Putting poetry in motion
The actor on Betjeman’s brilliance and why there’s nothing wrong with a fallow period
Edward Fox tells Jack Watkins about Betjeman’s brilliance
In his early days of stardom, Edward Fox played a cold assassin in the British thriller The Day of the Jackal. It’s an image that’s difficult to square with the engaged, warm and attentive gentleman sitting opposite me to discuss his latest acting project. ‘He has perhaps the most courteous smile in films,’ reads his entry in The Encyclopedia of British Film. I heartily concur. Even the dimples have dimples, as Bob Hope might have said, and he laughs easily and generously.
However, superficially speaking, it’s no easier to imagine him as Sir John Betjeman in his touring one-man play Sand in the Sandwiches. The late Poet Laureate was bald and had a frame like a sagging armchair, whereas Mr Fox, at 80, is trim and dapper and has a full head of neatly combed hair.
He’s aware of the discrepancy: ‘I said to Hugh Whitemore [playwright] “I don’t look like him.” He said: “It doesn’t matter. What’s more important is conveying what goes on within the man.” From that point of view, liking Betjeman enormously and feeling so close to him that one felt one shared a little bit of his shoes, I thought “Well, I’ll do it”.’
I tell Mr Fox we hold a mutual admiration for Betjeman’s writing. As a young conservation journalist in the late 1980s, I revered him for poems such as Slough and for his architectural references, but his emotional subtleties flew over me. Just before this interview, however, I read Devonshire Street W1, which features in Sand in the Sandwiches, and it sliced me in two.
‘It’s wonderful,’ Mr Fox agrees, ‘yet it’s only four short verses. Another poem, Inevitable, have you read that? Cuts you to pieces. As a younger person, you fix on the lovely poems that go round in your head, but, once you examine the scope of his work, which doing this play got me doing, you realise that, actually, he’s a remarkable poet, transmitting straight through to the reader.
‘Everything in the play is from Betjeman’s words and there’s this line in which he says: “Milton is a far greater poet than me.” Well, try reading Milton now. For you and me, not comprehensible unless we really work at it. I got Hugh to put in the poem The Town Clerk’s Views, which is a terrific satire, better read than spoken probably because it’s quite complicated, but it still gets though to an audience.’
Perhaps the greatest hope for Sand in the Sandwiches is that it brings Betjeman to new audiences and reminds older ones of his real quality. Thirty-three years after his death, he still bears some celebrity fame for his chummy, often revived TV documentaries, but there’s a danger that the poems are fading.
‘In a way, that’s true of all the greatest. Think of composers such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. They all had enormously long, fallow decades after their deaths,’ points out Mr Fox, turning to Shakespeare with ‘Since things in motion sooner catch the eye than what not stirs’. ‘It’s a wonderful speech by Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, in which he says Time washes everything away, so it’s not unusual that a fine poet like Betjeman should find time leaving him in a fallow field.’
The play had a short run at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, a rare outbreak of middle-ground quality in a West End scene dominated by musical blockbusters. ‘It was a bold initiative to put a rather unlikely candidate like this on for a week, but the audiences were very good, very warm,’ the actor agrees.
He’s looking forward to the run at the historic Theatre Royal, Bath: ‘It’s a wonderful theatre. The Victorians built great theatres, but, in terms of real style, they don’t match the few remaining Georgian ones and their quality of the association between the audience and the stage, which must have been inherited from Elizabethan theatres.’
Mr Fox is no stranger to provincial theatre, having cut his teeth on the repertory circuit. He must have some stories to tell from that lost era, but, whereas brother James has written an autobiography, don’t expect one from him. ‘I don’t think it would be very interesting, really. People do it because they need the money, which is fair enough, but I don’t think I’ve anything to say.’
Surely, I argue, there’s a tale to be told about staying at the top of his profession and working consistently for more than 45 years? ‘Well, I’ve been a working actor for 60 years,’ he corrects, ‘and I’ve had long periods when I’ve been out of work for months, but this is normal. There are actors who seem to work all the time, but I don’t think you can and be any good. You’ll be bad quite a lot of the time anyway, but I think when you take something on, you’ve got to able to say to yourself, which I hope I have, that I think this is something worth doing and that I can bring something to it that’s going to be of use.’
Mr Fox certainly brings true dedication to his art and craft. This is a genuine touring play, involving him staying at hotels in the towns in which he’s performing, looked after by the show’s company and assistant stage managers. ‘There’s no other way of doing it, I find, as you must spend the whole day preparing for your performance,’ he explains.
It’s not always appreciated how physically and mentally draining the acting process can be, but Mr Fox has found time for our interview having done two shows the day before, with one to follow a few hours afterwards. Bath concludes the run, after which he’ll return to the home in Dorset he shares with his actress wife, Joanna David (Emilia Fox interview, May 31).
Unlike Betjeman on his West Country forays, he’ll be too shattered to stop at all the churches along the way, but he’ll doubtless be with him in spirit. Jack Watkins
‘When you take something on, you’ve got to be able to say to yourself that it’s something worth doing ’