In 1990 I heard that John Neville was returning from Canada to play at the National in Sheridan's restoration comedy 'The School for Scandal'. I booked seats for my family for the matinee performance on 21st April, and we drove to London, from our home in Wiltshire. I had been at school with three of John Neville's children, when he was at Nottingham, and I wrote to tell him of how much pleasure his performances had given me as a child and that I was now re-living the experience with my own children. I was amazed to receive a handwritten card in reply, which of course I still treasure.
The play was wonderful, and was well received by the critics. I kept the newspaper reviews, although one is a rather poor photocopy, but full of details, from which I quote here. Peter Wood the director, insisted on hearing all the consonants as well as the vowels, and this was one of the reasons he was keen to entice Neville back to the UK.
"I thought how wonderful it would be to have John Neville's deservedly famous diction at the centre of this play, leading a cast which can get through three subordinate clauses and reach the end of a sentence."
The National's Director, Richard Eyre, had been Neville's protegé at Nottingham was eager to bring him back after an 18-year absence.
The headline for the piece was 'Unmasking a Masterpiece', for this play had kept audiences laughing since 1777. The 25 year-old Richard Brinsley Sheridan kept rewriting the play until the last minute for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which he managed and part-owned.
The last page of the manuscript bears his heartfelt comment "Finis - thank God", to which a prompter had added his own "Amen".*
According to the article, Wood had assembled one of the strongest casts seen by the National in some time. I've reproduced pages of the programme so that readers can have fun spotting the actors they know. Some will be less familiar to American audiences, although they may notice a young Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey (Hugh Boneville), before he changed his name from Richard. John Neville may also better known in the States for his film rôles of Baron Munchausen and Sherlock Holmes. Canadian readers may also know of his work in Stratford, Ontario between 1986-9 in putting the company back in the black after years of increasing deficit. Nottingham's loss was definitely Canada's gain.
Many of his contemporaries and actors with whom he worked in those early days have been recognised by being made Dames or Knights of the British Empire; Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Maggie Smith, and Dame Judi Dench, whose first Ophelia was opposite Neville at the Old Vic in 1957. Dame Judi paid tribute to Neville in a recent newspaper article, where this rôle was discussed, and she confessed that she was not very good initially and lost the part to another actress for its American tour. In the intervening six months she honed her craft and was given the part back when the other actress moved on.
It was John Neville who told me "You've got to decide why you want to be an actress. Don't tell anyone the reason, but keep it at the forefront of your mind." I've done that ever since and I've never told anyone what it is.**
The late, great Richard Burton called him 'My beloved John Neville' when describing their alternating Shakespeare rôles in his diaries.
Not until February this year did Nottingham Playhouse finally recognise the achievement of John Neville by opening a studio in his name and awarding The Neville Prize for a new play. Had he remained in Britain John Neville would surely have become a true National Treasure, and it's a pity he didn't live to see the celebrations of both Nottingham Playhouse and The Royal National Theatre this year. For my part, I have many happy memories of seeing him on stage at both theatres, and I am grateful to him for making the experiences so memorable.
This week Sepia Saturday is celebrating theatre in its many forms. Why not join the rest of the cast in this week's performance? I can guarantee a place on the Front Row.
* Peter Lewis, The Sunday Times
**John Preston, The Daily Telegraph