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Paul Clayton: It’ll be a sad day when all the laughter has gone

Laurence Olivier, part of the generation unafraid to tell a risque truth
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“Whoosh whoosh whoosh, all over me”. That’s the punchline of an apocryphal anecdote concerning John Gielgud, which common decency will not allow me to reproduce in full in such an august publication as The Stage.

Guaranteed to raise a hearty chuckle whenever its told, it’s just one of a catalogue of anecdotes that exist about a particular generation of actors – Olivier’s remark on hearing the name of the actor Edward Woodward: “Sounds like a fart in the bath”, Gielgud’s famed brick dropping and conversational gaffes: “Oh not you dear, the other Mercedes McCambridge”, and Ralph Richardson’s alleged summing up of an American co-star in the cafe at Pinewood: “Boring little f****r, isn’t he?”

Stories such as these endorsed the position of the participants as the gods of our profession. They helped add a magic, and a joy to our leading actors. Perhaps these days we all know just a little too much about each other for such anecdotes to circulate. Where are the stories about the McKellens and the Mirrens? Surely there have to be risque tales about the Callows and the Cumberbatchs?

Not in common circulation, it would seem. Perhaps this generation of leading players isn’t as rude, risque, or as forthright as their predecessors. Perhaps it’s an awareness of how our actions are monitored every minute that prevent us from letting rip or forgetting ourselves.

Are we just a little more concerned about what people think of us? Or have we just ceased to be funny? I think not.

The great thing about the acting profession is that it contains a great deal of good humour. The more laughter, the better the work, said Celia Imrie to me recently in an interview.

Judi Dench, our tribal leader, has long been known for a mischievous twinkle and a sense of humour that is a joy to behold. An anecdote involving two young actors and a flask of cider vinegar features in her autobiography and has been told on many chat shows.

I know it’s true. I was the poor guy who ended up drinking it. And yet the story makes us love her all the more. It shows she’s naughty. It makes her human. It makes her accessible.

Given that a key part of our work is keeping in touch with the inner child, perhaps we all need a little bit of ‘naughty’.

I know we have to be childlike, and not childish, but sometimes it’s breaking the rules that produces the best work. And if in the process it allows people to perceive us as a little bit more human, surely that’s a good thing?

Let’s keep the anecdotes flying. Let’s start telling stories. Risque, naughty stories about each other.

The divine Coral Browne lives on in my memory not only for her fabulous performances in An Englishman Abroad, but mainly for the anecdote that involves a bet, an assistant stage manager, and the sum of 19 shillings and sixpence. Not a bad way to be remembered.

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