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Gawn Grainger: ‘My career has been like a series of parties’

Gawn Grainger rehearsing for The Entertainer. Photo: Johan Persson Gawn Grainger rehearsing for The Entertainer. Photo: Johan Persson

Gawn Grainger was off to Tuscany to work on his memoirs when he got the call from his agent, saying: “How would you like to do The Entertainer with Ken Branagh?”

“I couldn’t resist it,” says Grainger, who plays Billy Rice, father of Archie (Branagh) and himself a former music-hall turn. “At my age, you don’t often get roles that good coming along.”

The instantly likeable 78-year-old, who started acting when he was 12, seems a lot younger in both outlook and appearance. For rehearsals, he is wearing a black T-shirt inscribed with the legend: “Rock’n’roll is not dead.”

You get the feeling Grainger’s twinkling presence in any company would lift its spirits. “It’s been like a series of parties,” he says of his career. “I love the fact that you never know what’s around the corner. In what other profession would you get to spend four months in Japan getting to know Zero Mostel?”

While he may never have been above-the-title famous, Grainger has managed to stay pretty much continuously in work for more than half a century, often in scene-stealing roles at the National Theatre, and invariably working with the profession’s finest. He played Romeo to Jane Asher’s Juliet in New York in 1967. He was Macduff to Anthony Hopkins’ Macbeth in 1972, and the Reverend Hale in Bill Bryden’s 1980 production of The Crucible in 1980, both for the National.

He also appeared in two of Laurence Olivier’s last stage plays – Eduardo de Filippo’s Saturday, Sunday, Monday, translated from Italian, and Trevor Griffiths’ intensely political play The Party, both produced at the National in 1973.

Grainger with Hattie Morahan and Juliet Stevenson in The Seagull at the National Theatre in 2006. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey
Grainger with Hattie Morahan and Juliet Stevenson in The Seagull at the National Theatre in 2006. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

A firm friendship developed between the two men, despite the 30-year age gap. “I suppose we were like father and son. He called me his court jester. Even when he wasn’t acting, he was a chameleon. I took him to my local pub in Islington once. Nobody had a clue who he was. The next day one of my drinking pals said: ‘Your dad’s a nice fella, isn’t he?’ ”

Later, when Olivier was unwell and not working, they joined forces for a book, On Acting, credited to Olivier alone, which Grainger put together from hours of written interviews with the great actor. Grainger spent a lot of time at Olivier’s Brighton home, swimming, drinking, talking. Grainger, who was credited as the book’s editor, was complicit in the deception that the book had been written by Olivier. The relationship – and the writing of the book – will feature in Grainger’s own memoir, which is already half-written.

Like many actors of Grainger’s generation, Olivier was regarded as something of a god. Growing up in London, and as a tyro actor, he managed to see nearly all his great performances – Richard III, Othello, Shylock, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and, of course, the original Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer after it transferred from the Royal Court to the West End in 1957. It was a role that proved to be a turning point in Olivier’s career.

“He was a great one for trying something new,” says Grainger. “He didn’t sit on his laurels. He was always looking to the future.”

Does he see parallels between Branagh and Olivier?

“Oh yes, Ken is up there with Olivier, all right. They both have that belief in themselves, extraordinary energy and surprisingly little insight into how they do it. It’s a combination of magic and hard work. Ken has been teaching himself to tap dance for months. I haven’t talked to him about Olivier’s performance as Archie in rehearsal, but we did talk about him when he played him in My Week With Marilyn, because he knew I’d known him well.”


Q&A: Gawn Grainger

What was your first non-theatre job? I was too young to have one.

What was your first professional theatre job? A non-speaking role as the young prince in King’s Rhapsody in 1949.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Stay real and try not to bump into the furniture.

Who or what was your biggest influence? I had two – Sam Wanamaker and Laurence Olivier.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Try to imagine the play is all about your character.

If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? A writer.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I like to sit on stage before the house comes in and communicate with the theatre gods

Grainger’s own career began in the 1940s when he was a schoolboy at Westminster City School. “I read in the paper they were looking for a boy actor to play Ivor Novello’s son in the musical King’s Rhapsody because the boy who was in it had grown too tall. So I got off the number 38 bus outside the Palace Theatre, went around to the stage door and said: ‘I’ve come to see Mr Novello.’ He just happened to be in his dressing room, and they told me to go up. He looked at me and said: ‘You look very like I did when I was your age,’ and asked me when I could start. No audition, nothing.”

Not long afterwards, Novello died of a heart attack at the age of 58 and was replaced in the hit show by Jack Buchanan. “So I was working with two West End legends before I’d even entered my teens,” recalls Grainger.

“It was the glamour of it all I remember most. Ivor would come out of the stage door after the show, wearing a big fedora, in full make-up, and climb into a big, chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, which would then drive him for two minutes across the road to the Ivy. He was a huge star, as was Buchanan.

“The choice for me, or for my parents, was whether I carried on acting and left school or returned to school and gave up acting. My mum agreed to let me carry on acting, so I left school.”

Liz White and Grainger in A Woman Killed With Kindness at the National Theatre in 2011. Photo; Stephen Cummiskey
Liz White and Grainger in A Woman Killed With Kindness at the National Theatre in 2011. Photo; Stephen Cummiskey

Of course no actor’s life is unreservedly charmed. Grainger has had his share of disappointment and tragedy. In 1992, his very successful actor wife Janet Key died of cancer, aged 47, after 22 years of marriage, leaving him to look after their two children, Charlie and Eliza. His plan to switch from acting to writing in the 1980s – he was writer-in-residence at the National for a time – foundered when he was lured back to the stage by Harold Pinter.

“He offered me roles in Party Time and Mountain Language. He told me I owed it to myself to start acting again. Then I played Briggs in No Man’s Land, with Paul Eddington and Douglas Hodge, and that was it. I was back.”

Now married to Zoe Wanamaker, he seems remarkably laid-back about being in or out of work. “I don’t get in a state about it any more. If something like this comes along, I’m delighted, but I’m equally pleased to be sitting down to write my autobiography. I have always kept a diary, which helps. It’s rather like writing a novel, except that I know what’s going to happen. If the publisher doesn’t like it, I don’t care. My kids can have it.”

The reason he finds himself back in the West End, playing a key role opposite Branagh, is that one of his contemporaries, John Hurt, had to step down because of ill health. “I don’t think I will ever stop working, because I still love it,” he says. “My age is mostly a blessing, although bits fall off, of course.  I’ve had a hip replacement. But, generally, I think of myself as a youngish person in an oldish body. Billy is a surprisingly big part. Acting with someone like Ken gives you a little boost, lifts your game. I just hope I can remember the fucking lines.”

CV: Gawn Grainger

Born: 1937, Glasgow
Training: None
Landmark productions: Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, New York (1967), Son of Man, BBC TV (1969), Macbeth, National Theatre (1972), The Misanthrope, National Theatre and US tour (1975), The Plough and the Stars, National Theatre (1977), The Crucible, National Theatre (1980), No Man’s Land, Comedy Theatre, London (1993), Tales from Hollywood, Donmar Warehouse, London (2001), Amy’s View, Garrick Theatre, London (2006), The Recruiting Officer, Donmar Warehouse (2012)
Agent: Dallas Smith, United Agents

The Entertainer runs at the Garrick Theatre, London, from August 20 to November 12 as part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company season

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