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Sentimental journey

Radio Times, 3-9th March 1984.

On a train ride from London a man remembers a family picnic on a summer’s day 30 years before. Martyn Read’s play about childhood evoked very different feelings in Michael Pennington and Richard Franklin, the actors who portray the character as man and boy. Christopher Middleton reports.

The word ‘nostalgia’ means, literally, a painful longing to return home. It comes from Ancient Greek, and describes the fretful feelings of Odysseus after years of lonely wandering.

There could be no more appropriate word, then, to describe the prevailing mood of Martyn Read’s play ‘Waving to a Train’. This gentle drama portrays the return of Richard, a middle-aged man, to the scene of a sunlit childhood picnic, where, 30 years later, and with the helpless hindsight of adulthood, he watches once again as the tablecloth and the events of that summer’s afternoon unfold.

Michael Pennington plays the man grown up, and Richard Franklin his younger self. Their perspectives on the play are both different and revealing.

“For me, it was an immensely evocative experience,” says Michael. “It brought back all those half-remembered details of childhood in the 50s: barley-sugar sticks, Tizer the Appetizer, sandwiches wrapped in grease-proof paper and tied up with elastic bands.

“In fact, it was quite extraordinary what an effect it had on everyone – film crew and actors alike; for the whole two weeks we were on location, we were quite lost in a sort of nostalgic haze.

“ I think probably it’s something to do with being 40. People my ago, who were teenagers in the 60s, spent their lives either rejecting or escaping from their backgrounds. At 40, though, you stop running away, and start to rediscover your past.”

A process which causes no small sadness to Michael’s character as he watches, this time with adult eyes, the struggles of his widowed mother to meet both his and his sister’s demands, so innocent yet so brutal in their effects.

“That aspect of the play will strike a chord in everyone, I think,” says Michael. “It touches on that feeling you have in later life of wanting to say to your parents ‘Now I understand what you were trying to do, now I see what you were going through’.”

Not surprisingly, at just 12 years of age, actor Richard Franklin’s sense of the past is not so well developed.

His earliest memories are not the ready-packed idylls of hazy summers and waving grass, but the vivid and often bloody dramas of childhood: falling off a swing and cutting his chin open, breaking a front tooth in a playground accident, getting involved in fights with classmates both jealous and scornful of his theatrical ambitions. No place, or need to even the slightest impulse towards constructing an idealised version of the past, just a concern with the all-consuming, day-to-day process of growing up.

Indeed, far from feeling an affection for the nine-year-old character he plays, Richard is somewhat contemptuous of him. “Too weedy,” he says, “just like a used to be a few years ago – the kind who’s always running to mother and hasn’t learnt to fend for himself.”

That’s not a charge you can level at Richard. Like all successful actors of his age, Richard's life is an extraordinary juxtaposition of adulthood and childhood, of responsibility and running riot.

One side of him, for example, is taken up with the standard 12-year-old activities such as co-ordinating water-pistol raids on the next-door dormitory at his Sussex boarding school. At the same time, however, he’s performing frighteningly grown-up feats like a six-month run in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Macbeth’ at the Barbican, and contemplating a possible eight-month tour of the States.

It’s a childhood which many of his contemporaries envy, and on which he too will probably look back with affection in later life. And it is then, no doubt, some 30 years later, that the Milky Way bars now in his tuck box will start to assume a golden remembered glow, that the commonplace half-term outings up to town will be invested with the status of epic pilgrimages, and the summer afternoons of his youth will grow mysteriously long and lazy in his recollection.

But try as he -, and we -, may, we can never quite achieve both states simultaneously: an appreciation of the present both for itself and for what it will mean to us in years to come. The mind can play funny tricks, but no matter how long we live, we can never quite train it to do that.

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