Are you Going to do that Little Jump
by Robert Gillespie
Don’t assume that Robert Gillespie’s new book is just another actor’s autobiography, it is a razor-sharp picture of the theatre, and recording of a very prolific career. Illustrated with stunning photographs and images, there are passages of astonishing detail, with clear tableaus of a past era in theatre. Vanished practices and values are described without a trace of mawkishness, and are positive turning points.
That’s not to say that his early life is described without reflective detail.
Memories of fleeing France and driving through a sad and desperate Paris, before catching the last boat to England almost come over as gripping. The poignancy of the romantic Hungarian mother leaving behind her trunk full of past glamour strikes one as symbolic of the new life ahead in England. Tragedy of a lost sister, descriptions of a very different Manchester, snotty grammar school teachers, and human anecdotes of genuine, wartime hardship are vivid and well written.
With high expectations of the hallowed, yet badly bombed, and post-war RADA, and its significant reputation, he was greeted by far too many students, and only rudimentary in-house support. Although disillusioned by the overall standards of tuition, there were notable exceptions: Mary Duff, who truly loved her craft, described as ahead of her time, and the ‘Alex Ferguson of producers’, along with Clifford Turner and his inspiring voice tuition: “A fine presence.”
Vibrant classmates included Sylvia Sims, Bernard Breslaw, Ronald Fraser and Alan Bates. They share life-changing lessons, stunningly different attitudes to sex, and brutal casting for the public show. Here he reveals a raw edge to such an iconic institution: its tendency to typecast, and being advised to get rid of his Cheshire accent. He also describes a priceless anecdote of the idiosyncratic principal, Sir Kenneth Barnes’ dog fainting during a gunshot on-stage.
The book really excelled when moving onto the Old Vic. With upbeat and lively writing, we are told about new school and old school clashing head on, and the extraordinary concept of how classical theatre was looked on as second best.
The impenetrable hierarchy, with the unrelenting Michael Benthall, whose inadequate communication skills, and seemingly minimum respect for talent are edgily emphasised. However, this grim outlook doesn’t remotely slow the pace, for there are strong definitions of theatre craft, and wonderful descriptions of Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Michael
Hordern, and Virginia McKenna. Not to mention valid points about the significant rise of quality of theatre, from the mid-nineties.
Working with Joan Littlewood, threw an interesting light on this theatrical legend. Although inventing her own radical niche, he considers her talent questionable, although she left behind a legacy that contributed considerably to the changing theatrical climate. He paints an almost unnerving picture of a tyrant who humiliated and treated actors as live puppets.
No less enlightening is The Royal Court. In 1956, the English stage company was already full of modern theatre, that still resonates today, with company members such as George Devine, Peggy Ashcroft, John Osborne, Vanessa Redgrave.
Profound points, such as the birth of the understudy rehearsal, and the beginnings of serious theatre practice, keep this memoir enjoyable. So does the sad acceptance that there were a poorer standard of performers in provincial theatres than in London.
The chapter on Television emphasises live drama and how the actors literally had to muddle through. The term Middlebrow emerges, and so does the brutal and legendary saying: Here Today, Gone (and forgotten) Tomorrow. Also interesting are his comments regarding The BBC and how they approached controversy, as seen how carefully they had to tread with their production of Mary’s Wife.
The Mermaid, indicated now as a lost space, echoed an interesting cycle of whole families with one strong member, carrying less talented actors. This same chapter delivers insight and unforgettable reading about Bernard Miles, and the unique and inventive, yet edgy, Spike Milligan.
A chapter on TV commercials is richly unravelled, and the obscenely rich companies who were at a loss what to do with their money. This is contrasted by a fascinating, somewhat terrifying and moving drive around South Africa.
The term No Stone Unturned truly applies to this absorbing book, and Robert Gillespie’s life-changing relationship with television sitcom is yet to come in the promise of a second book. I hope we don’t have to wait too long.