The pantomime went well; I must say it was a stroke of genius to make it interactive, with the audience throwing fruit. I think it made them feel very included in the theatrical family, and some of them even loitered in the foyer, out in the street and down the lane by the fire exit just to show their appreciation. Cheryl Baker and I were most pleased.
I think next year though we will encourage a more experienced writer; I didn’t feel my character was properly defined in the script, and I think the audience thought I was a baddie. That’s what I took from the booing anyway.
Pantomime is a particularly British thing. Everyone who is anyone in British acting has done it. Blessed, Olivier, Guilgud, Ritchie – they’ve all donned the tights and taken on the mantle. I well remember my first time with Dame Peggy Ashcroft. It was October 1962, and PA and I were busy rehearsing for Aladdin in Doncaster. I was a total shambles, I am not afraid to admit. My Iago lacked motivation, depth. Lack of experience and my youthful exuberance made it worse. I could not spot my errors but a thesp of Dame Peggy could see the miscellany of mistakes I was making. But, thank goodness, she saw some crumb, some tiny spark of potential in me, and took me under her wing.
“darling” she said, in those husky tones “you are going about it the wrong way”. I looked at her like a child looks in marvel at a parent who has just carved a toy train out of his own wooden leg. “Dame Peggy, please, teach me all you know about actoring, for I am keen to learn”. Firstly, I learned the word is acting. A schoolboy error. And I was not an actician, I was an actor. This merely encouraged my thirst for excellence – I needed to know more. But Dame Peggy insisted that six hours was enough for that day and I was to go away and think about things. And, should I return, she would share more of her bounteous know-how. I did indeed spend the evening thinking about things. Mostly acting related but also about tortoises, shadow puppetry and boiler maintenance. But my mind always returned to acting.
The next day, following rehearsal and a subsequent punch in the face from Jack Warner, I attended her dressing room again. “To act is to be” she said “to understand how a mind must function, one must first live in that mind”. To me now this seems so obvious, but to the callow youth sat in awe on her futon, this was a load of old mumbo jumbo. “Tell me, oh wise old hag, more of this which you speak” I said. I have to say my words did not meet with her approval. When I awoke a couple of hours later, I met up with her in outpatients. “You are ready” she said, and wordlessly lead me on the first steps of the journey which has lead me here, today.
To become a character, one must live as that character. You cannot expect to portray a person, be they fictional or real without first living as that persona. It is known as The Method. Dustin Hoffman uses it all the time. So does Al Pacino, Robert DiNiro and Yahoo Serious. Little known that Pacino actually joined the Police, worked outside the law as a maverick cop. DiNiro worked for eight months as a taxi driver, although he was tempted to carry on because of the hefty soiling fees. Yahoo Serious researched his role of the Invisible Man. As far as I know he still is. This side of the pond actors are utilising the method; Penelope Keith, Peter Bowles, Dennis Waterman all have tried their roles for real to get into character. It can work the other way as well. The man who played Bungle in the popular television series Rainbow was so inspired by the lifestyle choice of being a bear he finally went to live with real bears in woodland in Canada.
So, back to the Method; Dame Peggy extolled to me to find an ‘in’, a way to unlock a character, in the same way one might unlock a window from outside during a burglary. I didn’t like to question this metaphor of how she knew these two things were quite so similar. I don’t wish to assume anything about the great lady but she did have a remarkable amount of jewellery and electrical items on sale in her dressing room pre and post show.
I tried everything to get my Iago to ‘work’. I spoke like him, I walked like him. But the neighbours started a petition and I had to stop. “React as you think Iago would react” she advised “explore him”. So, dressed in Iago, I challenged several of my neighbours with a sword that they would feel the cold edge of my steel. Dame Peggy had some sway with the local Police so fortunately that didn’t go any further. “try minor things” she said “just work on it”. I was at a loss to know what she meant. “Well, everyday things. How would Iago react?”
Over the next couple of hours I reacted to things as Iago would have done. Including
Getting a bad haircut
Having the wrong paper delivered
An argument with someone who may well have actually been the Chinese ambassador
Enquiring about train times
Querying bills for food in restaurants
After the first two I decided it was wiser not to carry the sword. Also I stopped turning to empty shelves and using the phrase ‘doesn’t it boys and girls?’. It’s one thing to be interactive with children, quite another to try and illicit a response from value ravioli.
The next rehearsal went swimmingly. Everyone was so impressed. “I can’t believe you were acting” said one “That’s the best you can do” said another. A third was so lost for words he just left the stage, throwing his script to the ground and storming out of the theatre. Some people cannot stand competition.
Wednesday rolled around and I was in my flat when the door was rapped several times but knuckles unseen. Into my abode walked Dame Peggy, accompanied by a large man in a suit and sunglasses and the director Mortimer Bitch. Apparently, during discussions, an idea had formulated and they were all quite excited about it. I was to be the first to take the method to a new level.
“We’re going to make Iago the central character of Aladdin” said Bitch. “and we want you to do it” he said. I asked why the production was called Aladdin if the central character was to be Iago, pointing out this made no sense. My queries were resolved by his answer. It was simple. To the point. Precise. Eloquent. Everything that a good director should be. “Shut it, you” he said.
Iago was to be about mental illness. The Iago presented on stage was to be subtly different from the shallow husk he really was; he was to put up a front, meanwhile the inner turmoil of his depression and despair were cloaked from those he loved, protecting them but all the time sending himself into a dark abyss from which there was no escape. I was to be his angst, his pain, his malaise. Also I was to wear a different costume to give the audience the clear sign this was a different side to the man. A waiters’ costume would probably work. And I should do my lines in the foyer. And if I knew how to serve tea, coffee and a variety of snacks plus balance the tills at the end of shift that would be a bonus and something I could put down on my resume. When I asked about lines he said he had so much faith in my ability to improvise, he would leave it up to me.
Sadly my part in the production lasted two days. It was October 1962, the Cuban Missile crisis meant the world was on the brink, the future of our world and every living thing on it weighed heavy and made people anxious and worried and only to quick to anger.
Posted By Ed to Mcphereson on 12/25/2014 03:54:00 am
There’s a new childrens’ show. I know I shouldn’t say anything but I am so excited. I just had the call. Fortunately I remember most of it, so here is how I remember it.
ME : Hello? McPhereson residence?
(I always like to pretend I have a answering service. It gives people the impression that I am far too busy to answer the phone, thus making you appear ‘in demand’. Which of course I am. For this purpose I have invented my own character, a Butler like voice, with his own hopes and dreams, his own interests and fears. Tip: If you try this avoid names like Jeeves or Rochester or Mrs Hudson. It becomes obvious it is you and can lead to some awkward conversations. I was once told what an awful boss I am and how the caller was surprised I hadn’t molested myself yet. Needless to say I remained loyal to myself and couldn’t comment. I was also offered a job with Shaun Ryder, such was the good impression I cast as my Butler and confidente ‘Northumberland’.)
Caller : That you, Tarquin?
Me : No, it is myself, Mr Northumberland, his ever faithful servant and companion through many a scrape and caper.
Caller : (SIGHS) Is Tarquin there?
Me : Who shall I inform is placing this call?
Caller : Bill Obling.
Me : I shall see.
(At this point in the call I like to play some hold music. Restful melody is usually best. Anything too heavy metal like Elton John only sets them off. You can either play that or the sound of some Gulls.)
After a minute or so, put yourself through to you.
Me : Hello, Tarquin McPhereson speaking?
Caller : It’s me, Bill Obling.
Me : Who?
(At this point it’s often useful to make the other person repeat things, such as their name, designation etc. Unless extemely secure in themselves, it may make them question their work and worth. It’s a trick I tried and perfected on my friend Richard Gren, just before they found his clothes on that beach.)
Caller : Don’t dick me about, McPhereson. I have news.
Me : News?
(In my business, news is a technical term for items of fresh information which may or may not be of use and / or interest to oneself, provided by another for your consumtion, consideration and regurgitation)
Caller : We’re going to make a new animated show. You know Bob The Builder?
(What actor has not heard of and seen Bob The Builder. His exploits are legendary. Although I would assume the tax people would have something to say about his preference for singing with a bulldozer as opposed to doing his accounts)
Me : Yes?
Caller : It’s like Bob the Builder. But different. And we want YOU.
AT THIS POINT I HAD TO RELIQUISH THE PHONE. I DON’T REMEMBER MUCH OF THE REST OF THE CALL, AND WHEN I LOOKED AROUND THE SUN HAD GONE DOWN AND MY FLOWERS HAD WILTED.
My attempts at getting a response out of the phone was met with a constant tone. I shall ring Bill and find out more.
Posted By Ed to Mcphereson on 7/29/2014 04:12:00 am