Profile: Wild hurrahs for a moral showman: Alan Bates, a crescendo of bravura on the boards

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AN ABSOLUTE wreck, this Alan Bates, shambling around north London, spluttering into his scarf, moaning about his terrible life and how far he's fallen. He says he's still an actor of national repute, perhaps the greatest in the world, yet he's forced to work on tiny stages, with awful supporting casts, for lousy wages, in front of philistines.

A theatrical role, of course, but a role he has chosen to play. About a year ago, Bates wrote to a friend at the Almeida Theatre in Islington to say he'd read this Thomas Bernhard play called The Showman. He said he thought he liked the script, and hoped that there might be a little part in it for him. When The Showman opened this week, Bates's performance was hailed as one of the most concentrated, bravura shticks for many a moon - a real Antony Sher of a shtick.

The play runs for two hours, and Bates is not only on stage throughout, but is talking throughout. It is practically a monologue, a spluttering Weltschmerz rant (which is set in Austria, where they call belly-aching raunzen), with incidental characters serving only as props, targets for his abuse. It's a terrific vehicle - a grandstand showpiece - but also a subtle tale of prejudice, despotism and small-town megalomania.

In this proto-luvvy diatribe Bates's character prepares to present his self- penned 'wheel of history' (in which he plays Nero, Churchill, Napoleon and Hitler) to an Austrian hamlet more interested in pig-farming. He calls it comedy, but it's really tragedy. Bates ends the play wet, part perspiration, part leaky ceiling; he also ends exhausted, barely able to acknowledge the wild hurrahs.

It is not too distant a part from that of Partt, his last big television outing in Simon Gray's Unnatural Pursuits. Here he played an alcoholic playwright on the slide, his work debased by compromise and anti-talents, drifting slowly from great promise to obscurity. This is the image he has chosen to present to us time and again, of a man quite ruined by life, an Appalachian ego lushed out on remorse and self-delusion.

But call up his friends, and they will tell you this isn't Alan at all. Certainly, there's been the odd drink and bad decision, but basically he's just acting, and that really he's gentle, considerate and devoted. Apparently, he likes gardening. That you can't quite believe it may be a sign of just how good an actor he is.

His friends also say that at 59 he is now more driven than ever, not by ambition, but by memory, loss and pain. A note in the programme for The Showman says: 'Alan Bates wishes to dedicate his work in this play to his late son, Tristan Bates, a young actor.' But that is only half of the story. Tristan, an identical twin, died a little under three years ago in Tokyo at the age of 19. He died of a freak asthma attack, although the coroner's report also revealed the presence of drugs, a possible contributing factor. Bates had always been very close to his two sons (the other, Benedict, is also an actor). About a year ago, Victoria, his wife of 22 years, also died, probably of a heart attack combined with grief - the loss of her son was followed closely by those of her sister and her mother.

SO BATES has had a tumultuous past few years. 'People come into life and leave too soon,' he told a recent interviewer. How do you get over it? 'I suppose the answer is that you don't. If you are lucky enough to have family and work, then you live for that and for them. You try to draw strength from the ones who are left to you, particularly if they are as unusual as my wife and my son were to me. You take strength from having experienced people, and you hope you were decent enough to them.'

Jonathan Kent, the joint artistic director of the Almeida who directs Bates in The Showman, says: 'He told me that since these tragedies, he has worked solidly. I imagine he has retreated into work.'

Perhaps uniquely for actors of his generation, Bates has seldom been unemployed. This is partly because he's a versatile chap, unshackled by restrictions of class, and partly because he hasn't been that choosy. However, he has never hit the Hollywood jackpot.

He was the eldest of three sons, and knew he wanted to act from the age of 11. His father was an insurance salesman, so there was little stage background in the Bates household in Derbyshire. He went to Rada when he was 18, delayed the course for a little National Service, then found himself in a class with the likes of Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Rosemary Leach, Richard Briers, John Stride. Tom Courtenay was a year behind. That we've heard of these names suggests the time was right for new, often regional, talent. In the early Sixties the kitchen sink was just being plumbed; brash writers north of Watford were being discovered by television and the Royal Court. It was great to have a classical training, but who wanted to carry spears for five years when you could whack the audience between the eyes in a John Osborne or David Storey?

Bates never carried spears at all. He did a Romeo at Rada, and was instantly snapped up by Frank Dunlop's Midland Theatre Company. 'I was bloody marvellous,' Bates says of his 19-year-old romantic lead. 'But then most people are at that age.'

The break came when he played Cliff in Look Back In Anger at the Royal Court. Cliff was Jimmy Porter's sidekick, and his portrayal took him to New York and instant acclaim. Right play, right time. 'He came across as a very affable, jolly and unprepossessing character,' recalls Irving Wardle, theatre critic of the Independent on Sunday. 'The change between that and this rather dour, secretive, virile fellow with banked-down passions is a 180-degree switch-around.'

Look Back In Anger brought him several film offers, including one absurd seven-year Hollywood deal that he turned down. These days he can't believe his coolness towards the offer, but the different, grittier path stood him in good stead. He was a serious actor, dedicated to the craft. Superficial he wasn't. He did do some early films (The Entertainer, Women In Love, A Kind of Loving, The Fixer) but these developed and rounded his skills rather than exploited them.

According to Mr Wardle: 'It's not as if Bates hasn't had the opportunity to play the classic leads. He played Hamlet, and it wasn't very good. It wasn't really his thing. Playing Mick in The Caretaker is far more to the point than playing Hamlet or King Lear. He's a modern actor. He's at the centre . . . fits into the world of modern English writing very well - that world of reserved style with that ambiguous passion that always comes out in all sorts of very twisted ways.' And Bates hasn't stood still. 'If you think of him and Kenneth Haigh in Look Back In Anger starting off neck and neck, Bates has gone streaking ahead.'

BATES has never sought security, never been a company man (excepting a brief period with the RSC, for whom he did The Taming of the Shrew and loathed every minute, and with the National, for Yonadab, a recent Peter Shaffer flop). Instead he has free-wheeled: historical and costume drama for the Beeb, thrillers and comedies for the movies, and almost everything for the stage, from tub-thumping to poetry readings.

Of course there have been special relationships along the way. David Storey, Harold Pinter, Lindsay Anderson have all relied on his isolated, rakish middle- Englishmen. Then there's Simon Gray (seven plays in all, including Butley, Otherwise Engaged and Melon) and Alan Bennett (award-winning television films on Proust and Guy Burgess).

'He makes me laugh,' says Bennett. 'We share a sense of humour and similar attitudes to life. On screen, without seeming to be an actor who disappears into a part - he has such a distinctive physical presence that would be difficult - he somehow manages to do so. When he played Proust, physically he was totally unsuited to it, but he still somehow suggested Proust. And Burgess similarly. We considered various people for Burgess, and at first I didn't think Alan would be right, because of the class thing; in the end that didn't matter.'

Bennett sees him socially, too, and occasionally they have supper together. 'We have a good laugh. I don't know that he's interested in a great deal of things outside of his work. He goes to see other plays and films a lot more than I do. He's very modest, professionally there's no nonsense about him. All of those people - Bates, Storey and Anderson - do a lot of good on the quiet. They're more selfless than many other people in the profession. They put themselves out for others. Alan's a very moral man: when we meet we talk about . . . the disastrousness of one's life; we don't talk about football.'

So what does Bates have that sets him apart? Jonathan Kent, his current director, cites courage and intuition; a natural talent, not learnt in books or by tortuous Method. 'He has a sort of mystery. He shares this with Paul Scofield. There's an impenetrable heart to him. I think he's astonishingly brave, which is something I'm totally in awe of. He's always chosen quixotic projects, and can do so much with such apparent ease. That sort of facility can be a lure and a trap, but he avoids it by putting himself at risk.'

Bates himself believes that he's wedded - 'probably too much' - to the idea that intuition is the most important quality in acting. He shows this in his inspirations: Olivier and Geilgud naturally, but he also likes the acting of Elvis and Marilyn.

The Showman isn't the most accessible of plays, not least because of its relentlessness. But Bates's loony thesp is a rare thrill. At the close, as he's finally about to hit the stage in that tiny Austrian village, he's dressed as Napoleon, and you can tell he's loving it. Not quite art as life, but certainly another bona part.