Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Book Review • CLOSE UP: An Actor Telling Tales • John Fraser

This is not the first time John Fraser has taken up his pen — earlier books include an engaging account of his travels through Africa performing Shakespeare — but the jacket of this one describes it as his autobiography. It also carries the sub-title An Actor Telling Tales and that is exactly what it is, in every sense. It is not a conventional, definitive autobiography. It ranges right from his early childhood to the present day but it is by no means the full story and it does not set out to be. Fraser has the gift of being able to write so that you feel he is chatting to you personally and his conversation is as selective as that of any good raconteur.

A wee Scottish laudie, he was doubly orphaned while a wartime-schoolboy, first by the death of his heavy-drinking, laudanum-dosed father, tormented by the pain of wounds received in the trenches in 1914, and shortly after by the loss of his mother. He was left to live with aunts and sisters. Already bitten by the performing bug, he wrote to BBC Scotland and with his Glasgow accent was soon heard playing roles on Scottish children’s hour.

On leaving school a fortunate contact found him a job as an ASM at the Park Theatre in Glasgow run by the eccentric Clarrie McMurdo. It was there that he made his first professional stage appearance as the Page to Herodias in Oscar Wilde’s Salome. He was tarted up by other members of the company in heavy slap, body bole and silver-painted toenails. The local press declared John Fraser’s Egyptian transvestite would look at home in Gomorrah if his tones did not reflect the Gallowgate’. Elocution lessons put that right but all too soon the Park Theatre was closed down following a breach of fire regulations. Out of work, Fraser took his call-up for National Service early.

After Officer Training, during which he found time to write, direct, design and appear in his own revue, he was posted to Germany with the BAOR [British Army of the Rhine]. Even there he managed to find himself acting not only in army shows but in a small part alongside Orson Welles’ Faust, Michael MacLiammoir’s Mephistopheles and Eartha Kitt’s Helen of Troy! Demobilized he went back to the old Glasgow company, now transformed and transferred into the Pitlochry Theatre.

Then came a lead role in a television drama and thence a movie contract and the starring movie roles he is most remembered for, though he also continued working in theatre and on television. His professional career brought him into contact with many big names and he has a fund of amusing stories about the great and the awful, not least among them Hedy Lamar and Bette Davis. He also writes about his travels with a small touring company he set up with Gary Raymond and Delena Kidd which took Shakespeare around the world, and which provides its own share of stories.

But this is not only a book about Fraser’s professional life. He is totally frank about his personal life as well, from his first fumbling experiments with a childhood girlfriend to his emerging awareness of his homosexuality and the problems that it caused him. He shares his experiences of romance and commitment and talks openly of his lovers, who include the dancer Rudolph Nureyev as well as more private personalities, and of his present life with a partner who has now shared his life for more than a quarter of a century.

This book is exactly like being at one of those actors’ bottle parties that used to happen in the days before we all had television and when evenings consisted of drinks, a guitar and conversation: good gossip, shared experiences and indiscretions. It does not set out to be a record of theatre or social history but in telling these enormously enjoyable true tales, he also gives us a glimpse of theatre and movie-making as it used to be and what it was like to be a young gay actor all those years ago.

Tom Howard © 2004

Originally published on R&V 16-12-04

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