One more crown for the king of kings

The new lion of the British theatre has a pale, poetic look made rosy by his orange-tinted glasses 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 for which he has been internationally acclaimed.


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. For the first time his name is up in lights in Piccadilly Circus, but he can stay only nine weeks because he is rehearsing Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three, for the summer season in Stratford. He will also be repeating his Henry V.

For the autumn, the Royal Shakespeare Company has him scheduled to take on the burden of Coriolanus.

His workload is grinding, but he says: "This is my sixth Stratford season. I've never known one that wasn't heavy. You don't need to work-out in a gym, you are at full-tilt from 10.a.m. rehearsals until 11.30 p.m. after the performance."

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.

"There are days when you think you've got it and then you find you haven't learned a word of it. Some actors have an almost photographic way of doing it - others sweat over every word.

People keep coming up with wonderful, comfortable ways of memorising, but I've not found a way around the slog.

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.

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.*

Alan Howard is now 39. He has had his share of unemployment and hack roles. He rather enjoys the security of a regular salary with one of the great state companies.

"It's connected with the insecurity that one's parents went through. My late mother was very concerned about money but my father is a Micawber-like man.

"If he did a couple of day's work on a film, we would go out for a slap-up meal and then spend the rest of the week on scrambled eggs."

Shot down

Alan is a nephew of film star 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 on late-night television.

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," he said.

"When it came to my time to go into acting I felt somehow that the Leslie Howard world was one to be wary of. I did not want my independence or individuality to be destroyed.

"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. (Manchester edition)


London edition.

* Henry Compton

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