Tag Archives: Hollywood

Literary gossip No 3. The writer, the curtain and the poet’s wife

 

 

 

 

 You could say it was on the way to Holyhead, give or take a deviation or two. When we got there, we located the house overlooking the estuary of the Taf river though there was really nothing much to it – an abandoned place that people nowadays would die for. A  hideaway for a would-be poet.  “We’ve got this place in Wales,” they’d say. “Nothing  much,  just a couple of rooms. Miles from anywhere. And the locals are so friendly.”

 But it wasn’t like that at all. We peered through the grimey windows of the nearby “writing shed” and saw cups and saucers on the table, a few bits of furniture, a tea towel on the back of a chair, the detritus of a life governed by a perennial shortage of money. Married to a writer I knew all about that.

We walked through the cemetery looking for the grave. Hard to find at first and then, there it was, the little marker facing back to front but with his name on it: Dylan Thomas.

 He’d been drinking in a bar in Manhattan and had collapsed into a coma. Four days later, on November 9, 1953, he died, aged 39. His wife Caitlin was with him.

 Some time after visiting Laugharne – where Dylan and Caitlin lived for the last four years of Dylan’s life – Ian and I  returned to our own house in Buckinghamshire, where H.A.L Craig –  Harry to his friends – came for a working visit.

 Harry was born in County Cork but brought up in Limerick, in his father’s vicarage. After attending Trinity College, Dublin,  he worked for a while co-editing The Bell, alongside Sean O Faolain after which he moved to London.

Both he and Ian were passionate about radio and both wrote for the now defunct BBC Third Programme as well as for the then Manchester Guardian.

Hung about with small children, nappies and the job of keeping a log fire going in an Elizabethan cottage devoid of central heating, to have someone like Harry visit was akin to entertaining a glitzy visitor from another planet. He brought talk of London and Rome – to where he eventually  moved to work in the film industry. And he brought  gossip. Ian did that too, of course. By far his best was about an actor in one of his radio plays who, when he was resting, earned a bit on the side capering around in the nip with a feather up his arse for the entertainment of some Londoner he knew who got his kicks from this sort of thing and paid handsomely for it.

Living the dream, I was, with these stories. In our village (2000 on the voting list) with a Co-op shop, a Post Office, a garage, three pubs and twice that many chapels and churches, hearing such tales was like drinking nectar from the chalice of the gods.

 One afternoon, while our guest was taking his ease by the ingle-nook fireplace, the phone rang and I answered it.  “Hairy Craig,” demanded the American voice at the other end and I swooned. A film director surely, a Hollywood producer, Anthony Quinn  even. ( Quinn had starred in two of Harry’s films.) I never found out who though because once off the phone, Harry embarked on his own bit of gossip.

 He’d been in Laugharne to work on a programme with Dylan Thomas and as the two chatted, Harry glanced over Thomas’s shoulder in time to see the  curtain which divided the kitchen from the main room,  being pulled back to reveal Caitlin Thomas in all her naked glory. Dylan, oblivious to his wife’s display, continued talking – and drinking – while his guest just about managed to do the same.  

I pondered on what it would be like to be the sort of woman who  might rip off her clothes when a guest came calling.

Then, having pondered, I left the room to make the supper, set the table and put the children to bed.

 

NOTE: In  October 2014, to mark the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas,  the BBC will show a biopic which looks at the last few weeks in his life. The script is by Andrew Davies, the screen writer who gave us House of Cards.

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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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