Sour Notes

D.A.N. Jones

  • Peter Hall’s Diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle edited by John Goodwin
    Hamish Hamilton, 507 pp, £12.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 241 11047 5

Sir Peter Hall is a man of Notes. He is a director of plays who has become Director of the National Theatre. The skills of play directors are not those of performers (like his predecessor at the National, Lord Olivier). Play directors pride themselves on their ability to give what they call Notes. This sort of Note (scarcely recognised by dictionaries) is not the sort manual workers make, in notebooks or on notepaper: it is mouth work. Sometimes it is like the tuning note given to a band by piano or woodwind; sometimes like a note of disapproval or approbation uttered by a schoolmaster to his class, or a professor to his seminar. So now, in Sir Peter’s diary, we find the National Director descending upon the actors rehearsing Horvath’s play, Tales from the Vienna Woods, under the direction of Maximilian Schell:

Work on Vienna Woods this morning, and all the company together for Notes at lunchtime. At Max’s invitation I spoke my thoughts to them ... I said that the audience’s pleasure at the story had trapped the actors into indulging their feelings, and the stage was awash with sentiment. Also, the music making, instead of being schmaltzy and to be taken critically, had become hearty English party singing, and sweet, well-loved waltzes. This afternoon Max put the company through five hours of hair-splitting Notes; and there was smouldering anger about the place, the result of many days of unrest. The preview tonight was both better and worse. Better because it was harder and lacking in indulgent pathos, worse because the actors were tired and fed up.

That is what Notes are like. There is a special sort of language to be used when directing plays and operas, changing the tone and style of the production by using the words of theatre and music reviewers (associative, eloquent words, like ‘hearty’ and ‘schmaltzy’), trying not to sound like nagging spouses, trying not to irritate the performers with ‘hairsplitting Notes’.

Play directors may come to suppose that everything can be done by Notes. When I was a student I appeared in a play by Michael Codron, directed by his friend, Adrian Brown: just before we went on, Codron appeared to give us a Note. ‘Adrian is making this too heavy and Germanic,’ he said. ‘I want it to be light, French, a soufflé.’ This confused us performers and wrecked the show. Later in life, Codron became more expert at giving Notes. He appears in Hall’s diary instructing him (by telegram) to release Stuart Burge from the National Theatre to work at the Royal Court, to save it (for the nation, I suppose). Hall obeys the Note, and releases the talented director for his salvage work at Chelsea. The Secretary-General of the Arts Council thanks Hall ‘for being public-spirited about Burge’. A nice Note of approbation. But Hall growls in his diary: ‘Public-spirited be damned. I have had to bow to the inevitable and it’s upset me very much.’

It is hard work, skilled work, giving Notes to performers in plays and operas. But we may wonder whether this skill is enough for running three theatres in the Waterloo complex: one cannot direct the national press and public, the governing committees and backstage staff, as if they were eager play-actors, just needing a few Notes.

Hall’s predecessor, Lord Olivier, is a performer. He calculates, with sincerity, the effect he wishes to produce. He knew the names of his backstage staff and sent their wives flowers when they had babies: his dressing-room door was open to staff with problems for half an hour before a performance. (Or so I am told. Legends abound at the National Theatre, as in a regiment, with rankers’ gossip about the old colonel.) Olivier’s technique with the governing boards may be guessed by reading a recent newspaper letter from Lady Cottesloe, commending her husband’s skill in dealing with ‘that lovable prima donna, Laurence Olivier’. Olivier has also written a book, Confessions of an Actor, in which he confesses that he was displeased at being succeeded, without consultation, by Peter Hall, when he would have preferred Michael Blakemore. Oliver’s book is written: the author has calculated the effects which he wished to produce.

But Peter Hall has not written a book. He is too busy – much too busy. He is a mouth worker. He has followed the example of expansive Richard Crossman, dictating a diary to a machine, instructing manual workers to type out the ever-rolling stream of consciousness. Between 1972 and 1980 Hall dictated more than a million words, he tells us, as source material for future historians. To John Goodwin, his trusty press officer, he has allotted the task of anthologising some quarter-million of those words. Goodwin has been his word processor. This book is an example of information technology.

The dictator was surprised (he tells us in his foreword) when he got round to reading Goodwin’s book. ‘I was as confused as when I see myself on television or hear myself on the radio. Another person is there whom I only half know, full of contradictions.’ He was especially worried by the confusions and contradictions about politics and labour relations. Hall had liked to think of himself as coming ‘from the working class’, brought up by ‘a railwayman father to believe fervently in trade unions’, and so he felt depressed when he saw how Goodwin had displayed him as ‘a son of the Seventies, fighting unions and voting Conservative for the first time’.

The union that had worried him most was Nattke, the National Association of Theatrical, Television and Kine Employees. Hall usually refers to the Nattke men as ‘Kon Fredericks and his happy band of brothers’ or ‘Kon and his merry men’. This irony misfires. We see the photographs in this book of Kon Fredericks and Ralph Cooper (the plumber Sir Peter tried so hard to sack) and we think of Robin Hood and Friar Tuck; we cast their boss as the Sheriff of Nottingham, frustrated by merry men. Sir Peter’s diary shows him trying to persuade softer members of the staff to join Nattke in order to outvote the happy band of brothers; another tactic was to give a Note to John Wilson, the general secretary of Nattke, telling him to keep his men in order. That’s what union leaders are for, aren’t they?

Reading Goodwin’s book, Sir Peter also discovered how often and how bitterly he had complained about his bad press: he supposes he must have found it ‘painful, having been a young lion of the Sixties, generally encouraged by the media, to find myself an abused figure of the Seventies. Don’t ever believe anyone who says that a bad press doesn’t hurt.’ Old diaries often surprise their authors: they ought to tidy them up, before publication. Instead, Sir Peter handed his over to John Goodwin – who appears as a confessed Labour supporter and also, of course, as a press officer, interested in his boss’s bad press.

Even Nattke members can be dismayed by a bad press. After a strike in 1978, some National Theatre stagehands approached Sir Peter in a hopefully friendly way. He records: ‘They’re very injured that they’ve been selected by the press as the wild men. And they added, Why don’t I talk to them more? Why don’t I thank them more? ... It depressed me. They just want more money.’ The stagehands sent him for his birthday a picture of Laughton playing Captain Bligh on the Bounty. He says he might have felt sympathy with the hands ‘if they were low paid. But they earn about £140 a week for not too much work.’ Those of us who think ‘monetary’ is merely an anagram for ‘mean Tory’ will suggest that he might have set higher value on the skill, speed, strength, initiative in emergencies and thoughtful commitment to a production’s success which are required of Nattke members, especially at the National Theatre with its new technology of unreliable stage machinery.

Even in 1974, Sir Peter was quick to grumble about manual workers. He mouthed to his machine:

To London on the train. I very much wanted to be in the office early. British Railways helped by cancelling the 7.34. There was, the announcer blandly said, a staff difficulty. Heads would have rolled for this when my father was a station master. But not any more ... How reactionary one becomes.

One does, does one? Thoughts of private enterprise drift warmly into his stream of consciousness. ‘Work in the subsidised theatre can never earn me the kind of money I need ...’

Soon he is being offered £1,000 for two days’ work directing a television commercial – and the same day his other self, the loony-left personality, is admiring Edward Bond’s play exposing Shakespeare as ‘a man who Sold Out to the Bourgeoisie and no longer stood up for the Progressive Currents of his Time’. (My capitals.) He then makes two commercials for the Royal Navy, but not for any vile patriotic motive. ‘Lunch among the nobs ... I was asked why I was doing commercials. I told them it was for money, and for practice in using a camera. There’s nothing like the truth.’

The manual workers of the Times go on strike. Hall is invited to appear on television with other public figures, or mouth workers, to say in seven seconds why they miss the Times. The fee is £1,000 per mouth worker. Hall reluctantly declines – ‘because it will leak that we have each been paid a large fee, and seem we have been bought’. Almost as wicked as Bond’s Shakespeare.

Anyway, Hall’s mouth can command £1,000 for seven seconds, and the hands may think themselves lucky for £140 a week. ‘They just want more money,’ says the son of the railwayman (or station master). There is here just a touch of Mr Bounderby’s style in Hard Times:

I know what I am and the exact depth of the gutter I have lifted myself out of ... As to our Hands, there’s not a Hand in this town, sir – man, woman or child – but has one ultimate object in life. That object is to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. Now they’re not a going – none of ’em – ever to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon.

Hall likes to be thought of as a ‘Leavisite’ and he might do well to reread Leavis’s essay on Hard Times – about the positive value of trade-unionism (and Nonconformist chapels), about the ‘self-respecting steadiness and conscientious restraint of the working classes’, and even about the helpful truisms of another impresario, Mr Sleary, the brandified circus-master, for all his slurred diction: ‘There ith a love in the world, not all Thelf-Interetht, after all.’

There is a photograph of Dr Leavis in this book, to illustrate a paragraph in Time which Hall ‘particularly wanted to record’. Time had alleged that Hall ‘studied English under F.R. Leavis: Even though Leavis hated theatre, he made a lasting impact on Hall with his scrupulous examination of a text, particularly for its ironies and ambiguities and the sense that a work of art must be placed in a social context.’ Hall agrees with Time. When Leavis dies in 1978, Hall dictates:

I never actually met him, but I went to his lectures. They were the inspiration of my Cambridge years. He somehow inculcated a feeling that art was to do with better standards of life and better behaviour. The paradox is that all we students pretended we sped to his lectures to imbibe his humanism. In fact, we were enjoying his character assassinations.

As Mr Sleary said, ‘people mutht be amuthed, Thquire.’ Many Cambridge graduates of Hall’s vintage have made their mark in highbrow showbiz with efforts to emulate Leavis’s seriousness. Leavis himself struck out a fine line about such displays: they ‘mime a profundity of solemn doubt’, he said. Sir Peter dictates: ‘Comical to think that Leavis hated the theatre and never went to it. He has had more influence on the contemporary theatre than any other critic. All the textual seriousness at the basis of Trevor’s work and of mine comes from Leavis, and there is a vast band of us.’ The trouble is that their idea of ‘seriousness’ sometimes means little more than making sure the audience doesn’t laugh.

There are other ways of seeming ‘serious’. Against opposition from his wiser friends, Hall insists on presenting The Romans in Britain, a play by Howard Brenton, allegedly about contemporary Northern Ireland, which begins with a swearing Roman attempting to bugger a Druid but being frustrated by haemorrhoids. This is thought to be left-wing – but Hall is confused about left-wingers. He fears that Howard Brenton, ‘an ardent socialist, is uneasy with me now that I am being characterised by the left as a strike-breaker’.

Further to the left, or right, are the Nattke men, the potential strikers, who have no respect for Howard Brenton’s plays. When they worked on his Weapons of Happiness, Hall noted: ‘The stage crew don’t really like it. Quite a number of them are political, but they don’t like political plays. Some of them also don’t like plays with “fuck” and “shit” in them.’ However, Brenton has his admirers. ‘The audience was full of young people clad in deliberately tattered jeans,’ dictates Hall, with satisfaction. ‘They were amazed that we were doing such a play – it upset their settled response to us.’ Sir Peter hates the idea of himself as a member of what he calls the Establishment: so he is pleased with the earnest and innocent Time Out crowd, and with the Times declaring that the National Theatre can flourish Howard Brenton productions as ‘evidence of radicalism’. So much for the Nattke prudes.

They have a good deal to put up with, in matters of taste. Hall describes a National Theatre preview, with a prominent dwarf ‘leading the audience in community singing of the words, “Bums and Tits, Bums and Tits, Having It Away ... ” Christ, I thought, here is the National Theatre’s family Christmas show.’ Sir Peter goes to his daughter’s school concert: ‘little embarrassed girls grinning shyly at the audience, reciting A.A. Milne, all spick and span in school uniform – a vanishing society’. He looks in on the dwarf show again, and finds that a woman has ‘objected to the “Bums and Tits” song on the grounds that it was male chauvinism. She sang instead “Bums and Pricks”, and they all joined in.’

Yet, despite all this middle-class morality, the Nattke men soldier on, trying to help their boss.

Emergency meeting of the heads of the backstage departments. They feel they are not consulted in time, and that they are asked to do impossible things which they nevertheless, somehow or other get done ... One of our carpenters said that nobody likes to say no to me. If it was the guv’nor’s production he was given what he wanted.

John Goodwin has almost made a novel out of Sir Peter’s notes. It is something like Angus Wilson’s The Old Men at the Zoo, in which a naturalist, an expert on badgers, finds himself Secretary of the Zoological Society, trying to keep the show on the road as an emblem of the nation, despite his difficulties with the staff, and his weakness before the pressures of Labour and Tory, fascist and loony-left philosophies. He should have stuck to badgers.

It is the same with Sir Peter. He is a skilful play director: his keen eye for character expressed in the way people move, what they say and how they say it, is revealed in these pages through the dozens of neat anecdotes about the performers he admires. Ralph Richardson shows up very well, offering Hall gnomic and godly advice, calculating his effects. So does Harold Pinter – himself an actor as well as a writer. Sir Peter may struggle too hard to be serious: he may choose silly plays about serious subjects, and he may assume too readily that all characters in serious plays should be ‘discussing moral dilemmas directly with the audience’ – even thugs like Tamburlaine. But he is good at stage direction – and should not be expected also to choose plays, casts and directors for three theatres, juggle the timetable and the repertoire, handle grand committees, backstage staff, press and television.

We should be thinking about the administration of the National Theatre. It is too big a job for one man. Do we really need three theatres on the South Bank? Why not two – a main arena and a studio theatre? The Olivier could have its own stage boss, its own company and backstage staff; so could the little Cottesloe. An administrator could be appointed to act as umpire between the two, and deal with boards, committees, finance and publicity. Plays need not be kept in the repertoire: they could run their weeks or months and then finish. These are some of the suggestions one hears.

Ralph Richardson used to say that a big bike is best except when it falls on top of you – then, you wish you had a Vespa. Despite his apparent omniscience, Sir Ralph may not have known that when you come off a Vespa you sometimes get your foot painfully trapped. The National Theatre is Peter Hall’s big bike and this book is his little Vespa. He has put his foot in it.