Oliver Ford Davies On ... Bringing Mister Tom to the Phoenix
Adapted from Michelle Magorian's novel by David Wood, the production originated at Chichester Festival Theatre last year. Directed by Angus Jackson, it runs in the West End until 26 January 2013 before embarking on a second UK tour.
Here, its star tells us about his personal connection to the story and its current home, and about the "enriching" experience of working with children and (puppet) animals.
Oliver Ford Davies: Goodnight Mister Tom is set in 1939 at the beginning of the war when children were evacuated from London. It centres on a 10 year-old boy who has been ill treated by his mother and is very shy and retiring, who is forced onto a 70 year-old man who's become a recluse in the village. Essentially the story is about how they begin to bond and how they both come out of themselves and begin to live again - in a way they're healed by the relationship. So it's a very optimistic story about the human condition.
Tom's a fascinating character because, as is revealed in the play, his young wife died in childbirth 41 years ago and he's continued to live in the village in his cottage near the church. He's a carpenter, but he's gruff and difficult and doesn't partake in local matters. So it's a very interesting journey for an actor to go on. He feeds the boy and gets him clothes, takes him to the library, he does all the right things, but very gruffly as if just doing his duty. And gradually he burgeons into something more intimate.
It's a long book and David Wood, who is a very expert adapter of children's books, had to leave several elements out. We've left out, for example, some of the things that are in the television film with John Thaw but we've put in things that weren't in that version. Adaptation is always a matter of deciding on your through-line. But Michelle Magorian (author) is extremely happy with the adaptation and it is, by and large, faithful. I think it needs to be because a lot of young people will have read the book at school, so they are familiar with it and will know if we're off the mark.
Personal memories of the war
I was born three weeks before the war broke out in 1939. I grew up in Ealing, West London, and we were there for the Blitz, which I don't remember. My father was a teacher at Latymers in Hammersmith. He stayed in London, but my mother and brother and I went to Dorset and after a little while a friendly farmer said we could have an old gamekeeper's cottage, rent free. So my earliest memories, age three and four, are of this very remote cottage with no electricity or running water - you had to pump the water and there was a tin bath and oil lamps - and I of course thought this was wonderful. In 1944, when it looked like the war was going to be won, we came back to London just in time for the flying bombs, which was brilliant timing! I can remember having to lie down flat on the pavement if you heard one coming.
I've always felt that a lot of attention is rightly paid to the shell shock after the First World War, but in fact there was terrible trauma after the Second World War and lots of people who never fully recovered for the next 40 or 50 years. I know various cases of that, and they received no help. And I think that's important to say, in case you think that the war didn't really impinge on civilians in Britain, that it certainly did. So it's gratifying to bring a play about this era to a young audience.
Working with children & animals
I find my co-stars very enriching. We have three boys who rotate in each role - the Williams are about 11 and Zachs about 13. Some of them are at stage school and some of them are at regular school, but of course they all have a lot of talent. The interesting thing I find is how they develop in different directions according to their personalities. I have this belief that children, once they understand the emotions, and where they're at, have a kind of heartline to the truth. They'll just do something, and you'll think, 'Oh no, I don't want to change that, that's pure gold. That's the way a ten year-old would react.' All children play to a certain extent - some of them are better at it than others - and when play continues on into acting for those who have a particular gift for it, it's remarkable. They have extraordinary powers of imagination.
My other main co-star is Sammy the border collie. It was decided that he would have to be in it, but that it would be too difficult have a real dog, so we have a puppet dog who we're very, very fond of. Because I'm not allowed to look at the puppeteer, Elise, I relate to the dog as if it were a dog, and I find myself patting it and soothing it and ticking it off. I say "stay" and "heel", and all that sort of thing, and the dog comes over to me and also to the boys and it seems very real, so expert is puppeteering. We did, on the tour, receive the ultimate accolade when a little girl said, "Why does that woman keep following the dog around?"
Personal links to the Phoenix
It will be slightly strange for people coming to the Phoenix and not seeing Blood Brothers. It's a rather remarkable sized theatre - I think it seats about a thousand - so it's large enough to take a musical, but it also has a certain intimacy about it. It's a very well judged theatre, because it wasn't built until about 1930. I also have a strange connection with it, because it was built by Victor Luxemburg, who was my wife's (the actress Jenifer Armitage) grandfather. He formed a company with Sidney Bernstein and they managed to bag Noel Coward to open it with the first production of Private Lives. So it feels fitting to be bringing a play back to its boards.
Goodnight Mister Tom continues at the Phoenix until 26 January ahead of a UK tour. Click here to buy tickets.