Tania Alexander

Translator, theatrical adviser and author of 'An Estonian Childhood'

In early 1970s, the BBC drama department had the inspired idea of commissioning a series of adaptations of Chekhov's short stories. One of these was
A Misfortune (1973), directed by Ken Loach, with Ben Kingsley, Lucy Fleming and myself in the leading roles. Loach, already celebrated for his gritty realism and originality, showed himself in this rare excursion into classic literature a complete master of the genre, and this 40-minute film is remembered by aficionados of film as an important and unexpected moment in Loach's career.

Tatiana (Tania) von Benckendorff, writer, translator and theatrical adviser: born St Petersburg 15 January 1915; married 1940 Bernard Alexander (died 1990; one son, two daughters); died London 5 December 2004.

In early 1970s, the BBC drama department had the inspired idea of commissioning a series of adaptations of Chekhov's short stories. One of these was A Misfortune (1973), directed by Ken Loach, with Ben Kingsley, Lucy Fleming and myself in the leading roles. Loach, already celebrated for his gritty realism and originality, showed himself in this rare excursion into classic literature a complete master of the genre, and this 40-minute film is remembered by aficionados of film as an important and unexpected moment in Loach's career.

On the set in a country house in Norfolk, where it was shot - diligently watching, concentrating, now and then making the odd suggestion and encouraging as well as educating the actors, who dedicated themselves to finding the truth of these Russian people - was the tall, elegant and utterly beguiling figure of Tania Alexander.

Born in St Petersburg in 1915, the daughter of Ioann von Benckendorff and the extraordinary Moura Budberg (at one time the mistress of Maxim Gorky), Alexander was the perfect choice to advise on the customs and manners of a Russian country house. Her mother, who died in 1974, had herself been an adviser to Alexander Korda, and it was her translation of Chekhov that Laurence Olivier used for his 1970 film Three Sisters. Tania Alexander as much as Loach, in her own subtle way, helped create in A Misfortune a totally convincing creation of a vanished world.

Tania had the ability to be both authoritative and modest at the same time. It was not long before the company of actors became her adoring slaves and her beautiful smile and wry sense of the absurd captivated the cast. It was simply impossible not to become her friend.

I think I can take credit for being her unofficial "agent", for shortly after this joyous encounter I recommended her to Jonathan Miller. He soon invited her to assist on his Eugene Onegin for Kent Opera, where the unforgettably dreamy Tatiana of Jill Gomez dominated. Gomez was another immediate friend, who remained close to Tania. For Miller she also provided authentic detail and a carefully rehearsed Russian drinking song for the second act of his definitive Three Sisters. This magnificent production ran in the West End (Cambridge Theatre) in 1976, winning for the director and Janet Suzman, who played Masha, most of the significant theatre awards. At that time it was the longest-running Chekhov play ever to be staged in London.

My little joke with my "client" Tania was that she had to do the job on offer because she always brought luck to the productions. Virtually all of them were hits. She assisted very much from the side, but the carefully timed suggestion, sometimes out of the earshot of the director, could unlock a moment for the actor. When I played the aristocratic Baron Tuzenbach in the Miller production, a throwaway remark she made about the appropriate military bearing for someone in uniform made me realise she was sending me a discreetly disguised "note". One I was happy to absorb.

At the English National Opera she worked on Colin Graham's Boris Godunov when the young John Tomlinson stifled the house with his beautifully modulated singing of the old monk Pimen. Last year she told me she wept with pride when he watched Tomlinson dominate the Royal Opera House stage as the Tsar Boris. "And his Russian was good too," she added, maybe slightly regretful that she hadn't this time been involved.

Tania Alexander had been involved in so many interesting and diverse productions. She spoke eloquently, even rapturously, about the unknown Nicholas Hytner years before anyone else after his Queen of Spades at Brighton. With Charles Sturridge she adapted The Seagull he directed with Vanessa Redgrave in 1985 (their translation appeared in book form the following year). With Julian Mitchell she worked on August (1995), the film version of Uncle Vanya starring Anthony Hopkins. Earlier she had worked on the National Theatre Vanya with Ian McKellen. At the Almeida she assisted Jonathan Kent on Chatsky and Chekhov's Ivanov with Ralph Fiennes and Harriet Walter. She admired both these actors, and her friendship with them was cemented when they worked together again on the 1999 film Onegin.

When I told her I was looking for a translator for Klaus Mann's play Geschwister ( Siblings) but couldn't find anybody. She said sternly: "What's wrong with me? My German is as good as my Russian." We adapted it together, and it was performed with great success at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1989. Three years later it was published by Marion Boyars along with Mann's novella Kindernovelle ( The Children's Story) - also translated by Alexander.

Earlier, in 1987, she had published a memoir, A Little of All These, published in America as simply Tania (1988), and in paperback in Britain as An Estonian Childhood (1989). In this delightful book she describes her childhood on her father's estate in Estonia, her summers in Italy with her mother and Maxim Gorky, and her arrival in England in the 1930s where another lover of her mother's, H.G. Wells, gave her a typewriter she kept for the rest of her life. Before long she learned typing and shorthand, and got a job at the publishers Secker and Warburg.

In 1940 she married Bernard Alexander, an international lawyer whose work for the United Nations took them to New York and, for seven years, Geneva. Her three children, Natasha, John and Helen, and their children (and now their children's children) all remained closely involved with her throughout her life. Her house in Oxfordshire next to her son's on one side, and her daughter Helen's and her husband Tim Suter's on the other, had the improvisatory feel of a house in a play by Chekhov or Turgenev. A child, a friend, someone helping out, might wander in, unexpected, unannounced, always welcomed - she had that selfless ability to give her complete attention to everyone. Even in her late eighties her energy and passion for people seemed limitless.

As someone who knew Tania Alexander from the theatre, I realised when I witnessed her extraordinarily warm family life that being in a theatre, at the opera house, on a film set was just another extension of her life as a mother. It was all entirely natural to her. We became her family as we sat together, laughing, listening and learning in the rehearsal room. We knew we were lucky.

Peter Eyre



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
News
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Sport
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
football'Mr Marmite' faced the possibility of a 28-day ban
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
News
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower