Sir Henry Irving: The Guv'nor is still taking centre stage

Sir Henry Irving's Somerset home has been honoured with a plaque. Charles Nevin joins the theatricals at the ceremony

It was a challenge even for an unveiling ceremony, always a touch tricky to pull off. The wind was blowing and the crowd was on the other side of the main road to Somerton. But the old actor was up to it. He has, after all, given us his Lear; and the pauses while passing cars blocked him from his audience were effortlessly achieved.

Laughter, applause, plaque revealed: you sensed that its subject, Sir Henry Irving, Britain's first theatrical knight, more informally known, still, over 100 years later, as the Guv'nor, would have approved of this honouring of his birthplace, a cottage in Keinton Mandeville, Somerset. True, Sir Henry might have been rather more dramatic, but this old actor was Richard Briers, who prefers genial.

"Thank you very much, one and all – the pub's that way," he concluded, genially. Keinton Mandeville, which had turned out in force, was impressed. They are proud of their famous son, and rightly so: Irving, born John Henry Brodribb, on 6 February, 1838, the son of a commercial traveller, became the greatest actor of his time and almost single-handedly made acting respectable (well, all right, more respectable).

London's cabmen tied black ribbons to their whips when Irving died in 1905. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. Once, members of the profession would stand at the mention of his name. Such is the continuing reverence that there was ready approval from the local authorities and readies from Equity and the enthusiastic Irving Society when two admirers, Jeremy Burnham, actor and screenwriter, and his actress wife, Veronica Strong, proposed the plaque.

Why? For Richard Briers, it's the romance of Irving's story: "the Knight from Nowhere", Max Beerbohm dubbed him, sent away from home at the age of four, doggedly pursuing his early ambition through a stammer and the Ugly Sister in Cinderella to acclaim as Hamlet and a triumphant career as actor manager. There was death in the arms of his dresser, a lost unforgotten first love, a disapproving Methodist mother, a wife he never spoke to again after she scorned his art, and a tantalisingly unclear friendship with his stage partner, Ellen Terry, another of those rare names that still resound in a world of passing fame.

The acting, said Briers, was romantic as well: "The old-fashioned theatre was rather like opera today. Irving had these huge sets, and he was wonderful at atmosphere and lighting, especially himself. I once asked a very old actor who had seen him how he'd compare with great actors today and he said, 'Laddie, he'd have frightened them all to death'."

The pub was full of those who had taken the Briers direction: villagers, local dignitaries, a coach-borne deputation from Equity and members of the Irving Society including several generations of Irvings and a Terry. There were speeches and some fine ham for lunch, prompting the obvious question. His few short recordings are pretty stagy, with stresses in strange places, slightly reminiscent of Robert Peston. But, like all the great actors, he had a hypnotic quality: "They're quite different people," said Briers, 77 now. "They come on and you say, 'Oh, bugger! Why can't I be like that?!'"

At the cottage, Les and Ivy Mason are always happy to show visitors the downstairs room where the First Knight was born. They are of senior years, but feel ready for anything since they opened the door in paint-spattered overalls and curlers respectively to discover Sir Donald Sinden, a great admirer, dominating their doorstep.

There is now talk of an Irving Museum, although Keinton Mandeville, understandably, is not quite so keen on "The Knight from Nowhere" bit. Later, too, Sir Henry recalled it as a "godforsaken place". Still, it was where he was bitten by a sheep. And he did give the church five guineas towards new bells (they need a new frame now, by the way, if you're an admirer, or just flush).

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power