theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
While everyone around me was drawn to the Pierre Bezuhov of Anthony Hopkins in Jack Pullman’s masterly dramatisation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace for the BBC in 1972, I was seduced by the flawed but fascinating Prince Andrei Bolkonsky as played by Alan Dobie. I was similarly taken by Dobie’s portrayal of the Victorian Detective Sergeant Cribb in the series of eponymous television films based on the books by Peter Lovesey, a portrayal so all-encompassing that Lovesey later abandoned the idea of writing more stories about Cribb: “the actor replaces your own concept of the character”.
Three decades later and I have the great pleasure of talking to Alan Dobie himself about re-visiting Estragon in Peter Hall’s revival of Waiting for Godot at the Theatre Royal Bath.
Most actors regard interviews as a necessary part of the job, love ‘em or loathe ‘em. The problem, of course, as Dobie says at the start, is that “what happens is that when you’re asked a question, you always say the first thing that comes off the top of your head!” All I can say is that every ‘first thing’ he said to me over the course of our conversation gave the distinct impression of an intelligent, amusing and modest man; this was in direct contrast to his interviewer, I have to say, who was stuttering like her teenage self. Possessing the Yorkshire lilt of his original background, Dobie’s voice is seductive still.
The names of Dobie, Estragon and Hall have been intertwined before (“it’s been a long saga, really”) as the actor originally played the part for Sir Peter in 1998. “The thing was that at the time we did it, it was going to go on to a tour after it was done at the Piccadilly but that never materialized, it fell apart.” Sound familiar? “And then a few months later it was going to be done at the Arts and then in the Irish Theatre in New York. And then that fell apart because apparently the National Theatre had the rights and they were just about to put on their cast so that fell apart. And then the National Theatre never did it so that collapsed. And then Peter said, ‘It’s on again now in 2005 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of it.’ So I said, ‘Well, if I’m still alive, yes, of course I’ll do it. If you’re still alive too.’”
And so they’re doing it. But of course, since Dobie and I spoke, Sir Peter’s planned transfer of this Godot to the Arts Theatre next month has had the mockers put on it by London’s Barbican and Dublin’s Gate theatres, both of which currently have the rights in performing Becket’s work for centenary revivals of their own next April and are at liberty to veto productions they deem competitive. Sir Peter finds the situation “outrageous”, describing the 320-seater Arts as “hardly major competition”. And it does seem ludicrous that a classic of the modern canon cannot come into town, to the very theatre — then the Arts Theatre Club — and with the very director as at its original première in 1955 (Hall was a stripling of twenty-four), especially with such actors as Dobie and his colleagues James Laurenson, Terence Rigby and Richard Dormer. There is always room for more of the good stuff. Writing in The Guardian two days ago, the director stated that “Sam [Beckett] would have found such a situation very whimsical”.
How does Dobie find Estragon? “It always seems when you read it that you’re playing exactly the way it’s written. But of course, that’s the whole thing about theatre, really, that every time a different actor plays the part, it always looks different, sounds different. But you think you’re playing the same play. The thing that struck me, maybe because I’ve always rather been attracted to the comedy side of it, is that it seems to me to be very much based on Music Hall sketches but with another element, with deeper levels put into it. But the routines seem to fit together almost like those early Music Hall double-handed sketches. Like Morecambe & Wise. A lot of it is cross-patter.”
I am reminded of the great Max Wall, with whom I worked on tour in 1979. Max played Vladimir at Manchester Royal Exchange the following year in Braham Murray’s production, which transferred to the Round House in 1981 for a limited run. Had Max already been offered the part? Did we talk about it? We discussed a great many things on that tour. Sadly, I cannot remember enough detail.
It would be easy to assume that Dobie had first-hand experience of just such cross-patter in the halls and theatres of his Yorkshire youth — he was born in Wonbwell, Barnsley. In fact, he made his first appearance on stage in a school production without ever having been a member of an audience. He was, as he says, “straight from the sticks”. “I was the Yorkshire boy who actually accidentally got started.”
And the accident was one such school production. “At that time there used to be these individuals that I don’t think are around now but they used to be in the Arts and now they’re in Sports, sort of scouts. And somebody saw me in a school production and said would I like to come on a summer course. So I went on the summer course and that was wonderful. And then the people running that summer course also ran a touring theatre and I was invited into that. So I was actually working — it was amateur, of course, in those days — in amateur theatre before I’d actually ever seen anything.”
When Dobie went on to art school he became involved in designing sets and costumes for the local amateur theatre. “I got roped into acting and then someone suggested I go to the Old Vic Theatre School so I did what they suggested and went there. It was the great triumvirate — Michel Saint-Denis, Glen Byam Shaw and George Devine — and it was a tremendous school.”
Talk of training prompts him to vouchsafe the advice he always gives if young people ask him about going into the business: “The great advantage if they get into a school [is] at least they’ll be doing it all the time. Whilst if you’re just looking around for a job, you’re not doing it.”
His own time at the Old Vic school proved advantageous in more ways than just the training under three legendary names of British Theatre. No longer extant, the school was part of The Old Vic theatre and the Old Vic and Young Vic companies “so there was a natural progression”. “I was lucky because I was in the school and then I went from the school into a five-year association with the Bristol Old Vic and the London Old Vic. They were affiliated in those days. It was a wonderful time.”
This pattern of training has always seemed, to my mind, to be the best progression for really finding your feet, whether as an actor or director, designer or technician. Three cheers to Sir Peter Hall and Kingston University, then, for the postgraduate course affiliated with the new Rose of Kingston theatre in Surrey, of which he is artistic director, that will provide just such a system as that under which practitioners the calibre of Dobie learned the ropes. Students of this two-year MA will automatically become members of Hall’s professional company if they complete their first year of studies successfully.
Dobie’s Old Vic launch pad and the nature of his talent propelled him into some landmark productions during the second half of the 20th Century, productions that send the theatre blood in my veins racing. If you grow up with a family that reminisces about Pamela Browne and Richard Burton in the original production of the late Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not For Burning, or about playing Mr Darling opposite Evelyn Laye as Mrs Darling and Alastair Sim as Hook in Peter Pan, you cannot still a beating heart when you’re able to talk to someone who, in this instance, appeared in the original Royal Court productions of John Arden’s Live Like Pigs and Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, played Corporal Hill in Arnold Wesker’s Chips With Everything, directed by John Dexter, and worked with Dame Gwen Ffrangçon-Davies in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII at The Old Vic for Tyrone Guthrie. “I wasn’t in any scenes with Gwen Ffrangçon-Davies,” he says. “She was rather grand, of course, in those days. And splendid.” (She died in 1992 at the age of 101.)
Just recently, Dobie elicited great reviews for his Talthybius in the RSC production of Hecuba with Vanessa Redgrave. According to Kevin Quarmby’s review [yet to be transferred here] Dobie gave “one of the finest performances I have seen for a long time. The role is brief, little more than a single speech. It is not a part that has to be sustained through the play but Dobie’s restrained delivery and the intensity of his performance is most effective. He holds an incredibly long pause, doing nothing, but saying everything”.
It is in the great works of dramatic literature that, as Dobie puts it, “the greatest actor for you is greatest” so he has always enjoyed the best-written parts. “If you get the chance to play Hamlet and Macbeth and things like that, and Godot, then it’s wonderful. How you do them, you never know until you get someone else’s opinion.” When I express my admiration of him as an actor, that I am overcome with awe and delight at talking with him, he mutters a self-effacing “Oh, nonsense, nonsense”. I even suspect he may have been blushing.
It is clearly mutual admiration that binds Dobie and Sir Peter; they have worked together on many occasions, including a King Lear in which he played The Fool. “Peter’s a workaholic,” says Dobie, emphasizing the one trait that is evident to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the director’s work. “I’ve never known anybody create as much work as Peter does. He creates show after show after show; he never, never, never stops.”
As Dobie continues, it becomes abundantly evident why he so much enjoys working with Sir Peter. “As he gets older, he does this wonderful thing, which is why I always like working with him — he never has a pre-conceived notion of how he’s going to do it. He gets the cast together and then it starts. And that’s the seed, and you’ve got the play, of course, and then he just plants them in the soil and lets them grow in rehearsal, which I think is always the best way. This is his great skill. Because he’s done so much now, he doesn’t feel any need to have to sort of impose anything on it. He just helps it grow and nurtures it. A wonderful way of working.”
How many directors inspire him in the same way by not bringing grand notions to the table? “Not many, I’m afraid. The early ones did — you know, the Saint-Denis’ and George Devines. I think it was always the people who’ve done a lot.” He agrees that the best directors are often the ones who have, at some point, in some form or other, had experience as actors.
But today’s climate is different to that which threw up the directors of old we now revere like the Byam Shaws and the Tony Guthries. An actor’s reputation has always rested on their most recent job — “It depended how good they were in their last shows as to whether they get another one offered them”. Dobie finds that whereas in his youth, “ninety percent of the time, there were actors who became directors or they were acting at the same time as directing”, there is now ‘a profession’ of directors. “A breed of directors appeared who had never acted, and very often what happens now is the directors are competing with the actors for the best reviews. And so they’re wanting to get their name mentioned a lot, their production rather than the performances, because they want their next job. I mean, it’s understandable, everybody’s got to earn a living.” But it shouldn’t be a competition in that way, should it? “No, it shouldn’t be.”
We touch upon the fact that he made a couple of episodes of Nanny with my father in the early 1980s, and on the sporadic nature of the business. “I remember once doing a radio play, I think,” he says, “and there were about thirty people in the cast and I’d worked with them all at some time or other but none of them in the last twenty years. It’s a weird business. You work with people and then you never see them again for years.”
He has not, for instance, done any television for about fifteen years. “Should something decent come up, yes. But it’s very difficult now. It’s very rare that there’s a good, well-written piece. At least, nothing comes in my direction.” When I make the age-old and ageist comment that everyone nowadays seems so young and they’ve not heard of all the people I feel they should have heard of, he rightly points out that this always happens. “A new generation comes up and they work with their peers. That’s what happened to me. I was lucky to work with some of the old boys and learned a few tricks from them. But most of the work was done with people of my own generation — at least, directors and stuff.”
Of one thing he is sure. “It’s still the same business and it’s still the same craft, whatever generation does it. It’s just that there are different emphases in each generation and slightly different approaches. But I’ve learnt a hell of a lot from older generations: a sense of timing and things like that.”
When I ask him if any particular ‘words of wisdom’ have made a lasting impression and stood him in good stead, whether on stage or in life, his first reaction is to exclaim “Heavens, life!” before relating how he once gate-crashed a lecture at Manchester University being given by the great American poet, Robert Frost. “He walked on the stage and he was white-haired, a noble, peasant face. He looked at the front row and he said, ‘I see we’ve got some members of the press here. You know, these boys are always asking me if my poetry’s deep. Well, how deep is deep? The greatest poem I ever wrote was only two lines. It goes: “Dear God, if you forgive my little jokes on thee, I’ll forgive your great big joke on me”.’ That’s something to remember. He also finished off by saying, ‘Is that deep?’ All sorts of things like that one collects in the back of the mind.”
“Is that deep?” It could be a line from Godot.
Sarah Vernon © 2005
Originally published on R&V on 26-08-05
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