A fortnight ago I was driven down to London and into the West End, to the heart of theatre land. I was dropped off in front of the Coliseum and promptly disappeared down a little passageway at the side, the narrowest alleyway in London. As we’d turned into Monmouth Street and approached St Martin’s Lane I commented that this had once been familiar territory to me but that was around forty-five years ago. Forty-five and nearly fifty years! I can hardly believe it. It seems almost like yesterday. Of course there have been changes. Monmouth Street looks much more prosperous than I remember and there seem to be so many more people around. Most of them, sadly, spilling out of the pubs and bars and standing with glasses in hand, drinking and crowding the pavements. It looks awful. You never used to see this. It was like it even down that narrow alleyway where with some care I had to thread my way through the throng and discover the door and doorbell of where I was to meet with two eminent men of the theatre.
As nearly everyone reading this will know, a very long time ago I used to be an actor. What you might not know is that I had the privilege of training under an extraordinary team of gifted and creative people, first at the Central School of Speech & Drama and then at Drama Centre, London, which I helped found. I was just seventeen when I went to Central and quite unaware of what I was letting myself in for but within weeks I had become one of a loyal and devoted band of students of that unusual group of teachers. Leading them as Director of what was known as the Stage Course was John Blatchley and with him on the team was the great Harold Lang who taught Stanislavsky’s method, and the jewel in the crown, the wonderful Yat Malmgren who taught Action and the Psychology of Movement. Each had their assistants and with Yat there was Christopher Fettes, who, when Drama Centre opened, was to emerge as not just a teacher but easily as the most intelligent and creative director that I ever encountered. The performances he could draw out of young and inexperienced students were unbelievable. At the end of my second year at Central when I was barely nineteen, Gwyneth Thurburn, the Principal of Central, dismissed Yat, and then the rest of the team resigned. When we students were told we were furious and we went too. And out of that little student revolution, Drama Centre, London was born. It was to talk over how we might tell that story that that evening I met with Christopher and another former student of Drama Centre, Simon Callow.
I had never met Simon and although I’d heard of him I’ve never seen him on stage. I knew that he’d studied at Drama Centre and I believe that was nearly ten years after I left. I knew too that during my time at the National Theatre, he’d worked there in the box office. He’s also in that book on Olivier that I get a mention in. So we had some common ground and quite a few memories of bygone days to share and get us talking. And then we got onto the beginnings of Drama Centre and the student revolution that succeeded. The three of us talked non-stop for nearly three hours and at the end agreed that this was a story that had to be told. So, the plan is that later this year or early next, we will film some conversations with Simon, probably in Christopher’s flat.
Now, you might ask why am I involved with this. The theatre is after all a world I walked out of long, long ago. But you see, it can’t help but remain part of me and that early training has informed and affected all that I have done since. Yat’s extraordinary work on the psychology of movement still surfaces in my thinking and perception. And Buddhist investigation into the nature of being is echoed in Stanislavsky’s approach to analysing and portraying a character. For example, Buddhism speaks of the volition or intention that lies to a greater or lesser extent behind what we say and do and Buddhists are encouraged to be aware of that and to investigate those intentions. Similarly, Stanislavsky requires the actor to continually ask of the text, what is the character trying to do? Then, Yat had an interest in Buddhism. I think the first Buddhist book that I ever thumbed through was one I found in his flat. Ten years ago, after Yat’s death, Christopher wrote to me and said of Yat that, ‘Buddhism had affected him profoundly at various stages in his career; never more so than towards the close of his life, when he had lost the school and with it an active career as a teacher.’ So, you see, this story is a part of my story.
We’ll have to see what comes of it but at the very least, it was a great evening.