Author Archives: Colin McPhillamy

About Colin McPhillamy

An occasional blog about acting and other theatre stuff.

Funny How the Immune System Works

Even the most reclusive of us must be aware that there really is nothing funny about what is going on at large in the world at the moment. However medical authorities from The Mayo Clinic onwards recommend giggling, sniggering and laughing as a great tonic, so whether appropriate or not at this time of trouble, here goes…

Sir Thomas Beecham the conductor, is on record as saying, “If I was Prime Minister I would require every man, woman and child between the ages of eight and eighty to sit down and listen to Mozart for a quarter of an hour every day for five years.” Bearing in mind recent Prime Ministerial performance one can think of worse edicts.

For the literary equivalent I nominate the works of P G Wodehouse. To name him in full, Pelham Granville Wodehouse. He chose to be known to family and friends as Plum – and who can blame him?


The daily application of one chapter of P G Wodehouse read aloud has given great results so far in our household. And here’s a thing; being as the man was afflicted with as unrelenting a work ethic as any three or four twentieth century writers put together, there is for practical purposes a more or less unlimited supply of his work. He wrote some ninety novels, about two hundred short stories, as well as plays, musicals, and film scripts.

Right about the cusp of the last third of his lifetime, i.e. a few months before he was sixty, he was interned by the German army and spent almost a year in confinement in various locations ending up in what is now part of Poland with other men deemed to be of fighting age. Of the location he wrote, “If this is Upper Silesia, one dreads to think what Lower Silesia is like.”

And then he made a breathtaking mistake for which he paid dearly for the rest of his life. He agreed to make five radio broadcasts for the Germans. This was in 1941.

The content of these broadcasts was gently satirical, here’s a brief excerpt from the first:

Young men, starting out in life, have often asked me “How can I become an Internee?” Well, there are several methods. My own was to buy a villa in Le Touquet on the coast of France and stay there till the Germans came along. This is probably the best and simplest system. You buy the villa and the Germans do the rest.”

The full text of the five broadcasts with a bullet point account of what happened to Plum during the war can be found here: https://www.pgwodehousesociety.org.uk/wartime

Agreed to…? The evidence is that he was tricked into it. I also reference here a wikipedia article which gives a full and detailed account and a youtube video which has a brief excerpt from a sympathetic film featuring Tim Pigott-Smith and Zoe Wanamaker as the Wodehouses, with she confronting him. The full film, Wodehouse in Exile, used to be available on youtube, I hope it’s still around somewhere.

What did this sorry event cost him? Well, after decades of high earning success, Plum was instantly reviled in the war-time British press as a traitor, investigated by the British secret services, and driven into self-imposed exile in the USA never to return to his beloved England.

His work however, remained enduringly popular. Jeeves and Bertie Wooster appeared on television in the 60s personated by Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price, later revived by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. There are adaptations and recordings of other parts of his oeuvre, although few of his other creations – among them, Psmith, Ukridge, Mr Mulliner, The Oldest Member, Lord Emsworth, Sally… achieved quite the prominence of the aforementioned double-act.

Richard Vernon played Lord Emsworth.

Plum was granted a final rehabilitation in British national opinion with a knighthood in the Queen’s New Year’s Honors List 1975 (just about six weeks before he died), but was at that time too frail to travel back to his native land to receive it.

Since the end of the Second World War, Wodehouse has been defended in print and on screen by such diverse apologists as George Orwell, Anthony Lane and Stephen Fry. Isaac Asimov in a foreword to a collection of Plum’s work admits to a forty year ambition – to dine at the Drones Club. The late Tim Pigott-Smith stoutly defends Plum as a harmless old duffer completely unaware of the consequences of what happened.

Tim Pigott-Smith as P G Wodehouse

I agree with Tim Pigott-Smith. Apart from Plum’s peculiar innocence, it would be hard to find a more patriotic man at heart.

I have been laughing on the borderline of total loss of control at Wodehouse’s work since I discovered him just over fifty years ago, (I’m sixty-two as of this writing). Back then I had to stuff my mouth with a sheet so as not to wake the rest of the household when I was reading at night.

I once played this comic hero of mine in a play called Plum by Roy Smiles. This was in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2014.

All of this is a long way to get to why I’m posting this. As Plum might have put it, “The essayist with points to make or history to include, must get on with it or he will fail to grip and his audience will soon drift away to the bar for a second Gin and Tonic.”

A quick glance at the search engines says that laughter is generally acknowledged to be a great tonic with benefits to the immune system. These days I take a home-made folk-recipe anti-viral tonic: equal parts garlic, ginger, lemon and manuka honey. But I reckon a daily dose of Plum and his laugh-riot prose boosts my immune system just as much or more. As people who write references based on the resumes of job applicants, “I have no hesitation in recommending him to you.”

Evelyn Waugh puts it rather better, this quote of his was for many years on the back cover of all Penguin editions of Wodehouse: “Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from a tyranny more irksome than our own.” Isn’t that a sentiment that feels strangely apt just now?

If you’re new to Plum and his works, start with Bertie and Jeeves and go from there!

That’s me as Plum on the left.

That’s the real thing on the right

Oh, and should it amuse, there’s an astrological view on Plum and his wartime misadventures here.

Just On The Off-Chance…

It’s May 1st 2020. The first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, and the Celtic festival of Beltane. Sadly there won’t be much dancing around the maypole this year.

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Meanwhile what is to be done during this indoor time?

I have turned to the unread books on my shelves, attempting to turn them into books that have actually been read. Stop me if I’ve quoted this before but it is á propos:

“The sight of a lot of books fills me with the desire to read them, which sometimes turns into the belief that I already have.” Kenneth Clarke

One such volume is a collection of interviews with writers from Dorothy Parker to Earnest Hemingway, all first published in the Paris Review, under the cunning title The Paris Review Interviews. It includes an encounter with Kurt Vonnegut. The transcript was collated and edited by Vonnegut himself from four separate interviews conducted over a decade. It is actually Vonnegut interviewing Vonnegut.

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No one has approached me for an interview at this point and I’m not expecting anyone to do so. But in these changing times maybe it would be a good idea to prepare something … just on the off-chance?

So I have decided to follow Vonnegut’s example. He is a writer I admire very  much. His story, Report on the Barnhouse Effect (published in his collection, Welcome to the Monkey House) is a thrilling anti-war piece. And Who Am I This Time?, gives the inside scoop on the psychology of actors.

Here is a brief excerpt of the auto-interrogative to which I refer any hacks who may be desperate for content:

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INTERVIEWER

Colin McPhillamy welcome and thank you for taking to us today.

McPHILLAMY

That’s my great pleasure.

INTERVIEWER

What are you doing with yourself at the moment? Take us through a day.

McPHILLAMY

Ah! The easy questions first eh? … Well it’s hard to say.

INTERVIEWER

Please try. There may well be as many as one or two people (give or take) out there waiting for an answer that makes sense.

McPHILLAMY

Sense!?! At a time like this? Good luck with that.

INTERVIEWER

Talking of time, those of us under lockdown have more of it on our hands than usual at the moment.

McPHILLAMY

Yes, but it’s always NOW. You’ve read your Ram Dass*, right?

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INTERVIEWER

Indeed. What would we do without the eternal verities? But, let me ask, have you, for example, considered starting a podcast?

McPHILLAMY

Oh yes, definitely. My constant thought.

INTERVIEWER

I see. Commendable.

McPHILLAMY

Along with learning Tibetan, re-reading Quantum Physics for Dummies (I only got to page four last time), and starting a community composting initiative. Haven’t actually… you know…

INTERVIEWER

But it’s on the list?

MCPHILLAMY

Well … the truth is … that might be pitching it a bit strong.

INTERVIEWER (changing tack)

Do you watch the news?

McPHILLAMY

I ration my intake … the trouble is…  if I watch more than three minutes at any one time I start to develop psycho-somatic symptoms.

INTERVIEWER

But it’s important to keep up with what our leaders are saying and doing, don’t you agree?

McPHILLAMY

I plead the fifth …

INTERVIEWER

That’s the sort of answer a right merchant banker** might make… isn’t it?

(N pages deleted here: editor)

INTERVIEWER

It’s been a lot of fun talking to you.

McPHILLAMY

Speak for yourself.

Ram Dass*: the late spiritual teacher, known in some circles as a cross between Gurdjieff and Woody Allen. Born Richard Alpert, sometime colleague and psychedelic experimenter with Timothy Leary. Wrote the 1970s best-seller Be Here Now.

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Merchant banker**: obscure reference to cockney rhyming slang.

Actor to Offstage Prompter: “Line…!?!”

It’s a calendar month since they closed down Broadway, and I have been thinking about Death. If that’s too morbid for your taste, you may want to skip this one.

The great sorrow in the present crisis is that the terminally ill are dying alone without comfort of friends or loved ones. So amidst all this terrible tragedy, appalling inconvenience, and ongoing uncertainty, I have wondered lately, occasionally, about a good last line, albeit that if one were about to cross the rainbow bridge, there’s every chance that no one would hear anything you might say…

Nevertheless, as an actor it would simply be embarrassing to arrive at the final moment and have to ask for a prompt. And with the current global challenge, including the prospect of death – the possibility at least, should you happen to inhale the wrong person’s sneeze – doing what Doctor Johnson back in the 18th century said said it did (focus the mind) – what an opportunity to get something down on paper.

Coming up with words that might endure in anyone’s memory more than an hour or two is a tricky proposition though. A sample of some very witty utterances already made includes:

“It’s been a long time since I had champagne.” Anton Checkov – Russian playwright

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“This is where the fun begins.” Ben Travers – British playwright

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“On the contrary.” Henrik Ibsen – Norwegian playwright

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Last words can be very telling in terms of the speaker’s character. A person of high moral probity might say, along with Socrates, “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius, will you remember to pay the debt?”

With an eye to a laugh, “This is no way to live.” Groucho Marx

Somewhat dissatisfied with the set, “I knew it! I knew it! Born in a hotel room and, goddamn it, dying in a hotel room.” Eugene O’ Neill – American playwright.

Do you agree with me that Death is the great taboo these days? Where once no one dared mention sex in polite society, or in some cases money, these days to talk about death at a dinner party is to be struck off future invitations.

And that can be no surprise when the prevailing culture, in America at least, takes the view that death is optional, and that with a reverse-mortgage and the right medication (notwithstanding those side-effects given in husky voice-over against bucolic scenes of happy family barbecues in television commercials). This is madness, the idea that the inevitable appointment with the “fell sergeant” can be indefinitely postponed, defies all logic, experience and evidence.

But we seldom talk about the universal leveler with each other, let along how best to go about it. Many of us find it deeply upsetting even to think about it. But how is it sensible to go fearful or ignorant to that which awaits us all?

If one were looking for advice, albeit of a markedly sombre tone, there’s the Duke’s speech to Claudio Act 3, scene 1 of Measure For Measure which begins, “Be absolute for death, and either death or life shall thereby be the sweeter…”

Or there’s Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s book, On Death and Dying

Or there are Dr Peter Fenwick’s youtube videos.

And although I certainly have no empirical proof, apart from the vivid memories of loved ones who’ve gone before, I tend to agree with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s assessment, “Change of clothes.” One hopes.

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Talking of metaphysicians who flirt with the intangible: there’s at least one of Nostradamus’s prophesies that was correct in every detail. On his deathbed he said, “Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here.”

And for an epitaph what could be better than Spike Milligan’s“I told you I was ill.” engraved on his tombstone.

Returning to the problem of the last line. If one were minded to die with one eye on publication, I offer a few generic options here, mainly for actors:

“The Great Stage Manager in the sky is calling places (beginners/UK)”

“If I’d had just one more rehearsal, I’d be playing this differently.”

“How about a round (of applause) on this exit?”

Since the World Changed…

IMG-2136.jpgThey closed the Golden Theatre on West 45th Street on Thursday 12th March, most of Broadway and off-Broadway following within a few hours. On Friday March 20th Hangmen was closed officially.

All that seems like a whole different long-time-ago time now. But then that’s what two weeks (today) of self-isolation can do for you.

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Actors are no strangers to being chucked out of work and sometimes suddenly too. But even the most seasoned of us has never been through this. Well that’s not quite true. As I mentioned in my previous post they closed the theatres down at the end of the 16th and in the early 17th centuries due to outbreaks of plague. And stories abound of touring companies being abandoned in far-flung parts because the manager absconded with the takings. That was in the bad old days before there was Equity, the actors’ union.

That’s me and Pete Bradbury up there in the top right. Below is a picture of me ready to step in to the role of Harry Wade, one of the Hangmen of the title. Posted here by kind permission of the production ‘cos sadly, although the chances were slim of you actually seeing me in the part, now the chances are zero.

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We were getting into top gear, both working on Broadway shows, my wife Trish in the acclaimed To Kill a Mockingbird – which had recently played to 18,000 high school kids in a sensational free performance at Madison Square Garden – and me in one that on paper at least had all the hit ingredients. This virus thing is more than inconvenient. Just saying.

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That’s Patricia Conolly with a dressing room selfie of Mrs Dubose.

So what’s to be done in this in-between moment? Well you can always read a great novel (or write one). The only Tolstoy novel I’ve read is Resurrection, so yes, maybe I will have a go at War and Peace… Or Moby Dick… or one of the longer Dickens…  The watercolors, the jig-saws, that coverlet you’ve always meant to crochet…

Talking of literature, P G Wodehouse can always be relied on for an amusing turn of phrase. Earlier today I came across this for example, “He uttered a sharp exclamation and gave a bound which, had he been a Russian dancer, would probably have caused the management to raise his salary.”

It may not look like much out of context and perhaps you had to be there, but it caused a lot of mirth in the Conolly/McPhillamy household to the extent that tense shoulders began to loosen and worry lines gave way to the creases of laughing smiles.

It does seem though that whatever you do, it really, really, REALLY is better not to go outside (except when deploying the newly minted social distancing for those essential journeys). So much so that this amusing little ballad – stop me if you’ve heard it before – seems now to be the summation of all wisdom currently available. (some vulgar language; viewer discretion advised).

I expect by now you’ve heard this one. But I’ll tell you again anyway…

Tweet: When Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague he wrote King Lear.

Answering Tweet: I don’t need that kind of pressure.

Tweet: And he did it without toilet paper.

Talking of Nostradamus. It seems unlikely that I’ll be doing any acting anytime soon, so now’s the time to focus on my side hustle – yes, that right ASTROLOGY. You can see my astrological two cents worth here, or check out the rest of the site at http://www.GalacticFragment.com, and if you’re interested, and I fully acknowledge that astro is not to everyone’s liking – sidebar here: at one time I was on a quest to have a sensible conversation with a scientist about why astrology works. I didn’t pursue this very far because the few scientists I met would start edging towards the door as soon as I mentioned the art of celestial interpretation. I never even got as far as asking them about the implications of the recently discovered sub-atomic particle, the neutrino.

Be that as it might, for the duration of the lock-down I’m offering a chart reading at the deeply discounted price of… pay-what-you-wish. If you’re interested email me at Colin@galacticfragment.com. Something different perhaps? After all, there’s only so much Netflix you can watch…

I hope you’re ok and that you have good supplies of rice, beans, and tinned fish – oh and loo roll!

Even this shall pass away!

 

In 1593…

In the 1590s they closed the theatres in London because there were outbreaks of plague. The longest period of closure was from February 1593 for about a year when Philip Henslowe (you saw his character in Shakespeare in Love, played by Geoffrey Rush) was made to close the Rose Theatre.

Theatre people are not strangers to sudden changes in the continuity of work, and yesterday as I’m sure everyone knows by now, all Broadway theatres were ordered closed on the authority of the New York State governor, Andrew Cuomo.

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Me on hearing the news

The Broadway community of actors, musicians and other performers, technicians, stage mangers, front-of-house staff, box office, stage door, cleaners; as well as agents, lawyers, designers, directors, choreographers, general managers, producers, publicists, critics, and others; as well as all the local auxiliary businesses – bars, restaurants – physical therapists … it amounts to several hundred thousand people in our immediate community, and of course the ripples will go far beyond that.

And what about the patrons from far and wide and all the $$$ they bring?

So; the usual personal question when a gig comes to a scheduled end, “Will I ever work again?”, when the hiatus – (no one has said it’s the end yet), comes as a shock, although somewhat expected, the question now becomes one for the global collective, “WTF IS GOING ON?!?”

Having said that: Hangmen was in previews, and performances of this truly fascinating play were going brilliantly. Let’s hope we can bounce back. Watch this space for updates.

Learning the Ropes

Broadway in New York City snakes through midtown like an uncoiled length tossed casually across a grid. It creates wedges: one at the Flatiron building on 23rd Street, and another at Times Square at 42nd Street the one-time-and-forever centre of the known entertainment universe.

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In these “interesting times” where we live, now and then I get an intuitive confirmation of the impressive prescience of certain twentieth century novelists; my latest was olfactory. Aldous Huxley gave us Brave New World – he sure was right about genetic engineering – but do you remember the scene in the book where there is a public protest? The authorities rock up and instead of laying about the populus with strong arms as in cruder locales, they merely pump “soma”, the happy gas, into the vicinity. And while they are doing it they play a soothing voice-over.

“Friends… friends… friends” croons the voice in a tone at once loving and mildly, fraternally, disappointed by the disharmony. The public is soon quieted. Today in real-world Manhattan the streets of midtown are filled with the sickly-sweet skunk-imitator scent of cannabis leaves burning quietly, and undoubtedly to some of us it brings a welcome oblivion.

Orwell was another one. He had it right too, the Big Brothers who presently rule territories East and West are watching you, and some are more equal than others, while the telescreen is the Colosseum, and the public mind marches toward total biddability as Fact, Ethics and Truth are lost in the oubliette of Opinion and the soothing-stimulating somatic-discourse that calls itself “News”. Plato was right after all (when a society seeks the Good above the True – it’s over) and it’s only taken a couple of thousand years to prove it.

By the way, George Orwell wrote an at-close-quarters account of a hanging that happened in Burma (Myanmar) when he was a civil servant there. He was struck by how the condemned man side-stepped a puddle on the way to the gallows.

Along the side streets of midtown there are theatres. They cling to Broadway like barnacles on a submarine cable and claim its name. From them you may purchase entertainment.

Is there a difference between entertainment and art?

“Our job,” says a senior advertising executive to a colleague in the 1980s TV dramady Thirtysomething, “is to give people faith in their leaders, comfort in the purchase of consumer durables and security in the belief that there is absolutely nothing wrong.”

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Last week I joined the company of Hangmen by Martin McDonagh. I stand by for Mark Addy, an actor of extraordinary calibre and absolutely outstanding in the role of Harry. The show previews Feb 28th, opens March 19th.

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And if you do see it, will it give you any somatic relief from the chafing-on-the-nerves challenge of being alive in these “interesting times”?

I doubt it.

The author, Martin McDonagh, is on record as saying he had no intention for a play-of-message as he wrote it. Even so, the show is confronting. It’s very funny. State-sanctioned murderous use of hempen weave – what could be funnier? But if you laugh, soon after you are likely to think “What kind of person laughs at this?!?

I’ll call that art.