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Jerome Willis is currently on stage alongside Sheila Hancock and Amanda Boxer in The Arab-Israeli Cookbook by Robin Soans at the Gate Theatre in London’s Notting Hill. Such is the success of the play, which uses the testimony of people caught up in the Arab-Israeli divide to show the exact nature of their day-to-day existence, it’s impossible to get tickets. Jerome Willis is thoroughly enjoying himself working with old friends and new in this ensemble piece. “They play exceptionally well together,” writes Howard Loxton in his review for R&V, “and all must share equal credit.”
The ever distinguished-looking Willis has a wealth of small screen credits, which include two series from the 1970s that are memorable for different reasons. LWT’s Within These Walls, though considered beyond the pale by some at the time, was a rather sedate precursor to Bad Girls), which ran from 1974 to 1978 with, initially, Googie Withers as the prison governor. The other series was The Sandbaggers (1978 – 1980), a shrewd look at the intelligence services during the Cold War. It now enjoys cult status that its original viewing figures could not have foretold.
Jerome Willis trained at the Old Vic Theatre School under Michel St Denis and George Devine and has worked for most of the UK’s major theatres and theatre companies, appearing last year in Caligula at the Donmar Warehouse with Michael Sheen, and Henry VI and Richard III for the RSC. In fact, he first joined the company at Stratford in the early Fifties during Anthony Quayle’s tenure, where he remained for three seasons to be directed not only by Quayle but other major directors of the time like Glen Byam Shaw.
Now in his seventies, Willis is one of that invaluable band of actors without which producers would find it almost impossible to put together any drama featuring the older generation. After all, when you’re young, the competition is crucifying, but the older you get, the easier becomes the job of the casting director. Reach your seventies or eighties — Willis is 76 — and you have a one in twenty chance of being offered the kind of part for which you are perfect.
Charming to talk to, Willis is also the perfect interviewee with impeccable manners and an inspiring sense of right and wrong, all of which was much in evidence when we spoke a couple of weeks into the run of The Arab-Israeli Cookbook:
I, in fact, come from a family of opera singers. My grandmother was an opera singer and my great aunt was an opera singer so that’s both sides of the family, the Willises and the Murphys. The Murphys were the Irish part of my family and the Willises were Irish too but had been in England a long time. My grandmother was a Savoyard. She was in a lot of the first productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. She never became a leading performer but she always played good secondary roles and I think, on tours, she was sometimes allowed to play the leads. She was a very, very impressive lady — right through to well into her eighties she was extraordinary. So it was in the genes, as far as I was concerned, although none of the generation immediately above me — that’s my uncles and aunts and my mother and father — were involved in the theatre at all.
I was a very keen amateur actor. There was a very good Shakespeare company in Streatham, the Streatham Shakespeare Players, which was run by a very extraordinary woman, a very, very wealthy woman but a passionate Socialist. She worked for the Workers’ Educational Association and she thought it was very important for working class people to be exposed to Shakespeare. Throughout my teens I worked with her. I think by the time I was 14 or 15 I knew I wanted to be an actor. But then, of course, there was National Service to be got through, though I did think that there was a possibility that I might have had my National Service deferred, because I auditioned for the London Old Vic Theatre School and was accepted. But then they said no deferment, you’ll have to do your National Service.
Well, I was very lucky — I found myself in primary training with a young man called Peter Bridgmont [i] whose father, Leslie Bridgmont [ii] had been quite a famous BBC producer. At the end of our primary training, I said to Peter, “What are you doing because I was thinking of officers’ training,” and he said, “Oh, I’m going into the Forces’ Broadcasting Service.” So I said, “What on earth is that?” And he said, “All over the world there are British radio stations operated by the FBS and I’m going to do that.” So I thought, well that sounds very interesting so I applied for that. I was accepted by the War Office and I had an interesting interview with a man who said, “Yes, yes, we’ll take you” — having done a voice test and things — “where do you want to go?” So I said, “Do you mean I have some choice?” He said, “Well, there are vacancies at most of the stations.” So I said, “Well, I’d like to go as far away as possible.” “Well, I wouldn’t recommend Singapore or Hong Kong because the climate there is very hot and stuffy. Why don’t you go to Ceylon, to Colombo. We’ve got a large station there and there certainly are vacancies.”
So off I went and I spent eighteen months there very, very happily, working with all sorts of interesting people. I mean, I met James McTaggert [iii], who subsequently became a very major figure in television although he died young. And Tito Burns [iv] who was a music man. David Jacobs [v] was there. And I spent a very happy eighteen months there but of course by then Ceylon was independent and they didn’t really want British troops in Ceylon any more so the station closed down. And again, I was asked where I’d like to go. I said, well, I’d like to go to Europe so I spent my last six months in a lovely Austrian town in Styria called Graz. It was very hard work because three of us ran the station so we put in an enormous number of hours. On the other hand, the Opera House was immediately across the road and one could have some good times as well.
The Old Vic Theatre School
I came back to England. I had to re-audition for the Old Vic School, which I did. That was quite a character-forming place. It was run by Michel St Denis — a very, very stern intellectual man, Glen Byam Shaw, who subsequently became director at Stratford and then at English National Opera, and George Devine, of course, who started the Royal Court. So you were working with very, very powerful personalities. And in fact, looking back on it, they never were pleased with anything; you didn’t get much carrot, you got an awful lot of stick. And I think it took me about ten years to get over that and sort of become myself as an actor. On the other hand, the training was superb. The head of voice was Jani Strasser who was head of music at Glyndebourne. The head of movement was a wonderful woman called Litz Pisk who, when the Old Vic School closed, went to Central School and stayed there for many years. You were at the very highest level and that’s good and bad. It’s good in the sense that you have expert tuition. On the other hand, it doesn’t make for a great deal of confidence. You had to fight your way towards that.
I firmly believe you learn more by being in the business and doing it. I don’t believe you can learn to act in a school. I had great good fortune, of course: when I came out of drama school there were then 240 reps in England, all of whom employed at least twelve to fourteen actors on an annual basis so you’re talking about something like four to five thousand jobs available to young actors. One night stands for the West of England Theatre Company is actually where I started. That was a very good thing to do because if you are in a company where you are not only an actor but you have lots of other duties fitting up the set, hanging the black surrounds, hanging the lights, making sure that all the costumes are in the dressing room, and everybody in the company did that as well as acting. Well, if you do that, you know how difficult those jobs are and you’re never dismissive or rude to stage management or wardrobe or anybody because you’ve done it a bit yourself and you know how very demanding those jobs are.
I went to Stratford for three years. Then I went into rep — that was where you really learned to act. It’s not so much you learn to act, you learn to define yourself as a performer. You learn how you relate to an audience, you learn what part of your capabilities and your repertoire an audience find interesting and the things you can and can’t do. I mean, I’ve never forgotten when I went into rep, the leading man was Paul Eddington, a brilliantly talented actor. And I thought, well, I’d better go and see the show that’s on and I went and in fact, Paul had quite a small part. But he did a bit of business which was so funny that the audience laughed for about a minute and I thought, well, I know I’ll never be that sort of actor, I know I couldn’t do that and indeed I never have been able to. It was very interesting to work with somebody of that eminence in those days. This was Ipswich which, in those days, was run by Val May who subsequently went to run Bristol and then Guildford.
The Arab-Israeli Cookbook
It was fortuitous in the most wonderful way. An actor called Tom Baird was working at that time in a play with Simon Callow with Robin Soans, who wrote it. Tom read the script of it and one night, evidently, Robin said to him, “You don’t know a good reliable old actor, do you, who can remember lines?” Tom said, “Well, he’s coming to see us tonight.” Robin said, “What do you mean?” Tom said, “Well, wait and see.” So I went to see the play and went round afterwards and Robin said, “Tom has suggested you for a part in a play I’ve written. Would you be interested?” I said, “Yes, of course.” And I took the script away with me. Now this is absolutely true, Sarah — I knew what roles I was to play but I read the first page of the script and I almost phoned Robin there and then and said I’ll do it because the opening speech is so beautifully written. I didn’t, of course, because you have to know what you’re undertaking. But that’s how it came about. And Keith Bartlett, who is also in our company, was suggested by Tom. To my delight he is in the company as well, because we shared a dressing room for two years at Stratford recently, and he’d become a very close and much loved friend. To find him in the company as well was delightful. And Ben Turner, who’s one of the younger men in the company, he and I were in Caligula last year at the Donmar Warehouse. I started off knowing three people in the company, which was lovely.
Yes, I have worked with Sheila Hancock before. At the old theatre in Ipswich, in the Fifties, I have to tell you, when we were both beginners. We did several shows together and I suppose we were juveniles, really. And I liked her very much even then and we haven’t worked at all since then so it was a delight to meet her again and find that apart from the fact that she’s had a jolly hard life, she’s completely unchanged. And I love the scenes we have together. We have three really beautiful scenes, so subtly and cleverly written, about an elderly couple who are imprisoned in their home because they dare not go out into the street. She takes that very hard and he just drinks and watches videos. Then there’s a marvellous scene at the end when she finally realizes that going out is so awful, these dreadful roadblocks and things and life outside is so threatening that she feels the same as him. She’s a fabulous actress, I think.
No, there isn’t a chance of a transfer because Sheila’s going straight on to another play and I personally think, although most people disagree with me, that it would be very difficult to do in a proscenium theatre. You need to be very close to the audience. The Young Vic would have suited us very well, somewhere of that sort. But no, Sheila wouldn’t be available for another two or three months.
Equity & Apathy
My first season back at Stratford three years ago, I was a deputy and I was actually astonished to find that in our company of 35 actors, less than half were members. I had a partner, another deputy, and we worked together. We both said, “We are going to have full membership by the end of the season.” Well, we didn’t achieve that: I think four people hadn’t joined. We kept saying to them, you know, don’t you realize that all the conditions under which you work — the holiday provisions, the overtime provisions, the proper meal breaks — all this has been negotiated by Equity and without Equity none of this could have happened? And in fact, if you don’t join, you’re living on the backs of your comrades who have paid for these things to happen and you haven’t and that won’t do. And I think that carried quite a lot of weight with people. I mean, membership has gone back up. I think it shrank after Thatcher stopped the closed shop, I think it went down to about 26,000, and it’s back up to about 34,000, I think. It’s not that the past hasn’t been equalled but of course we don’t have the strength of being able to really use industrial muscle which I think is a pity but it is hard to do. But it’s still, I think, a good organization but does need support from its members.
I’ve been Equity Dep many times, yes. I’ve never wanted to stand for office. I don’t quite know why. I don’t terribly like committee work. I just don’t like all that chat and actors are dreadful at chat anyway, as you know, like you can hear!
The Older Generation
I think there’s always a place for the older actor, a genuinely older man who is reliable, who knows his lines, who won’t be late for rehearsals, who remains professional. To my mind, and I’ve often said this to colleagues and, indeed, to young actors: if you’re a young actor and there’s a part being cast, there will be at least 150 actors who can play it. In my case, there will probably only be 20. That’s how much your chances improve as you get older, if you keep your health and mobility. I’m actually waiting for a hip replacement so my mobility isn’t what it was but it will be a good deal better once that’s done. The directors of The Arab-Israeli Cookbook were fully aware of that and most of my work in the play is sitting at tables and things so that was all taken completely into consideration and I was very grateful to them for doing that. It’s made the play for me not difficult, not heavy, apart from, of course, that you have to travel to the theatre every day and, well, you know what travel in London is like and parking round there is very difficult so I tend to use public transport but that’s slow.
Television v. Theatre
The Sandbaggers was a very happy show and television was so different then. Each hour was rehearsed for two and half weeks and then you went up and spent three days recording it. That doesn’t happen any more. You do a show, you read the actors for two days and that’s it. And that, I suppose is why I loved Sandbaggers because that team stayed together for three years and it was a very strong team.
And that is, of course, what I love about the theatre. This group of eight actors I’m working with, we’ve become close, we have become colleagues. There is a warmth, there is a sense of a committed ensemble, which you no longer get in the mechanical media at all. And that’s why I love to work in the theatre. But that’s just the way the business has moved; it’s moved away from any possibility of that within the mechanical media and I regret it greatly.
I’ve done a bit over the years. Funnily enough, most of it was based on the New Theatre, Bromley, and subsequently the Churchill. Partly because David Poulson and I got on very well — he was the artistic director — and from the late Fifties I was working there as an actor and he always gave me very good, very interesting parts. I played Murder in the Cathedral, I did Beckett, really interesting plays, and by that time, of course, it had become a fortnightly rep so it was a little bit different. And he phoned me up one day and said, “I’ve got a job for you, Jerome.” And I said, “Good, what’s the play?” “Just a minute, just a minute, I want you to direct for me.” I’d done bits of direction in putting on Sunday shows and things of that sort in rep for some years. So I did it.
Now, can I remember the name of the play? Ah yes, The Creeper by Pauline Macaulay. Marvellous play, lovely, lovely play. And it was tremendous fun to do, and among those involved, of course, was the creator of EastEnders, Tony Holland. He was one of the young men in it. And it worked well. I suppose I directed three or four plays for David there. I directed a potential West End tour. Unfortunately, the play didn’t work quite right. Eric Sykes was playing the lead and wasn’t really right for the part. It needed somebody much tenser, it needed John Wood or Leonard Rossiter. We toured for ten weeks and I didn’t enjoy that because trying to get a play right when you knew that it wasn’t the play altogether that was wrong but the leading performance. That was tricky. Eric was very unhappy too. So there we are.
Yes, I’ve directed quite a bit over the years. Not, funnily enough, for the last ten years. I don’t know why. Nothing’s come my way. And I think at my age, direction now would be probably a bit testing so I think I’m not too unhappy about it. I did Doll’s House, which I greatly enjoyed, with John Woodvine in it. Something with Eileen Atkins. I was doing West End successes, West End plays that rep lived on in those days. And jolly good fun it was, too. I enjoyed it very much.
I was appearing in a production of Hay Fever at Watford and I was playing the diplomat, Richard. And there was an uneasy atmosphere in the theatre which was some form of conflict between the company manager and the stage management and the artistic director, who wasn’t there very much. It was really very uneasy. People would be not there and you’d think, well, what’s the matter? Are we in the show or aren’t we?
The final scene is the guests all having found the whole situation quite impossible, creeping out of their rooms, coming down, having breakfast and buggering off. So Richard comes down and he is preceded by one of the other people. And he finds the breakfast room empty and he goes up and knocks on the barometer, which falls to the floor because it’s been broken. Anyway, on the last matinée, I prepared to do this scene and I realized that the ASM who did that was not there for the bits of business. And I’d got some friends out front. Anyway, the girl playing Myra came down immediately, because she comes on quite soon after Richard’s entrance, and I said, “Myra, Myra, darling, can you do the barometer business?” She said, “How is it done?” “I’ve no idea, darling,” I said, “but if you go over behind the flat, I’m sure you’ll see how it’s done and maybe you could do it, please.”
I went onto the stage. I knocked on the barometer. And it went up the wall and I thought, what on earth is happening? And I couldn’t think of any way of sort of capping it. So I could hear my friends out front howling with laughter. Well, of course, what had happened was that it was on a string and you just snipped it and down the barometer fell. What my colleague had done was to pull the string to get at it more easily with the scissors, which, of course, had made the barometer go up the wall. Anyway, I turned away, and I’d no sooner walked away from it than of course it crashed to the floor. My two friends laughed till the end of the play. God, it was funny.”
Sarah Vernon © 2004
[i] Peter Bridgmont — Actor, and author of Liberation of the Actor.
[ii] Leslie Bridgmont — BBC radio producer of comedy series such as Merry-Go-Round (1944 – 1948) and Much Binding in the Marsh (1953 – 1954).
[iii] James McTaggart — Writer, director and producer on the BBC’s The Wednesday Play series (1964 – 1970) and ITV’s Saturday Night Theatre (1969 – 1970), as well as writing and directing an adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass first shown on Christmas Day, 1973, and starring the likes of Brenda Bruce and Freddie Jones.
[iv] Tito Burns — Accordionist (Tito Burns’ Quartet), music promoter & manager whose clients at various times included Cliff Richard, and who was later Head of Entertainment at LWT.
[v] David Jacobs — Actor turned broadcaster: Juke Box Jury, What’s My Line?.
Originally published on R&V 04-07-04
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