Category Archives: Theatre

Are films starring older actors nothing more than a vehicle for displaying jowls and wrinkles in a good light?

The Irish Times – Saturday, February 2, 2013

How to attract the silver haired to the silver screen


Do older people want to watch films starring their contemporaries or is age simply a vehicle for older actors gracefully to flaunt their wrinkles?

Titian’s The Three Ages of Man does babies, lovers and distant skulls. Nowadays it’s youth, middle age and “Jaysus, you’re lookin’ great,” the last phrase said in ill-concealed surprise. But with 60 the new 50 and with people aged 65-74 designated “young older”, according to the National Council on Ageing, as stage and screen actors age, so the focus shifts from the angst of gilded youth to the serenity of silvered seniors .

But while men have Lear, the dilemma for the ageing female actor has always been a shortage of older parts. Now, however, directors are dealing with the subject of age, and this is where Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Terence Stamp and Derek Jacobi come in. They’re all names you need in order to get older bums on seats.

So far we have had the full range of films and television series about ageing: comedy, for example, with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and films with music as a unifying theme in Song for Marion and Quartet, directed by Dustin Hoffman (who is now 75). The Man on the Train, a remake by the Irish director Mary McGuckian, offers psychological intrigue, and the BBC promises more frolicsome fun in the second series of Last Tango in Halifax. Finally, there’s Vicious, the upcoming ITV series starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a gay couple who have been together for 50 years and, with a friend (Frances de la Tour), have to deal with the arrival of an attractive young man.

But age: is that it? Is it enough to portray an obnoxious old geezer in a raincoat (Terence Stamp in Song for Marion), a smiling lecher (Billy Connolly in Quartet) or a character who combines dimples and dementia (Pauline Collins in Quartet)? Is age simply a vehicle for older actors gracefully to flaunt their wrinkles and joke about having to get up to pee five times a night?

Dominic Campbell of the Irish organisation Age and Opportunity asks why only white people grow old on screen; people from other cultures may well have stories more interesting than those currently presented to us, he suggests. He has a point. In Song for Marion, Quartet and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the food trolleys and wheelchairs are pushed by black people. Change places, change colour and you have a story, but – and it’s a big but – would it be commercially viable?

With more people downloading films or hiring a DVD for a night in, cinemas are finding the competition increasingly difficult. A survey of UK cinemas found that, during the recent icy spell, their audiences dropped by 40 per cent. The receipts for Quartet were down 60 per cent, an indication that older audiences prefer to give treacherous footpaths a miss.

But once the funding, the stars and the director come together, it all works – nearly. In Last Tango in Halifax an older couple finally find love and engage in a bit of late-life madness, to the fury of their adult children. But the age thing just isn’t enough, so the episodes are padded out with family rows, a car crash and teenagers on drugs: all things an older viewer may well want to escape.

“Over the past 10 years, there’s been a move away from commercial, multiplex films towards lower-budget ones that are more literary and intelligent,” says Tristan Orpen Lynch, who has just finished an eight-year stint on the Irish Film Board. “These are the ones most likely to attract older people. Here in Europe, that idea is shared, which is how we get film-makers working in partnership with film companies in other countries.”

Intelligent storylines

Hoffman, in making Quartet, showed that a film starring older people could well represent an attractive outing for an older audience. As for older people choosing an intelligent storyline, this is where The Man on the Train comes in. Dealing only obliquely with age, it has the sort of quirky ending that leaves people querying what they have just seen, or think they have just seen. There’s no greater test of a movie than the aftershow arguments it provokes.

So what about the idea that a film starring older actors is nothing more than a vehicle for displaying jowls and wrinkles in a good light? “Cinema reflects life,” says Orpen Lynch. “Actors such as Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave are performing older roles because that’s what they are: older. They’ve stayed the course.”

This is certainly true of Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave, who, in Song for Marion, perform their solos in voices that are loud and clear, a tribute to a lifetime of professionalism.

But Paul Williams, who directed Song for Marion, doesn’t see it as a film about older people particularly. “There are lots of different films about different sorts of people. Song is about everybody,” he says. Maybe that’s his intention, but the test will be in how the audience – of all ages – sees it.

Song for Marion is released on February 22nd

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Oh dear no. Having gone grey am I only to watch films like Babette’s Feast and The Whales of August? Absolutely wholly admirable pictures, but only part of the mixed diet I want as an older viewer, and have always wanted as a lover of cinema. And it is not only as an older viewer that I have wantd to avoid family rows, car crashes and teenagers on drugs – these staples of the soap opera and of a certain kind of drama have never appealed. Further, far from searching out elderly actors, one revels in the the beauty of the younger Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster or Penelope Cruz. And who wouldn’t love the drama and drive of Erin Brockovich, The Stuntman or The Devil Wears Prada, the power of Training Day – I haven’t seen this in full yet – or The Navigator? What about the suspense and sadness of Cry Freedom? The quiet appeal of The Girl with a Pearl Earring? Blue Velvet: fascinating. Once, I thought I had better find out what the fuss over Apocalypse Now was about – I did not want to watch most of this film but could not stop.

I search for films noirs, for black and white British gems, for silent classics or classics from Demy, Antonioni, Bergman. I welcome many more recent films like Bombon el Perro, Souzhou River, Treeless Mountain, Toyko Sonata or Las Acacias. But I have been known to collect disaster movies, and recently enjoyed Unstoppable.

I haven’t been to the cinema in a long time and watch my films on a reasonably sized tv screen, finding films to record on dedicated film channels and, to my pleasure, on TG4, which is the only mainstream channel that regularly gives space to films from, for example, Asia and Central and South America. The other channels stick mainly to endless repeats of presumably ‘commercially viable’ Hollywood or British movies which are either of little interest or which one has seen before.

I have boundless admiration for Maggie Smith and Dustin Hoffmann, but have also, fortunately, a much wider range of interest than just actors of their vintage: imaginative film-making involves themes of all kinds and actors of all ages.

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Joyce is the name. James Joyce – and his knocker. My piece from The Irish Times



Rubbing the Wrong  Relic





We met in Manhattan, Fred and I, in a small café near where I was then living, not far from the Bowery. Third Avenue, to be precise. The number three would turn out to have some significance here as would the number seven though I didn’t yet know it.

Fred was part of an international organisation I belonged to, one where you could meet up with local people wherever you were staying.

We had lunch, chatted and then he did it: he took a metal object from his bag and placed it on the table between us.

“ What’s this,” I asked, playing for time  though I could see clearly it was an old, black door knocker.

“ It’s the door knocker,” he said and paused dramatically, “ from Number Seven, Eccles Street, Dublin.”

The table shuddered slightly as if an earthquake were on the way. Number Seven Eccles Street, after all, had seen some comings and goings in its time though not, strangely, in 1904 when Joyce, discovering it had been empty that year,  conveniently installed  Molly and Leopold in it without as much as a by your leave.

And then along comes Fred Seiden, who, in July 1966, was an eager young American doing a sort of odyssey on wheels around Europe. Arriving in Dublin, he immediately pedalled off to retrace some of Bloom’s steps. In Eccles Street he found Number Seven dilapidated and certainly not celebrated as home to the most well-used marital bed in literary history. Then – and put your hands over your ears for the next bit if you don’t want to be an accessory after the crime – he wrenched the door knocker from the door believing he was saving at least one small part of a house that clearly would not survive much longer.

38 years later, he looked gobsmacked when I told that, in fact, the door was alive and well, its knocker in situ, and on display at the James Joyce Centre. We eyeballed each other, neither flinching from these two versions of the truth but I have to say that as soon as I got back to Dublin I hightailed it to the JJ Centre to examine the knocker where I saw that, yes, there had been a number of previous ones.

In New York last year, I met up with Fred again and compared notes and drawings. His knocker could have come from the door, as he says, though its shape didn’t seem to fit the fading outline of previous ones.

The thing is, none of the Joycean scholars, understandably, are interested in the door knocker though Austin Briggs of Hamilton College, New York, in a short innuendo piece (knockers, geddit?) thought he must have seen the door in Eccles Street before the house was demolished but felt sure the knocker on the door in the JJ Centre was not the same one. David Butler, the Centre’s education officer wasn’t overly surprised: “A lady gave us another one only last year, ” he told me.

It was Joyce supremo David Norris who revealed the identity of “the lady” – none other than Mary Maher, one-time features editor of The Irish Times and “a fierce union woman” as a colleague described her. “Yes,” Mary said, “a friend gave it to me years ago. I can’t say how he came by it or who he was but I decided to donate it to the Centre last year.” Which means we have three Number Seven door knockers and you can’t get a better magical mix than that so don’t anyone even think of finding a fourth one.

Back at the JJ Centre, as I talked to David Butler, a visitor approached the door and reverently stroked its knocker. Politely, I averted my eyes during this sacred moment so I wasn’t able to tell if the pilgrim was Japanese or American or from another of the many far-flung outposts of Joycean culture. Naturally, I didn’t tell him about my discoveries. We’ve managed to deal with the fact that St Patrick was a fictive person but how awful it would be to learn that, when it comes to the door knocker, we’ve all been rubbing the wrong relic.

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Always the bridesmaid: an actor on what it’s like to be an understudy



“Covering McKellen An Understudy’s Tale” by David Weston.




I was given this book because I like Ian McKellen. If you’ve seen his Richard lll (on stage or on the screen) you’ll understand why and if you’ve never seen his Widow Twanky, you’ve never lived.

This book, however, is about David Weston and the year he spent understudying McKellen’s Lear. It’s full of actor’s anecdotes, of how the cast got on with each other, of the squabbles backstage, the awful lodgings, the boredom of waiting around in airports, the lonliness of being away from home. And if you’re a few minutes late arriving at the theatre, you get booked. Never happened in the old days.  There are health and safety forms to be filled in: can you kneel/can you push and pull/do you have difficulty standing for a long time? And don’t even mention the “gift” the cast received from the RSC at the end of the run.

Above all, it’s about the thoughts of an ageing actor (Weston is in his early seventies) who, having played all the parts, is now ending his career relegated to the role of understudy though to an actor he admires and to whom he is touchingly loyal for, in the whole year of the tour, McKellen doesn’t have as much as one night off. Not a sore throat, not a stubbed toe, nothing.

There is one heart-stopping moment when word comes through that Sir Ian has failed to turn up at the theatre. And in Hollywood!

Weston takes up the script and starts to look at the first scene. It’s seared into his brain, he says. He’s advised to stay calm, that they’re trying to locate McKellen and, hell’s bells, they do: he’d overslept and couldn’t get a taxi. But he’s on the way.

I dropped this book in the bath – hence it’s decrepit state – but I kept on reading it throughout the year. I had to: McKellen’s Shakespearean voice resonates and his willie’s not bad either – for a 68-year-old, as noted by the New Zealand Herald.

His understudy is grateful for any crumbs that might come his way and some do. Like the critic who wrote: “One of the great pleasures of an RSC production is the attention that is lavished on the minor parts.”

Weston does get a chance to play Lear when, back in London, they have an understudy run through.  He lets his friends know, his agent, anyone that might be interested in seeing him do Lear. And you know what – it’s cancelled and he has to phone everyone to tell them not to bother coming.

A few weeks later, he gets a second chance when they finally have the understudy’s run through. This time, he plays Lear to an invited audience which includes his two daughters and afterwards Ian McKellen hugs him and says he almost envies his having two such lovely daughters. It’s that almost that gets to you.

Weston has understudied all of them: David Warner,Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi and his insider’s take on the RSC is marvellous. For anyone in love with the theatre, this is their book but if you ever think life is passing you by, imagine what it must be like to be understudy to Ian McKellen. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

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Hester the chef likes to mop up his gravy with a tampon. Here’s another use for one. Or, a few trade secrets about a fancy food shoot that I didn’t know I knew.

Funny the things writers squirrel away: sayings, anecdotes, strange images, detailed biogs of little-known people. Hey, you never know when you might need that. What’s it like to embalm someone? Keep that cutting. What’s feverfew good for? File that article on herbal remedies.

So, just now, looking for an empty folder to put my annual accounts into in order to give my accountant the impression I am organised and in control of my finances, I pull out a folder and what do I find in it? A list of ways to make things look like something else. If you’re a budding film-maker, you’ll find this fascinating. If you’re already a film-maker, you’ll bin it.

Anyway, here goes.

How do you create the impression of steam coming off food?

Get a tampax, set fire to it, dampen it down then shove it in under the sprouts. Steam!

How do you make a pasta dish look like it’s filled right up to the top – without expending a lot of money on pasta no one will eat afterwards?  Fill the dish with mashed potatoes and just top up with pasta.

A full  bowl of lasagne? Build up with layers of 5 mm foam board, spoon or pipe in meat and sauce, brown top layer with blowtorch then pour over tomato sauce. Looks delicious.

Carry in a flaming Christmas pud that doesn’t go out before the festive table is reached? Use meths. ( Don’t try this at home.)

Other useful things to know: Talcum powder on unlit charcoal looks like ash.

Use PVC wood glue on cereal to look like milk. No matter how long the shoot goes on, the cornflakes won’t turn mushy.

Now you know how they do it. But would you want to eat it?

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Guess what I’m watching tonight.Hint: the Marchelsea figures in it.






Yes, the 1987 film of Little Dorrit, in two parts. I saw it first in Dublin at the Screen on the Green, I think. What I remember most is the marvellous performance by Miriam Margolyes. But it’s also got Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness, Patricia Hayes, Joan Greenwood, Cyril Cusack, Robert Morley, Max Wall and many others.

Much of it is based on Dicken’s own life. In particular, the character that Margolyes plays was actually a woman Dickens had been deeply in love with when they were both very young. They separated to his great sadness and many years later, when she wrote to him, he imagined her as the beautiful young girl he had loved. She warned him that she was now older and fatter but he, determined to keep the dream alive, refused to believe her. Then, when they finally met, he found she had told the truth: she was fat and old.

To punish himself – or her – he depicts her as a truly awful rotund non-stop, empty-headed  chatterbox. It is a cruel characterisation.

In the second half of the film ( it comes in 2 DVDs) we watch the encounter through her eyes and thus get a totally different picture. Derek Jacobi’s character  is presented to us as Dickens wanted us to see him – kindly, gentle, generous. Dickens was sometimes all those things but not always…

Watch Little Dorrit and decide for yourself.

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Richard lll at Galway Arts Festival

Richard lll at Galway Arts Festival. Town Hall. July 19-23

First, to dispel the idea that Richard lll was a hunchback: he wasn’t, he had one shoulder higher than the other. That he was the embodiment of evil is true. So why then is his character so compelling?  Richard Clothier plays Richard in Propeller’s production now showing at the Galway Arts Festival. When I interviewed him recently during the company’s UK tour, he had one explanation: “It’s because he’s a man who acts without any conscience and, because we’re drawn into the play, we are complicit.”

Unusually, Clothier’s Richard is tall, commanding, blond, his leather-clad withered arm the only visible hint of his inner imperfections. He has one objective – to get rid of all the people who stand between him and the English crown.

That includes the hapless Lady Anne, first widowed by Richard and then wooed by him. The scene in which he seduces her, across the dead body of her father-in-law who he has also murdered, is electric. How can she be taken in by this scheming, odious liar?  Yet she is, every time, only to be cast aside as soon as she has left the stage: “ I have her now but I will not keep her long,” Richard confides in the audience. And yes, we sit there and listen to him, complicit in her betrayal.

I asked Jon Trenchard, who plays Lady Anne, why his character gives herself to Richard: “ She had no other option,”he says. “She was a woman on her own. Her male protectors, husband and father-in-law, had been murdered by Richard and she was totally dependent on him, in his thrall.”

Propeller’s director, Ed Hall, son of Sir Peter, set up the all-male company some years back so playing a female role is nothing new for Trenchard but how, I wanted to know, did he prepare himself to play a woman?

“Well, no wigs for a start. We are definitely men playing women. In this performance, I wear a long dress but over it a sort of tail coat. The wardrobe department has been helpful and suggested walking with feet pointing forwards which makes for short steps.” But what about hands which are always a bit of a giveaway, I ask. “Gloves. They cover a multitude.” Trenchard has a degree in music from Oxford and has composed the vaguely plain-chant music for the production. Ed Hall has set this production in an old-fashioned lunatic asylum with men in white coats administering death by syringe, pulling blood-splattered hospital screens across the stage for a scene change and wheeling away comatose bodies.

The afternoon I saw the play, in Salford, a large number of school parties were in and gave it everything they had – howls, shrieks, boos, foot stamping and, at one point, starting to clap in time when they realised, long before I did, that the Scrivener was rapping. By the time the bags of blood had started to burst and Buckingham was walking around holding his own entrails, the audience was in raptures. What was it like to have such a participatory audience, I asked Clothier. “It was fine. I just had to pace it to find a place to come in.”

Shakespeare was writing, of course, for a Tudor audience which explains the exaggerated evilness of Richard, the last of the Plantagenets, so it will be interesting to see what an Irish audience, with its own take on the Tudors, will make of it.

I have seen some 15 productions of this play in places as far apart as New York and Copenhagen with men and women playing Richard and I can safely say this is one of the best. Miss it at your peril as you will not see its like again.

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