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From Russia … with love

TV Times, 1982, Adrian Furness

Anyone planning to woo a lady by letter would do well to follow the example of the great writer Anton Chekhov. His long-range courtship of the actress Olga Knipper, whom he eventually married in 1901, is the subject of tonight’s play ‘A Wife Like the Moon.’

“Their’s was a strange and rather modern relationship,” says Michael Pennington who, with the help of marathon make-up sessions which began at 6.30 each morning, makes a remarkably look-alike Chekhov. “Olga was often away touring and even their marriage was much conducted by letter, yet it was very successful.”

Pennington says the role is the culmination for him of a longish love affair with all things Russian. A few years ago – when he was with the Royal Shakespeare Company – he travelled the length of the country on the Trans-Siberian Express and wrote a book called ‘Rossya’ based on his impressions. It was, he says like paying off a debt, because actors owe so many great roles to Russian plays and literature.

Chekhov is among his special heroes. “I worked on the role surrounded by his writings and photographs. Letters and journals record his last few years fully and the play seems accurate right down to the moment when he called for a little champagne before he died.”

The production teams Pennington with his old friend Prunella Scales as Olga, a character several removes from her appalling Sybil in ‘Fawlty Towers.’ Prunella, who has been married for 19 years to the actor Timothy West, is also a Chekhov buff, and after recording tonight’s play went straight off to Australia to direct a production of his ‘Uncle Vanya’, with West in the title role.

“Tim and I spend an enormous amount of time and money making sure we are together as often as possible,” she says. “Modern communications help, and unlike the Chekhovs we can both travel. Of course, there is something to be said for a certain amount of separation, but it really is very important for actors to keep their home lives going.”

Next month, Prunella and Michael Pennington are united again when they record a play for London Weekend Television called ‘Outside Edge.’ Nothing particularly Russian there. It’s all about cricket.

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