Interview: Frank Finlay: Getting over the barbed wire
Remember him, in Andrea Newman's `Bouquet of Barbed Wire'? He's back. Deborah Ross talked to Frank Finlay
Seem to remember it? Some of us have thought of little else since.
It was 1976. It was on ITV which, back then, was seen as something quite satanic in itself. It went out on Fridays, at 9pm, if I recall rightly, which I'm sure I do. If you were very quiet during it, your parents would forget to send you to bed. Now, let's see, Frank. You were Peter. You were married to Cassie. You had a daughter, Prue. You were besotted with Prue.
Prue got pregnant and married a nice American boy, Gavin. You couldn't accept this. It drove you mad. Prue was horribly spoilt. Gavin started sleeping with Cassie. You started sleeping with your beautiful blonde secretary. Soon, everyone was having it off with everyone else and ...
"Shall we order coffee?" "Frank! You're still here!" "Yes, now, I was 24 when I first met Olivier. It was in Manchester ..."
"Frank, you didn't end up sleeping with Prue as well, did you?" "Certainly not. If it had had incest in it I wouldn't have touched it! Now, it was in Manchester, where Olivier was appearing in Antony and Cleopatra and ..." "Did Olivier watch Bouquet, do you know?" "I don't, no. John Osborne did, though. I was rehearsing a play of his at the National while it was going out. After a read through he said to me, `lovely, Frank. Now, what's that bloody awful telly you're in on Friday nights? Terrible, it is, but I find I can't miss it.'" "Frank, am I boring you by banging on about Bouquet like this?" "Um. No ... Now, where was I? Ah yes, it was Manchester, and I'd taken the number 8 bus to see him in Antony and Cleopatra ..."
OK, now some proper stuff about Frank. He's 71 or thereabouts. He's quite cagey about his age. "I've got my next job to think of." He still has that strong, squashed-down, almost vulpine face. He is wearing a lovely Armani coat. He is a great actor. He was brilliant as Salieri in the West End production of Amadeus. Yes, it did hurt when he wasn't cast in the Hollywood movie. "It was so much my part." He is a CBE, but not a knight; he doesn't know why. "Perhaps I haven't been high-profile enough." He's preferred to concentrate on the theatre in recent years. Some of it hasn't been so good. David Essex's Mutiny, for example, springs terrifyingly to mind. "But it wasn't a flop. It ran for 18 months." Now, though, he's coming back to telly in the new Simon Nye sitcom How Do You Want Me? By happy coincidence, he plays a father who can't stand his daughter's husband. Which reminds me, whatever happened to that lovely boy James Aubrey, who played Gavin? Terribly cute, he was.
"I really don't know. Now, I was born in Farnworth ..."
Yes, Farnworth, Lancashire. His father, Josiah, worked as a packer in the local battery factory. Farnworth was a small but lively little place, by the sound of it, with a Gilbert and Sullivan Society, a drama society and at least 28 amateur dramatic societies. Frank did a lot of drama as a schoolboy; can remember being the mad hatter in a production of Alice. But then he packed in school at 13. He wasn't very good at it. "I tried a number of times to get into grammar school, but failed. I couldn't spell. I still can't spell. I am possibly dyslexic." He got a job as a butcher's boy, then trained to become a butcher while doing amateur dramatics on the side.
This is what he was doing when, at 24, he first met Olivier. Come on, let's allow him his anecdote.
"I took the number 8 bus from Farnworth to Manchester to see him in Antony and Cleopatra. Afterwards, I happened to be passing the stage door when Olivier came out. By some freak we fell in with each other as he walked away. He asked if I had enjoyed the play. I said I had. I remember that there was a sweet smell about him and I thought `perfume'. It might have been toilet water, but we weren't big on aftershave in Lancashire in 1950. When he left me, I was way off course for my bus station, didn't even know where I was."
At around this time, he wrote to a rep company in Troon, Ayrshire, and offered his services free for two weeks while he was on holiday from the butcher's shop. The trial worked and the company offered him a job as assistant stage manager and juvenile lead for pounds 3 a week. A couple of years later he won a rare open scholarship to Rada. He next met Olivier when he was in his late thirties and had established himself at the Royal Court. He was starring in Arnold Wesker's Roots with Joan Plowright when Olivier called. He said: "Listen, I'm sending you a script [for Arden's The Workhouse Donkey]. Call me Sunday to tell me what you think of it. If I'm not in, have a little word with Joanie." They then met for a seminal supper at The Ivy. "I'd bought a new tie. The menu was very long. He said, `what are you going to have to eat, Frank?' I said, `what are you having, sir?' `A mixed grill, I think.' `I'll have the same.'" Olivier intended to use Chichester, which he had taken over, as a seedbed for the National Theatre, now destined to happen.Would Finlay come to Chichester to do this Arden play, and then the National, to do Othello? Frank said "yes, please", or words to that affect.
So he was up there, as one of the greats, when Bouquet came about. How exactly did it come about, Frank? "I was in Saturday, Sunday Monday at the Queen's Theatre when this casting director from LWT came to see me backstage one evening. She said they were thinking of turning a novel into a little TV series and were considering me for a part. Would I read the novel? I did, and thought it excellent. Then the scripts came, and they were excellent too." When did you know it had taken off? "After about episode three, I think. I remember when it finished, Clive James came up to me and said: `Frank, I don't know what I'm going to do Fridays from now on.'" I know what he means. I still don't know what to do with Fridays, some two decades later.
Anyway, Frank has to go. He's meeting someone at the Garrick for lunch, and has got to pop into church on the way. He is a devout Catholic. "I didn't miss a mass until I was 26. Then, the next day, I was nearly run over by a bus. It was God saying: `Watch it, Frank.' Talking about watching it, Frank, and that little series you once made, called A Bouquet of Barbed Wire or something, did you watch it when it was all shown again on that recent Channel 4 TV Heaven night?
"When was that? I never got a repeat fee! Good heavens!"
`How Do You Want Me' begins tonight at 10pm on BBC2.
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