‘Shouting? Swearing? Threats? Menacing looks? I know what you’re thinking: it sounds just like a Harold Pinter play!’
Brian Blessed, Absolute Pandemonium: My Louder than Life Story (London: Pan Books, 2015), p. 77.
As the Harold Pinter: Histories and Legacies team prepare for the holiday season, what better time to reflect on some of the more surprising finds and amusing anecdotes we’ve come across?
In his 2015 autobiography, Absolute Pandemonium, actor, adventurer, and occasional TV host Brian Blessed recounts his friendship with actor Peter O’Toole. According to Blessed, he and O’Toole first met at Bristol University’s premiere production of Pinter’s The Room in 1957. At a party to celebrate the show’s opening, Blessed claims that various students ‘knew I’d boxed and looked to me for protection’ (Blessed, p. 77) from the menacing Pinter. Following the seemingly inevitable confrontation between the two, Blessed describes how,
‘No long dramatic pauses this time, Harold; he got one right on the side of the jaw. Wham! […] Now, Harold Pinter was without doubt a great dramatist – the heaviest of them all – but I’m afraid there was nothing Pinteresque about his punches. In fact, they were more Gilbert and Sullivan, really. Once I’d dodged him a couple of times, I let go a quick left hook, which sent him tumbling backwards.’ (Blessed, pp. 77-78)
As well as appearing in Blessed’s autobiography, this particular anecdote was extracted and reprinted in the Daily Mail in September 2015, discussed in an interview with ITV News in January 2016, and on BBC Radio 2 in May of the same year. It is a tale that serves Blessed’s bluff, larger-than-life persona well, pitting the affable Blessed against a figure who has not only become synonymous with menace and intrigue, but whose works are at the cornerstone of post-war British drama.
‘Toast of the Season’ or Two-night wonder?
Reviewing the performance records for Pinter’s work at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), I noted a production of The Room in 1985 that took place in the Gulbekian Studios in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and ran for only two performances. This is not surprising in itself; from 1977 until as recently as 2000 the RSC transferred both mainstage productions from Stratford-upon-Avon to Newcastle’s Theatre Royal as well as smaller scale studio work (such as work produced at The Other Place) to the nearby Gulbenkian Studio. This practice – particularly during the late 1970s and 1980s – saw the company take up residence in Newcastle for up to five weeks, running related workshops for schools and the public, as well as discussions and other small-scale entertainments. As in Stratford, while Shakespeare dominated Newcastle’s mainstage, the Gulbenkian Studio hosted a range of classic and contemporary works from Euripides to Ibsen, Pinter to Pam Gems.
More surprising in the case of 1985 production of The Room, however, was the credited director: Brian Blessed.
Details of the production itself are scant, with the RSC’s records only indicating a cast list including Frances Barber, Hepburn Graham, Bernard Horsfall, Brian Parr, Christopher Ravenscroft and Sarah Woodward, all of whom were appearing alongside Blessed in mainstage productions of Richard III and Henry V at the time. It is not clear, for example, if this production was open to the public or part of the RSC’s longstanding practice of actors creating their own pieces of work while contracted to the company? Was it part of a wider season of short works? In 1985, 27 productions are listed as taking place in the Gulbekian Studios, many of which – as in the case of Blessed’s The Room – ran for only one or two nights.
Returning to Blessed autobiography, he claims, ‘I directed The Room at Stratford-upon-Avon a few years ago. It got marvellous reviews. The toast of the season!’ It is reasonable to assume that by ‘at Stratford-upon-Avon’ Blessed is referring to the RSC. However, RSC performance records indicate that the only production of The Room to take place was for those two nights at the Gulbenkian Studio in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Of course, it maybe that RSC records of work at The Other Place are incomplete and Blessed’s Room could well have been staged there in 1984 alongside other shows that would go on to transfer. But whatever the case, ‘a few years ago’ – over 30 at least – seems like a bit of a stretch…
We look forward to sharing more of our research and findings from the archive – from the sublime to the ridiculous – in 2018.
A “Blessed” holiday season to you all!