Welcome to my blog, where I take pleasure in words and pictures, be they my own or those of others. I'm a creative individual, and the crafty side I explore on my 'other blog', Picking Up The Threads, which I hope you'll visit too. I'm sure you understand that I have sole copyright of my original work and any of my contributions, so please ask if you want to use them. A polite request is rarely refused. So, as they used to say on the BBC's 'Listen With Mother' radio programme, many years ago: "Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin."

Friday, 18 October 2013

A National Treasure

Next week the Royal National Theatre will celebrate its 50th birthday. The very first production in 1963, under Laurence Olivier, was Hamlet starring Peter O'Toole. The theatre was then housed in The Old Vic, and in 1976, it was officially opened by the Queen, its patron. It was granted the title 'Royal' in 1988, having been built under a special act of Parliament. The National will be hosting a gala event and you can find out more here. I have loved theatre since I was first taken by my mother, at the age of nine to the old Nottingham Playhouse to see Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice', and it was there, and later at the new playhouse, that I saw John Neville perform in many fine productions. He became artistic director but left in 1967 due to arguments over funding with the local authority and the Arts Council. He emigrated with his family to Canada. By co-incidence it's also the 50th birthday of the 'new' Nottingham Playhouse, which opened on December 11th 1963 with a production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, starring John Neville, with Ian McKellen, Michael Crawford and Leo McKern. My love of Shakespeare has not waned in the half century since.

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.

John Neville died in November 2011 and The Times obituary noted that he was appointed OBE in 1965 and a member of the Order of Canada in 2006. He was described as a charismatic figure possessed of great charm and generous of spirit. My home city of Nottingham was lucky to have him and it is a source of regret by many to this day that he was allowed to slip through their fingers.

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


  1. What a fine tribute to John Neville whom, surprisingly, I recognized from the photos. I also recognized a couple of the listed actresses. Once in a while we tune in to PBS and watch something truly worthwhile. :))) That must have been where I've seen them? Anyway, you've posted a lovely entry well worth reading!

  2. Much like a musician gives voice to the written notes of a composer, a good actor makes the words of a playwright come alive. The imagination can not always recreate a character as well as a real actor.

    1. I think especially because so much left out in a script, reading it is never like seeing.

  3. I know Prunella Scales => Sybil Fawlty :-)

  4. That was very interesting. I recognised him when I saw his face, but not the name. Thank you for that lovely tribute.

  5. Our daughters just returned from a trip to Europe, including London. Everything there is much older than here in the USA. I am surprised that the National Theatre is only 50 years old. Love your post!

  6. What an exquisite post this week, with history, theater, famous people and so much from your own collection. I can only imagine what a thrill it must be to sit there and watch. I especially adore the School for Scandal cover, to think it has survived and is still entertaining all these years.

  7. So much good reading here. How fortunate you were that your mother introduced you to Shakespeare at such a young age! Thanks for the education about John Neville. Sadly, the concept of "hearing all of the consonants as well as the vowels" would be completely lost on most of our young people today.

  8. I am not familiar with the actors or plays, but I enjoyed reading your post and the newspaper reviews.

  9. I'm in the same boat with Postcardy, but it was enjoyable to read about, and view the photos.

  10. That was just wonderful. The magic of the theatre. I saw School for Scandal with Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in Melbourne many years ago in their post-war Australian tour. We stood all night in the queue to get tickets in the Gods.

  11. I'd love to listen to John Neville'S famous diction! Wish I could watch a Shakespeare play live one of these days. I mean the kind that's played in England, and not anywhere else.


  12. Thanks for educating me about John Neville. I've always recognized his face, but never knew his name. Actually around the house he was always "that guy that looks like Art" because he's a dead ringer for an old family friend.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.