This year, after Christmas and Easter, I spent a week with famous people – Alan Bennett and Antony Sher respectively. Not in their actual company, but through their diaries. Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On followed the Lord’s birth and Sher’s Year Of The Mad King followed the drama of Holy Week and Easter.
Each has similar material for reflection – theatre, relationships and ageing – themes that resonate strongly for so many people. And it pointed a way to bringing these together for publication. I suppose the actor’s diary was a must-read for me, with Sher’s approach, trepidation, rehearsals and ultimately opening in the production of King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford.
A festal link should be mentioned here. My wife Adey Grummet and I host celebratory lunches at Christmas and Easter. Guests at the latter usually include the actors Debbie Radcliffe and Andrew McDonald. We performed together during a tour of what turned out to be my last professional engagement in my only lead role. It was Andrew, knowing my penchant for the king who divests himself of his realm to his daughters so he can travel through madness to death, who gave me Sher’s latest book.
David Whitney, who had been a fellow student actor at NIDA, and I hatched a plan to fly to Melbourne, stay in digs somewhere and catch Richard III, similarly captured in Sir Antony’s Year Of The King, when the RSC toured to Australia in 1986 but abandoned it when we realised we had no hope of getting a ticket. This was all before online booking.
Bennett often draws on his Yorkshire childhood and his relationship with his parents. I have always been particularly drawn to his portrait of his butcher father playing his violin along to concerts broadcast on the radio.
And Sher makes an incisive comment about drawing on his father for his performances over the years, especially when it comes the darker aspects of a character, but in particular King Lear. He quotes the playwright David Edgar assuring him that laughter during the stocks scene in Act Two, Scene Four when Lear becomes inarticulate was not malicious. ‘No, no, it was perfect…We laughed, and then we caught ourselves thinking, “That could be my Dad”’. And he later asks, ‘I wonder if all actors who do Lear just end up playing their dads?’
I have often thought that if I had ever got the chance to play Lear – we can always dream, however ridiculous it may be to do so – I would have had a deep mine to draw on in my father Ken’s rages when it came to that aspect of the ageing monarch. Indeed, when we were young people often told us of Dad’s ‘Shakespearian’ voice.
Readers of this blog will know I have spent a long time thinking and writing about my father. One publisher, who ultimately chose not to take on Three Angry Men, my spiritual memoir of Ken, was of the opinion that it was worth a wider public but not under their imprint.
Alan Bennett and Antony Sher have a lifetime of performing and writing behind them. When it comes to writing about oneself, some kind of public profile helps. I have said before that neither my father nor I were famous enough for Three Angry Men to pass that pitch for publishers.
But it was great to spend some down time these with remarkable men. I thank them for it.