John Gielgud, now Sir John Gielgud, or to be more precise, the late Sir John Gielgud, back in the days when he was just plain John Gielgud, was giving an acting class, and one of the students asked him about the importance of the pregnant pause.
‘Oh no, my boy, you must never pause! Once, when I was doing the soliloquy from Hamlet, I paused, and heard this outraged female voice, “Oh no, you horrid beast! You’ve just come all over my umbrella!” No, never, ever pause!’
Now I know I’m an old fart, as was witnessed by my recent article on farteology, and the importance of farteology in uncovering the remains of Pharaoh Poepenkamen, but the thrust of this article is not farts, or their impact on society, but the lack of true characters in theatre, film and politics. Either the paparazzi expose their every deed in our faces, or their spin doctors clean them up so hermetically that it’s impossible to really get to know anything about them.
Oscar Wilde was rabidly hated by one particular woman and the night one of his plays was to open, she sent him a rotten cabbage. He sent her a note saying, ‘Thank you for the gift my dear: every time I smell it, I shall be reminded of you.’
This form of wit and sangfroid seems to be entirely missing from the current crop of actors, playwrights, politicians and just plain celebrities. Examine these examples and see what I mean, then see if you can see any of the current crop pulling off something as breath-taking as this.
In theatre, when you forget your lines, or someone deliberately puts you off your stride, as a joke, it is called corpseing. Often, during the most serious moments, such as Hamlet’s soliloquy, other actors will pull faces and play childish antics to put the actor off his stride. Mostly it doesn’t work. Forgetting your lines is, of course, something else entirely.
Dame Edith Evans, one of the great actresses of the early part of the twentieth century, walked onto the stage and went blank. Imagine Maggie Smith doing this; it’ll work just as well. She looked around in indignation and said, ‘Why are there so many people in my dressing room?’ and marched straight back off stage. Gumption, chutzpah, balls, call it what you will, but I don’t see any of the current crop doing that. They’ve been homogenized.
In a rare treat, Dame Edith Evans and Dame Sybil Thorndike were appearing in a play on the West End and strolled on stage, arm in arm, in what was obviously a country setting. They said nothing, and the prompter whispered, ‘It’s sunny down by the river today!’ Still they said nothing. ‘It’s sunny down by the river today!’ he repeated urgently. Still nothing. ‘It’s sunny down by the river today!’
They turned, in tandem, and said, ‘We know the line, dear, but whose is it?!’ See what I mean?
One of the greatest statesmen this country has produced, Jan Smuts, came up with an absolute gem in parliament. While giving a speech, he was being heckled by opposition MPs, and responded thusly. ‘Half of the opposition are baboons!’
The Speaker demanded an immediate retraction, to which he said, ‘I apologise; half of the opposition are not baboons.’ And sat down to rapturous applause from the Government supporters.
Can you see any of this lot pulling off something like that?
Hector Nicol, now deceased, one of Glasgow’s finest, tells a story of the time Scotland was experiencing the worst blizzards of the century and people were snowed in everywhere. The Red Cross was called in to rescue survivors from far flung farms and it was quite a job flying helicopters in that sort of blizzard.
Finally, back at headquarters, the Colonel in charge of operations said, ‘Well, that’s everything taken care of then, what ho?!’
His Adjutant gets up and says, ‘I’m afraid not sir, there's still one farm we haven’t managed to reach.’
The colonel squints at the map. ‘Really? Where’s that?’
‘North-eastern sector, sir, far north-eastern sector.’
‘Oh yes, let’s go and fetch the blighter then!’ And they troop out to the helicopter: the blizzard has, thankfully, stopped and they take off without incident. After about an hour’s flying, they see a chimney sticking up out of the snow, with smoke issuing from it, so they assume someone’s alive.
The adjutant leans out and shouts, ‘Hellooo the house!’
A gruff voice answers. ‘Hello!’
‘Who is that?’
‘Angus MacPuke: who’s that?!’
‘Feck off, I gave last year!’
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