theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Throw a name – any name – at Gawn Grainger and I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t able to conjure up a theatrical anecdote to match. Gregarious, intelligent and fun to talk to, not to mention intensely good-looking at nigh-on seventy, Grainger is an actor of supreme talent whose breadth of experience is almost a history of British theatre over the last half century.
Although I have been aware of him as an actor for many years, I had no idea until preparing for this interview that his career had begun at the age of twelve when he was cast by Ivor Novello to appear alongside the composer-performer in King’s Rhapsody in 1949. As if this were not enough to make one giddy with delight, he was a member of Olivier’s company in the 1960s, one of the few still alive. The twenty minutes at our disposal is not nearly enough.
Americans Moss Hart and George S Kaufman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, You Can’t Take It With You, which premiered in 1936, provides Grainger with the perfect role of Grandpa, head of a family as hilarious as they are eccentric. If you think your own relations are bizarre, you ain’t seen nothing yet!
GG: I had always wanted to be in the theatre, and I was at Westminster City School in Victoria. I got a scholarship there and I had read somewhere that they wanted someone to take over as the boy in King’s Rhapsody, because the boy who was originally in it had out-grown it. So I got off the bus on my way home – I lived in Holborn – I got off the bus and I went to the stage door and I said I have come to see Mr Novello. Can you imagine! They said, well, he is in his dressing room, and they went in and came back and said he’ll see you. I went in and got the job.
SV: Good God, oh if only it were like that now.
GG: But the thing was, it was a non-speaking role, but it was the whole of the last act of King’s Rhapsody, the coronation scene; the little boy gets crowned. And I remember him sitting in the dressing room; he looked at me and said, “Gosh you look just the way I did when I was your age. When can you start?”
SV: In You Cant Take It With You, you are playing a part that I have always rather yearned to play!
GG: Well there you go, you could play it – just turn it into a Grandmother. It is a wonderful part. The moment that Gavin [McAlinden] sent it to me – I had not been to the [Southwark] Playhouse and I didn’t know about the set up – I was going on holiday and he sent it to me, I just said yes. I think he was a bit surprised. But I knew the play. I had never been in it and I have never seen it but I have read it and I think I had seen the film. I think then it was played by Lionel Barrymore. But I just read it and knew I had to do it. I thought it was a gift. It’s a little present because I have a major birthday coming. I am the same age as Martin Vanderhof [the character].
GG: I had always wanted to be working when I was that age, and this came along and I thought, this is my birthday present. And Gavin’s terrific, do you know him?
SV: Well I haven’t met him but we started covering his work at the Finborough quite early on and we did an interview with him in the early days. We’ve been very, very impressed, and of course everyone else has been impressed.
GG: Well, that is wonderful because I am completely impressed as well. And he runs a rehearsal in a very similar way… but it’s not fair to compare directors really, but he has the same feel about it as Katie Mitchell, who I have just been working with and I think that is wonderful, absolutely wonderful.
SV: It makes such a difference. Have you found that, on the whole, there are only a few good directors who have the right feel in rehearsal and get on with their actors?
GG: Yes. It’s changed enormously from when I first started, you know, when there were people like Johnny Dexter, who treated you like little pieces of fluff and dirt and were appalling. Now I think it has changed so much in our world since those days, and I guess a lot of the young actors won’t take that anyway, which is good, you know; there is a freedom which I personally love. Also, in short, as far as this job is concerned, I wanted to go and do something new, which I think is important if you’re going to stick around. If you are going to retire, then that is different.
SV: Right, and presumably you are going to just carry on and carry on?
GG: Well, I think so – it’s fun! I just enjoy it, I cannot believe that after all these years, well, I started at twelve, that I am still having a good time. And I have made a living out of it, you know: that is remarkable. You know, it’s just wonderful, absolutely wonderful.
SV: How did you get into Olivier’s company?
GG: Well, Olivier came about because I joined the company for the National in ’72 from my audition for it. I was actually doing a play in the West End and I was miffed about going in to audition, but anyway it’s life so I went along. I worked out a form which I knew would either work or I would never work again. I went to the New [Theatre] where they were doing A Long Day’s Journey, I think, and I was first in the afternoon, I think. There was Olivier and Michael Blakemore and Jonathan Miller and it just went on and on. Everybody was there, and I went on and did a bit from Sergeant Musgrave. Then I said, “I am going to do my classical bit but you must be bored hearing the same thing time and time again so I want you to imagine that I am Edmund Kean and I have gone up to Liverpool to do a Benefit with a chum and we have been some time in the pub.” And there was a long sort of “yes”. And I started to do ‘To be or not to be…’, and half way through I did a deliberate dry. And then I got drunker and went into a bit of Richard II, then got completely lost and went into New Way to Pay Old Debts [Philip Massinger]. Then I went off and then I came back on again and said, “If you think I am pissed, you should see the Duke Of Buckingham”.
Gawn Grainger, right, is seen with fellow actor David Calder at the National Theatre Studio, 3rd November 2009
SV: Of course, the classic story.
GG: And then there was a long pause and apparently I had been on there for about twenty minutes because Clive Merrison, who was the next one on, has never forgiven me. So then I went back and Olivier said, “Where did you get the voice from?” And I said, “Well, if you go to the British Museum and follow the inflections on the prompt copy which the ASM put down, you follow the inflections of Kean and it comes out: “Now is the winter of our discontent….” And I knew that was where he, Olivier, had been.
So anyway, I got in, and there was just something – a bit of chemistry – between us as friends. And he used to ask for the court jester to come and have a drink with him after the show. Then when it all changed and he was no longer a part of it, he phoned me one day and said come down for the weekend. I was so surprised and he obviously thought it was a brilliant impersonation of him, and it was ‘Larry’ from that moment onwards. I don’t know what it was, there was a chemistry – he was like my surrogate father.
GG: Yeah, we just hit it off and we used to do things together, go places. He would come up to London and I would take him to the pub and nobody knew who he was. In fact, at one point somebody said what a nice old man your Dad is, and this developed and developed and eventually I wrote or ghosted his book which was Olivier On Acting. I did most of it, actually, as he was getting a bit tired then. And I was sort of more or less with him right to the end, as a friend.
SV: How lovely.
GG: And I did the eulogy at his funeral. It was a close, wonderful relationship. Also I was in The Party, which was his last play and in fact, the other day, I wrote a piece for a little book about his last performance. It was incredible because at the very end we all turned and waited for him to come down and take a bow and there was a sort of hush in the house. They had clapped us but then there was an expectancy and down he came and he used to have this extraordinary gait: he used to walk a bit like a sailor. Just as the cheering began, he knelt down and kissed the stage; that sounds awfully sentimental but it wasn’t. It was a goodbye to the Vic, which he loved, and the stage in general.
SV: Would you say, in view of all this, that he has been your greatest influence?
GG: I would say yes, because he was an influence very early on, long before I met him.
SV: How do you find the present company?
GG: The show is fantastic. You know, young actors I have never worked with before is exciting, two of them doing their first professional jobs. All that part of it is great and I think it very important for our generation, as it were, to feed back into it. One thing I love to do – you meet so many young people these days who don’t know anything about the history.
SV: That’s one of the reasons I started this site.
GG: It’s important. I am always pushing it with them because they don’t know who Ralph Richardson is, for example.
SV: No, and they don’t know who Ellen Terry is. I mean, that appalls me, but when it comes to not knowing the generation that includes Richardson, it’s….
GG: I would tell you all my stories about Richardson….
Alas, Gawn Grainger has to get back to rehearsals. His other stories will have to wait.
Sarah Vernon © 2007
Originally published on R&V 17-10-07
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