theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
When I interviewed actor and writer Paul Bentley, he was appearing at the Royal Festival Hall as theatre manager Roscoe — a part he played originally back in 1987 – in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, alongside Henry Goodman, Louise Gold, Kathryn Evans, Diane Langton and David Durham.
SV: Where were you born and brought up?
PB: Sheffield, Yorkshire, till I was 3, then on the death of my mother (1945) we moved to my father’s parents’ home in New Malden, Surrey, and I have been based in New Malden, more or less, ever since.
SV: Did you always want to become an actor and who or what provided inspiration or influence? Were your family for or against?
PB: My secondary school was Wimbledon College, a Jesuit grammar school. The Jesuits have always been keen on drama in their schools, and I knew I wanted to be in the first play I was eligible for – I played Cleitus, Alexander the Great’s best buddy, in Rattigan’s Adventure Story. I was 14. No obvious influence — my father was an inspector of taxes, but my mother had been an Irish extrovert beauty, and possibly I inherited the urge from her. I did other school plays and at 17 presented my father with a form of application for RADA. He had no idea what to do with a son who wanted to be an actor, so he consulted an old friend of his, who was House Manager of the Festival Hall, and this chap got me to stand in the prompt corner during a London Festival ballet, and then announced that I was no actor. How he rumbled me I know not. The verdict stopped me going to RADA at that time, but had no long-term effect.
SV: Did you train and if so, do you feel you gained anything valuable from the experience?
PB: I took a degree in English at Birmingham University 1962-65, joined the student Guild Theatre Group of course, and then did an MA in Drama and Theatre Arts there. The course included acting and impro and movement, et al. I loved all of it, especially playing Queen Clytemnestra in Agamemnon, an all-male, masked production directed by Professor John Russell Brown, which was the precursor of Peter Hall’s Oresteia at the National.
SV: How difficult did you find it to get work at the start?
PB: I left University in 1966 wanting to direct opera, so moved to Munich for 3 years, Germany having 55 opera houses and England at that time having 1 full-time and two half opera houses. (It’s not much better now.) I didn’t manage to break into opera but I taught a lot of English and started acting – a film and some radio. I sometimes wish I had started an English language theatre in Munich. On returning to England in 1970 I took up acting full-time, or tried to. Actually, getting work wasn’t a problem. London fringe to start with, at £5 a week, then 11 weeks of weekly rep at East Grinstead, no less, for £12 a week. I don’t know how we did it. Weekly rep, that is. Then a long season at Butlin’s, Filey, Yorkshire, by the end of which I had done my 40 weeks and was a full member of Equity. Yippee!
SV: Which job has been the most enjoyable and satisfying experience? And the worst?
PB: The most fun was playing Shylock in a musical version of The Merchant of Venice, with music by Roger Haines and lyrics by me and Shakespeare. I had 72 top As, as I recall. Cast of 8, band of 4. We did it at the 1974 Edinburgh Festival, backed by some good buddies called Harding, and won a Fringe First Award, had producers waving cheque books, television appearances, all that. The worst experience was when Shylock was bought by Ray Cooney and his co-producers, and three years later we had been persuaded to turn it into Fire Angel, an updated, twentieth-century version set in a Mafia nightclub in New York. It starred Colm Wilkinson, played at Her Majesty’s, and was THE flop of 1977. Quite rightly.
PB: But then we revised the original Shylock and that had successful productions at the Leicester Haymarket and Manchester Library theatres. Honour was thus satisfied.
SV: With whom have you most enjoyed working and from whom did you learn in the early days?
PB: The Noel Pearson Dublin HMS Pinafore in 1985 was a hoot from start to finish; the cast were half Irish and half English and utterly dotty and I adored them all. On stage I have, or had, a distinct tendency to go OTT and over-energize, so the actors I admired were the ones who appeared very relaxed and took their time and made the audience wait. Gavin Harding was one such, and Alex Wilson another.
SV: You appeared as Roscoe in 1987. Is this the first time you’ve played a part twice? Do you see it as an opportunity to approach it from a different angle?
PB: Well, there was Shylock in the three Shylock productions, and I’ve played the Narrator in Joseph three times I think. In Follies, Roscoe only has to sing Beautiful Girls and Loveland, so there ain’t much scope for angles; he just has to sing gloriously, as the stage direction puts it. At least I’m the right age now (60), and don’t have to wear plastic bags under my eyes, which is a blessing as they made me look like a well-sad OAP back in ’87.
SV: Did you feel excited/nervous/blasé/equable about opening night at the RFH?
PB: A bit nervous – the Festival Hall is BIG and Roscoe’s top A has to be splendiferous – but nothing like as stressed as I was in ’87, when I was hauled in from Cats to replace a singer called Alan Page who died 3 days before the previews started, and the sheer pressure of wearing his costumes and learning 2 new songs and having Sondheim out front and some pretty glittery glitterati on stage got to me rather. This time I’m the glitterati, darling.
SV: When you’re in a musical, do you give yourself a work-out with the voice during the day and/or a pre-show warm-up?
PB: You can do 25 minute pre-show warm-ups when you’re young, but I ain’t young no longer and they are too much for me, so I model myself on Melchior, who used to have a four course meal with wine, and then stroll on stage and sing Siegfried. Or Tristan. Actually, all you need to do is sing a song or two during the day, go to the theatre, make sure you are warm, and then sing a bit more at Beginners and touch in your top A or whatever, to make sure they are still there.
SV: What’s the funniest thing to happen during your career? Did anything amusing happen during rehearsals for Follies?
PB: The funniest ever was when the Admiral in the 1985 Dublin HMS Pinafore entered for his opening number, decided he was tired and emotional, walked offstage into the auditorium, out of the theatre and into the nearest pub, leaving the cast and band and audience high and, er, dry. I only had a day and a half rehearsal for Follies before the Sitzprobe and the technical and all that started, so there wasn’t time for funnies, alas.
SV: As a writer also, would you say the combination of skills has enabled you to survive? What have been the toughest times? Have you ever considered doing anything else for a living?
PB: Since 1996 I have been able to fill in acting gaps by writing three opera librettos, which are well paid, and a few newspaper articles, which are not. Before then there weren’t many gaps to speak of, except that about twenty years ago work did dry up for a few months and, as we had a baby and all that, I considered lecturing in drama, and even got as far as a 2-day interview in Warrington, Gawd ‘elp me, but happily I didn’t get the job and my beloved wife put the boot in and told me to stick to acting, as it was all I was fit for.
SV: I seem to remember that in the late 1970s you ran one of the reps for a time. If I’m right, which theatre and how did you find it? Have you done any other directing?
PB: After a couple of years as Assistant Director at Newcastle Playhouse I spent 1980 as the Artistic Director at the Byre Theatre in St. Andrews, the sacred spot where, as an actor in 1973, I had met Annie Healey, the delicious ASM who was to become Mrs. Bentley. So for us to return there in 1980 was kinda fun. It’s a small theatre in a cosy community, and my actors were heaven. I’ve done odd bits of directing since; it’s very different from acting, you have to worry about everyone and everything and the pressure is relentless till the First Night, whereas an individual actor only has to worry about himself. More or less.
SV: Are there any particular parts for which you would give your eye-teeth? And who would be your preferred director?
PB: Siegfried, Tristan and Parsifal, directed by Wieland Wagner, the only genius designer/director, in my view. But God made me a show tenor, not a Heldentenor, damn it, and Wieland died in 1966. Seriously, I’d like to do more Shakespeare – I’ve only done four in over 30 years – and almost any part would be fun. I’d always be happy to work with Trevor Nunn, surprise, surprise, and Rachel Kavanaugh did a damn good job with the Regent’s Park Dream I was in.
SV: Who or what do you admire in the business?
PB: Opera singers, musicians and designers. I wish I could do what they do. Maybe next time.
SV: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about the business?
PB: About the business I can’t recall owt, but in the business, in a superb musical called The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Rupert Holmes at the Savoy, the director Wilford Leach told me that my character, Bazzard, was a very bad actor who thought he was a very good one. Spot on, and all I needed.
SV: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to become an actor?
PB: Make sure you have a reliable alternative source of income, preferably one you enjoy, such as making mosaics.
SV: How do you think the business has changed since you came into it, whether for the worse or the better?
PB: I believe that the number of reps has seriously diminished, and that has to be bad news, as it was in reps that I, and many others, learned my trade. Television and musicals ain’t the same.
SV: What do you hope for your future?
PB: To continue writing during the day and acting at night. The perfect existence, I reckon. Oh yes, and I would like to exit by having a heart attack centre stage at the Palladium. The Requiem to be at Westminster Cathedral. All welcome.
SV: Have your children shown any inclination to follow you into the business?
PB: I have two daughters, and though both love theatre I decreed that only one could become an actress. So the younger one, Becky, is going into the biz. Emma will be the President of the United States of Europe.
SV: Tell me about The Handmaid’s Tale.
PB: Despite the fact that I will have spent a lifetime acting and singing, if I am remembered for anything I reckon it will be because I wrote librettos for Poul Ruders, a composer of immense distinction. The Handmaid’s Tale was a big success at its Copenhagen première and was recorded and is coming to ENO in April 2003 and Minnesota in May 2003 and Washington in 2004, and we are currently working on our second piece, based on Kafka’s The Trial, and as opera is the greatest of all the art forms there is NOTHING more exciting than helping to create one. I hope we write several.
SV: Can you explain a little about your passion for Westminster Cathedral and the missing mosaics?
PB: One of my aims in life is to get the mosaics of the Cathedral finished in time for my Requiem beneath them. About 15 years ago I fell in love with the Byzantine Empire and its mosaics, and as the Cathedral is neo-Byzantine in style and has 10,000 square metres of walls and ceiling waiting to be mosaiced I wrote a book on how to do the job, sent copies in all directions, and all we need now is a cheque for £20 million.
SV: I understand your ‘Man of the Millennium’ is Teilhard de Chardin of whom, I confess, I have never heard.
PB: Teilhard was a geologist, a palaeontologist and a Jesuit priest passionately convinced that there was a single key to understanding life, the universe and everything, and the name of the key was evolution. He was passionately convinced that his vocation was to reconcile Darwinism and Christianity, science and religion, matter and spirit. And he did, in best-seller books like The Phenomenon of Man. The thing about Teilhard was that he saw what it means to be fully human more clearly than anyone else in the 20th century. He saw where the human race has come from and where it is bound more clearly than anyone since St. Paul. He was the Man of the Millennium all right.
SV: In the words of the Benefit Agency, is there anything else you would like to tell us?!
PB: Not a thing. You got the lot!
Sarah Vernon © 2002
Originally published on R&V on 16-07-02
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