William Donaldson's Week: Suffering a loss of characters

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The Independent Online
AS THEATRE buffs will know, there have been many occasions in the history of the stage when it has been necessary to perform a play without one, or both, of its leading characters - as a rule because the actor entrusted with the part is off with malaria.

Edmund Kean was a tremendous drinker and usually had to be doused under a pump before a performance. If he was too drunk to go on himself, he'd sit in a box and heckle his understudy. Once, during a summer engagement at a provincial theatre, there was no understudy, so the manager announced that Hamlet would be played without the Prince. Sir Walter Scott was present and reported afterwards that most of the audience had judged this reading to be a great improvement.

At the Old Vic in 1954, Richard Burton and John Neville alternated the parts of Othello and Iago. Having lunched too well one day, they returned to the theatre for a matinee and both played Iago. The audience spotted nothing unusual, nor did Burton and Neville.

Never mind that. These are merely hoary old anecdotes to be trotted out by exhausted toilet book writers eager to bulk out a Christmas stocking filler - indeed, I've trotted them out myself, and more than once. The matter arises more seriously now, since Oswald Hickson, Collier & Co (Philosophy Department), keen to get on the front foot, and quickly, against Norman and Tina Norris of St Austell, Cornwall - one of the strange couples who have confused themselves with the leading characters in El Independo, my satirical soap opera for BBC 2 - decided a week or two ago to go into a no-huddle offence, with all the dangers that such a policy entails.

Dangers, I may say, which were excellently demonstrated on Sunday night, when George Siefert, the 49ers' head coach, obliged, as he saw it, to play catch-up gridiron against the Cowboys, instructed Steve Young to go straight to the snap between downs - the upshot being that Mr Young thereafter, and consistently, disappeared under two tons of flying linebacker while his offensive line scratched their heads and tried to figure out the play.

I'm not criticising Oswald Hickson, Collier & Co, of course, but I'm still the quarterback and it could be argued that their Mr Alway's decision to confound Norman and Tina Norris by losing El Independo's leading characters, and, furthermore, by relocating it in Suffolk - a decision, some might think, meriting rather more at the line of scrimmage - hasn't made life easier for me or for Geoff Atkinson, my back-up quarterback.

Indeed, Atkinson made his displeasure known on Monday when we started work at last in his office up at Kudos.

'As I understand it,' he said, 'we are now collaborating with a rugby-playing philosopher, a contradiction in terms, you might think. The soap has lost its leading characters and we are obliged to set it in Suffolk, a county, I may say, about which I haven't any jokes in my computer. I'm tempted to throw in the towel.'

It was time, as usual, for me to steady the ship with a laborious and ill-timed anecdote. 'There are many precedents,' I said, 'for a drama in which the leading characters . . .'

'Oh God,' said Atkinson. 'Not one of your wordy anecdotes. I don't think I can stand it.'

That wasn't very nice. The point of me, the reason why I'm welcome still in offices staffed by crisp women and young men with box suits and big hair, is that I come freighted with inappropriate racontage. It's like having old Bill Deedes permanently on the poop deck. I am the Independent's Bill Deedes of the op-ed page, and I pressed on in the face of Atkinson's callow indifference.

'Robert Newton,' I said, 'was in a play in Manchester as old Queen Mary lay on her deathbed. After the matinee, the manager told the cast that she was not expected to live through the day, in which case the evening performance would be cancelled. Newton got drunk and, on returning to the theatre, discovered that Queen Mary was still alive. He could hardly stand upright during Act I and the audience was becoming restless when the manager ran on stage. 'Ladies and gentlemen,' he said, 'the Queen is dead.' 'Thank God]' cried Newton, keeling over with relief.

Atkinson scratched his ginger wig and looked bewildered. 'What's that got to do with a play being performed without its leading characters?' he said.

'Nothing,' I said, 'but I've already used the anecdote involving Kean and Hamlet. I may be boring, but I don't repeat myself.'

'Yes you do,' said Atkinson.

'That's true,' I said. Here goes, then. Once Kean stumbled through Act I of a play but became pie-eyed in the interval. The usual dousing had no effect, so the manager apologised to the audience. 'Unfortunately,' he said, 'Mr Kean will be unable to continue his performance tonight due to malaria.' 'I'll have a bottle of that myself, thank you very much,' called a voice from the gallery.' Atkinson scratched his ginger wig and then said that this anecdote was as irrelevant as the other one.

'Indeed,' I said. 'But I had to explain the reference to malaria at the top of the column.'

Atkinson picked up the telephone. 'Is old Bill Deedes available?' he said.

Next week, I'll report their progress.