Vowels by the RSC, costumes by a Brummie: Joe Clark made tunics for Olivier, skirts for Gielgud and a felt egg for Quayle. Chris Arnot met him

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VIVIEN LEIGH used to thread needles for him. Dame Peggy Ashcroft made no complaint when he accidentally stabbed her. Anthony Quayle used to pat him on the head and call him 'Joey', as though addressing a pet budgerigar.

Joe Clark, one-time costume cutter to the stars, is now a dapper 81- year-old. His neat cottage stands just round the corner from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and was once the Stratford home of Dame Judi Dench.

Since retiring, he has lived alone with his scrapbook and memories - memories that have been stirred by an exhibition at nearby Warwick Castle of RSC costumes, some of which have not been seen for 40 years.

One was designed for Anthony Quayle's Falstaff in the 1953 production of Henry IV Part I. Mr Clark remembers it all too well. 'I had to make a big pad with layers of carpet felt. It weighed a ton but it looked wonderful. Then he sat down and disappeared into it. He looked like an Easter egg. I had to cut it in half and start again. New materials have made Falstaffs a lot easier since then.'

Altering Sir John Gielgud's costume for his role as Prospero in The Tempest proved equally time-consuming. 'When we did the first fitting, he decided he would like it a bit shorter, so I turned up the hem. But that made it hang badly. He got me to cut it off the bottom instead. Then he decided he preferred it as it was in the first place, which meant I had to make a whole new skirt. You had to take things like that in your stride.'

Mr Clark recounts all this in the Brummie twang he has never quite lost, despite prolonged exposure to the cut-glass vowel sounds of some of the finest speakers ever to have graced the English stage. His father was a bluff Birmingham greengrocer who took none too kindly to his son's ambition to design dresses.

'None of the established stars ever made any remarks about my accent,' Mr Clark says. 'They were very sweet to me. But I always had the butterflies when I was in their presence.'

Luckily, this rarely affected his manual dexterity. He stuck a pin in Dame Peggy Ashcroft only because she would not keep still. 'I apologised, and she said it was perfectly all right, but she kept fidgeting.'

Awe turned to mild terror in 1955 when Mr Clark was asked to make Vivien Leigh's costume for her role as Viola in Twelfth Night. 'Madam', as he still calls her, had a reputation for being volatile.

'I used to send one of the girls in to the changing room while she was in a state of semi-undress. But one day she shouted out that she was no different from anyone else and asked me why on earth I was standing outside. From then on we seemed to click. Between rehearsals, she would come over to the wardrobe department for a chat and offer to thread needles for us.'

The costume worn by her husband, who played Malvolio in the same production, is one of those featured in the Warwick Castle exhibition. His name was Laurence Olivier, or 'Sir', as Mr Clark always refers to him.

'I remember him coming to play Coriolanus a few years after Twelfth Night,' he says. 'He took one look at the Roman tunic I'd made for him and said he couldn't wear it because it had no sleeves. He thought he had terrible arms. But they weren't particularly scraggy and I'd thought they looked quite muscular when I saw them in the film Spartacus. Then he told me that the film's director had stuck a Jaffa orange under his arm-pit to make his biceps stand out. We got round the problem by adding some cap sleeves to his tunic.'

And Mr Clark's opinion of 'Sir'? 'He was sweet.'

One of the few Stratford stars not to receive this accolade is David Warner. A cloud passes across the old cutter's mobile face at the mere mention of the name. 'I don't want to say a word about him,' he says. But, after a bit of cajoling, it transpires that Mr Warner took an instant dislike to the costume designed for his acclaimed portrayal of Hamlet in the Sixties.

'Instead of saying anything at the time,' Mr Clark says, 'he blurted it all out to Peter Hall, who had to convince him that it was right for the part. We had to make him an extra costume for Hamlet's journey from Denmark to England just so that he could have a change.'

Pampering to the whims of the stars is part of the cutter's lot. When Dame Edith Evans was playing the the Countess of Roussillon in an Edwardian-dress production of All's Well That Ends Well, she wanted Edwardian underwear as well. 'We had to get a special corset from the period as well as a petticoat and knee- length knickers in broderie anglaise,' Mr Clark remembers.

One of the pleasures of retirement is that he can now go to the theatre and concentrate on the performance without having one eye peeled for torn tights and fallen hemlines.

'It's only since I've had nothing to do with the clothes that I've heard a word,' he says.

The 'History in the Making' exhibition will remain on display until 3 June.

(Photograph omitted)

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