The Green Room: What are your favourite theatrical anecdotes?
Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…
Jon I’m looking for personal experience as well as the beloved traditional ones.
Ros I don’t think I’ve really got any…
Beryl Digs stories (usually horrendous digs) are great.
Albert Our current generation of leading actors don’t seem to generate as many fabulous anecdotes as those generated by Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Coral Browne etc. I think it’s because we disseminate a lot of information by social media these days, which doesn’t really allow space for an anecdotal story.
Beryl Warm-up stories are fun. Someone once told me their vocal consisted of “a fag and a locket”. And I heard about an actor who apparently used to walk on stage at Shakespeare’s Globe and say: “Brrrum mah mah, halibut” – warm-up done.
Jon A lot of the stories that get told about our contemporaries tend to be a bit more gossipy, I think: so and so was drunk, x and y were having an affair during show z, that kind of thing.
Albert But given that we are in the age of #MeToo – Coral Browne was hailing a taxi and at the same as she got into it, so did a man from the other side. The driver said: “Sorry. The lady got here first.” The man responded: “What lady?” To which Coral leant across the taxi into his face and said: “This fucking lady.”
Jon I think the two I’ve heard most often are the: “You’ll like this, this is where I come on,” which apparently happened to about 60 different actors…
Eoghan Yes, that’s the one I’ve heard about Peter O’Toole – “This is where I come on…”
Jon …and the Donald Wolfit’s wife “Nevertheless…” one.
Jenny I just read a great one about Gielgud sitting down at a table where everyone was in silent awe of him and he eventually said: “Has anyone had any obscene phone calls lately?”
Jon Oh that’s brilliant.
Albert I can’t repeat my best Gielgud one here, the punchline wouldn’t be suitable.
Jon The mind boggles…
Eoghan A friend of mine was in a play at the Abbey Theatre as a child, and was the older brother to an infant who was in the pram. His ‘parents’ were having an argument in the kitchen on stage when suddenly the pram holding the infant started rolling down the rake and towards the front row of the audience. Someone had forgotten to put the brakes on. The argument was ended by the wife shouting: “The baby’s trying to get away,” and running to save it before it crashed over the edge.
Jon Wheels and rakes. We never learn. A friend of mine once had trouble with boots and pedals and nearly mowed down the front few rows of the Olivier with a jeep.
Eoghan Isn’t there a story about someone pissing themselves at the top of a human pyramid in a show?
Jenny There’s a good one about Edith Evans dealing with two actors in The Importance of Being Earnest, I think, who were both trying to upstage each other. She told them she could upstage them without even being on stage. Next show she left the scene, but before doing so she left a teacup teetering on the edge of the table…
Albert That’s a bit like the way Olivier used to just leave his hand draped round the doorpost on his exit to keep the focus on where he had exited. But, interestingly enough, these are all old stories. Nothing about Benedict Cumberbatch, a name that in itself should be the punchline to an anecdote.
Jon Albert, presumably in 20 years’ time all the Gielgud and O’Toole stories will just be about Cumberbatch and co.
Albert I don’t think so. I just don’t think they work at the height that those legends did. I think the information about them is too readily available. The anecdotes about Olivier and Gielgud were passed from actor to actor, they weren’t published.
Beryl Stories about corpsing are always funny.
Jon I once spent much of a long run trying to corpse an uncorpsable Olivier award-winning actor. What got him in the end was someone knocking a Coke can over. How can you plan for that?
Albert These days, the slightest little gossip or mistake is immediately circulated as a tweet. The mystique has gone. We often refer to anecdotes as apocryphal and we are quite happy that they may or may not have truth in them. Perhaps they were the fake news of their day?
Jon I’ve had a couple of contemporary ones by email that are just a little too… graphic… for the column.
Eoghan I’ve heard Nicholas Parsons tell one about being in a play with Kenneth Williams where he had to hold Williams at gunpoint and shoot him. He heard a couple of clicks but no gunshot, so they ended up having an improvised showdown until eventually Williams muttered: “Throw the gun at me.” Nicholas did, hit him, and Kenneth shouted: “Oh, you got me. You didn’t say the gun was poisoned.”
Jon I was killed by a drum once when a gun didn’t go off. There was a big drum beat from the band a couple of seconds after the shot was supposed to ring out so I just decided that’s what had killed me.
Beryl I’ve got a load of stories that, like you said earlier, are just too rude to tell.
Jon One great story I heard from the horse’s mouth, from an actor who is no longer with us, is that he once woke up after a heavy night, late for a matinee and in bed with his cover. Which I think is a suitably scandalous note to end on…