Putting poetry in mo­tion

The ac­tor on Bet­je­man’s bril­liance and why there’s noth­ing wrong with a fal­low pe­riod

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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 ’

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