Clive Francis has never been the kind of actor who sits around waiting for the phone to ring. He is a firm believer in harnessing whatever you’ve got at your disposal to earn an honest crust.
“I went to see a clairvoyant when I was feeling particularly low,” he says, “and she asked me if I’d ever thought of writing. I replied that I couldn’t even spell, let alone write. Some time later I was playing in Giles Havergal’s adaptation of Travels With My Aunt and I was so impressed with what Giles had done with Graham Greene’s book that I went home one night and took The Hound of the Baskervilles off the bookshelf, flicked through it and thought ‘OK, I’ll have a go’.”
That was the start of his second string career of adapter. He followed it with A Christmas Carol, the one-man show he has been doing annually for the past 13 years (“it pays for the turkey”), Three Men in a Boat, Our Man in Havana, and The Lavender Hill Mob.
Now Francis has adapted the 1927 Ben Travers farce Thark for a 21st-century audience, as well as appearing in Eleanor Rhode’s production at the Park Theatre until September 22.
“Originally I suggested it to Jamie Barber at the Yvonne Arnaud and we organised a reading. Some of the 1920s comedy was holding up the pace, it was too long and a bit creaky in places. So I suggested to Jamie that I re-shape it, tighten it up and refocus the comedy for a younger generation of theatregoers.
“I assured Ben’s estate that I wouldn’t do anything too radical, and they looked at what I’d done and said, ‘Feel free to go further,’ so another five or six drafts later we arrived at something we both liked. I think it works very well now.
“All I’ve done really is cut it, I’ve taken out all the music hall crosstalk, given it more narrative momentum, and made it flow better.”
Francis got to know Travers when the National Theatre revived Plunder in the 1970s. In his 90th year he had the unusual distinction of having three of his plays on simultaneously in London – Plunder, The Bed Before Yesterday and Banana Ridge.
“He was an extraordinary man,” recalls Francis, “So full of life and energy. He went on to write two more plays before he died aged 94, but they were less successful because his comedy was basically steeped in the style and mores of the 20s and 30s.”
Francis has long been associated with farce himself, as an actor, and has particularly fond memories of Look After Lulu, which Noel Coward adapted from Feydeau, which he did with Geraldine McEwan. “It could work now, but if I was adapting it I’d definitely go back to the original play. The version we did was very much Coward’s take on it.”
Does it help being an actor when he adapts a play or book?
“Definitely, because you’ve got the rhythms in your head of how it should sound when spoken, it’s incredibly useful. I’m also finding it helpful acting in Thark because I’m on hand if anybody has a problem with the text.”
The third string to the Clive Francis bow is of course his brilliant collection of theatrical caricatures, which have been bought together into a book, Laugh Lines, as well as illustrating several others.
“I’m actually very lucky to do the three things I love most – acting, writing and drawing. Even when I was growing up as a kid in Eastbourne I used to have a sketchbook with me at all times. My great-uncle, Donald Towner, was a famous landscape artist and I learnt a lot from him.
“Theatre was in my blood so I think I knew from an early age that I would be an actor. I left school at 15 with two O levels and went straight into rep in Bexhill on Sea because I was too young to go to drama school.
“My mother’s great passion was poetry and reading, so I learned about literature from her. My father (the actor Raymond Francis) was a very private man, who didn’t talk much about his work. When he was in No Hiding Place, he’d take his script with onto the South Downs and learn his lines as he walked along. Sometimes he would take me with him and we’d go on these long treks in total silence, finishing up in the pub, where I had to sit outside with my ginger beer and crisps.”
His son, Harry, is carrying on the family tradition, having just appeared in A Chorus Line. He is now devising and directing a late-night cabaret, involving some of the cast of A Chorus Line, at the Leicester Square Theatre.
Meanwhile, his dad is working on another one-man show in which he will play Charles Dickens. He says, “It is about Dickens and the theatre which he adored as we know. Many of his best characters are virtually variety turns. I know there have been other shows along similar lines but there is such a wealth of material, I’m sure there is room for all of us.”