Re-Enter Stage Right

Ten years ago, Alan Howard was the great voice of the classical stage. Then he fell silent, lost to minor films and dog-food ads. Now he is back where he belongs.

The word Richard Eyre picks to describe Alan Howard's performance as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion at the National Theatre is "definitive". As director of the National, Eyre is hardly going to be uncomplimentary, but he says he does not use "definitive" idly. Pygmalion is doing such good business that it does not require a plug from the boss. Alan Howard, on the other hand, probably does.

Alan Howard is from the same generation of actors as Michael Gambon, Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins, and the record shows that his name belongs with theirs at the top of the bill. In 1978 he won a full house of awards for his Coriolanus (Evening Standard, SWET and Plays and Players).

Alan Howard

He won the Evening Standard award again in 1981 for his part in Good. But since then a finely focused telescope has been needed to pick up traces of this star.

Howard himself would stoutly deny that joining the National Theatre is a comeback. He would argue that he never really went. But it has taken a decade for him to be back where his admirers from the Seventies had hoped to see him again - playing big parts on big stages.

In 1966 he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and he stayed there for sixteen years. One golden Stratford summer in 1970 he played Hamlet, and Theseus/Oberon in Peter Brook's legendary Midsummer Night's Dream. He toured the world in that production, and did so again a few years later as Prince Hal and Henry V in a famous trilogy directed by Terry Hands.

Alan Howard in C.P. Taylor's 'Good'

After seeing him in Henry V in 1975, Peter Hall wrote in his diary: "The revelation was Alan Howard. The future beckons him to Leontes (in The Winter's Tale), Macbeth and Othello without any question whatsoever."

He was six foot tall and could hardly see without his spectacles, but the voice was what audiences remembered: lyricism with a sharp edge, across a broad range; when you heard it, you knew it could only be him. Throughout the Seventies crowds milled around the stage door waiting for a look or a word from him; within the company he had a reputation as a leader. "Young actors respond to dedication," he says. "I did when I first worked in Chichester with Olivier. I thought then: 'I won't be exactly the same as him, but that's the sort of actor I want to be one day.' " In the early Eighties, he turned his back on the RSC. He had already rejected Peter Hall's offers of important work at the National Theatre. There was no Othello, no Macbeth. His reputation began to blur at the edges, and then to fade.

Hamlet, 1970

You could describe Alan Howard as coming from a theatrical family, but dynasty would be a better word. As we walked past the Lyceum Theatre on our way to lunch, Howard paused. "A relation of mine sold the lease of the Lyceum to Henry Irving. His name was Hezekiah Linthacom Bateman," he said.

Howard refuses to give interviews before an opening night, fearing that what he says will distort reviewers' opinions, but when Pygmalion had settled down, I sought him out to try to discover what had happened to him and why.

This happened in 1878, though it was Mrs Bateman who sold the lease (I checked). But Howard's great-great-grandfather was the impresario who produced Sir Henry Irving in The Bells and Hamlet, two of the most memorable performances of the Victorian theatre.

The first gravedigger in that Hamlet was a Compton from Nottingham [sic] and his son Edward married one of Hezekiah Linthacom Bateman's daughters.

Mrs Edward Compton founded the Nottingham [sic]Repertory Theatre. Fay Compton was her daughter: Alan's mother, Jean was Fay's niece. Jean married an actor called Arthur Howard, who was the younger brother of the more famous Leslie Howard, a wonderfully suave Hollywood star of the late Thirties. (Leslie Howard also played Henry Higgins in the 1938 film of Pygmalion.)

Alan as Henry VI for the RSC

Alan Howard, born in August 1937, hardly remembers his Uncle Leslie, who died in a wartime air crash. Alan began his stage apprenticeship in Coventry, where he also played Henry Higgins - at the age of 22. He appeared in Arnold Wesker's early work at the Royal Court, and was a member of Laurence Olivier's first Chichester Festival Company (with his Aunt Fay). Before the RSC, he played in rep in Nottingham. His father last appeared in the West End in the Seventies farce No Sex Please, We're British. Arthur was at the Strand Theatre while Alan was doing the classics up the street at the Aldwych.

The theatre may be in his blood, but he does not talk about it fluently. Howard's conversation is punctuated by "perhaps", "sort of", and "I mean". He is not assertive by nature, and during a long conversation he advanced a variety of reasons why he quit his starring role at the RSC. The simplest explanation is that, after 16 years, he felt like a change. Howard describes Shakespeare's plays as a set of mountain ranges. He had climbed the peaks in one range; he could see the next one; but he did not want to attempt it then. He was also falling out of love with the RSC. The company was not exempt from the strident politics of the late Seventies and early Eighties, and playing heroic parts in the Memorial Theatre in Stratford made Howard a target for the trendy left.

He recalls the period with distaste. "Young actors began to say that big theatres were bourgeois crap. They only wanted to work in an élitest space the size of a lavatory and be seen by two people. That was the way they would redeem the world. Well, that's bollocks."

Howard decided to try to become a film and television star instead. It was a well-worn path. Albert Finney and Anthony Hopkins were already familiar names in Hollywood; Michael Gambon was soon to settle into a succession of leading parts in television; only Ian McKellen was resisting the lure of the screen. Besides, by then, Howard's son was young and he wanted to be home when he came back from school, rather than about to dash off to the theatre. Howard had set up home with Sally Beauman, who had written a splendid history of the Royal Shakespeare Company before producing a blockbuster called Destiny ("not for the coy reader" - Irish Times) and becoming one of the best-paid writers in Britain.

Howard appeared as Michael Gambon's wife's lover in Peter Greenaway's lurid movie The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. He is prouder of his part in a film called Dakota Road, though, when you admit you missed it, he replies that it has proved a very difficult film to catch. On television he appeared in John le Carré's The Perfect Spy, and in an account of the discovery of DNA called The Secret of Life. There was also the six-part Frederick Forsyth Presents. Howard was mildly offended when I said that this had been poor stuff: making that series had given him the same kind of buzz he remembered from his days in repertory. The episodes were done fast and were fun. "I'm not going to be a serious movie actor: that's past for me. I'm much too old. But I'd still like to do the occasional really good part, and those films gave the confidence in the camera, I can relax now." Perhaps; but that work failed to establish him as a regular movie or television actor, and it did nothing for his reputation.

Screen work was intermittent: he acted a bit at Chichester but there was no compulsion to earn enough to pay the mortgage on the house in Crouch End, north London, or the cottage in Gloucestershire, or the school fees. Good money did keep on coming in, of course, because Howard is one of a select group: his voice, along with tose of Richard Briers, Michael Gambon and Judi Dench, is used for television commercials. Howard's most recent performance was extolling dog food (Spiller's Prime). The recording often takes no more than half an hour, and the fees come in each time the advertisement appears. For those with the right voice, it's money for old rope.

His best work in the past few years has reached the smallest audiences. In 1984 he recorded for radio part of Christopher Logue's War Music, a translation of two books of the Iliad. Howard subsequently performed it with Logue himself on small stages. Last year at the Edinburgh Festival they did a second chunk from the Iliad called Kings. This performance required all Howard's skills. It is a remarkable feat of learning, the vocal range needed is prodigious, and the work can only be performed successfully by an actor who is a brilliant and experienced verse speaker.

Alan performing Logue's 'Kings'

Howard's performance of War Music was so stunning that the British Council asked him to repeat it in Greece in 1988. During this period, Logue got to know Howard well: "He has no side, no vanity," he reports. "In theory he may be in love with fame, but not in practice." Logue cannot, he says, understand why Howard is not more famous.

But the significant difference between Howard and Olivier, whom he had hoped to emulate when a young actor at Chichester, is that Olivier was not merely in love with fame, he was addicted to it. Like Finney and Gambon, Howard has consciously decided that he is unwilling to dedicate himself to becoming famous. Far from seeking publicity, they dodge it. There is not a great deal to be known about their private lives. They prefer to act in challenging plays in a company rather than in undemanding star vehicles. "Once upon a time an actor was a star on piste and off piste but I really want to revert to being just me and go out for a drink with my mates as soon as the show is over," Howard says.

Once upon a time, the stars were actor-managers, such as Sir Henry Irving (the first theatrical knight), or Lord Olivier (the first theatrical peer) who was the inevitable choice as first director of the National Theatre. Olivier proposed to Peter Hall that he might like to become his deputy, and was turned down. But since Olivier's retirement the two great national companies have been led by stage directors: Hall and Trevor Nunn, Terry Hands and Richard Eyre. Howard does see one of the jobs of a star actor as being to prevent the worst excesses of autocratic directors, but actors like him surrendered power in the theatre to the directors: no actor today is likely to become director of the NT or the RSC. They abdicated from power a generation ago.

Logue andswers his own question: Howard is not famous because he is a private person who can afford to pick and choose his work. Television and movie cameras do not make him famous because they do not love him. Unlike Jeremy Irons or Kenneth Branagh, who are made larger than life on the screen, the camera lens seems to diminish Howard's performances. Perhaps he has finally appreciated this; certainly he has now gone back in the arena that suits him best. Richard Eyre observes: he is one of the few actors who can play large theatres, and who likes doing so." In a big auditorium his work is focused and intense. It has taken many years, some wasted effort, and a great deal of patience, but Howard may now have discovered what he is best at.

He likes working at the National Theatre - the car park under the theatre gives him a fast getaway - and Eyre is glad to have him there. ("This is love," he says.) With luck, we may yet see Howard's Leontes and, maybe, a Macbeth. (It would be an error to mention the part, however. Howard is a very superstitious actor. Anyone who mentions the Scottish play in his presence is asked to leave the room, and, on returning, place his - or her - hand on his head, turn round three times and utter an expletive.) He is not sure about Othello now that it is mostly played by black actors: "I'd have to go and have all my whatsits changed," he says, presumably referring to his chromosomes.

The reason why his work is worth seeking out, especially by theatre-goers in their teens or twenties who have never seen him before, is clear enough in Pygmalion. The popular conception of Henry Higgins, the professor of phonetics who bets that he can make a Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle speak like a duchess, is drawn from Rex Harrison's performance in My Fair Lady, the musical of the play. The old boulevardier did not try to stop his charm seeping into the character. Alan Howard's Higgins is a ferocious and unrelenting monster; a cross between Peter Pan and Sherlock Holmes. No one would want Eliza to spend the rest of her life with him. He is utterly convincing, and hypnotically watchable. The performance may even be definitive. It is certainly the work of a star.

Alan Howard as Henry Higgins, NT 1992

Stephen Fay

Independent on Sunday, 17.5.92.

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