Christopher Godwin has had a successful and extensive acting career to date, and he spoke to us recently about what his life as an actor has been like so far from beginning his time in theatre as a boilerman to roles including working with his son Tom in The Woman in Black.
It’s very strange when you are asked to look back and make a cohesive assessment of a career. In some ways, the day that I started in theatre is as fresh as my last appearance on stage a month or two ago. It’s the bits in between that get confused. Perhaps the best thing is to begin at the beginning and to hell with the consequences and the length!
I went to a school which had been founded by an actor, Edward Alleyn, that was also the nursery of The Youth Theatre. I didn’t become a member of that but did do a number of school productions, much to the chagrin of my teachers, who exhorted me to spend as much time on my school work as I did on the plays that we put on. I wasn’t a particularly good scholar and was not conventionally sporty but did become Captain of Fencing for my House and a Marksman in The C.C.F. In 1962, the time came to leave. I would’ve loved to go to university and read English and was offered a place, but the proviso was that I should pass maths at O Level in the first term. That was, I’m afraid, impossible. I was, and am, no good at figures. My friends used to get me to score when we played darts so they could have a good giggle. Looking back over my school career, I asked myself what had I enjoyed most and what I had felt most useful doing. The answer, with no demur, was acting, so rather naively, in fact very naively, I decided to become an actor. Easier said than done. It didn’t look as though I would get a grant so I decided to get a job in theatre, work for two years and get an independent grant. So simple! So foolish.
I undertook a tour of the stage doors of all the London theatres asking for a job, any job. I had some inventive replies but no job. I recalled, from God knows where, having read of a repertory theatre in Canterbury. I borrowed the money for the fare from my mother, a handsome nine shillings and sixpence, about 45p, and set off.
I found the theatre and asked at the box office if I could see the manager. He wasn’t in, he would be back later after he’d done the banking, about 11:30am. I went back and eventually met Mr Sayer. I told him that I wanted to become an actor but was willing to do anything. He told me he couldn’t do anything for me as I would have to see both him and his co-director, in fact the director of the plays, when he finished rehearsal which would be about one o’clock. I cooled my heels in Canterbury and returned at 12:50pm. I met Mr Andrews, the director, very briefly. He told me he couldn’t do anything without his co-director Mr Sayer who, unfortunately, was at lunch, where he was going, so farewell. I returned to the box office where the kind lady said the best time to get both together was after rehearsal at 5:00pm.
I returned at 4:50pm and finally bearded both of them at 5:30pm.
They laughed at me and asked what drama school I’d been to, none, what previous experience I’d had, none, so what did I expect them to do? I told them I’d do anything to get a start. They asked what practical skills I had, I replied I was good with my hands, my father was a sculptor and I was used to helping in the studio. A look passed between them, what did I know about boilers? I invented something. What sort of boiler was I conversant with, oil or coke? I thought quickly, it was an old building. Coke, I said. Then maybe they could use me, the old man who had been looking after the boilers was retiring and could I start on Monday next? I was in! I was in the theatre!
It was the beginning of a long and fascinating induction into how a theatre worked, how a stage management team worked and, most importantly, how actors worked. I lost the boilerman’s job in two weeks. The old man was bored and wanted to come back, by this time, I’d made a friend of the stage manager and he had decided to take me on as a technical ASM. I campaigned to get on the “book” i.e. to prompt in rehearsal so I could take in the various methods the actors employed to rehearse and create a character. I read avidly books on theatre, especially Stanislavski. And I asked to audition once a week for Mr Sayer and Mr Andrews. Which I did on Thursday afternoons, gradually the laughter and the jokes died down and I was finally given a part as the top half of a postman in a play called To Dorothy, a Son by Roger McDougall, only the top half as they didn’t have the uniform trousers but it was start, albeit humble, but a start. For the job of technical ASM and playing very small roles, I was paid £5.00 per week. My dad, I think intrigued by a son suddenly enthused, gave me an extra £2.10 shillings a week which paid my digs, for which I bless him.
I played many rep theatres all over the UK and gradually got better parts and created a reputation for turning up on time, learning the lines, being a good company member and actually pretty good at what I did.
Somewhere about 1963, I was in a company in Cardiff still as an ASM-to-play when they had a minor crise as the man they had cast as Hare in The Doctor and the Devils was unable to take up the contract. It was the third lead, one of the pair of murderers in Edinburgh, who sourced bodies for Dr Knox. The director, Warren Jenkins, had me into the office, explained the situation and said, “How about you playing Hare?”. I was rather stunned and said I’d have to come off stage management and I’d need more money. How much more money? I was earning £9.00 per week and said I’d have to have £10.00. Done! I expect he couldn’t believe his luck. During the production, I met another tall man playing a doctor with some nice scenes and we hit it off. His name was Alan Ayckbourn and we have had a working relationship on and off for over 60 years. I had no idea he wrote and was surprised to find he wrote very well and was already established as a writer. I played in his first play in the West End called Mr Whatnot which, despite a very good cast, sank without trace after four weeks.
Thereafter, amongst other jobs up and down the country, I worked in radio for Alan when he was a director in BBC Leeds and subsequently joined what would become The Stephen Joseph Theatre, but was then rather more prosaically called the Library Theatre Scarborough. I was in many productions over the seven years I worked there. Amongst the characters I was lucky enough to play for the first time on any stage were Norman in The Norman Conquests, Colin in Absent Friends (which I still think is one of his best plays), and Ronnie Brewster-Wright in Absurd Person Singular. I also played Capt. Tim Barton in Ten Times Table, which finally brought me to the West End but with more success this time. From Ten Times Table, I went on to seasons in the RSC and plays at the National Theatre and television.
There are many recollections about casts and plays and productions over the years, most of which are good to recall but some are rather less pleasant. Happily, the pleasant memories far outweigh the darker ones. This is rapidly turning into a sort of memoir but, as I write, more memories are crowding in. Seasons at The Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park where I played in many productions during the directorship of Ian Talbot – these productions carried the risk of the weather but they were extraordinarily exciting. In some of the plays, Troilus and Cressida, for example, the play gets darker and darker towards the end and the suspense in the audience as the dusk started to come down and magnify the darkness on stage was truly awesome. A warm summer’s evening of Shakespeare in the park took some beating. Occasionally, too, you could hear the lions roaring from London Zoo and if it was near to the American Independence Day, you could hear the roaring from the American Embassy’s party as well. There is something about theatre in the open air. It is refined at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank. I was lucky enough to work there for several seasons for Dominic Dromgoole, a Shakespeare enthusiast and dynamic director, the unforgettable experience of playing Shakespeare in a setting for which the plays were written was illuminating. The acoustic is such that, although you can go fairly quiet, you have to remember you have an audience practically all round you and you do need to share the play! Particularly when you remember that a lot of the audience are only seeing your back. Both the Open Air Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe remind you to look after your voice.
All my working life, I’ve really only taken what came next. Recently, I was in a production of a fascinating new play by Peter Gill, a prime mover and shaker in theatre for many years, called Something in the Air, which called for me to play a man in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. He was cogent in his memories but very confused in real time. It was a great chance to work with Peter again. The last production I’d done with him was Versailles at the Donmar, a play about homosexuality and the aftermath of the Second World War. Working with him and his co-director Alice Hamilton on Something in the Air was a joy and a frustration in equal measure. To try to hold onto an Alzheimer state and suddenly drop it at a second’s notice was very tricky. One tended to get stuck in confusion. My partner in this production was Ian Gelder, a superlative actor and wonderful to play with, and we suffered and laughed through rehearsal and the run.
A Christmas Carol had come immediately before this, adapted by Mark Gatiss and directed with skill and daring by Adam Penford. I was in the midst of a young company which included Nicholas Farrell and Mark himself. Such energy from everyone. The audiences were hugely appreciative and we brought it down to Alexandra Palace and played a well-attended season over the Christmas and New Year.
Alan Ayckbourn had been in touch a year before this and asked if I was a) still alive and b) would I be interested in playing in a new piece he’d written called Better Off Dead playing a failing, flailing old writer. I leapt at the chance to go back to Scarborough and work with him again. The character, Algy Waterbridge, is a kind of Lear figure, railing against failing powers and a world he’s losing touch with. Alan and I fell straight back into the working relationship we’d always enjoyed. I found some of the places the character had to go to quite hard to access, the fulminating rage that blew up out of nowhere, the really incredibly wistful and touching moments as he realised how he’d treated his wife made me cry.
Scarborough and the Stephen Joseph Theatre have played an important role in my life. Perhaps the most memorable to me was acting with my son, Tom Godwin, in a production of The Woman in Black. There’s a story behind this fuelled by theatre in Scarborough. I’d worked with a young man called Robin Herford, first as an actor and latterly as a director. He reminded me that we’d first met in Dundee at the rep there in the 1960s when he was a student at St Andrew’s. He had conceived with Stephen Mallatratt, the adapter of Susan Hill’s book, a stage production which made history in the West End eventually, playing at the Fortune Theatre for 33 years. I had done a year in the piece in the early 2000s and Robin had asked on and off if I’d like to do it again. I was quite often busy or not able to commit to such a long contract. One evening, he rang with the same request and I was about to say no when he said, “er, hang on. Would you do it with Tom?” Well! That was it. What dad could resist. We had never worked together properly on stage before and I think we were both a bit nervous. We had played a father and son shepherd couple in a film for the BBC but this play would be different. Tom’s training and background are very different to mine. He went to the internationally famous Jacques Lecoq School in Paris and worked his way through the school for three years. How would he cope with my much more scattergun effect of creation? In the event, we were very fine together. We’d started off by saying to each other that we wouldn’t do “notes” about performances. Just straight questions. “Why did you do that?” “Have you changed that deliberately?” So no animosity was created and both felt free to play it each evening as it came to us. I was intrigued to find that although our two approaches were quite different, we both arrived at the same point. An experience I’ll never forget. 2015, a memorable year.
Seasons at The RSC and the National Theatre are always exciting and I remember vividly the jump to my heart when I saw the Stratford Memorial Theatre for the first time in 1996 and knew that I was to play there and in The Swan for the summer. There was something extremely exciting at being in that centre of invention and creativity. The Swan I came to know well, and although the main house is an exciting experience to play, The Swan has my heart. Maybe from all those years at the theatre in the round in Scarborough have influenced me. The RSC has taken me around the UK and, indeed, around the world.
I have to say that my heart is really in live theatre, I’ve always found TV and film, unless playing something juicy, rather harder. Sometimes it’s so quick, one or two days and that’s it. You don’t really get a chance to know anyone. Occasionally you hit something excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed The Miniaturist playing a villainous priest. Film is always interesting as it really is such a foreign country. I tend to just act and hope they can cut a performance out of it. That, though, is one of the problems with film. They can, during the edit process, change your performance entirely. Well, that’s not strictly true, but they can alter things a good deal. I’ve come to a better understanding over the years and can regulate what I do much better but it’s not instinctive like theatre.
Strange how avenues open up (and close!). I voice some things for video games and films. It’s very fast, you have to be a good sight reader and you really have to have your wits about you. Huge action sequences can really bugger your voice up if you have to repeat a lot. Quite often you do because the directors need the same sorts of reaction because multiple situations are encountered by the players. I have noticed a drop in the work for that. Whether it’s me going out of fashion or whether it’s AI, I’ve no idea.
Dubbing is much the same. Quite often the production companies are wary of letting you know the story or what the character is doing because of secrecy and having work plagiarised. I did one dub session and when I saw the finished article I was upset to see that I’d got the social standing and general attitude of the character wrong as I didn’t know the story.
I’m enjoying my work still. I’m glad that I’m not starting out now as the business has changed so much over the years. I recently read an article in which Sir Mark Rylance was being asked about his experience in theatre and he was rather wistful about the lack of the wilder characters in theatre these days. I, too, miss the more “roaring boy” element. By this, I don’t mean going on stage pissed and incapable (although very occasionally I did see that) but the more highly individual and rambunctious people. There is an air today in theatre where everything is tidied and patted down nicely. There are the health and safety people, there are the rules about social conduct, there are the rules about gender and treatment of the sexes, there are the rules about so many situations; most of these regulations used to be left to common sense and good manners, now they are incorporated into manifestos and contracts. Yes, I know times have changed and society has become more complex but we mustn’t lose some of the glorious inconsistences either.
Young actors these days have my unadulterated respect. The sorts of situations they have to cope with are more complex and the availability of work is far less than when I started. If out of work, when I was a young man, you could generally pick up some other work to tide you over. I’ve done all sorts of things when out of theatre work which wouldn’t be possible now. Some of which were a crashing bore and some I found deeply interesting and helpful in later character studies for my own work. I think the main difference nowadays is the lack of repertory theatres. There were, in 1962, some 54 around the country and you could learn so much from other actors and there were directors who would help you; above all, you could attempt something and fail. Fail without the penalty of thinking you’d scuppered your chances of future work because there were other reps and other companies. Television and film produce some fine work but it’s difficult when you’re starting out to have some continuity to consolidate what you’re learning and practice it if you’ve only got one (but maybe well-paid) scene.
One thing hasn’t changed and that is the general goodwill amongst the majority of theatre people. They are broadly supportive and sympathetic to each other. I’ll leave you with one illustration. I was doing a television piece way back and was walking down Bayswater Road with a script under my arm on my way to rehearsal. Coming towards me was a flamboyant figure of a certain age looking rather like The Return of the Fighting Temeraire. He, too, had a script under his arm and, as we passed each other, Sir Donald Wolfit greeted me with a gravelly “good morning, Comrade”.
Good luck, Comrades!