To be someone

“All of us knew Pooky would be famous one day,” Philip Hensher writes in the Independent. This came as a surprise to me, although Pooky was certainly memorable when I knew him at school in Wales. He was small, Welsh and pugnacious, and hit puberty a full year before any of the other boys. He lent my friend Jem Brian Aldiss’s A Hand-Reared Boy, which as far as we were concerned was the dirtiest thing imaginable; Jem was quoting it for weeks.

I only ever heard Pooky called by his real name once, in a Welsh lesson. Our Welsh teacher ran the school branch of Urdd Gobaith Cymru (which we were all encouraged to join) and had no patience for English incomers who had trouble with the language; luckily for me I only qualified on one count. But one English girl in our class had a complete tin ear for the language, and in particular for the consonant ‘rh’, which is a kind of aspirated R (held, not rolled). (And it is tricky; my father came from Rhosllanerchrugog, and I still have to take a run-up at that ‘Rh’.) Unfortunately the kids in our Welsh exercises always seemed to be going up and down the hill (rhiw), so it was hard to avoid. One dreadful lesson, our Welsh teacher could stand this girl’s mangling of her beloved language – and the word rhiw especially – no longer. “It’s not hard! It’s easy! Like this – ‘rhiw‘! It’s just like Hugh with an R in front! You can say ‘Hugh’, can’t you? Come on, stand at the front. Now, look at Hugh and say his name three times, and then say it again with an R in front – Hugh, Hugh, Hugh, ‘rhiw‘.” We had worked out who this ‘Hugh’ person was about halfway through the tirade, and we watched in horror – tempered (as always) by relief that it wasn’t us – as this nice English girl stood at the front of the class and gazed obediently at Pooky the goatboy, saying “Hugh, Hugh, Hugh, roo“. The teacher made her do it three times before she would admit defeat.

You know what? This isn’t the same guy. Hensher was writing about the actor Pooky Quesnel, who knocked him out in Cabaret when he was at Oxford. Me, I confidently expected to hear more after Cambridge of Annabel Arden and Simon McBurney, whose drama workshops I briefly went to (a bit boisterous, and I wasn’t bendy enough). Also, of Roger Hyams; of Jonathan Tafler; of Oscar Moore (who wasn’t actually in theatre, as far as I know, but he was obviously going to be a star in some way or other).

Jonathan Tafler was Chair of Mummers – a university-wide drama society originally founded by Alistair Cooke – when I pitched a play to them in my first year; it was a kind of anti-authoritarian panorama of human history, influenced by Paines Plough, Stuart Christie, Art Bears, R.D. Laing and Scritti Politti’s first single, beginning in the Garden of Eden and ending in the psychiatric ward where a rebel against the authority of state, capital and family had been confined, and in whose head the whole thing was revealed to be happening. “Given time she can think it through…” Jonathan, anyway, told me he thought there was something there, which was amazing… and invited me to meet the rest of the group and pitch it to them in person, which was agony. I was very shy (and rather young); no way could I pitch an idea to a group – I wouldn’t have bothered writing an entire first draft of the play if I could do that – and absolutely no way could I take other people’s suggestions on board. In short, it wasn’t to be, and I gave up any idea of getting involved in the stage soon after that. But I did always vaguely think I’d hear Jonathan Tafler’s name again. It turns out that he’s working; he’s done a ton of radio; and he can tell a Jewish joke. Not so shabby.

As for Roger Hyams, I remember once somebody told a friend of mine that Pip Torrens had told her that Roger already had his own agent, and while we thought this was a bit presumptuous we weren’t in the least surprised – he was so clearly going places. (I think it was Pip Torrens; if it wasn’t him it was probably Pip Broughton. But anyway.) The only time I saw Roger act he was co-starring in Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act – a play whose cast consists of a man and a woman who have been caught in the act of inter-racial sex by the South African police, and who are both naked throughout. (Not quite throughout – he puts on a string vest halfway through.) It’s a strange but rather wonderful play. It’s very static and declamatory, as the name implies; it would work well on radio, if the players’ nakedness weren’t such a powerful element in it. Roger was terrific; if anything he slightly outshone the female lead, who I’m reasonably sure was Tilda Swinton. But where is he now? Here (at least, I think this is him): writing and directing, among other things. The acting didn’t work out, but he’s done all right.

Looking these people up, I chafed slightly at Philip Hensher’s conclusion:

Some people who you meet young have talent and glory just shining out of them. They achieve it, or, alternatively, they settle for labouring respectably while people no one at the time ever heard of, like David Cameron, take over the world. I wonder how many other brilliant Sally Bowleses there are in the world, making a living.

After I left university with my English degree – complete with a commendation for my poetry, which had been judged in part by Raymond Williams – I was on the dole for a year. For the next twelve and a half years I worked in computing – for a pre-privatisation MANWEB, for Manchester City Council and for Swinton Insurance. Now that‘s “making a living”.

There is something very Oxbridge going on between the lines here; I’m reminded of the couple in Peter’s Friends who everyone else more or less openly looks down on, because after Cambridge they ended up in advertising (dear oh dear). It’s as if a career in the arts or literature – at any rate, a career in the vicinity of the star you want to follow – is a given, and success and failure is measured by the calibre of desirable career you end up with. The possibility of ending up in computing or banking or accountancy or management – let alone ending up in one of those jobs where people tell you what to do – can be completely discounted: it’s stardom or drudgery, where drudgery is defined as second leads in Leatherhead and two-line parts on the radio. From outside Oxford and Cambridge – or from outside the groups that feel at home there – it looks different. I suspect that plenty of comets blaze across the firmament of student drama at Durham and Exeter and Cardiff; I also suspect that a much smaller percentage of those stars achieve real-world stardom, and a lot of them drop right through the cracks to end up in, well, computing or banking or accountancy or management. There’s a passage in 1982 Janine where Jock remembers one of the stars of a student production he was involved in many years earlier, and says that she’s now one of the first people casting directors ring when they want to cast a middle-aged female character to appear for a week or two in Casualty; he then points out that, as acting careers go, this is doing pretty bloody well. Viewed from the perspective of most actors, Pooky Quesnel and Jonathan Tafler and Roger Hyams aren’t also-rans – they’re success stories.

PS And if you really want a mute inglorious Garrick, I’ll see your Pooky Quesnel and raise you Dave Bates. Fantastic actor – one of the best I’ve ever seen. He was at my school (in Croydon, not the one in Wales). He was in every school play for a few years: an automatic choice for the lead role until he got bored of doing that, and after that he could have his pick of the roles. He could do anything, from tortured-soul young male lead to Pythonesque gurning (not in the same play). Then he got bored of acting altogether and withdrew his application to RADA, to the horror of our English teacher. No idea what became of him; he certainly didn’t go to Cambridge. I expect he ended up getting a job or something.

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3 Comments

  1. Cian
    Posted 5 January 2011 at 18:48 | Permalink | Reply

    I think its largely down to luck. Case in point, two people who were at the same college as me: Konnie Huq and Robert Webb. I think even Hensher would have to agree that they are successful. I seriously doubt that anyone would have picked them at the time.

    Konnie Huq seemed destined for a successful career in mid to upper management and had a personality to match.

    Robert Webb was a nice guy, and fairly (emphasis on “fairly”) funny guy, who was outshone by quite a few of his contemporaries.

    Right breaks I guess.

  2. Posted 7 January 2011 at 00:51 | Permalink | Reply

    I am sure you are right. My brothers went to Cambridge while I went to Sussex. It was clear that one of the big differences between their cohort and mine was expectations: Cambridge was well populated with people who fully expected to run the world, or at least star in it, while Sussex was not. Some of each made it big, and some didn’t, but I’m convinced the expectations were well-founded.

  3. jonathant58
    Posted 19 August 2012 at 18:25 | Permalink | Reply

    Hi Phil – caught up with this very late but it touched my heart to be kindly remembered and I very much agreed with your overall view. Yup, still working, very happy to be getting away with being an actor and just about making a living – wife and 4 year old boy (my first) and rehearsing a play to open next month at Watford Palace Theatre. No complaints… Jonathan Tafler

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