Last Friday Alex talked to Al Senter in the series "In Conversation With..." at the Lyttelton Theatre. The conversation took place in the set of "The Habit of Art", with a small tea table placed just in front where the men had their tea. The talk started with Al Senter asking most of the questions, but later on the audience got to ask their own. I took notes and will try to give an idea of the various topics that came up.
Alex was recently heard reading the part of Oliver Lacon in the new BBC radio adaptations of the Smiley books. This brought him back to the start of his career, because his first television appearance was as PC Hall in "Smiley's People". He had to turn a body over and be sick. The job did give him the chance to work with Alec Guinness. "He taught me what a mark is", according to Alex. His appearance in the tv series was short, but he later met Alec Guinness again and had lunch with him a couple of times.
Alex is a contributor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and has already written some ten pieces. He says he got involved in this in an "anoraky way". He got in touch with them, pointing out certain omissions in the dictionary, for example Kenneth More and Kay Kendall, and he was then asked to be a contributor. "You have to be dead to be in it". He has written pieces on, for example, Kay Kendall, Maurice Denham and Michael Bryant, and he will write on Ian Richardson, Elizabeth Spriggs and Paul Scofield.
Alex went to the theatre more often in the past, when he was at school, university and drama school, than he does now, and he used to go to see particular performers rather than directors. He doesn't prefer a specific type of acting but "a raft of different approaches". Favourites were Ralph Richardson, who "dazzled and intrigued", Cyril Cusack, Paul Scofield in anything, John Wood and Angela Lansbury in "Gypsy".
The creation of "The Habit of Art" was an odd process, it went from a rehearsal room to a rehearsal room. It was a little like rehearsing in front of an audience, which was quite relaxing. Alex does feel that rehearsing is a private process, which should not be seen by the audience. He finds the presence of cameras for a programme like the South Bank Show quite unsettling. There was some talk of installing a viewing gallery in one of the rehearsal rooms at the National Theatre, but that idea horrifies him. There was such a gallery in the Archers studio when he worked there a couple of years ago, but there is a curtain there now. "It's our business", he says.
Alex is passionate about Britten and his music, and he wanted to be in a play by Alan Bennett. He is always happy to get the laughs, though they don't always happen at the same moment. "Prince Charles loved it, he was laughing when other people weren't."Alex had another actor in mind as a model for Henry, but he won't say who. There was some debate during rehearsals about Britten and that sometimes got heated. Alex about Britten: "He sat on the edge of the bath, but didn't get in". If something had happened with the boys that would have come out by now. The boys had all enjoyed working with Britten, and were hurt to be turned away when their voices broke and they were no longer useful for the music. Alex now feels "slightly fed up with playing real people". He thought he played a sympathetic Charles, but not everybody agreed. He feels the same about Britten.
Alex does a lot of readings and audiobooks. He reads the books beforehand, but he is not a fast reader and doesn't always manage to finish the book on time. He was once almost caught out when, after the first day of a four day reading, it turned out that the four characters he had been playing were in fact one character, and he didn't know. He knows this kind of thing happens to other actors too. Alex usually casts the books in his mind so he can attach another actor's face and voice to a character. He has just finished recording a series of children's books, The Edge Chronicles, where he gave the different kinds of creatures different regional accents. He likes to do radio and is sometimes disappointed to find other actors take the parts he has done for radio into film. That happened, for example, with Graham Greene's "THe End of the Affair", which he recorded with Emma Fielding and which he was particularly happy with. Ralph Fiennes played the part in the film.
Alex will be appearing in "Candide" in Japan in August, and then in a new production of "My Fair Lady" in Paris in December. Both will be directed by Robert Carson. Margaret Tyzack will play Higgins' mother in Paris, with Nicholas le Prevost playing Pickering. The piece will be performed in English. Emma Thompson has written the screenplay for a film version, but Alex doesn't consider playing Higgins in that one a real possibility.
He likes to play both comedy and straight plays, and he enjoys getting the laughs. He has no cause to complain about the way his career has turned out so far, though at the moment he has some nostalgia for the ages 35 to 45. He gets to play more fathers now, often to pretty daughters as in Cranford. A few years ago he decided to try to get more work in television, to get some bigger parts. He very much enjoyed being in Cranford. There was a cake day every week during the shooting, with cakes spread out on a big table in the reverend Hutton's church. Julia McKenzie made the best merengues.
He would like to do more audiobooks, more Dickens, but the market seems saturated. Everything seems to be available now. He enjoys doing unabridged readings. "So you can do all the parts". There will be more Woman's Hour drama, the next Dickens will probably be "A Tale of Two Cities". Alex: "I have asked if Dickens can play the part of Sydney Carton".
The question if "The Habit of Art" gives a truthful insight into the presence of the writer in the theatre and the rehearsal process, leads Alex to say that "Alan is completely open and unprecious about his writing". Alex goes into Alan Bennett mode, when asked to illuminate on the text he goes "Ooh, I don't know". He seems well able to impersonate Bennett, but says he will not play him. Working with David Hare on "stuff Happens" meant changes to the script every day, whith an author who was much better informed than the actors. For Speer, David Edgar and Gitta Sereny were both present, and Sereny had know Speer. But Alex continues: "I'd like to have done more new work than I've done, I've done mainly dead writers". And about the actors in relation to the authors: "We have to be adaptable, we're just here to serve", with a little smile.
Comedians he grew up with were Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and Frankie Howerd. The comedy he loved, however, was that of Hollywood's Golden Age, the screwball comedies made by Cary Grant and William Powell, who "got to be suave and wear tuxedos". The greatest influence was the film "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines", bits of which he used throughout his career. "His Girl Friday" was a dream to do for Alex, playing the Cary Grant character. "I'd love to work with Zoe (Wanamaker) again", he says.
Part of his career was determined by the need to pay the mortgage. He has had to turn down parts with theatres that could not afford to pay very much. "There were some fairly rocky moments" (financially). With his partner Lesley he has raised two children. His partner also works, "my career was enabled by her", he says. The present financial crisis isn't doing actors much good. There are fewer parts in film and tv, and actors get paid less for the work than they did ten years ago.
He did some directing at university, but now he has "no desire whatsoever to direct".
The most challenging and satisfying part he has played was Hamlet. He thought he'd left it too late, but he did get to play it. He was very much on the same wavelength as director Matthew Warchus, so it worked very well. It took him a long time to let go of the part and he didn't see the play again until Simon Russell Beale played the role. Even then he had trouble hearing some lines, wondering why he didn't say that line like that.
He loves working at the National Theatre, also because he doesn't live too far away. Another favourite theatre is Stratford, partly because of the way he got to develop his career there. He loved playing Higgins at the huge stage of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. He also likes the huge stage at the Coliseum. His partner said of this: "Finally, darling, you've found the right theatre for you".
As for future plans and parts he would like to play. He has given up on MacBeth, but he would love to have a go at Sweeney Todd. He is aware of the limitations of his voice, but he will try the part with his singing teacher.
After the session in the Lyttelton Alex signed autographs in the foyer of the theatre. There was quite a queue, but he took time to talk to all people interested.