Post-Edinburgh: my cultural fix
That's Edinburgh 2018 done and dusted. Four memorable weeks: some great shows, some happy encounters, and the privilege of playing to a full house every day at the Pleasance with my own one-man celebration of the actors I've known over the years - I called it Break a Leg! If you came to see the show in Edinburgh, thank you! If you didn't and fancy it, I'm touring an extended version next year - and you can find the details here on the website on the Tour Dates page.
When I'm not strutting my stuff, doing my own thing, what's my 'cultural fix'. What do I enjoy? Who do I admire? What do I recommend? Read on.
My favourite author or book
Once I’d have said Vanity Fair by W M Thackeray. All human life is there. (I'm looking forward to the new TV series.) Or perhaps the Barchester novels by Anthony Trollope. Now I might go for the novels and short stories of Elizabeth Taylor: they are so beautifully observed. My favourite bedside book is the Shorter Diary of Virginia Woolf. I keep a diary and love reading other people’s. No one writes more beautifully than Woolf or observes the world with a beadier eye. There’s a gem on every page.
The book I’m currently reading
‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ by Ronnie Barker. It’s the actor and comedian’s memoir of his early days in Rep in Aylesbury and Oxford in the early 1950s. It’s amusing, heartfelt and useful. My Break a Leg! show is full of theatre stories and few people tell them as well as Ronnie Barker. I knew him and he gave me some material he once wrote that he couldn’t get on air because it was too cheeky. I’ve been giving it a whirl in my Edinburgh show - and people have loved it. (Thank you, Ronnie.)
The box set that I’m currently hooked on
I’m surrounded by box sets and I’m not hooked on any of them. They are piled up all over the place and I haven’t yet got in to any of them – not even Breaking Bad. The one I want to start is The Complete Larry David, but we watched one episode and it worked for me, but not for my wife, so it just sits there looking at us balefully.
The book I wish I had written
Peter Pan by J M Barrie. I would love to have created a myth – or a character who has transcended the work in which they first appeared. (Note to self: there’s still time.)
The book I couldn’t finish
Proust. I have read the first few chapters of “A la recherce” two or three times over the years, but then abandoned ship.
The poem/song that saved me
Almost anything by Shakespeare does the trick for me. About four-fifths of the way through any of his plays (tragedy, comedy, romance or history) there’s an overwhelming moment that takes you by surprise and, in that moment, solves everything.
The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read
Still waiting to get into War and Peace. (I’ve read all the great English and American nineteenth century authors, but I’ve not really started on the Russians. Oh dear.)
My favourite film
“Ruggles of Red Gap”, 1935, directed by Leo McCarey and starring Charles Laughton. It’s a story about an English gentleman’s gentleman who is lost at cards to an American rancher. It’s hilarious and very touching by turns. Laughton is a genius.
My favourite play
I appeared in a three-person version of Hamlet last year with my son and daughter-in-law and, spending two months immersed in it, realised why it has this iconic status as a work of art. Everything is there. You can go on digging and there’s still more to discover. My other favourite is The Importance of Being Earnest. I’m president of the Oscar Wilde Society and I’ve played Lady Bracknell and there’s no doubt that The Importance is the best play written in English in the Victorian era (followed, incidentally but truly, by Charley’s Aunt.)
My favourite TV series
Frasier. Of course, this year year I loved An English Scandal. And I find The Durrells completely charming.
My favourite piece of music
The other day I recorded the song “I remember it well” from the Lerner & Loewe musical Gigi with June Whitfield, 92. It’s a gorgeous, nostalgic number, but the way June did it was so beautifully phrased and so touching I can’t get it out of my head – and don’t want to.
The last music / movie / TV programme that made me cry / laugh
The Happy Prince, Rupert Everett’s film about Oscar Wilde’s life after Reading Gaol. It’s a masterpiece (Everett is the best-ever screen Wilde and has written and directed the film, too), beautiful and heartbreaking.
The lyric I wish I’d written
Anything by Cole Porter or Noel Coward.
Your guiltiest cultural pleasure
I try to avoid things that might make me feel guilty, but I always have an ice cream in the interval – and my wife makes me feel guilty about that.
The instrument I wish I’d learnt
The piano. (My actual instrument is the triangle. It’s easier to pack.)
The music that cheers me up
“Simon Smith and his Amazing Dancing Bear” by Randy Newman.
If I could own one painting
“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt is a painting that made an extraordinary emotional impact on me when I saw it in The Hermitage in St Petersburg, but I don’t think I’ve got a wall large enough for it at home, so I’ll settle for the glorious colours of a painting either by Emil Nolde or Frank Bowling.
The place I feel happiest
I love a library. When I was an MP, my happiest times were spent in the Library of the House of Commons overlooking the Thames.
I’m having a fantasy dinner party, I’ll invite these artists and authors…
William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aphra Behn (a spy as well as the first woman to earn her living as a writer), all three Bronte sisters (a bit of a coup) and James Baldwin (author of Giovanni’s Room and the greatest talker I’ve ever heard)
… and I’ll put on this music…
There’ll be no music. I want to listen to these guys talk without the distraction of music, thank you very much.
[Insert book] is overrated / underated
Overrated? I can’t think of one. I’ll have abandoned it and forgotten it. I’m quite good at blanking out unpleasant or disappointing experiences.
The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett is underrated. I’d argue it’s the best novel written by an Englishman in the twentieth century.
Have you ever walked out of a play at the interval and - if so - what was it?
Watch It Come Down by John Osborne at the National Theatre, yonks ago. It just wasn’t very good. I wouldn’t leave at the interval now. It’s bad manners and things might get better, you never know. As a rule, I love 90 minute shows without intervals. My wife also thinks they are better for me: no interval, no ice cream.