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Submitted by Neal Lofthouse
A.B.C. Film Review.
Mr. Portman Likes The Simple Life - but his career keeps him busier than ever.
Eric Portman interviewed by R. Quilter Vincent
Eric Portman ran a carefully manicured hand through his well-groomed hair, and studied a list of items he proposed taking with him on his trip to New York. Mr. Portman was going to New York to appear in the Broadway production of Terence Rattigan's play 'Separate Tables', which has had a most successful run at St. James's Theatre in the West End of London.
"I had a pleasant surprise this morning", he mused. "I'm making the crossing on the Queen Mary, and they tell me she sails on September the thirteenth. I regard thirteen as my lucky number, so it augers well for my trip that it begins on that date."
"How long do you expect the play to run over there?" I asked.
"Oh, it's difficult to say. Provisionally, though, the run is set for six months. You see, a play may do sensationally well in one country - as this has done here - but when it's transplanted to another country it's hard to forecast what will happen. I can only say that Americans I 've spoken to who've seen it in London have loved it. We shall give it a trial run in Boston and one or two places like that, and then with luck, run for six months on Broadway. That will take us to June of next year. It will have to come off then for a couple of months whatever happens, because New York will be having it's usual heat-wave, but it may go on again later."
"Is it likely that during the break you'll go to Hollywood to make a film?"
"If I were offered something really exciting I might go. I went to Hollywood before the war, you know; didn't care much for it then. It would be different now, of course, I'm better known and consequently I'd feel more at ease, more confident. But even if I don't make a film I dare say there'll be offers to make television appearances of one sort or another."
"You like to work for TV? "
"It's all right when whatever one does is pre-filmed. Making a 'Live' appearance is a rather nerve-racking business; people can make such shocking errors when playing 'live'."
"Just lately", I said, "we've been seeing you in more films for cinema exhibition. A while ago I was beginning to think you'd abandoned movies altogether."
"Yes, I suppose I haven't made as many films as I might have, but then I've had such wonderful luck in the theatre : four out of the last five plays I've appeared in have run for more than a year; 'Separate Tables' has been running for nearly two years of course."
"Don't you find it rather tedious when a play goes on for so long?"
"It's tiring, certainly, but one must bear with that when the play is the fantastic success this one has been. As a matter of fact, the long run of 'Separate Tables' has held a special gratification in that it's helped to resuscitate St. James's Theatre. The theatre had had so many failures and there was some talk of it being pulled down. This play has given it a new fillip."
Mr Portman went on : "Another thing that has made this extra long run a pleasant thing is that the leading lady, Margaret Leighton, and I find we're so admirably suited to one another. We were saying only the other evening that we know so little about each other in private life and yet we blend so excellently on the stage. Margaret's a fine artiste - so professional - she never complains of not feeling up to the mark and is never temperamental. I especially admire her for the way she takes the rough and tumble she gets in this play, and I'm sure she must hurt herself sometimes - I have to throw her about quite a bit."
"I suppose", I said "that film offers you've had just weren't as tempting as these exciting plays? "
"Let's say", he replied after consideration, "that the stage parts offered me were too tempting to resist. Really, I want to do plays and films if I can, it's nice to have the two strings to one's bow. Unfortunately, one hasn't always the time; it was only a matter of luck that I was able to take on the Jess Oakroyd part in 'The Good Companions' - the film happened to be made between the end of the run at St' James's and my departure for New York. However, I'm glad I didn't miss the opportunity - being a Yorkshireman myself the idea of playing Jess appealed to me very much."
"Your ability to turn on a Yorkshire accent has proved very useful on several occaisions, hasn't it?"
(Eric Portman who 53 years ago was born in Halifax, can assume a perfect Yorkshire accent when he choses, yet reveals not a trace of it in his normal speaking voice.)
"It certainly has", he answered. "As a matter of fact, the people at Elstree studios offered me the Jess Oakroyd part because they remembered me as the Yorkshire foreman in the wartime munitions film, 'Millions Like Us'. One of my favourite parts was that of the Yorkshire labour-leader in 'His Excellency'. And though in 'Separate Tables' - which is really two plays - I give a suave, cultured accent to one of the characters I portray, a sophisticated type - to the other, a rough sort of chap, I give a Yorkshire accent again."
"Which of the two types do you generally prefer to play - the rough or the smooth?"
"I have no preference. I'll play any type so long as I feel its right for me, I like to experiment. That's why I don't appear in classical plays. Some actors feel they simply must tackle the great parts, but whilst there are certain ones - 'Othello', for instance - I would like to play myself, I'm of the opinion that they are performed too often as it is. I have had offers from The Old Vic and Stratford to appear in Shakespeare, but I think one or two of us should try to break fresh ground."
"I remember", I said "that once before you told me you liked to experiment and accept challenges in your work; acting, you said then, was your whole life. Do you still feel as strongly about it?"
"Acting is still the most 'important' thing in my life. But the 'whole' life ...? I don't know if I would call it that anymore. I have an interest in so many things, in fact I'm interested in life altogether - fascinated by it. I don't believe in letting acting take up all my time and thoughts; some actors do, they join all kinds of theatrical organisations and are constantly busying themselves with theatrical affairs - I'm not like that. Some actors just can't bear to be away from the West End even for a week or two - I'm certainly not like that, I'm rather pleased to get away from it all whenever I can. I have a house in Cornwall and there I go whenever time permits. There I lead the simple life, do gardening, keep animals, read, and spend hours just talking with friends."
"Is that the kind of life to which you will eventually retire?"
"Yes, I think so. I know I would be very content with it. One's outlook changes as time goes by, and the way I look at things now is this : I've had a pretty good share of success - I hope I shall continue to have - but if ever I feel that the public is growing tired of me, or that my career as an actor is no longer serving any useful pupose, I shall give it up. I won't make the mistake, that quite a lot of actors make, of overstaying my time. On the other hand, so long as I feel I'm doing a useful job I shall carry on. After all, I'm blessed with excellent health - very necessary in this profession - and the parts I get seem to be better than ever; they're incomparably superior to those that were availible to me as a young man. Also I'm fortunate in that I didn't begin to make a name for myself until latish in my life - 40 or thereabouts - consequently, people don't remember me as a young player and say, 'Oh, isn't he geting old-looking!' I can play men of my own age or a good deal older; I once played a man in his dotage. So you see, it looks as if I can go on for years - in fact, the older I get the wider seems to grow my scope. A rather happy situation, don't you think?"