Talking about playwrights, actors and wives with the late Sir Peter Hall

On Monday night I found myself at the Garrick Club in London at a wonderful cabaret performed by the brilliant Stefan Bednarczyk and the dazzling Janie Dee.  I was a guest and it was a joy.  By way of bonus, and by chance, at the show I found myself seated next to Chris Hall.  He is the producer of a TV series I love: The Durrells.  He turned out to  be as delightful and sunny as his TV series.  He also turned out to be the son of the actress Leslie Caron and the great theatre director, Sir Peter Hall, who died in September of last year.  Meeting Chris on Monday - and Sir Peter's widow, Nicki - reminded me that I had interviewed the great man back in the spring of 2000, in the week that he set off for the United States to direct his friend John Barton's ten-play cycle, Tantalus.  I thought I'd post the interview here.  It's a bit long for a blog, but what Sir Peter had to say about Pinter and Tennessee Williams and Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson - and about his own childhood, and sex, and his several wives - is intriguing, so dip in if you're interested.  If not, scroll on.  (I'm off to Katie Boyle's funeral.  I'm about the only person I know who isn't dead.  It's only a matter of time, of course.) 

Sir Peter Hall has upped and left the country.  He departed these shores yesterday morning, taking his fourth wife and his sixth child with him.   ‘I am going to Denver in the Rocky Mountains to direct this huge epic, ten new plays by John Barton based on the Greek legends and the Trojan War.  I wanted to do it here with the Royal Shakespeare Company.  They would have done it, but they haven’t got any money.  It drives me mad this country because of its stupidity.  The arts are starved of cash.   Chris Smith [the Culture Secretary] is nice enough, but he’s got no clout.  And Blair doesn’t care.   He’s indifferent to the arts.  He isn’t remotely interested.

‘The greatest artist of all time was British.  Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists created the richest theatrical culture in history.  Thirty years after Shakespeare’s death, the theatres were torn down and the dramatists sent into exile.  The Puritans triumphed.  They seem to be triumphing again in the person of New Labour.  And I voted for them.  Of course, we’re all going to be voting for Ken Livingstone now.  At least, he seems to care.’

Sir Peter (‘Don’t make me sound like a cross old bugger’) is not leaving us forever, but after six months in Denver he has some Shakespeare to attend to in Los Angeles and an opera in Chicago, so he may be away some time.    I am sorry to see him go, not only because he is a beguiling creature (intelligent, articulate, determined, charming, disarming), but also because it seems odd - and wrong - that the man who, arguably, has been the single greatest contributor to British theatre in the past fifty years (he ushered in a whole new world when he directed Waiting for Godot in 1954; he founded the RSC in 1960; he established the National Theatre in the 1970s) can no longer find the berth to do what he wants to do in his own country.   ‘I can’t complain about the opportunities I’ve had, but I’d rather be working where I grew up with the people I grew up with than having to go abroad.’

I am giving him a valedictory lunch at a fish restaurant of his choice around the corner from his beloved Old Vic  (‘That’s what I wanted.  My own small company at the Old Vic.  I needed a half-million guarantee from the Arts Council, but I wasn’t to have it.  That’s why I’m leaving.’)   He is 69, but seems ten years younger.  He is a big man (tall, bulky) with a beady eye and a soft voice.  He has a healthy appetite, for life, for work, for food.

As we tuck in (moules with salmon and Pernod for starters; then Dover sole, with rocket and parmesan cheese salad on the side; a couple of glasses of an unpretentious Chablis) I suggest we conjure up a farewell party for him.   Of all those he has known, worked with, loved, who would he have on the quayside to wave him off?

Given he sees the essence of his life’s work as ‘unlocking texts’, I suggest he starts with writers.  The waitress is mopping up the Pernod sauce that’s cascading down his beard and jacket, but he doesn’t hesitate.

‘Samuel Beckett, a good man to have a glass of Guinness with, a man of grace, elegance, generosity of spirit.  Sam’s face is one of the icons of the twentieth century.  We all know the gaunt bones and the ravaged cheeks.  Prone to melancholic fits, but wonderfully funny.  Waiting for Godot changed my life.  I was 24, the East Anglian railwayman’s son just down from Cambridge, directing at the Arts Theatre Club.  I got sent the play because nobody else would do it.   I can’t pretend that I thought it was the seminal play of the mid twentieth century - which I now do - but I knew it had something.   It made waiting dramatic.  Look Back in Anger won’t last, it feels dated already, but Godot will go marching on.   It’s a metaphor for life.  And its language is extraordinary: it’s poetic speech that sounds real.   Pinter wouldn’t be Pinter without Beckett.’

‘Will you have Pinter on the quayside?'

‘Yes,’ he laughs.  ‘I suppose so.   We did a lot together.’ 

‘Are you two reconciled?’

‘I never fell out with Harold.  Harold fell out with me.  He took exception to my diaries when they were first published.   I wrote about him leaving Vivien [Merchant, the actress, who later committed suicide] and his affair with Antonia Fraser, and he wrote me a letter full of hurt and sorrow and didn’t speak to me for eight years.  Then he sent me a postcard saying “Life’s too short”.  He was right.’

‘Harold takes himself seriously?’

Another laugh.  ‘Oh yes.  You know the lovely story about Harold and the Comedy Theatre, don’t you?   There was a thought that a theatre might be renamed in his honour, and since several of his plays had been put on there Harold had hopes it might be the Comedy.  Tom Stoppard got wind of this and said to Harold, ‘You’ve got the wrong end of the stick.  It’s not the theatre that’s going to change its name, it’s you.  It’s not going to be the Pinter Playhouse, you’re going to be Harold Comedy.”’

‘What about Tennessee Williams?’

‘Yes, I’d like him there.  It was again through Godot that I met him.  He just rang up.  “Halooo, this is Tennessee.  Would you like to direct my new piece?”   He was wonderful in his prime, but, oh, the sad and awful end of it all when he would come reeling into my office at the National with yet another terrible play.’

‘Who are the actors you want to see on the quayside?’

‘Judi Dench, Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, of course.  And Ralph Richardson.  He had an extraordinary quality.   In rehearsals most actors describe to you what they plan to do in performance, talk about it and around it, begin to sketch it out.  Ralph simply did it.  Edith Evans was the same.  From a standing start, they just got up and gave you the complete performance.

‘Ralph was like a father to me.  About six weeks before he had his stroke and died, we were having lunch.  He was 81.  He said - imagine the voice - “Are you religious?  I am.  I’ve tried to lead a good life, but when I die and go up to the pearly gates, will St Peter come and open them and say ‘Hello, Richardson, come in, old boy’?   You know, I don’t think he will.  I don’t think there’ll be anyone there at all.”   I miss Ralph very much.’

What about Olivier, Hall’s predecessor at the National?

‘No, no, thank you.  I don’t have a good memory for pain.  Larry is a tragic and heroic figure.  He was a medieval monarch, inspiring, awesome, wilful, sometimes giving favours, sometimes withdrawing them.  He never believed he would stop, retire or die.  He thought he was immortal.  He had genius, but he was hell to work with towards the end.  It was like the last days of Stalin.

‘Larry did not make it easy for me.  One of the things I’m most proud of is the way I laid the ground for my successors at the RSC and the National.  I’d want Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre there to see me off.   And Peter Brook, of course.’

‘Any members of your family?’

‘My parents, not simply out of sentimentality, but out of reparation.  I was the cliche: an only child, the scholarship boy, the working-class lad who turned himself into a phoney member of the middle classes.  I was not as generous or grateful to them as I should have been.’ 

‘What about your wives?  Will you have any of them to see you off?’

‘All of them, please.  I have loved them all.’

Talking to Hall’s friends, talking to him, reading his patently honest and beautifully written autobiography, it is clear that women, love and sex, have been central to his life for virtually all of his near-seventy years.

‘My parents were very physical and tactile.  This surprises me now because their attitudes and morality were essentially Victorian.  They were very correct, very respectable, but there was nothing prudish about my upbringing.  I was cuddled and caressed.  On Sunday mornings I would creep into my parents bed and luxuriate in the sense of being physically at one with somebody else.  This sense of recognition, of being seen by somebody else’s eyes, of being appreciated and touched by another’s hands, is the happiest sensation for a child.  Out of it come the first stirrings of a healthy sensuality.   When I was three or four, I had a recurring erotic dream in which our next door neighbour, her children and I all danced naked.’

He remembers falling in love for the first time.  ‘She was a fragile-looking blonde with blue eyes called Monica.  I watched her all day in my class at school.  I kissed her during Postman’s Knock at a party.  She seemed to find me absurd, and I suppose I was.  She giggled at my intensity.’ 

During the war, when he was twelve or thirteen, a family of evacuees, bombed out in London, moved into the house directly opposite the Halls in Cambridge.   ‘Edith was the daughter of the family and I fell passionately in love with her.  I kissed and kissed her in the darkness of the autumn garden.  She tired of the activity, but I wanted to go on and on.  Sexual passion is agony before we have the means to assuage it.’

He met the first real love of his life after the war, when he was doing National Service in Germany.  ‘Her name was Jill and she was a porcelain-faced member of the WRAF in which she was intending to make her career.  She was private and shy, and as young and virginal as I was.  We cuddled and I groped feverishly.  This, remember, was the pre-Pill age when how far you could go with a girl was a clear indication of her morality.  I masturbated lustily in my bed and dreamt of making love to Jill.  Being a romantic, I took the whole thing terribly seriously - much more, I suspect, than she did.  Just before I was demobilsed, we became engaged.’

Soon after, at a hotel in Leamington Spa, they went to bed together.  ‘How and why our love-making worked, I cannot imagine.  My knowledge of sex and of a woman’s body was confined to chatter and gossip, my avid reading of Penguin sex education books, and a great deal of D H Lawrence, whose rhapsodic descriptions were, at best, rather unclear.

‘Sex is the great mystery, as great as death.  Yet we commercialise it and destroy it with fear, prudery and envy.  It is the expression of our love, and the means by which nature ensures our future.  It gives the greatest pleasure and the greatest pain.  At nineteen, I had been given no education, no counselling and no help in this crucial part of life.  Is it really much better for young people now?  Knowing how to give pleasure to a woman is the nearest most men get to being an artist.  It is something that should be helped and cherished.’ 

His relationship with Jill foundered ‘because of the extent to which my ambitions consumed me - a taste of terrible things to come.’   Hall has been married four times and had two other serious long-term commitments which were marriages in all but name.  ‘I don’t wonder that people doubt me when I say that I believe passionately in marriage, but I do.   I am sentimentally uxorious.  It was through Godot again that I met my first wife, Leslie Caron.  I was asked to direct Gigi as a play.  I was twenty-five.   We fell in love, we married, but she was a star who needed to be in Hollywood, when I needed and wanted to go to Stratford.  Leslie begged me not to, but I had to.  After Jill, after Leslie, there were many attempts to get it right.   Until Nicki [Frei, a press officer at the National, whom he married in 1990] they all ended in pain.

‘The other day my youngest daughter, Emma - she’s seven - asked me, “Papa, why do you split up with all your wives?”  I said, “Darling, for me, if it isn’t all right, somehow it is all wrong.”’

I suspect there’s more to it than a search for perfection.  I reckon there’s an element too of ‘what Peter wants, Peter gets’.    When he was six he badgered his Auntie Vera into giving him a brass band of toy soldiers that was almost certainly beyond her means.   When he was thirty he cajolled Leslie Caron into giving him a vintage Rolls-Royce.  Toys, girls, performances: once he has seen the potential, it must be realised.  This must be part of why he is so frustrated now.  He wanted his own company at the Old Vic and a stupid government wouldn’t let him have it.

The coffee has arrived.  We are resisting further alcohol, because Sir Peter has to return to the rehearsal room and then go on to give a talk at the National Theatre and then go home to pack.  He works all the time.   His energy, his  commitment, his achievement are extraordinary: two hundred productions over five decades, many of them true landmarks.   I say to him, ‘This is going to be a celebratory piece, because I think you are one of the great men of our time.’

‘Thank you.’   He looks genuinely pleased.  He blushes.

‘I think perhaps too that you are a narcissist.’

He looks perplexed.  He frowns.  ‘What do you mean?’

‘I am sorry.  I don’t mean to be rude.  I am probably one myself.  As my wife would say, “Most men are”.   I just mean that everything revolves around you, always has, always will.  You see everything in relation to yourself, as a reflection of yourself.  When you said a moment ago that Nicki was clever, for a moment I thought you meant she was intellectually bright.’

‘She is.’

‘Yes, of course, but what you meant is that she is clever at handling you.’

‘Yes, that is what I meant.’

‘It’s all about you, about what you want.  Your work, your ambition have always come first.  Your wives have had to accept that.’

‘Yes.  In the beginning they always say they understand, they won’t mind, they can manage.   But is it bad to be a workaholic?   Is it wrong?  Isn’t it a great blessing to know what you want to do and to have the passion that makes you do it?   I don’t want to pause.  I want to keep moving.   I have always striven to be booked up so I can go briskly from one job to the next.  I am a director: each day I want to direct, not wait for the phone to ring or meditate on my failings.’

‘But people say you do too much, that you take on more work than you should before you need the money.  Unlike some of the other directors from the subsidised theatre, like Trevor Nunn, you haven’t had a big commercial success, you haven’t hit the jackpot.’

‘I suppose the nearest I’ve come to a jackpot has been Amadeus.  I’ve earned quite nicely out of that.  But I don’t do things for money.  I don’t think I’ve ever done anything I shouldn’t have done for the money, except perhaps once.  I’ve done all right, but it has all gone on divorces and school fees.’  (He may be a lifelong Labour voter, but four of his children went to Bedales; the fifth is currently head girl at Roedean.)  ‘I am going to be seventy in November.  I enter my old age with a pension and a house and nothing more.’

For a moment he looks exhausted.  Beached on his banquette in our fish restaurant in SE17, Sir Peter suddenly, fleetingly, puts me in mind of the rejected Sir John Falstaff, as he appears at the end of the two Henry IVs, Hall’s favourite plays.

‘I have always been prone to black depressions, but they have been much less frequent since the coming of Nicki.  I have achieved the marriage I dreamed of, but the happiness is not unalloyed.  There is thirty years difference between us, so an in-built sadness, the sense of the shortage of time.  I have a daughter of seven who I shall be lucky to see grown-up.  I have five other talented children and five grandchildren who I shall be heartbroken to leave.  I know that I am a better director now than I have ever been.  And that is a further sadness, because I don’t have a theatre or a company.   You say I’ve always got what I wanted, Gyles.  Well, I’ll tell you what I want now.  I want more time.   A few more years.  Please.  I mean it.’


Gyles Brandreth