Peter Howell Talks About Olivier’s Richard III In WW2 London



When Laurence Olivier played Richard III, on-stage with him was Peter Howell…One of the great moments in theatre history.

Robert Gillespie asked Peter Howell to tell us about his interesting life in the theatre; especially the time he was with the Old Vic Company during the war at the New (now the Albery) Theatre.

P I got into the company that was to renew the Old Vic in 1943 purely by good fortune; I was invalided home from the Middle East and I slept at night with my parents in the basement of a block of flats in Chelsea which had been turned into an air-raid shelter and in the next bunk were two famous actors, Nicholas Hannen and Athene Seyler and one evening Nicholas asked me what I was going to do and I said I wanted to be an actor but I’d only done two little parts, so far, and he said that the government thought the bombing would stop and that London needed some relief and that Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, together with Tony Guthrie would revive the Old Vic, not there because the river had been bombed – at the Old Vic – but at the New Theatre. He said that Olivier would play Richard III, Richardson Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and that he was going into the company and thought there would be some small parts to be cast and that he perhaps could get me an audition. I was thrilled and terrified and soon found myself standing on the huge stage of Sadler’s Wells. I decided, like thousands of other people before me to speak Hotspur’s famous speech from Henry IV “My liege I did deny no prisoners (mumble mumble)”. When I finished there was a deathly silence…

R Which we all know…

P Which we all know… and some whispering, and then Richardson’s magnificent voice boomed out; ‘Have you a mind…?’ And then he stopped for what seemed like a hundred years, and, and I thought he’s going to say… ‘We don’t expect you to do it well… but have you any idea what Hotspur was actually saying, there, for God’ sake’… and then to my huge relief at last, he said, ‘…to give us something else.’ …

R A destructive pause…

P Yeah… and I could and I did and somehow I got into the company. Well, we rehearsed in the empty rooms of the National Gallery from which all the paintings had been removed for safety. The government was right, that the conventional bombing had stopped by then, but had not reckoned with the V1s… pilotless flying bombs which we heard cut out above us and then we flung ourselves to the ground hoping we would emerge unscathed… it was very different from being dive bombed in the desert war but almost as frightening… very strange… Well soon we were able to move into the New Theatre and rehearse where we were going to play. Tyrone Guthrie directed Peer Gynt. He was the best director that I ever worked with. He was exhilarating, wildly funny and brilliantly perceptive. Of course, we had the wonderful Grieg music, a splendid orchestra, and some great crowd scenes. We were trolls, which is Norwegian for fairies, we were lunatics and we were wedding guests and Guthrie directed them superbly… he was no respecter of stars. They were grateful for his brilliance, but they were a bit scared of him… he loved the small part actors. He was always thinking up hilarious pieces of stage business for us… for us; sometimes I suppose he went too far, but we had a ball.

R How big was that company?

P Oh… It was quite big, I mean… You see… they started off with Arms And The Man in Manchester… that was a small cast…

R Was Olivier playing Bluntschli, then?

P Yes, but… No, no he never played…

R He played Saranoff…

P He played Saranoff. And that’s what I’m coming to… the story…

R But it was quite a big company?

P It was quite a big company, because you not only needed the young actors to play the lunatics and the wedding guests and so on but you also needed them to play the small parts in… the soldiers…

R And was it heavily biased towards women? Or…?

P No-o, because of the plays we were doing, mostly men because of course Richard III…

R No, no I just wondered because of the war, you see, you… you…

P O yeah… well, I wouldn’t have got in if I hadn’t come back…

R Of course… I know that, I know that, so where did they get the men, you see?

P Well… bloody difficult.

R Yes, O.K.

P It was always going to be difficult until the war was over.

R Anyway…

P Of course he had three great stars, at his disposal. Olivier was only playing the Button Moulder a sort of ‘other-worldly’ figure, but it was a very small part indeed, but he made it memorable.

R Yes. It’s rung down the ages, that performance.

P Yes. Richardson was born to play Peer Gynt… it was his own story – perhaps I oughtn’t to say – about a man’s life from start to finish. He had all the qualities the part required, he had the youth, the flair, the magic and the sort of touch of madness. He was amazing. And Sybil Thorndike played his mother… her death scene with Peer was hauntingly moving… it… she was extraordinary… she was a great woman as well as a great actress. Shaw had insisted, had insisted that she play St. Joan and you could see why. She was extraordinary… while the war was still on I used to firewatch in her dressing room. Packed to a depth with scripts, all sorts of scripts, people had sent her, knowing that she would read them all and send them long letters back. As Bronson Albery said, ‘No-one loves anyone as much as Sybil loves everyone’. That was my bit about the beginning of the season.

The second play in the season was to be Shaw’s Arms And The Man. This we actually tried out first of all in Manchester. It had Ralph Richardson as Bluntschli, the practical, worldly, wise soldier; Olivier as the dashingly absurd Sergius Saranoff, Margaret Leighton as Raina the romantic daughter of Sybil Thorndike and Nicholas Hannen… and Joyce Redman as the pretty, flirty servant girl. I know this play pretty well and I understudied Ralph Richardson, then, for six months. I directed it at drama school and played the same part as Nicholas Hannen’s – Raina’s father at Windsor Repertory Company and I think – in fact I’m sure – that it’s the best example that I know in all the time I’ve been around in the theatre of the perfect cast for a play.

R Really?

P But initially, there was a snag. Olivier didn’t like the part of Sergius.

R Oh! It was made for him.

P Here’s Terry Coleman’s description – he wrote Olivier’s biography. Here’s his description of what happened next. Fortunately, Guthrie came to Manchester to see the play and he was given what Olivier subsequently called the richest bit of advice he ever received. ‘Why don’t you like the part?’ he asked Olivier. ‘What?’ ‘Don’t you love Sergius?’ ‘Love? That pseud… God, Tony, if you weren’t so tall, I’d hit you.’ ‘Well, well of course,’ replied Guthrie, ‘if you can’t love him, you’ll never be any good in him, will you?’ By the end of the week, Olivier loved Sergius. For his faults, his showing off, his absurdity and bland doltishness. And this experience, Olivier believed, changed the course of his actor’s thinking for the rest of his life.

R Good heavens.

P And… when I saw it… he wore a white uniform, sported a brilliant, black moustache, which he twirled round his little finger; he did the longest double take I have ever seen in my life. It was irresistible.

R That’s absolutely wonderful, Peter, because to me… you see it’s so interesting for me sort of, you know, coming up behind you in the profession, because I would have thought Saranoff was made for Olivier…

P Yes… Of course it was…

R And it’s obvious that Guthrie helped him to learn that he could play that kind of part.

P What I didn’t include… But perhaps I…

R Well tell me now…

P Guthrie’s was, of course, a piece of advice entirely sympathetic to Olivier’s instinctive conviction; he didn’t just play a character, he became that character. If he became a character, he would love him, because a man always loves himself. From then on, the play flourished… and by the time the company came to London…

And then there was Richard III… I was very lucky to be in it at all. The Zinkeissen sisters did the costumes which had long, pointed hats and long, pointed sleeves and the actors had to be of a certain height or it became ridiculous. The actor playing the Marquis of Dorset, Queen Elizabeth’s son, the smallest part in the play… was too small. And I got his part. Well rehearsals got off to a very bad start. John Burrell, the director, was a charmingly efficient administrator, but he was not very good at directing… when he had actors. Moreover, there are battle scenes at the end of the play and for the battle scenes you need armour and the armour kept on not arriving. In the event it arrived, if you can believe it, after the dress rehearsal. And Olivier, who had been very optimistic, that this was his part, he was really going to enjoy it, gradually became very distressed as did we all… very nervous… he rang up his best friend, the actor John Mills – asked him to come to his dressing room before the first night and help him get through the evening, ‘cause he said he thought it was going to be a disaster, he just wanted him to be there to help him through it…’

R Let me ask you about that, Peter… Because I happen to know a little bit about that. I knew somebody who was deputy stage manager on that production, a woman I knew much later, Rosemary Hill – didn’t know her then – and she lived through all this and I’d always… er… she… so I know a few stories about it, but… er, so are you saying that Olivier was quite optimistic up to the armour…

P Yes… but he became desperate…

R Ah no, but up to the armour…

P No… yes he was… no he was optimistic when he started, but because there was this atmosphere… the director was no good, everybody began to worry…

R Ah yes, and the armour was the last straw…

P Well I don’t know if it was the last straw, but there was no working atmosphere, which as you and I know well is absolutely necessary.

R Was he really depressed then?

P Well he became… very worried… and increasingly worried… so much so that Olivier did ring up John Mills, told him it’s going to be a disaster, “I want you to help me get through the evening”. So John Mills came… and… he bought himself two double brandies and sat in the stalls and waited for the worst, you know… as did we, waiting anxiously in the wings. And then the curtain went up. And Richard III of England began to limp across the front of the stage… and something extraordinary happened. And the house froze… so did we all. He – he was electrifying… he… he… he was a great actor taking his moment… he was… he was… the performance of a life time. And at the end, the theatre rose and cheered him. And that night, the news of what had happened went round the town. Next afternoon there was a matinée and it was quite unlike any matinée I’ve ever been involved in. The atmosphere was electrifying. The audience were on the edge of their seats, and Olivier said afterwards, that he was so excited that he forgot to limp.

R Well, I… d’you know, a propos of the limp, this lady I knew said that he got so confident that he actually limped on alternate feet depending on the rake of the stage.

P (Laugh) Oh that’s wonderful.

R That’s what she told me.

P Um… I want to end by telling you the remarkable epilogue to this performance. But before that happened, very early in the run, Olivier took the whole company one morning to the trade show of his film of Henry V. And when the French cavalry began to gallop across the fields at Agincourt to the sound of Walton’s brilliant score, that first audience of tough businessmen rose to their feet and cheered.

R (Laugh) Middle of the war, of course.

P After that extraordinary first night Richard, of course, became a huge success. Among the critics Harold Hobson, of the Sunday Times, said that the death scene was so tremendous… as… judging by Hazlitt… he took Edmund Kean’s to have been.

R Ah… yes.

P And Olivier, typically, had also read Hazlitt’s description of that scene and admitted that he studied to emulate it after a fashion, he said.

R Yes… how brilliant.

P It was the first time in his life; in twenty years on the stage that he sensed that the public, the critics and he himself all together knew that the performance of his had been right. He breathed in the sweet smell of success… which he described as like sea weed, like oysters. This is a bit that I wanted to read from Terry Coleman: “That season, there were only five theatres open in London, and Gielgud was playing, for the last time, his marvellous Hamlet and he, too, made the connection with Kean. Gielgud’s maternal great aunt was Ellen Terry, who had been Irving’s leading lady. In 1939 his mother, Kate Terry, gave him the sword which Kean had worn when he played Richard III in 1813. That had been his most brilliant role in London and New York, and the sword had then passed to the actor William Chippendale who, in turn, had given it to Henry Irving when he played Richard III in 1877. And that’s… this is coming to the Terry family… and when Gielgud’s mother gave him the sword… he told her… he told her it would be a nice thing to be handed on again to another young hopeful. And after Olivier’s Richard III, in an act of great symbolism and generosity, he gave him the sword. You see, it was Gielgud who had first brought Olivier into Shakespeare in his Romeo and Juliet in 1935. Now, he was implying by his gift that his rival was in the great line of actors; Garrick, Kean, Irving and now Olivier. And he had the sword inscribed to Olivier; and he suggested that it should be carried to him on a tray… like the severed head of St. John the Baptist and it was carried from the Haymarket, past Irving’s statue, near the National Gallery, to the New Theatre in St. Martin’s Lane where it was presented to Olivier on the stage. He kept it under his bed for years

R (Laugh) Did he travel it with him, d’you think?

P I don’t know. But what I was going to say was… what happened to me… and I don’t know if this is relevant either… Um… I was understudying Bluntchsli in Arms and the Man and I… I absolutely adored being in the company, it was a wonderful experience.

R Yes, of course of course…

P But I couldn’t bear the thought of the gasp of horror from the audience if I had to go on as Bluntschli, because I mean I couldn’t touch it…

R Oh yes…

P Ralph Richardson was fantastic… it was the most brilliant bit of…

R Bravura acting…

P Bit of wonderful acting… Mad as it might seem, I felt I needed to get out of the company. Tyrone Guthrie had stopped me once, back stage at the New in the passages and said nice things about my lunatic, he liked my lunatic and I felt well I’ll try this… I don’t think it’ll work, but I’ll try… I went… I asked to see him, and I said… I’m terribly lucky to be here, I’ve had the most wonderful six months – imaginable; but I couldn’t bear the gasp of horror if I had to go on as Bluntschli, I couldn’t touch it I… I… I just think I need to go away, a long way away and learn something more (laughing) about this profession and honestly most directors would have said, ‘You’re bloody lucky to be here, go away and make sure you learn the lines and shut up’. But Guthrie, being a great man, said, ‘Ah, I understand that, I understand that,’ and he not only let me go, but he got me into another Old Vic company, where Peter Glenville was playing Hamlet and I was Guildenstern and I certainly did learn a lot more. Guildenstern was a very small part but, unbelievably, Leslie Hurry, who was a brilliant designer, normally ballet… had given me the best costume of all… which was a wonderful lime green, adorned with little gold petals… tinkled as I walked. And Peter Glenville never forgave me. (General laugh) Never forgave me… he was always… accusing me of standing in his light – I probably was, I didn’t know… at twenty… thirty there was still a lot I didn’t know. But, let me just say, Robert, that to get the chance in my twenties to join a company led by Tyrone Guthrie, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and Sybil Thorndike was an actor’s dream come true.

And we broke off there…