Acting Plays Theatre

Alan Howard: The Bandido

Years ago, when my two sons were somewhere in the middle of a long boyhood, inspired by their demands for bedtime stories, I came up with a character called The Bandido.

The Bandido in his blue period
The Bandido in his blue period

He was derived from Alan Howard.

The Bandido was a charming, elusive baddie. To begin with he had equal baddie status with Dr. Dreadful, and Elfis (a fusion of Elvis Presley and an elf). Sometimes these three bad guys would work together creating havoc around the place, and sometimes they worked alone. The Sherrif always fixed it by the time sleep came. The Sherrif was assisted by two plucky boys, who were the lead characters in the stories, called Tom and Nate. Tom and Nate lived in a cottage that was kitted out with magical weaponry. They were pretty outstandingly good at saving the day these two boys, Tom and Nate, and their real-life counterparts, unknown to themselves, gave joy to all the grown ups who loved them.

The story was an open-ended serial, and over the years progressed to adventures in space with a galactic baddie called The Blob; to a heist with a Chinaman on a Junk who sold fish ‘n chips in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; to the The Sultan of Ombo-Gombo who was the richest man in the universe. Supporting parts were played by bit-part actors in roles like: Plooki, Power Pig, Awesome Ostrich, and Copper who was a flying horse.

As with most soaps, the plots were fairly standard. Baddies doing some bad stuff—global hazard—Sherrif-outfoxed calls on plucky lads—lads deploy cunning strategies—exhibit courage, strength and speed—world saved from catastrophe.

The Bandido first made his appearance as a solo, but then teamed up with Dr. Dreadful and Elfis whom he met while in gaol. For a while they were a dastardly trio, but over time The Bandido emerged as lead villain.

If you’ve ever told a bedtime story to children made from whole cloth (aka making it up as you go), you’ll know that even if you you’ve sketched out the outline there will come moments when you have absolutely no idea of what happens next. It was in one of these moments that The Bandido made his debut.

Working on the idea that when you don’t know what you’re doing, about the only thing to do is to act as if you do, I took a deep breath and heard myself say:

‘Oh no! You don’t catch The Bandido as easily as all thaaaaaat!’

It was a voice I knew well.

I was in a play with Alan Howard at the time. I played an eccentric Russian Orthodox Archbishop, and I had one scene with Alan, who was playing a maniacal Russian General. This was a play called Flight, adapted from the Bulgakov novel, at The National Theatre in London. Part of my job was also to understudy Alan Howard.

Alan Howard
Alan Howard

Understudying, also known by the more tasteful term of ‘Standing by for …’ or the more elavated one of ‘Cover’ as in ‘I’m covering … so and so’ has it’s challenges but if you can navigate the esoteric ins and outs of it, it can be incredibly useful to the jobbing actor. One feature of the gig, especially at a place like the National, is that as a young actor, you get paid to watch distinctive older actors and learn from them. Alan Howard was distinctive in spades.

You may not know of him, because aside from a few choice film and TV roles, most of his career was on stage. Over decades at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he played many Shakespearean leads, including all the kings (Richard 11 to Richard 111, plus all the Henrys) sometimes two, three, or four simultaneously. You don’t do that year after year without it leaving an indelible imprint on your voice.

He was an actor of charisma and authority. In rehearsal endlessly inventive and in the moment. In performance known for his trademark stances — first of which was, as I’ve said, his voice. When you’ve done Shakespeare in quanitity in big theatres, there’s iron in the voice. A modest man offstage, on stage his vocal flashes were a rollercoaster illumined with random mad swarms of giant fireflies.

Flight was playing in the largest of the National’s three auditoria, the Olivier Theatre, an arena thrust stage modelled after the great Greek amphitheatres. At Delphi and Epidavros theatres were faced with marble, a material which conducts sound and, even outdoors, creates the finest acoustic environment for the human voice in the world.

The Olivier’s steps were cast in concrete, a material which absorbs sound, thus creating a very different kind of acoustic, one which has been frequently worked on with architectural add-ons, and even, to the outrage of classically trained actors, the ocassional use of microphones.

The great 19th century actor McCready wrote of Drury Lane that it was a theatre more suited to semaphore than to subtlety. Alan’s technique was more or less unmatched in living theatre, as a younger man he had given us a specially virile Coriolanus, and his Theseus/Oberon was part of history making, both those performances in the more intimate Aldwych Theatre. But even his unique vocal ability found reaching the back and side walls of the Olivier a challenge.

Alan Howard as Coriolanus
Alan Howard as Coriolanus

So he used a favoured technique and delivered one long battle speech standing on a table. He cut a compelling profile, and I as his understudy did the same when we rehearsed. In one rehearsal I said to the assistant director, who was presiding, ‘Surely I get off this table now?’ (I’d been up there quite a while).

‘No,’ he said, ‘You stay there for a bit.’

So I said, doing my best Alan Howard impersonation, ”It’s the only way to play the Olivier! Standing on a taaaaable, in a cerise follooooooow!!!’.

Unknown to me, the show relay was switched on, so my words were broadcast through the whole backstage.

That night waiting in the darkness of the wings to go on and play my scene with Alan, I felt a familiar presence in an unfamiliar place — usually we entered from opposite sides of the stage. ‘Heard you havin’ a go at me this afternoon,’ whispered the voice that could only belong to one man.

I spun around in the darkness, ‘Oh, Alan! Sincerest form of flattery is imitation!’

‘And yes!’ said Alan, spinning me back, his voice rising in volume as the scene change music came up, ‘it is a long time to stand on a taaaaaable!!!’ With a hearty shove he pushed me onstage, and we played the scene.

Gentleman that he was, he bore no grudge, allowed me to buy him a respectful glass of red wine after the show, and even generously negotiated with the director to give my character, the Archbishop, a few more lines in our scene.

I was grateful for the chance to work with him. He will be remembered throughout the profession as a most accomplished classicist and for other theatrical strengths, but I will always be most grateful for the Bandido, who was a favourite with my kids.

The Bandido with a rare smile
The Bandido with a rare smile

Technically Bandido should be rendered as Bandito, but somehow he never was. The Bandido was a thin, very thin shape-shifter which meant that no gaol could hold him because he could always ooze between the bars. He dressed entirely in black or dark blue and wore a large kind of sombrero. But his most distinctive feature was his voice.

The Great Stage Manager in the sky has called Beginners (UK), Places (USA) for Alan. Wherever he is now he’ll still have a voice to thunder and command.