Rogues & Vagabonds

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

Archive Interview • RONALD PICKUP • Look Back in Anger • 2006

Ronald Pickup © Nobby Clark

Ronald Pickup © Nobby Clark

Whichever way you look at it, Ronald Pickup’s credits are extensive. In Peter Hall’s Bath season programme, his biog for Look Back in Anger runs to two columns. Google him and the emphasis is all on the film work. His agent’s list meanwhile spotlights his extensive TV credits. In the long run, that’s all as it should be. Ronald Pickup has not only had a long and successful career but in the process has become one of our most popular, versatile, and much-loved actors. Even non-theatre types go all squidgy when you say the magic words ‘Ronald Pickup’’. Without prompting, a girlfriend I was staying with, not normally given to starry-eyed adulation, whispered “give my love to Ronald” when I said I was going to interview him.

My earliest memory and still one of my most vivid was his painfully vulnerable Edmund, the younger son in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night opposite Sir Laurence Olivier thirty-five and more years ago at the National Theatre at the Old Vic.

Looking at him across the table in his dressing room in Bath this August, it’s hard to believe. He really looks no different. The years sit easily on him. Thin and wiry, his smile still carries that gentle grace, if etched out now by the odd crease. But really, he’s the same man. The quiet man, the private man – though he has no problem admitting his age. Sixty-six, he says promptly.

The previous night I had watched him as Colonel Redfern, Osborne’s Edwardian apologia (and the character Osborne came so much to resemble if rather more curmudgeonly). Only then did the years seem to cling to Ronald, and he seemed frailer than one remembered.

But here in the dressing room, the eyes twinkle. I want to know how he got started and he tells me his first job, after training at RADA, was indeed TV rather than the stage, playing a physician to William Hartnell’s Doctor Who for the princely sum of £30.

Then there was rep in Leicester for 3 months before he was whisked into the heady atmosphere that was the Royal Court in the mid 60s playing Octavius in Julius Caesar and his first acquaintance with Peter Gill. “He was [director] Lindsay Anderson’s assistant at the time but clearly destined to do things.”

Was acting in his blood, I wondered?

“My mother was always very ‘theatrical’,” he says, emphasising the last syllable. “She was a wonderful mimic. She loved theatre. In Chester where I was born, she was brought up in a house which was next door to the old Royalty Theatre – a beautiful little Victorian gem, now sadly knocked down. She loved it. But she was too terrified to take acting up professionally.”

Was the family surprised when he said he wanted to? “I don’t think my mother was. She sensed it because I’d been interested from about the age of 8. They took me to see Hamlet with Olivier and I was absolutely enthralled. My father was more cautious. He was a teacher/lecturer in French and English at a teacher’s training college. I think he was worried, as that generation were, of having ‘something to fall back on’. But, on the whole, they were hugely supportive.”

So how did he come to be playing Edmund to his earlier hero, Olivier, at the Old Vic?

“It was connected with the Royal Court. There was a wonderful cross-fertilisation. We [the cast of Look Back in Anger] keep talking about it. It was a period of extraordinary fertility. Everything was bubbling. Even at the time you sensed it. People working at the Royal Court were also at the National; casting directors were all of a piece and exchanging ideas. Not that sparks didn’t fly. But it was just a wonderfully molten period. One of the casting directors of the National was in to see Julius Caesar and I was offered a walk-on at the National in Franco Zefferelli’s Much Ado About Nothing.”

Bill Gaskill and John Dexter were also around. “With Olivier, they became this wonderful trio. He the grandee and these two totally different, young people breaking through old conventions.”

Ronald stayed at the Old Vic-National Theatre for seven years, from 1966-73. Highlights included the mould-breaking all-male As You Like It, in which he was an unforgettable, melting Rosalind, and Peter Brook’s Oedipus with Sir John Gielgud and Irene Worth. He was also the original Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, St Just in Danton’s Death, Joseph Surface in School for Scandal and an eye-watering Richard II.

Never a bludgeoning actor, Ronald’s beauty has always been the word he later uses to describe Peter Gill: nuanced.

I ask him what stands out for him now from that period and he says, “The whole thing. I just remember it as an incredible mixture of staggering people.” And he rattles off a roll call of contemporaries: “Tynan, Dexter, Gaskill, Olivier, Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, Frank Finlay, Robert Stephens, Billie Whitelaw, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Charlie Kay….”

A golden period indeed. Pushed to it, he cites As You Like It and Long Day’s Journey as the two favourites.

As You Like It – that was Dexter, I say. No, he says, it was Clifford Williams. There was a bit of a dust up between Dexter and Olivier and Clifford was brought in, as so often, to save the day. We both sigh.

I was a youngster working in the Aldwych press office when Clifford was next door as an RSC associate director. Clifford’s Comedy of Errors, thrown in when Paul Scofield became ill andKing Lear had to be postponed, is one of my favourite productions of all time. “Clifford was wonderful,” says Ronald. “He just allowed us to play the text and then let the play float on its own.”

We get back to the show in hand, Look Back in Anger. Why had he decided to do it? “Peter Gill,” he shoots back. “I hadn’t been on stage for a bit and it was a wonderful, lovely part. It was quite simply an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

His last stage role had been four years ago in Proof with Gwyneth Paltrow and Richard Coyle – Jimmy Porter here in Bath. He’s been busy in TV and film since. But the lure of being involved in Look Back’s 50th anniversary, Peter Hall, Bath, proved irresistible. “It’s just the chemistry of the whole thing. I just knew in my guts it was something I wanted to do, at this moment in my life. Colonel Redfern is a wonderful picture of old-to-middle age looking back and seeing you don’t quite fit. Extraordinary really that Osborne brings on this man Jimmy Porter has been railing about and he turns out to be really quite decent. It’s a very rich part and I knew that Peter, of all directors, was the man to do it.”

And he’s not been disappointed. He talks, not idly, in terms of “genius”, calls him “a rare creature”, how love “just pours out of him, love for his actors, love of the play, life in the theatre”. And the trust that he creates around him (Richard Coyle, of course, had worked with Gill before on The York Realist, another of his achingly delicate pieces of theatrical filigree).

We talk for some time about Look Back’s possible relevance or datedness now. There’s no doubt it clunks a bit but I agree with him when he reports Peter Hall’s reactions to the first night and how Peter Gill’s treatment has “re-affirmed it as a play for all time”. “In the end, it’s about relationships,” says Ronald. “It’s about survival in a relationship of whatever kind.”

The clock in his dressing room clicks on. There are so many questions I want to ask him but a matinee beckons. I decide to settle on a few other stand-out memories for him. One, he says, was working on a small film, Orwell on Jura, about George Orwell when he was writing 1984 and dying from TB. “Wonderful script by Alan Plater. We filmed it on Jura, in the house Orwell had lived in. Again, it was one of those things that just fell into place. Everything was just right. It happens rarely.”

Fortunes of War, script again by Alan Plater, is another favourite as was working, briefly, with Brando, on the South African film, A Dry White Season. “He was fantastic, a bit naughty, but with terrific attention to detail. Three short days turned into three weeks. But what he was after was that moment, just a fragment but a moment of truth.” Working with Beckett onGhost Trio for BBC TV was also another high point.

And Olivier, I say, what was it like working with Olivier?

He has many stories to tell; yes, he was charismatic, vulnerable, could be ‘brutal’ at times.

“I just loved him,” says Ronald. “I was very privileged. We had a wonderful on and off stage relationship. But what was great about him was he knew about leading a company, absolutely hands-on. Even when he wasn’t performing that evening and he’d had a long, long day doing administrative work, he’d come frequently into the canteen and eat with us at 6.30. He knew everybody’s name and the guys around the theatre appreciated it. He was in his 60s by then. And yes, we all know he could be monstrously egocentric. But I loved, him, unashamedly. Like Brando, he was a huge spirit and you can’t be that big without having a few warts. There’s a price to pay.”

Edward Petherbridge apparently said a fascinating thing about him. “What you don’t get unless you’ve acted with him – though the audience get it – is that extra thing which is the wind. There’s a wind around him.” And Ronald whistles and bristles as though he was once again suddenly feeling the Olivier ‘wild spirit‚ here, in the dressing room.

We talk on. Is there anything that he’s still burning to do?

“I’d love to do a wonderful part, of the kind that I did with Orwell – a feature film in which I play a part that’s absolutely right for me.”

And what was it that was right for you about that role, I ask, was it the man himself? “Yes, the man,” he says hesitantly, “the kind of man who is private, complex, awkward, cussed. I suppose I’ve realised I’m good at playing that sort of weird Englishness, keeping a lid on things.” His voice grows quiet, then brightens. “That’s what I’d really like to do, on film, because I think it suits it so well, that sort of character.”

Let’s hope someone picks him up on that, soonish. But not before we’ve had another chance to see him back on stage. Ronald Pickup, our gem and a gent in his own right.

Carole Woddis © 2006

Originally published on R&V 06-09-06

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