One more crown for the king of kings

The new lion of the British theatre has a pale, poetic look and the worried air of a student about to sit his finals. Which, in a sense, he is.

This year should see confirmation of Alan Howard's place among the acting heavy-weights with talent enough to take over from the elderly knights who have brought glory to our stage for so long.

In serving an awesome apprenticeship that began humbly with teenage stage-sweeping at Coventry, he has acquired a reputation as a marathon man among actors that brings to mind the verve and courage of the young Olivier.


Take a single flamboyant day last spring when, at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Aldwych Theatre in London, he played Prince Hal in Part One of Henry IV in the morning, Part Two in the afternoon, and having donned the crown, in the evening performed the thrilling Henry V.

"At the end of the day I suppose I was a bit legless, really," he recalls mildly. "I had a bath and an enormous Scotch. But I was full of an emotion that was something special.

Alan Howard in 1977 is again on the marathon trail. This week he leads a dazzling company from the Aldwych to the Piccadilly Theatre to repeat their rollicking success in the eighteenth-century comedy, Wild Oats. His name will be up in lights in Piccadilly for the first time. But he can stay only nine weeks because he is rehearsing Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three, for the summer season in Stratford, where he'll also repeat his Henry V.

He adds without irony: "I should be all right. After the Sixes, the company is doing As You Like It, which I'm not in. So I get about a week off.

"It is tough on the diaphragm - and tough on the whole frame when you have a fight on stage in armour, with big swords. And speaking through it."

And the words, the thunderous, overwhelming torrent of Shakespearian couplets!

Alan Howard swills the remains of his lager in his tankard and mutters an oath.

"Learning the lines is the worst thing one has to do. People keep coming up with wonderful, comfortable ways of memorising, but I've not found a way around the slog.

"There's the business of kidding someone to listen to you read. You say to them: 'You mustn't let me get away with a single word that isn't in the text.'

"Then, when they are rightly strict, you get niggly with them, and they say: 'Well, if you're going to be like that, I'm not going to listen to you." The one who, I suspect, does most of the listening is his girl friend, journalist Sally Beauman, with whom he has a two-year-old son. They live in North London.

One after another he has drilled the Shakespearian roles into his head.

He runs a slim hand through his long red hair.

"There's a maximum number of parts you can hold in there without going a bit barmy.

"Three or four days after finishing with a play most of the lines will have gone. The tape is wiped clean. But, funnily, if you think you will be doing that same part in, say, a year's time you somehow do not press that mental 'obliterate' button and the lines remain buzzing around."

Lines and greasepaint. That's what you'd find if you opened up Alan Howard. He was conceived at the Cheltenham rep. and his mother continued to act in elsticated dresses until she was eight-and-a-half months gone.


Alan Howard's father is Arthur Howard, the comedy actor. Fay Compton is a great aunt and his great-great grandfather, Edward Compton, was Gravedigger to Sir Henry Irving's Hamlet.*

Over all their fortunes towered the success of Alan's film star uncle - Leslie Howard, whom he met as a child but now cannot remember. Leslie was killed during the war when the Germans shot down his airplane. Alan is still trying to catch up with all his films.

But his interest is less than hero-worship. "Although there were 16 years between them, my father has suffered an awful lot from being Leslie Howard's brother.

"When it came to my time to go into acting I felt somehow that the Leslie Howard world was one to be wary of.

"If I had gone into the movies I would have been known as Leslie Howard's nephew. At least on a stage I can compete, with comparisons becoming less likely."

Victor Davis

Daily Express, 20.4.1977. (London edition).

* Henry Compton

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