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Aren’t you that bloke off the telly?

Daily Mail, 29th January 2015, Roger Lewis


Michael Pennington has been acting on the stage for over 40 years

71-year-old actor from London has written a book about his experiences

In it, he details first night fears, touring and poky dressing rooms

Nice-looking in a watery way, Michael Pennington, whom I used to see 40 years ago in Stratford, has always had a line in softly-spoken kings and princes. His voice a lovely, elegiac murmur, he is a particularly skilled exponent of Chekhov.

So, why isn’t he better known? Perhaps an implicit theme underlying Let Me Play the Lion Too is the difference between conscientious, hardworking professionals and an acclaimed genius. How come some actors and actresses are household names while others, despite their quality and elegance, are only allowed to be considered very good, appreciated by the cognoscenti?

It is so unfair, because the gulf between the great and the competent - and the rewards that come their way - is vast. Is it to do with the likes of Laurence Olivier or Ralph Richardson possessing a powerful and distinctive ego?

It can’t be because of variety and depth - otherwise Roy Dotrice or Robert Hardy would be given a Westminster Abbey memorial service when they eventually croak. Whatever the answer, one thing is for certain: stardom is ‘where the money is. That’s the reality’.

Ah, money. Being an actor, according to this highly intelligent book, is a struggle, unless you are in the Dame Judi Dench or Sir Michael Gambon class. Pennington - who appeared in 30 productions during his three years at Cambridge and served his apprenticeship carrying a spear at the RSC, where the leading lights were David Warner, Eric Porter, Ian Holm and Peggy Ashcroft - after all this time still has to travel on public transport, where he goes unrecognised.

For most actors, and Pennington is no different, the day is spent waiting for the phone to ring. Unless you’re David Tennant or Daniel Radcliffe, being unemployed takes up a lot of energy. ‘You try to keep up a social life,’ he says. ‘though you’d rather hibernate like a wounded animal.’

Auditions - where it is necessary to put up, uncomplainingly, with the caprices of casting directors who will switch timetables and venues at the last minute - are a regular humiliation.

A theatre company is ‘an eccentric human machine’. The cast quickly forming ‘instinctive antagonisms and silent grudges’. Dressing rooms are commonly poky and decent digs eat into the wage packet.

Tours play havoc with family life. Loneliness and affairs are occupational hazards. ‘It can make you feel guiltily confused.’ says Pennington, philosophically.

He writes evocatively of the ‘nauseated fear’ of first nights and the melancholia of last nights when, within hours, the set is dismantled, people disperse and an entire production is ‘gone beyond recovery’.

Forty years ago, the actors cost half the production budget on television. Now, the performers’ pay accounts for a mere 15 percent. The money goes on computer effects. Though a regular on a soap can earn £100,000 a year, a guest artiste, such as Pennington, has to settle for £600 per episode before stoppages - if your agent demands more, ‘you won’t be back next year’.

Pennington describes the soap studio atmosphere brilliantly. Madness seems to loom. One actor, ‘after three years as a regular’ on Holby City,, fully believed himself to be a surgeon, and thought the set at Elstree was a genuine A&E.

Scripts are shredded each night, because of a ‘paranoid leaks’. Feature films are more of the same, on a bigger scale. The set-ups and endless takes make for extreme tedium. The stars are kept in seclusion. ‘They certainly won’t have their name on any trailer door.’

And not for your Streeps or your De Niros any ‘evil-looking toilets and bacon rolls’. They have suites and personal caterers.

All in all, Pennington paints a thoroughly bleak picture of a player’s life, whether one is ‘on the road, squatting in semi-derelict houses to play Ibsen, Cocteau and Beckett’, or being told by Martin Scorsese to be ‘louder, softer, slower or faster’.

Gone are the days of boozy carousing, which prevailed for Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris or Oliver Reed, when it was a tradition to play King Lear with a bottle of wine inside you. Is anyone better off for the sparkling water culture? Showbusiness, it seems is still a place rife with ‘mendacity, broken promises and abandoned hope’.

And just as writing and literature have been obliterated by bloggers and the illiteracies and short attention span of texting and tweeting, acting is being eclipsed by ‘reality’ television (i.e. members of the public who don’t have to be paid), or else actors have been replaced altogether with with puppets and animation.

The day of the actor may even be done.





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