David Lister: A five-point guide to keeping the actor sitting next to you happy

The Week in Arts
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The Independent Online

Hell hath no fury like an actor scorned. It certainly has no fury like Brian Blessed scorned. The veteran star of stage, screen and television, it was reported this week, stormed out of a dinner when someone on his table ventured a critique of the 1980 film Flash Gordon, in which he starred as Prince Vultan.

It didn't help that it was a one-word critique, or that the one word was "crap". It also didn't help that the after-dinner speaker at the corporate do was meant to be Brian Blessed. While his absence over coffee might have gone unnoticed in other circumstances, the lack of a speaker made it all a bit obvious.

Perhaps the guilty guest at the Federation of Wholesale Distributors dinner had not thought Brian to be such a sensitive flower. His thundering voice, large frame and hearty manner seem to suggest otherwise. That is to misunderstand the nature of the beast – the actor in general, that is – not just Brian Blessed. Adverse criticism of any work by an actor once the wine has started flowing is not a good idea.

With a veteran like Brian Blessed this does admittedly rule out a lot of conversation. Say "I'm not crazy about cop dramas" and you might get a mouthful from the man who began his career in TV's Z-Cars. Query in academic fashion the efficacy of Shakespeare on film, and who was in four Shakespeare films but Brian Blessed. Dissing the musicals genre must be safe, you might think. Nope. Check the cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats and there was Blessed. Those Seventies television dramas weren't such a golden age, you might put up for discussion over the petits fours, and darn you've forgotten that the Emperor Augustus Caesar in I, Claudius was none other than BB. The guy has been around a long time. "These are dark days for wholesale distribution" would have been a much safer line of chat.

The best thing is to have, as I do after sitting next to actors and actresses at numerous awards ceremonies, a mental guide to "actor on your table" dinner etiquette.

* Never criticise any of their performances but get the point across by praising something else in the work. "I just loved Queen's soundtrack to Flash Gordon" would have nicely implied that you hated everything else, but you couldn't be faulted for saying it. Praising the costumes is another failsafe way of being insulting while seemingly paying a compliment.

* Never praise their peers. Praise older actors and dead actors. Teenage actors are also usually safe. Anything in between is dicey.

* Say "I'd love to see you on stage" to a film actor or "I'd love to see you in movies" to a stage actor. It suggests you have spotted hidden talents that a hundred casting directors have missed.

* Furrow your brow and say: "I can't think why it's always directors who run theatres, and not actors." Goes down a treat.

* Stop yourself saying: "Good Lord. You're so much smaller than you look on telly."

These will guarantee that your guest speaker doesn't drive off in a chauffeur-driven huff.

The RSC should go back to its roots

What are the chances of a founding director of a world-renowned company still being around and working 50 years later? Pretty remote, I'd have thought. But Sir Peter Hall at 80 is very much alive and kicking and directing plays half a century after founding the Royal Shakespeare Company. Last Sunday he won the Lebedev Special Award at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Yet the RSC, which has just unveiled its rebuilt theatre and its 50th birthday season, has not included a show directed by Sir Peter in the anniversary year.

This is nuts. It would have been wonderful symmetry to have him directing a play in Stratford-upon-Avon in the new theatre 50 years after he started the ball rolling. Indeed, it might have been fascinating to have productions from all the other former RSC artistic directors as well – Trevor Nunn, Terry Hands and Adrian Noble – all of whom are still directing. But Sir Peter should have been a must. And it's not too late to rectify that omission.

There's life beyond London, you know

I've advocated for some time that the Royal Ballet, currently in brilliant form, should get out of Covent Garden and tour in Britain. It manages to tour in exotic places such as Japan, but never dances in front of UK audiences outside London. And they're the ones who pay for the company just as much as Londoners. Well, now the company is going to leave its Covent Garden home for five performances next year at the O2 arena – in London.

Gosh, it's actually going a few miles down the road. Couldn't it have gone to the Birmingham arena or the Manchester arena or the Newcastle arena? There's life – and taxpayers – outside London.