The Writer’s Toolkit

 

Books for writers – to enlighten, encourage and inspire!

Oberon Books proudly announces the launch of The Writer’s Toolkit, which gathers together a list of helpful guides and inspirational memoirs to encourage and inspire professional and aspiring writers of all kinds.

Written by some of the finest practitioners in their fields, including David Quantick (Veep, The Thick of It) Ron Hutchinson (Moonlight and Magnolias, Traffic) and Glyn Maxwell (One Thousand Nights and Counting, Drinks With Dead Poets). Covering genres from screenwriting to journalism via poetry and drama within their pages, there’s a book for every type of writer.

As the UK’s foremost publisher of plays and books on the arts, Oberon Books is also fast becoming the go-to publisher for those who teach writing, and their students. The Writer’s Toolkit comprises six titles in all, with full details, blurbs and reviews being found HERE.

Books in the Series

Advertisements

Clinging to the Iceberg – writing for a living

Today’s the official publication day for a book that’s somehow managed to be funny and helpful in equal measure. Clinging to the Iceberg: Writing for a Living on the Stage and in Hollywood is wickedly funny, insightful, often absurd but always true. Writer-for-hire Ron Hutchinson takes us through his successful career via hilarious anecdotes including a near-death experience on Venice Beach, being paid by Dreamworks to not actually work for them, and struggling to stay sane on location on one of the great movie flops of all time. Here, Ron shares a checklist of sorts, for writers to consider before deciding if a draft’s complete. We hope you find it as helpful as he does!

What follows are some of the things you’re looking for when you read each draft. A stern warning. This is not to be read as a check-list, a series of mechanical actions to be ticked off. It’s a cloud, a swarm of suggestions put deliberately in no particular order.

The process of creation is messy, with mis-steps and false starts. It’s partly about your brain but it’s also about gut instinct which you’ll develop as you write. There are intestinal flora in the gut which react to stimuli faster than the organs of consciousness.

That’s why we say we feel things in our gut and I can confirm for you that one of my tests when I read a draft is whether my stomach is unsettled. When the writing goes wrong I literally feel my skin prickle and my temperature rise. In time you will be as attuned to the material as that.

The following are the things I watch for as I endlessly re-read my drafts. Sometimes quietly to myself, sometimes playing the characters. I do this not as an academic exercise but because they will help in going forward to the next draft. Anyone treating them as a tool for analysis will be escorted from the premises.

  • Does a scene seem to go on a beat too long?

  • Are all the scenes of the same length so there’s no rhythm to it?

  • Does a character you love have too much to say for themselves?

  • Are you assuming the reader/viewer will love him/her just as much and could you be wrong?

  • Do the jokes work?

  • Are you trying to do in dialogue what the camera will do with visuals?

  • Is what you think you are saying actually on the page?

  • Are you clear-eyed about the difference between what happens in a script and what it’s about?

  • Are two characters trying to do one character’s work?

  • Does A lead to B and B to C so that there is a chain of cause and effect from beginning to end?

  • Does what happened in scene three pay off in scene ninety-five or is it just there because you’re too lazy to strike it through?

  • Could you put the script aside and tell it from memory in one go? If you try that and keep stopping are you willing to examine why you hit a hiccup?

  • Could that be because there is no inner structural logic so it’s this page, this scene, this line where it’s all going wrong?

  • Have you understood that there’s real life time and movie time? That one of the joys of writing for the screen is that you can manipulate time, collapse it, and expand it but that one of its miseries is that even with the different conventions of movie time (the flashback, the flash forward, the reprise) you are locked into a linearity? That is, you can only have the viewer follow one darn thing after another and that split screens never really work as an attempt to get around this?

  • Are you clear that the screenplay is saying just enough to get what you see, literally see and hear, literally hear into the head of the person who is going to read it? That you haven’t mistaken it for an essay or short story or novel which must be complete in itself on the page? That it’s okay, indeed necessary, to have lots and lots of

    white space

    on

    the page

because otherwise the eye is wearied and your characters are talking too much and keep on talking and talking and talking and talking and talking and talking and talking and talking and what the reader wants to know is what is going to happen next?

As in happen. As in event. Because if drama is indeed the impact of event on character you need to have an external event pressing on their inner life and you are going to need your character express what has happened to them in some externalized, physical way.

Ron Hutchinson & Jonathan Ross

Clinging to the Iceberg is available from our website, here.
You can listen to Ron Hutchinson’s interview with Jonathan Ross here.
Or read about his memories of Marlon Brando on the set of The Island of Dr Moreau here.

BRAVADO – a foreword

BRAVADO is acclaimed artist Scottee‘s first published piece for the stage. It is a memoir of growing up surrounded by alcohol, violence, and a culture in which there is only one way to be a man. This blog is taken from Scottee’s foreword to the book

Sometimes you have to say things that may annoy folk because it’s the only way into discussing a painful truth. My painful truth is that I fear working class men.

I don’t like being around them, especially when they are drunk. I fear their capabilities, their loose tongues, banter, unpredictability, fast tempers and their appetite for violence.

I don’t like being on a train or bus, or waiting in public when groups of working class blokes are present, I fear encountering football supporters, stag do’s and lads on a night out – I worry what they might do to me, what they might say, what might happen – I fear their potential.

I hate talking to working class men, being in changing rooms or public toilets with them, going into boozers, greasy spoons or DIY shops. Any space working class blokes dominate creates a recognisable response of sweaty palms, my eyes darting around the room pre-empting danger and an umbrella of worry.

However, this fear isn’t one sided, it’s a mutual exchange of fear. They fear me and my effeminacy and they find it hard to hide it. They stare, they point, they laugh and nudge each other. Sometimes they take photos of me, sometime they chant insults or point me out of a crowd.

I pose a threat – I look like a man but I’ve abandoned the rules of so-called normative masculinities. To use the thinking of Nando Messias, I “misalign masculinity” and in doing so I wonderfully fail at traditional maleness; men are competitive and so this failure, this weakness cannot go unnoticed. It’s exposed because, in their eyes –  why or how could someone get it wrong? This exposure is a veiled misogyny – why would you devalue yourself from maleness? Why would you “choose” effeminacy?

Scottee

To complicate matters, I also love working class men, I am working class and some people might call me a man (an identifier I refuse). I’m married to a working class man and I’m sexually attracted to working class men. For the record, I refute this to be fetishisation – I’m not a middle class tourist seeking some rough trade in adidas tracksuit bottoms. I am rough, I am common, they are me, I am them – perhaps that’s where the biggest threat exists, that I represent the fragility of their commandments.

I equally loathe and love working class men – I live with a complex version of Stockholm syndrome or ‘trauma bond’ because of my violent, dominant encounters with blokes. These thoughts are often only truly understood by working class femmes who sleep with men – an unspoken contract of love and hatred we share but cannot shake, leaving us in a complex head space of feeling loved and used simultaneously.

In 2016, sat in a pub in Yorkshire, I opened my laptop and decided I would attempt to cleanse myself of this unearthed fear, dread and worry. I purged all of my early, formative experiences with working class masculinity into a document, the result is my first text for stage.

BRAVADO includes four very graphic accounts of what happens when a child is subjected to working class maleness in a cultural climate of aggressive and sensitive masculinity. Its explores sexual and domestic violence, post traumatic stress disorder, abuse and revenge.

What you should know is that this work comes with a massive dead weight of familial guilt – the stories recounted are of family who have since changed their stripes, who have fought their addictions and demonstrated to me their capabilities of love, softness and affection. They have turned their lives around. But BRAVADO doesn’t explore that, only because this text explores my world from 1990 to 1999.

It’s important I mention that this work also comes with lashings of fear – I fear what might happen by putting my experience out there. I fear drawing attention to myself so men can see me plainly. I fear what the men in question might do should they find this text. What happens should they read the fact I’ve got brave enough to out them but not brave enough to confront them. This is how maleness and misogyny succeed: they live off our fear and off their potential – it’s time to relinquish it.

This book isn’t an easy read for you or me. You have been warned.

– Scottee, August 2017.

You can learn more about BRAVADO and order your copy here. Find out about BRAVADO on tour, and buy tickets here

Remembering Sir Peter Hall: 1930-2017

There will be many tributes to the great Sir Peter Hall. As his publisher it is only right that I add my own fond memories.

My association with Peter began in 2000 when his then agent, Mike Shaw of Curtis Brown, invited me to lunch at Bentley’s oyster bar in Piccadilly. The choice of a smart venue already told me that it was to be an important conversation. As Mike focussed his penetrating gaze on my every move, for about an hour the conversation seemed to meander around various topics until I asked “Mike you haven’t brought me here to talk about love, life, art and death. What is it?” ‘Peter Hall’, he said. Mike wanted Oberon to publish The Peter Hall Diaries and Peter’s autobiography Making an Exhibition of Myself. My first question was ‘How much?’, and I played cool when the answer came. But both books had already been published and allowed to go out of print. Not wanting Oberon to become a reprint house, I stuck my neck out and said ‘Would we get the next book?’

The swift answer was ‘That will be another £…..’ ‘Done,’ I replied, still acting cool. We shook hands on the deal and from then on Peter and I developed a warm and exciting working relationship.

Peter Hall Rehearsing The Oresteia, 1981, ©Nobby Clark

It was a turning point in Oberon’s history. We were 15 years old and the list was a lot shorter than it is now. But Mike had persuaded the great man that we were going places. It was arranged that I meet Peter with his publicist Lynne Kirwin at a small seafood restaurant in Chelsea. The meeting went well and the restaurant (Le Suquet, now gone) became the hideaway where Peter and I would meet from time to time and discuss his new ideas for books in privacy.

The overnight turn-around in Oberon’s fortunes was like Manna from Heaven. The great Sir Peter had turned to this small publisher in Holloway, while we were still struggling for credibility and prominence in the theatre industry. The mood changed. ‘If they’re good enough for Peter Hall, then they’re good enough for me.’ So went the buzz round the Business, in particular literary agents who had mainly dealt with the big publishers.

So we surged ahead with the Diaries, the Autobiography and a new book, Exposed by the Mask, Peter’s Trinity Lectures on Beckett, Pinter, Mozart and Shakespeare.

‘The wisest and most stimulating short book about theatre since Peter Brook’s The Empty Space’ Charles Spencer, Sunday Telegraph.

Peter became ever more loyal and ever more meticulous about the preparation of his books. As they say, he liked to get the ink on his fingers. He missed nothing, and he taught me many things about my own job. How does a book on acting become a real and useful teaching tool? It was Peter who shaped the layout and typesetting of Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players making a complex guide look simple. Often criticised for being an ‘Iambic Fundamentalist’ when it comes to Shakespeare, Peter stuck to his guns. He didn’t like actors inserting pauses and line breaks where none were intended. It all had to come ‘trippingly on the tongue’ as Hamlet says to the Players.  I understood what he meant when I once heard an excruciating recitation of a Sonnet by a student actor who inserted pauses you could drive a bus through. It broke the flow, we lost our focus, and it was an emasculated performance.

Peter Hall, Dec 2007 ©Nobby Clark

We launched Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players at the National Theatre. On the way I picked Peter up at a church hall in Clapham where had had been rehearsing all day. Arriving at the National just in time, Peter stepped out of the car, walked straight into the building to the vast stage of the Lyttelton, and delivered a thirty minute talk to a full house without using any notes. Afterwards, he patiently signed books for many fans waiting in a very long line.

Ever in awe of Peter I always topped my emails with his full title ‘Sir Peter Hall, CBE’ before the more familiar ‘Dear Peter’.  I once asked him why he chose Oberon to publish his work. His response was unequivocal. ‘You publish new writers.’ That enthusiasm for new work ran through his career. He must have known that he was giving new writing a massive boost by joining Oberon.

I tried to return his loyalty whenever there was an opportunity. When Peter and his team were in Denver mounting Tantalus, the ten play cycle by John Barton, there was a dispute over cuts. So I rang his secretary at the Denver residence in case any cuts would be made to the text. It soon became clear that happiness among the team was in short supply. So I offered to take everyone to dinner to cheer them up. ‘But you’re in London!’ Well, it’s only a six hour flight and I was in Denver by the next day. For politeness’ sake the booking had been made for the coffee shop in a smart downtown hotel. A coffee shop? This would never do, so I rushed to the other end of the building to the hotel’s grander restaurant. Passing Peter and his secretary in the lobby I heard Peter say ‘He sussed that out in thirty seconds.’ But there was still an obstacle ahead. The Maître D said imperiously that the restaurant was fully booked. I despaired. I had just flown in from London to take eight people to dinner and no table. Only a bold gesture could help me now – the time honoured $100 bill quickly produced out of my back pocket. A table was promptly found.

At the start of dinner I studied the wine list with prices soaring to $4000 plus. Peter leaned over and whispered in my ear. ‘James, a $50 bottle will do.’

I still adore him.

Peter Hall, 2009 ©Nobby Clark

– James Hogan, Publisher, Oberon Books

Hamlet comes to BBC Two

We are delighted to learn of the planned screening of Robert Icke’s Hamlet on BBC Two in 2018. As huge fans of Robert Icke‘s work and of this production, the screening – commissioned by Patrick Holland (Controller, BBC Two) and Emma Cahusac (Commissioning Editor) – gets two thumbs up from all of us at Oberon HQ. It’s always wonderful to see any steps taken to make great theatre more accessible for everyone, and this decision means people can now watch a stunning modern production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the comfort of home, wherever they are in the country!

This production – which transferred to the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre after its sell-out run at the Almeida earlier this year – stars Sherlock‘s Andrew Scott as Hamlet, Angus Wright as Claudius, Jessica Brown Findlay as the tragic Ophelia and Juliet Stevenson as Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. It has also cast Guildenstern as a woman (Madeline Appiah) which adds a new and really interesting dimension to Hamlet’s relationship with Guildenstern.

Robert Icke’s modern take remains faithful to the original Shakespearean text, but somehow manages to feel fresh, relatable and up-to-date. It has received unanimous praise, being called ‘thrilling’ (The Stage), ‘rich and beautiful’ (Evening Standard) and ‘masterly’ (Variety). You can read more reviews here.

Another exciting aspect of this TV adaptation is the potential for it to be used in classrooms, alongside the text, to help students appreciate and engage with the play. Reading a Shakespeare play on the page just cannot be compared with hearing and seeing it performed in real time, in terms of understanding the language and the characters. With such a star-studded cast, and a modern Danish setting, this is sure to be a popular choice for English and drama teachers and their pupils.

You can learn more about Robert Icke’s Hamlet, and buy your own copy HERE

Regrettably: notes on ‘How To Win Against History’

How to Win Against History is a musical retelling of the life of Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquis of Anglesey (1875 – 1905). He was born to inherit the Empire, but instead he burned brightly, briefly and transvestitely through his family’s vast wealth; putting on fabulous plays starring him.
Written, composed and performed by Seiriol Davies, this fabulous show has been a huge hit at the Edinburgh fringe for the second year running, and is touring the UK throughout 2017.
In this blog, Seiriol talks about how he first learned that Henry Cyril even existed.

“I grew up on Ynys Mon, a.k.a. Anglesey, a.k.a. The Druidic Haven of the Celts, a.k.a. The Flat Bit Before You Get To The Irish Ferry. It’s a barreny, lovely, salty sort of place. Henry Cyril Paget also lived there, which is handy.

While we’ve been making HTWAH, I’ve said this particular story so many times that I’ve a bit lost track of exactly how true it is (oh my god look: thematic relevance), but my recollection is I used to make my parents take me to Plas Newydd, which is the Paget family’s estate on Anglesey, over and over again as a boy. Of course, it may have been like twice and I just sucked it all in through my hungry, mad child-eyes in such detail that it felt like loads.
And I should say it’s a National Trust place, we didn’t just turn up at somebody’s house with me in the back seat, goggle-eyed and absorbing key memories for later musical theatre projects.

In fact, my mum has in her retirement expressed an interest in working at Plas Newydd and becoming one of those powerful-looking National Trust ladies who dwell by the fireplaces in an angora cardie waiting to tell you what that weird Game of Thronesy thing is (it’s probably a long-range bedpan) or to point vehemently at the ‘stop prodding that’ sign, or to pose for the odd awkward group selfie with a family in velourette anoraks from Wisconsin.
And I for one think this would be very exciting.

But anyway, there were two key reasons why I wanted to go there so much:

(i) The mural by painter Rex Whistler (the non-Whistler’s Mother one) which is all Italianate froufferies and phantastickal towers and harbour-folk, and is well worth the twenty minute tour guide talk-through, as it does things with foreshortening that beggar belief. Like, if you as a viewer do a nifty crab-walk along the floor in front of it, it can make a sailboat seem to sail out of the harbour before your very eyes while not moving at all in real life because it is a painting and this is not Harry Potter. Or at least, that is what the tour guide claimed, and my response was to just glare at it until I could sufficiently motivate myself to believe I could see what she was talking about.

But in any case, it’s a bit Where’s Wally and a bit Magic Eye and I was so preoccupied with it that we’ve now got a framed copy of it up by the sink in the kitchen in my flat. And I’m fairly sure that, if it wasn’t positioned where the glassware cupboard door slammed into it with alarming enthusiasm every time I open it, I would have by now found the peace to enter its zone and divine its secrets while washing the wine glasses of a Tuesday morning. But, as it is, I just get mesmerised and accidentally smack it again with the cupboard door.

(b) The small collection of laminated, photocopied snaps of Henry Cyril which were grudgingly stuck on the wall next to the toilet by the back porch. Now, as context, the pictures of the other, preceding Marquises (NB Other people seem to say ‘Marquess’, but I tend to prefer ‘Marquis’. I’m not sure why; I think maybe cos Henry seemed to favour it that way, and I’m just some ratbag socialisty commoner with Radio 4 affectations, so I’ve allowed myself to pick which spelling I fancied. Do get in touch, DeBrett’s) are not exhibited in the same laminatey toilet zone; their pictures are painted in oil, hanging in big gold frames in rooms you actually hang out in, or they are immortalised as busts, or full-body statues on top of huge columns erected looming over Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (a nearby village) as a deliberate copying of Nelson’s Column in London.

Well, one of them has that. The first Marquis was a hero at the battle of Waterloo (by which we presumably mean he stood in a big hat at the back telling some poor people to run that way) and was so British that, when his leg got blown off by a cannon shell, The Duke of Wellington, who was next to him, looked down and said “By Jove, sir, I think your leg’s been blown off” and Paget looked down and said “By Jove, sir, I think you’re right”. For these services to hats, shouting and limb-removal-not-noticing, he got himself a Column, which is probably one of NW Wales’s top Columns, and I really mean that.

The fact that it was this sort of lineage Henry Cyril was coming from makes it no real surprise that he got relegated to the Gallery De Toilette, because…
I mean look at him. Google Image Search ‘Henry Cyril Paget’ and look at them outfits.

Aren’t they stu-hunn-ing? Doesn’t he look like Freddie Mercury drove through Elizabeth Duke’s wearing a sellotape suit?

Henry Cyril Paget and Seiriol Davies

I drank them in, those pictures, though not really identifying very much with the whole fabulousness thing. I’ve never been an extravagant dresser per se, apart from a brief phase when I took to tying bright scarves to the belt loops of my skater jeans in an attempt to look like a sort of sexy satyr, but ended up looking (as a friend helpfully pointed out) “as though my butt was wearing a cape”. And, at the time of seeing the images,
I was probably wearing a Homer Simpson T-shirt, urban camo trousers and Hi-Tecs.

But there’s just something about him in those pictures. Okay, sure, there’s the millions of poundsworth of costume budget; but there’s also the sort of ‘don’t give a fig’ attitude he has which I loved: that he’s gazing out, dressed for some reason as a prog rock chandelier, telling the world to fig off, the bunch of motherfiggers.

And reading the little inscription underneath, which said (spoiler alert) that he’d ruined himself, died young and been expunged from the family history as comprehensively as possible – with all the letters, photos and diaries his family could find, burnt – set off my little internal bell of moral outrage. And so, because I believe in swift, decisive action, I decided to make a play about it twenty years later.

But over all that time, the simplicity of that feeling hasn’t really changed, despite growing-upness making it clear the whole thing’s more complicated, what with issues of privilege and stuff like that.

Because that’s Henry. Even though on paper he’s not the most obviously sympathetic character (“Hey come see my show about this dead white millionaire and how hard his life was. Come back please!”) people have just seemed to warm to him. Due to some combination of his defiance, his outsideryness writ on such a massive, Imperial scale and the fact that we know hardly anything about his internal life (due to the aforementioned bonfire), people seem to be able to pour themselves into him. Because I reckon most of us, at least some of the time, think we’re an outsider in a world that everyone else gets. And whatever our actual ambitions, very few of us are quite so extravagantly emo as to want no trace of us to exist after death.

Also yes, his outfits are life-giving.

I wanted to make something that redressed the balance a tiny bit; that told at least a version of his story as pieced together from a lot of extraordinary events with no internal monologue. With songs and me in a dress and a gag about Keira Knightley.

However, the truth is: there is a bit more stuff that survived the fire. I was lucky enough to have the help of Lily and Christopher Sykes, who are descendants of the actual real life Lilian from her second marriage, as well as Prof Viv Gardner, fabulous performance historian at the University of Manchester. With their help – as well as some lovely people who’ve written to me either when they heard we were making, or having seen, the show – I’ve got a few more tidbits.

Based on the conversations I’ve had with people after the show (sample:
“So, did he really exist?” “Yes. Did I forget to say that several times in the show?” “No, but I thought that was you making it more clear that he didn’t exist.” “Surely that would be quite a weird way of saying that.” “Yeah, but you are quite weird.” “Good point. A Strongbow Dark Fruits please.” “Strongbow Dark Fruits. Really?” “Don’t judge me.”) I thought it’d be good to talk a bit around the story, to weave some of these bits of tid into the script; to show how the show matches up with the true-life story as much as I know it.

I might be wrong, you might think this a very tiresome thing to do, but anyway I’ve done it now. And you can buy it here.”

 – Seiriol Davies, Woolwich, Friday 6th Jan 2017

Oberon have published both the annotated script edition, and the musical score in the songbook edition. The annotated script contains many footnotes (feenote) from Seiriol’s research, while the song book contains the fully-transcribed piano and vocal arrangements for all fourteen songs from the show, so you can have a sherry and sing any of the glamorous roles.

Aboard the Victory O

This funny and touching memoir was originally written by Jonathan Miller for a celebratory volume of essays by colleagues and friends of stage and screen actor Laurence Olivier. It is published in the collection One Thing And Another: Selected Writings 1954-2016, published by Oberon Books and edited by Ian Greaves.

“I first met him informally at parties after Beyond the Fringe. He saw the show and was, I suspect, slightly irritated by our Shakespeare sketch. He had sat in a box and it got backstage that he was not conspicuously amused.

My first professional contact with him was when Ken Tynan edited a television programme called Tempo, which was commercial television’s answer to Monitor. With his wonderful flair for what is fashionable, Tynan had asked us to do a regular satirical spot. In the opening programme this was a pastiche of C. P. Snow written by Alan Bennett, a high-table scene of people drinking, wearing gowns and so forth, and bandying conversation about. On the same programme Larry was being interviewed by George Harewood about the opening of Chichester.

Jonathan Miller, then & now

We were on first but we began ‘corpsing.’ There were two takes, three takes, and Larry was obviously amused by the fact that the young lads couldn’t do it. By the fourth take we could see him getting more and more impatient at these dreadful amateurs. It took something like 20 takes before we got it right, by which time he was thoroughly nettled, if only because we’d kept him waiting so long.

Then I didn’t see him for some while, by which time I’d blotted my copybook quite badly with him. When I saw his performance as Othello, I told a journalist that while I couldn’t help but admire the extraordinary bravura, energy and detail of it, I wasn’t all that impressed by the performance as a whole. He was understandably annoyed by this – or I heard he was – and looking back I can understand just how he felt and I’m rather surprised he ever asked me to direct anything. However, some years later I was doing my first and only feature film – an unspeakable catastrophe – and was sitting in the commissariat at Elstree when a message came through saying ‘Laurence Olivier on the phone.’ I thought it was Alan Bennett or Peter Cook. Anyway, a hoax. I came to the phone and heard this voice saying, ‘Dear boy… This is Laurence Olivier here… Joanie wants to do The Merchant of Venice and would love you to direct it.’ No question of him acting in it, no mention of that at all.

I was blushing at the thought of what I had said about his Othello. ‘I would love to,’ I managed to say and I mentioned doing a nineteenth-century version. He said, ‘Whichever way you want to.’ Later I saw from his book that he came up with the idea. It may well be that we both thought of it. But, anyway, it then gradually became apparent that he was going to do Shylock. Now, whether he had thought this all along and had decided to delay committing himself until he found out whether I had an idea which coincided with his own, or one which he could approve of, the fact is that he came to the first reading knowing the part perfectly. Not like the other actors.

This was so characteristic of him. He’s very Machiavellian and although this has its drawbacks, there was always something glamorous about his political calculation. It was like working for Diocletian.

Before rehearsals I had a lot of difficulty eliminating ideas of which he had been persuaded by Ken Tynan, who had in turn been persuaded by Orson Welles. The idea, for example, that Bassanio should play all three suitors, including the black one, in order to get the right casket. There was another idea that Portia would present herself in court in a wheelchair. In any case there were a lot of encrustations – Tynan’s rather than Olivier’s – which I had to careen before I could find the clean lines of the play. Eventually we came to an agreement, which also involved persuading him to drop an enormous amount of make-up – false nose, ringlets, a Disraeli beard, all adding up to a sort of George Arliss. I said, ‘Larry, please’ – as a Jew I felt embarrassed – ‘please, we’re not quite like that, not all of us.’ He then said a wonderful thing: ‘In this play, dear boy, which we are about to perform, we must at all costs avoid offending the Hebrews. God, I love them so.’ ‘The best way to do that, Larry,’ I said, ‘is to drop these pantomime trappings which are offensive and unnecessary.’ He agreed to drop the ringlets.

But he had invested in extremely expensive dentures which gave him his strong prognathous look – based, I think, on a member of the National Theatre Board – and he was so attached to them in both senses that I felt I would have been a terrible spoilsport to object to them. He used to go round the corridors of the National Theatre seeing whether anyone knew he had them in. He would give interviews to journalists wearing them. He loved them so much and he looked rather good in them – and I couldn’t bring myself to object!

Still from The Merchant of Venice

In the event we did a lot of horse-trading. I would give him ideas and he would exploit them. He never tried to push rank. He has what all really great actors have – an expedient recognition of good business. If you have a good idea he’ll take it from you regardless. If not he will go on to ‘automatic pilot,’ or rather he’ll take over the controls himself.

I suggested the little dance, at the moment when Tubal tells him Antonio’s ships have gone down. I also suggested that he entered bearing Jessica in his arms when he discovers her flight. This reminded the audience subliminally of Lear and Cordelia – another father ‘betrayed’ by his daughter. I suggested his crying at the end, though not in any way which he didn’t utterly make his own. He always looks for a memorable effect at some critical moment and I remember him saying, ‘Oh God, I’ve done a fit, a fall, I cannot possibly fart!’ I said, ‘Why not try humiliated, terrible crying. I can’t do it, but I know you can.’ Off he went and gave it this curious unparaphrasable energy and vehemence which did actually freeze the blood. I remember him saying, ‘Oh dear boy,’ and there was a look of brimming gratitude in his eyes. He has an absolutely wonderful, really humble magnanimity. If something is good, it doesn’t matter who or where it comes from.

When the Merchant opened I became aware of his stagefright, as he called it. I didn’t know it was that, not until three or four days into the run. He certainly never spoke about it during rehearsals or run-throughs or on the first night.

I was standing in the wings one night and could see, in that rather unnatural light coming from elsewhere which you see from the darkness of the wings – a look of shocked terror on his face, beads of sweat on the make-up and his eyes staring as if they were behind a mask. I couldn’t detect anything more than a hesitation. I knew, though, from brief moments of stagefright in Beyond the Fringe, that what to an outside observer seems like a thirtieth-second is half an hour for the victim. He then confessed to me that he had these moments of appalling, shattering lapses in which he forgot his words and the earth stood still. There was a night when he actually forgot the things that a Jew has: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?…’ One was almost tempted to say, ‘Hath not a Jew elbows!’

Still from The Merchant of Venice

After the event he was wonderfully humorous about it, but I should imagine from the drenched and exhausted way in which he came off stage it was far from funny. I think it happens to a lot of people as they get older. It was obviously more than mere forgetfulness. It was the terror of a moment of standing outside himself and seeing himself suspended in the night sky of a theatrical performance, illuminated by all those lights, watched by dimly visible faces – and frozen. It must have been a horrible experience.

But he seemed to recover from it because far from retiring as he threatened to do, he came back with redoubled vigour in Long Day’s Journey into Night. He has this curious and startling immortality, which became part of his charisma. He would be fatally ill one moment and the next moment he’d be back on stage doing a part of heroic length with some superbly accomplished piece of business, giving the performance of his life. Everything about him as a public performer is to do with being unexpected, unpredictable – Machiavellian in fact.

His ability to shift with the tide is also absolutely astonishing. There was a time when, despite the noble glamour of his roles in Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), he belonged, for a lot of younger people, to another era. The slightly clipped tones, the romantic, matinée idol; nothing whatever to do with us, and we all thought he was yesteryear. Then quite suddenly he was doing Archie Rice with brilliant modern seediness. He took on the very thing which denied everything he had been. In place of the glossy, beautiful, noble, grand creature of earlier days, he was suddenly scratching the inside leg of his awful check-trousers as a seedy comic, offending all the ladies who had adored him. He renewed himself in this act of metamorphosis – a sort of phoenix performance. It’s part of his Machiavellian strategy: be unexpected, come back as something else. If they think you’re dead, spring to life; if they think you’re passé, change your course. Identify with the enemy, join them, and then beat them. No one else could manage to be as protean, as Machiavellian, as self-serving – and remain so lovable.

Those of us who knew him as a father, as a leader of the National Theatre, saw he had what he had always wanted, as a great patriotic Englishman: control of the whole show. He was always the great commanding officer. He would have loved to have been the captain of the flagship which sank the Bismarck. He always wanted to serve his majesty and there he was, in command of this grounded boat, 15 brass rings on his sleeve and a bridge of his own.

The very set-up of the National, the offices in Aquinas Street, was like Pompey’s galley, or like the shacks on those HMS training ships which are on land. It was absolutely made for him. Whatever competitiveness he might have had among his peers was now sublimated into running his ship, dispensing largesse, interest, and patronage to younger actors. His eminence had been recognized and a lot of otherwise competitive energies were turned to totally benevolent purposes. He loved the thunder of feet on the companionway. He was always speaking down the tube, lots of clang-clangs to the engine-room, backings and churnings of propellers, and people brought up unexpectedly to the bridge. He had genuine interest in the welfare of his staff, like a first class Captain on a battleship. ‘Sign on. Everyone is expected to do their duty.’ And because of this he created an enormous competitive admiration and filial affection amongst those who worked for him.”

One Thing And Another is a collection of Jonathan Miller’s thoughts on subjects as varied as human behaviour, atheism, satire, cinema and television, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, modern medicine and opera. It is published by Oberon Books and is available from our website.