Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Submitted by Neal Lofthouse
Life's lessons: Frith Banbury
Frith Banbury embodies the history of 20th-century theatre. At 91, he finds biographers beating a path to his door. He was in Gielgud's 1934 Hamlet, began directing in the 1940s, taught at RADA and is still working today. He is directing Rodney Ackland's The Old Ladies, with Siân Phillips, Rosemary Leach and Angela Thorne, on a tour this autumn. Valerie Grove met him at his flat overlooking Regent's Park. Portrait by Ben Murphy.
SAGA Magazine, September 2003
It was my salvation that my father, a rear admiral, was away in the First World War - at Scarpa Flow and the Battle of Jutland and in Malaysia, so I was left with my doting mother and my granny. When I was six my mother took me to the Hippodrome to see my first play, Joy Bells, with Shirley Kellogg, who nobody but I remember, and from that moment I knew what I wanted to do. It was a marvellous secret between me and myself.
I have never had an overdraft, because both my grandfathers went bankrupt and my wonderful Jewish granny, Fink, always said: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." I'm a mongrel, half-English upper-middle class ans hald-Australian Jewish; my parents lived together unhappily for 40 years. My mother, whose father was known as Farthing Fink after he went bankrupt for £2 million, met my father in Jamaica, and married him to escape into an upright English family. But oddly enough my grandfather Banbury had also been a bankrupt, and also in Australia, too, but he was an old-fashioned Victorian cad, a wife-beater and wife-deserter who committed suicide at 45.
People will decide what kind of children they want - and get it wrong. When my father came home from the war he was horrified to find a son who onlt wanted to play Mozart on the piano. For him, it was only for accompanying Land of Hope and Glory in the officer's mess after dinner. He packed me off to boarding school, which I loathed - even my next school, Stowe, which was very liberal. The headmaster JF Roxburgh - who we all admired - wrote in my first term's report: "He ploughs a lonely furrow." My father boomed: "You know what that means, don't you? It means the other boys don't like you." But I thought, perhaps, it meant I don't like the other boys.
I thought all sports and games, especially rugby, were quite pointless. From cricket I learnt only what grasses were best to chew.
Going into the theatre was partly to defy my father. In my teenage years I used to creep in by the French window when he was snoozing and steal the theatre page of The Times. I would cut things out and paste them in a scrapbook. I regarded my one year at Oxford, reading French and German, as my gap year. The dramatic society was fun, but I really wanted to go to RADA, so I did.
Luck has a great deal to do with my life. Ten days after leaving RADA I had a job, understudying and playing the piano in a review called Hard to be a Jew by Sholom Aleichem, renamed If I Were You,at the old Shaftesbury Theatre for 30 shillings a week.
Being in John Gielgud's Hamlet in 1934 almost destroyed my self-confidence. Gielgud was renowned for saying whatever came ointo his head without thinking. His family, the Terrys, were the aristocrats of the theatre, and he was the crown prince. It wasn't that he enjoyed humiliating people, he just never thought of the effect of what he said. He was extremely critical but could not tell one how to make it better; only people like Peggy Ashcroft could cope with his vagaries. However, watching him in performance, he was the emobiment of the patrician, elegant and romantic Hamlet.
Having got out of Gielgud's company as quickly as I could, I had to restore my self-confidence. Robert Morley, Peter Bull and I formed a company in Perranporth in Cornwall, on a tiny stage in a village hall. Robert's play, Goodness How Sad! came into the Vaudeville and ran for eight months. It made all the difference; I got all the work I wanted after that.
Being a conscientious objector in the Second World War was probably a reaction against my father. I couldn't communicate with him by then. We had nothing in common. In my teens he hads ent me to a doctor, who had told my father that he was saddled with a child he didn't want, and he'd just have to lump it. After that I went on my own way. At Stowe I refused to join the OTC, and at 17 I joined Dick Sheppard's Peace Pledge Union. At the time of Munich I registered as a conchie and attended a tribunal, where several of my friends who went to war vouched for me sincerely. The tribunal asked me if I was prepared to do farm work, and I said "Prepared - but not equipped." So I was sentenced to be an actor, ie to go on doing the job I was doing.
I never thought being gay was wrong, or bad - it was me. I had romantic attachments with people at school, and in the theatre. I did not flaunt myself - I didn't want to hinder my career - so I was in the closet in a sense, but I never thought how awful that I was not as other people. I suffered no prejudice in the theatre. People were liberal-minded - that's the theatre. Finding a friend was not difficult. It's vides that do it.
Luck doesn't come to everyone, but when it does arrive you must know how to act on it. I had never dreamed of being a director, but when Kenneth Barnes, head of RADA, ased me to take a class, I said it sounded fun, and went up those stairs I'd gone up as a student, and watched 22 kids performing. When I started to comment on what I'd seen, I felt there was someone up there vetting what I said. I wanted to go out on a limb and direct, and just then a fellow conchie, Wynyard Browne, who hadn't had the luck I had - he had been breaking stones - had written a very good new play, Dark Summer. It took 14 months to get it put on, and we ended up in the St Martin's, so my directing debut went to the West End. If that wasn't luck I don't know what is.
The excitement of going to the theatre never falters. I still go in an anticipatory mood. Even when one sees something quite poor, there's always some performance to enjoy. I adored Jerry Springer the Opera. It was terribly funny and a brilliant idea. You always know, at a first night, when a play is going to be a success. I directed the original production of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea and it was one of those "hear a pin drop" nights.
There is a difference between directing men and women. Women are a great deal easier. Men are the neurotics. This is a generalisation - someone like Paul Scofield is a dream to direct - but most women are much less self-conscious and more confident. I have a feeling that some men feel that acting is not really a man's job. They betray insecurities that come out in poor behaviour.
Keeping archives is invaluable. All my 69 boxes of theatre memorabilia are now in the University of Texas. For 22 years I had an efficient secretary, Marjorie Sisley, who after each production would put everything - programmes, lighting plans, photographs, costume designs, correspondence, into a large envelope and seal it. So there it all is, if somebody wants to look. I have so many anecdotes from the past, but I don't always remember the names o people I've just met.
The problem for actors today is that young ones are swallowed by the maw of television, and don't get the chance to learn how to hold an audience on stage, as they used to in weekly rep. And we urgently need to interest younger audiences in the living theatre.
If you want to live to be 90, take as little exercise as you possibly can, and do not eat healthy food. On my 90th birthday I had two parties, one in the country and one in the city and I said the same thing at both. My father was all for cold baths and taking exercise. I love walking but I don't like it if it's called "taking exercise", and I don't on the whole eat healthy food. I was brought up on great hunks of beef and game, so my father's tastes made me a carnivore.
In a relationship, empathy is the thing that lasts. My chum Christopher Taylor and I have been together for a long time - 52 years. He lives in the next flat and it is chiefly empathy that links us.
You have to be careful, chuntering on at 91. I went to speak to some young students at the National, but I had to ponder, what do these names - Edith Evans, Wendy Hiller - mean to them? The social scene and therefore the theatrical scene is so utterly different from what it was in the 1930s. The stars who should play the leads in the theatre now aren't even on the stage, they're on TV and in films. And "celebrities" tend to be talentless people who are merely the latest thing.
But it's no good grizzling about it. If there are things I don't like at 91, you might say, well get the hell out then. While you're here, you have to take as much pleasure and interest in anything that comes along.
Curiosity is my driving force. All my life I've wanted to see what's round the next corner. And I'm always open to offers.