theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Interviewing actor and writer Mark Eden is a fascinating lesson in what can happen by dint of circumstance and application. Eden, who is currently appearing at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London opposite Kevin Moore in Take 2, left school at fourteen without an education. Had it not been for contracting tuberculosis in his late teens like so many others in the late 50s when antibiotics were unavailable, he might never have learnt about a world that included Shakespeare and other great literary figures. “I don’t know what would have happened to me. I’d probably have ended up just working on fairgrounds and doing things like that and having an aimless, pointless life or something,” he tells me.
Yet, here he is some decades on with a great list of acting credits that embraces British films such as The L-Shaped Room (1963) and Seance on Wet Afternoon, stage work at the Royal Court and for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and numerous television series, one-off dramas and, of course,Coronation Street, where he played Rita’s flame and near nemesis, Alan Bradley. He has written radio plays, musicals and an as yet to be published memoir.
At the moment he is concentrating on his double bill of plays at Jermyn Street, Autumn and Props. Eden adapted the first from a short story by Keith Ridgeway called Off Vico in which two elderly men meet on a park bench in Dublin fifty years after a brief sexual encounter — or so the younger of the men, played by Eden, insists.
The second piece, Props, he wrote with Steve Nallon, basing it on two real prop men who worked for many years at Shepperton Film Studios. “Props was originally on radio and I played Chuck Farrago, and Steve Nallon, who was my co-writer, played Bobby Murrell. It was longer then. It was an hour and a quarter, I think, and covered much more ground, of course, and went into flashbacks and things, which you can do on radio which you can’t do very much on stage. But I thought it would make a good companion piece to Autumn.”
Based on a real incident — a sit-in at Shepperton Studios when the studio was taken over and employees were sacked — Eden’s solution to the flashback problem was to set the play in real-time, in the two men’s beloved prop room before the sit-in is over. “They did actually all get sacked,” says Eden. “The studio was taken over: they got into financial difficulties in 1974 and an asset-stripping company bought it and they were going to knock the whole thing down. But the government of the time kept dithering and in the end over 300 people were sacked. And at the very last minute, at the eleventh hour, the government stepped in and put a preservation order on it.”
But it was too late for the sacked employees. “By then all the wonderful staff who’d created the stuff, had all disappeared. And Chuck and Bobby never came back. Chuck had been there twenty-eight years and Bobby had been there twenty-four, and nobody really knew what happened to Chuck and Bobby so we kind of made it up.”
Two noted British film directors were a good source of information. “We gleaned a few stories about it from Bryan Forbes and from Roy Boulting, who would always use them on their films if they were available. And sometimes when they weren’t available!” Both directors quite often cast them in small parts as well. “Roy, in fact, did Heavens Above, and gave them a small part. He used to call it double bubble just to get them on the picture because they were good luck charms; they were a double act, they were great.” After Props aired on Radio 4, Forbes emailed Eden. “He said, ‘How wonderful and if you ever turn this into a stage play, I’d like to direct it.’ I think he’s quite ill now, he’s got multiple sclerosis, I think, and has been battling it for years.”
Eden is understandably fascinated by Chuck and Bobby. “They were real characters. Chuck was short and stout and swore a lot, had a gruff voice, and Bobby was tall and thin and a little bit precious. They had an extraordinary relationship. Nobody ever knew what the relationship was, whether it was a sexual one or not. It was just two men that had found something in each other that they hadn’t got in their life. And Chuck was in a prisoner-of-war camp; he was captured at Dunkirk so he did five years. And Bobby did have a rough childhood. I think his mother walked out on him or something. We’ve dramatized it and taken lots of liberties just to tell the story of the relationship.”
The urge to turn Props into a stage play was given further encouragement by Maureen Lipman. “She was one who wrote to us and said, ‘I heard it on my car radio and it was lovely. Why don’t you do it on the stage or for television?'” Eden returns to the flashback issue. “It was terribly difficult to do. We tried to get round it but I found it almost impossible to do. The way it would work and the way it works now is to do it in one spot in their little props room that they’d turned into a little home, or Bobby turned into a little home, and the last fifteen minutes of the sit-in at Shepperton.”
One of the distinct advantages of both plays is the age of the characters, especially at a time when youth holds sway wherever we look. “They’re two different pieces in a way but they’re two parts for elderly actors and there aren’t that many parts around these days so we’re enjoying doing it. I think it’s quite funny and tragic but I would say that, wouldn’t I!” That’s as may be but our reviewer, Sharon Garfinkel, happens to agree with him: “Expect to be moved and entertained in equal measure under Nigel Plaskitt’s astute direction,” she writes.
Eden’s adult life might have turned out very differently had antibiotics been around to cure TB. “I went to a sanatorium for nearly two years. I had no education at all but I met an English teacher there and he said, ‘There’s lots of lovely books in the library.’ And in the end I became a librarian and I catalogued all the books and I started to read Shakespeare and plays and the great writers and realized there was a whole world I didn’t know about.”
Before that, Eden had been working on the fairgrounds, particularly at Dreamland Park in Margate, and travelling fairs. “In those days — I’m talking about the fifties — great, colourful characters worked there, I mean, really. That’s why I wrote Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland. It was based on a true story, a murder, a fight that took place. An American airman got killed in a fight, stabbed, and I wove that into a hot day in Dreamland when nobody used to come in. You see, they’d all be on the beach. We’d all sit around playing cards or reading. Yes, I’m hoping that can be done because it’s quite a nice story. It’s with a radio producer now. I wrote it as a film, well, television, but they don’t do one-off dramas very much, unless you’re a very established writer, so I adapted it for radio.”
These fairground experiences have also provided rich pickings for his acting. “I worked with two Jewish guys called Pip and Toddy when I was ‘on the smudge’, as we used to call it, taking photographs of people on the piers and all that kind of thing. And they came from the East End and they had a wonderful way of talking and I used to imitate them and when I got my first break — I went to audition for the Wesker trilogy, Chicken Soup with Barley,Talking About Jerusalem etcetera. They said they were only seeing Jewish actors for the parts so I rang up Miriam Brickman who was the casting director and I said, ‘Miriam, can I come down?’ She said, ‘They only want Jewish actors.’ ‘Well, tell them I’m Jewish.’ So she did and got me an audition and I remembered how these two guys spoke — East End Jewish — and I did it and they asked me to come back and I did it again, and they asked me to come back and I did it again. And I got the part so it helped. I used all their cadences and inflections of their East End Jewish way of speaking.”
Pip and Toddy’s speech patterns also gave him the voice of Ivan in one of the monologues that make up Stewart Permutt’s Singular People. Staged in Edinburgh and then the King’s Head in London just over three years ago, Eden gave a beautifully touching and funny performance as this ageing Jewish gentleman who claims that Jesus has appeared to him at Fenchurch Street station.
Fairgrounds to fringe, Z-Cars to Dr Zhivago, and the RSC to the Royal Court — is there anything that Eden hasn’t undertaken? “No, not really! I’ve done everything from pantomime to Shakespeare. It’s been a great mix and I’ve been lucky and I’ve been unlucky with various things but it’s all part of life, isn’t it, it’s all part of being an actor.”
At Stratford it was a John Whiting play, A Penny for a Song, rather than a Shakespeare, in which he was cast, and this alongside “the most wonderful actors in the world”. “I played opposite Judi Dench, whom I’ve been in love with all my life, and Marius Goring and Michael Gwynn, Gwen Ffrangçon-Davies. I mean, you name it, everybody was in it and I was just star-struck completely, utterly. It was wonderful.
“Peter Hall ran it then — he asked me to join the company — and I said no! I’d done Heavens Above for Roy Boulting. I don’t know, perhaps I’ve made lots of mistakes in my life but any way, the thing then was, everybody got twenty quid a week — this was 1962, I think — there were no stars and that was it, twenty quid a week, which wasn’t bad. But I got nearly £3,000 for doing a film and I was doing it while I was playing, and I thought: it would take me three years to earn that, and I may get down to Stratford and not start playing wonderful parts, I may be playing small parts and carrying a spear. You have to take what you’re given. So I weighed it all up and then said no. He was a bit surprised. I’ve often wondered where I would have gone if I’d gone down there.”
In 1988 Eden was given the opportunity to play Claudius for a British Council tour of Hamlet to the Far East. By this time, he was working up a storm as Alan Bradley in Coronation Street. “John Fraser was playing Polonius. I’d worked with him on television and various things and he asked me if I’d like to play Claudius so I asked Granada to let me off and they did. I had a wonderful time. I wanted to do more but my career never seemed to go that way, it always seemed to go towards television or films or something and so there we are.”
When I told Diana Stephenson, a friend of mine who happens to be Eden’s ex-wife, that I hoped to be interviewing her former husband — they’re on excellent terms — the first thing she said was: “Do you know how old he is? Seventy-six. And doesn’t he look tremendous?” He does indeed. One would be hard-pressed to put him at much beyond sixty.
Now married to the actress Sue Nicholls who plays Audrey Roberts in Coronation Street, Eden was once married to Joan Malin, better known these days as the widow of John Le Mesurier. (Her memoir, Lady, Don’t Fall Backwards, is a riveting account of her affair with Le Mesurier’s best friend, Tony Hancock, shortly after she and Le Mesurier were wed). It is she and Eden’s son — David Malin — with whom Eden collaborated on a musical about the 18th century artist William Hogarth that was staged a few years ago at the Bridewell. “I wrote the libretto and some of the lyrics. It wasn’t quite right. People said nice things about it but it wasn’t quite right. My son’s been working on it on and off ever since. Maybe we’ll launch that again.”
His granddaughter is the actress Emma Griffiths Malin, who recently made her mark on the small screen as Fleur in the re-make of The Forsyte Saga. “It’s funny,” says Eden, “she’s got enormous talent and it’s all God-given, she never went to drama school or anything, she just knew what to do, she instinctively knew what to do. But she’s not that interested; she wants to go behind the cameras, she wants to make movies and what she’s doing it for is to get money to make films.”
Polly Eden, his daughter by his marriage to Diana, is a scriptwriter. “She was a staff writer on Family Affairs for about two years and then there was a change of leadership and they got rid of some people. And she’s been doing freelance. She’s just done a couple of Bad Girls and she did Doctors, she did Holby City — she does quite a lot of things. She’s written a children’s book, Warren the Rabbit, which I think is lovely. She’s making a living but it’s bread and butter, you know; she wants to do other things.”
Eden has written an autobiography, Who’s Going to Look at You?, though it has yet to find a publisher. “I wrote it at the wrong time. Everyone said you’ve got to do it when you come out of Coronation Street, because I came out with a big bang: you know, 26.5 million viewers, or something, the night I died.” Even non-aficionados of the soap are likely to remember the splash caused in 1991 when his character was steam-rollered by a Blackpool tram. He says, however, that he didn’t want to write it at that point. “I was doing other things and by the time I did, it was too late, they didn’t have anything to hang it on, as they say.”
Writing it was not an easy process. “It took me a long, long time and a lot of soul-searching and asking my dear old Mum, who was still alive then, things about my childhood. I’ve still got it. Maybe somebody will pick it up one day, who knows.” Eden took the title from something his mother used to say. “Whenever I would say, ‘Gosh, I can’t go out looking like this’, my mother used to say, ‘Who’s going to look at you?'” Eden was later able to launch a spirited defence, of course, by working out all the people around the world — “perhaps a hundred million people” — that would see his film and television work, what with sales abroad “and all that kind of thing!”
Props and Autumn, meanwhile, may not reach a comparable audience at Jermyn Street but could the double bill go further? “I don’t know if there’s any life after this. There may be. Maybe Dan Crawford or somebody will see it and perhaps want to do it after Christmas at the King’s Head. It’s a small venue thing: it could only be in studio theatres or fringe theatres, I think. But it’s been fun doing it, and it’s been heartache and terribly hard work and everything. And we financed it ourselves. I keep asking myself why I put myself through this but it’s because I still enjoy it, I suppose. When I should be putting my feet up and pouring a glass of wine and watching the six o’clock news, I’m battling into town to raise all that adrenaline and nervous energy and things that one needs even in a small venue like Jermyn Street.”
At this time of year, it’s not always easy to find the motivation to leave a warm house. “Sometimes I think ‘oh my god’ and I really have to force myself to get up and go into the cold. If it was lovely weather, you know, one wouldn’t. But it’s not very long. I mean, once I get on, of course, it’s lovely. It’s like an old warhorse going into action.”
My advice is to put on your skates and your woollies and head for Jermyn Street to see this “old warhorse” in action before the show finishes on Saturday.
Sarah Vernon © 2004
Originally published on R&V on 09-12-04
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That was a very fascinating interview, Sarah. Thanks for re-posting it here on your blog.
I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Ben. He really was a delight to interview.