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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews



  Slim Chances and Unscheduled Appearances, by Edward Petherbridge; Indepenpress, 524 pages, £20 (paper).

One of the most touching descriptions I have ever read of a Northern English childhood is Edward Petherbridge's account of his, in a world that seems centuries away. He was born in 1936, in the wool town of Bradford, to a mill worker and his wife, who, because of complications suffered from his birth, was partly paralysed and had a speech impediment. Yet Mrs. Petherbridge, who was told in the hospital she might never walk again, was on her feet by the time she went home, and did everything other housewives and mothers did, teaching herself to bake and embroider with her left hand. His father, who, like many good fathers of that time, denied him only "talk and play," had had a lucky escape from death as a little boy: His own father killed himself, and had considered killing his child as well, because of the disgrace he had brought upon the family by owing £100 he could not pay.
I wish, however, that I had been able to get to these memories, and Petherbridge's account of his imprisonment for being a conscientious objector, about a hundred pages sooner. There is much here for those interested in the theatre and in social history, but these plums are surrounded by a lot of stodgy pudding, making the appeal of this autobiography heavily dependent on whether one is a paid-up member of the fan club.
Petherbridge can't say he wasn't warned. "Friends have tried to dissuade me from including this kind of praise," he writes, after setting down one of many compliments that are neither memorable nor evocative. "Why? It is evidence." Actually, no. It's not a fact, merely praise from another actor, whose motive we do not know. But Petherbridge seems to think that heaping up little gold stars will guarantee him a place in acting heaven. Instead it shows us a humourless and petty cast of mind (the opposite of the delicately inflected detachment Petherbridge does so well on stage), as does the long list of injustices he has endured. For instance, he once opened a door – and held it, too! – for Peter Brook and a few others, and, would you believe it, not one of them said thank you. Hard to believe such people are left free to walk the streets.
When Petherbridge reports non-complimentary comments from strangers, he gives us insight (as with the man who said he liked Beckett better than he did a few decades before because "then I had nothing to fill [the silences] with. Now I do") and amusement. When he took questions from the audience at Krapp's Last Tape, a woman said, "I'm having some people to dinner at the end of the week, and they'll want to hear about this play. I wondered if you could tell me what it's about."
After his formative years, Petherbridge goes schtum on his personal life. We know that his first marriage has ended and a second has begun only when the name of the wife to whom he occasionally refers changes from Louise to Emily. This may disappoint the lower order of fan, but it's good to be spared the gaminess and angst that pervade so many recent memoirs. Instead Petherbridge concentrates on how he contrived such finely etched performances as Guildenstern, Newman Noggs, Lord Peter, Malvolio and many others, with business that was not simply entertaining but that contributed to the character. For instance, while rehearsing the part of Peter Wimsey, on his way to meet Harriet Vane, with whom he falls in love, Petherbridge, seeing that the floor was being cleaned, decided to slip on a wet spot to plant the idea that the exquisitely buttoned-up lord was about to be thrown off balance.
Petherbridge also relates his experiences with Jeffrey Archer, who wrote the silly play whose ending was decided by a vote of the audience (making it impossible, Petherbridge says, to act with honesty – something, of course, that never bothered Archer) and with Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre. Olivier was a gracious king, but that he was a king was never in doubt. When another actor, in rehearsal, made a gesture that took the audience's attention from the star for a moment, Olivier said nothing but, on the next run-through, reached over and held him down.
A sharp editor could have increased our enjoyment of this book by giving us about 200 fewer pages of it – and not let the author of Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? be described as Eric Benfield. Petherbridge clearly relishes his star turn, but he should have been reminded that the most important person involved with a book is not the writer but the reader.


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