Last week veteran actor Peter Bowles took part in one of the National Theatre’s platform events, chaired by CSSD’s Head of Acting, Geoff Colman. The purpose was to promote Bowles’s new book Behind the Curtain: The Job of Acting, published in the Oberon Masters series
Sadly I couldn’t get to the event, but Colman told me afterwards that Bowles was terrific — witty and informative, at the top of the game but no pushover. And the Cottesloe Theatre was full. Quite an event, it seems.
But Bowles’ little book has been on my desk for a week or two, begging to be read and over the weekend, buoyed up by Colman’s comments, I got round to giving it the attention it deserves. And fascinating I found it too because I have recently been deep in a project which required me to research in depth who does what in theatres and here was an authoritative voice confirming, thank goodness, that I’d got most of it right.
Bowles is 75 and has over 50 years in the industry under his belt so, as well as telling some lovely stories, he’s good on how things have changed. RADA in the 1950s, for example, drummed his Midlands accent out of him and left him with something of an identity crisis. Today acting students are encouraged, of course, to keep and develop their native accents but trained in how to “do” a range of other accents. Sit-com used to be sneered at and, although it made him a household name, for many years after To The Manor Born Bowles didn’t get a decent offer of theatre work.
He describes how he learns lines - something people outside the profession always ask about. Perhaps, he speculates, just as the brains of London taxi drivers have been shown to develop an extra bit because they have to memorise the city’s geography, actors acquire specific learning and retention skills through years of practice?
Also in this slim book, which I read in under two hours, is lots of information about what actors do in rehearsal and what happens in the theatre before, during and after a performance. He writes about theatres, dressing rooms (the best one in the world is at Theatre Royal Haymarket), how actors relate to each other and what happens when you “dry”, “corpse” or something goes wrong. And he once stopped a show because he could see a disturbed young woman in the audience about to fling herself from the balcony.’By calling “Stop that girl”, Bowles saved her life.
He even has views, obliquely stated, about the way actors and directors now habitually dress — as if they were doing a manual job or operating petrol pumps — when they’re not on stage or in costume. Certainly when I’ve seen Bowles in person at press nights and so forth, he has always been beautifully turned out in an Amarni raincoat over an immaculate suit.
It’s a book full of insights — literally — and will be eagerly lapped up, I think, by theatre buffs who see shows only from the auditorium. I’d also recommend it warmly to anyone in training as an actor or thinking of embarking on training to be one as a way of finding out from a dishy old pro exactly what an actor’s life is like — and it isn’t all glamour, by any means, as Bowles observes drily several times.