wonderful and formerly intimidating Hazel Vincent Wallace, who launched the Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead; former Glasgow Citizens director Giles Havergal, one of my few theatrical acquaintances (apart from my wife) who's elided into friendship; actors Isla Blair, Julian Glover, Jan Carey and Prunella Scales; theatre historian and architect Iain Mackintosh; ticket-selling supremo Edwin Shaw; the stage-door keeper of the Palace Theatre.      

Here's a sample from the speech: Even actors, I guess, enjoy reading their colleagues’ bad notices and not just out of schadenfreude. John Gielgud read everyone, and even relished the most brilliantly scathing of them all, Kenneth Tynan: Of reading Tynan he said, “It’s lovely when it isn’t you….”

James Agate, Tynan’s hero, said that, when playing Romeo, Gielgud had the most meaningless legs imaginable. Tynan added insult to injury by declaring that Gielgud was the best actor in England …from the neck up. “He says I’ve only two gestures,” moaned Sir John, “left hand up, right hand down. Right hand up, left hand down; what does he want me to do, bring out my cock?”
My own meetings with Gielgud were confined to two occasions. He attended a publication launch party for Ronald Harwood’s festschrift for his 80th birthday. Ronnie had invited me to contribute the young person’s guide to the Gielgud orchestral performance and of course he was charm personified. Some years later I went to that wonderful house near Aylsbury at Wooton Underwood– and how ghastly it is that Tony Blair now owns it and keeps adding saunas and fitness centres – to interview him for the launch of Prospero’s Books.

I said something about actors writing books and clogging up the review pages of the Guardian. “Oh they are so clever, the young boys,” he said, “ just look at Sher and Shallow…I mean, Callow…” and then I reminded him of our meeting at the Harwood book launch. His face turned ashen. “Oh dear, the whole thing was ghastly: ghastly man, ghastly book, too horrible, I couldn’t bear it.” I grinned compliantly and ploughed on with the interview.

Two days later I received a postcard covered in that tiny, slanting scrawl of his. “It was a pleasure to meet you again, and thank you for your kind words. It was indeed a horrible book – oh, I am so sorry, I do apologise -- embarrassing beyond measure, except, of course, for your own thoroughly engaging, witty and perceptive contribution…”

That handwriting came up again, so to speak, at a Shakespeare Congress I attended with my wife in Valencia soon after Gielgud had died (“Too much Shakespeare, not enough congress” she remarked, a little ruefully). At the reception after I’d delivered my paper on the great man, the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells regaled us with an anecdote he’d had from Richard Griffiths, and which doesn’t figure in the biographies of either Sheridan Morley or Jonathan Croall.

Gielgud was appearing in Peter Hall’s production of Volpone in the early days at the new National, and used to sit in the wings between scenes writing those famous postcards. Griffiths was intrigued, and one day looked over his shoulder and remarked: “Very small handwriting, Sir John”; to which Gielgud replied, without missing a beat: “Very small handwriting, very large cock.” 

The classic encounter between critic and artist naturally involved Tynan, who straddled our two conflicting worlds more brilliantly and more glamorously than anyone since Bernard Shaw. This face-off was with Noel Coward. In 1959, Tynan was in New York, reviewing for the New Yorker magazine. After the curtains went up on Broadway, and before they came down later, he popped into Sardi’s for a bite to eat. That very day his column had carried a wittily destructive review of Coward’s disastrous adaptation of Feydeau’s Look After Lulu. As he perused the menu, he noted with horror that Coward, also alone, had entered the virtually empty restaurant and sat down at another table. Tynan said that he knew him too well to ignore his presence, but not well enough to pass the whole thing off with a genial quip: “No sooner had he taken his seat than he spotted me. He rose at once and came padding across the room to the table behind which I was cringing. With eyebrows quizzically arched and upper lip raised to unveil his teeth, he leaned towards me. “Mr T,” he said crisply, “you are a cunt. Come and have dinner with me.”

You see, that’s the spirit. We’ve had two cocks and a cunt already, so it’s a jolly good thing you’re not still the Theatrical Ladies Guild. Tynan had failed as an actor, and had been a so-so director, before he concentrated on the reviewing. I suppose his tragedy was that he felt he had bigger fish to fry as a producer and participant than he did as a critic. Of course, he was wrong. He’d dragooned Orson Welles into writing an introduction to his first book, He That Plays the King (despite the fact that he’d described Welles’s Othello, in the light of his great movie Citizen Kane, as Citizen Coon):

“I am trying to explain,” said Welles, “why one hopes you aren’t professionally on the stage. In good theatres the public is entirely composed of actors, and you, with your fine capacity for violent opinion, are sorely needed out front. You know how to cheer, you are not afraid to hiss, you are audible (to put it mildly) and transparently in love….even crotchety old fuss-budgets like me find that irresistible.” Nobody ever said anything finer, or more inspirational, about a critic, and I hold on to it every day of my life.

So, that was the gist of it. And there were more jokes, too. Isla Blair said afterwards that I should write it all down in a book. Perhaps I will. Perhaps I already have...


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