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Vernon's God, Little Change

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The dedicatee of Simon Callow’s new book, My Life in Pieces — is this the best ever title for a collection of journalism and occasional articles ? — is Vernon Dobtcheff.

Who he? An actor of Russian Jewish extraction, now in his mid-70s, who plays doctors, lawyers, officers and rabbis and anyone else when the stakes of romance and eccentricity are low.

He’s one of those jobbing film actors who’s never out of a job. And he’s usually on a film set in Budapest.

When he’s not, he’s in a theatre — watching — in London, Paris, New York or even Minneapolis.

Which is why Simon says that Vernon has “seen, relished and remembered, in dazzling detail, more actors and acting than anyone on the planet.” And that includes Tim Walker. 

He was in touch the other day about one of his thousands of dearest, closest friends, the director David William, who has died after a fall in Canada.

He encapsulated William’s punctiliousness as both man and director when he said that, if invited for lunch at the director’s home in London, Ontario, you had to arrive on the dot and depart at the exact pre-arranged moment, or else…

Vernon would do so, frequently, even if it meant missing the last bus or most convenient train back to Stratford, and that often meant staying overnight in a dingy hostelry, simply not to upset a trivial social arrangement.

Vernon had known William since their days together in the last season of the Old Vic before it became home to the National Theatre.

He described him carving his way diagonally through the fierce traffic on the Waterloo Road with a cry of: “They wouldn’t dare: they couldn’t face the litigation.”

If Vernon is one of life’s great one-offs, William was one of that civilised, literate breed of Oxbridge directors after the war (godfather: Peter Hall) who formed the backbone of the new subsidised and regional theatre: people like William Gaskill, Frank Hauser, Warris Hussein, Richard Cottrell, Tony Richardson….and, in a later generation, Trevor Nunn, Michael Rudman, Patrick Garland.

William, like Garland after him, was an outstanding actor at Oxford, playing Prospero in Nevill Coghill’s famous The Tempest in Worcester College Gardens, where Ariel tripped away to freedom across the lake.

He also directed a King Lear — afer Tony Richardson dropped out — in which the future Labour politican Shirley Williams played Goneril, and the industrialist Peter Parker (father of Nat and Olly Parker), played Lear.

Actors divide into those who love going to see other people’s work and those who don’t. Vernon is the patron saint in the first camp, but he’s not an ostentatiously contributory first-nighter like, say, dear old Biggins, or Su Pollard.

He slips in to see things, like John Gielgud used to, and Ian McKellen still does, on a Thursday night or a mid-week matinee. He didn’t surprise me by saying how much he’d just enjoyed Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn at the Globe. 

He did suprise me, though, by saying that Simon Callow had left a tormented telephone message late one night saying: “Where are one’s friends when one needs them? I’ve just read an article on Simon Russell Beale head-lined Our Greatest Actor…I’m in despair.”

“Great” is not a word one can readily apply to any contemporary actor, I suggest to Vernon, as none of them, not even Russell Beale, or Gambon, or Simon himself, has the sort of non-negotiable contract with the public that the truly great actors — Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson — did on account of both their innovative, seismically influential careers, and their place in the affections of a nation that had been through that war.

Schadenfreude, I suppose, is what keeps actors going as much as writers. You don’t want to hear good news about each other. You want something in the spirit of Clive James’s quip: “My enemy’s book has been remaindered.”

Or the relishing of someone else’s bad review. As Gielgud used to say of Kenneth Tynan at his most inimitably scathing: “It’s wonderful when it isn’t you.”


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