Sunday, 14 September 2014

Donald Sinden and Fiddler's Green

I was sorry to hear about the death of Donald Sinden. I have two memories of him, one shared by the playwright Simon Gray. In An Unnatural Pursuit, Gray's journal about the first production of his play The Common Pursuit, he describes going to see School for Scandal at the Duke of York's in order to check out one of the actors for a possible part in his play. Sinden is playing Sir Peter Teazle and Gray describes him in action:
Donald Sinden boomed richly away, postured ripely away, and was delighted in by the audience, whose delight he delighted in.
That was certainly my experience at the matinee I attended. I was studying Restoration comedy at the time (yes, yes, I know Sheridan's eighteenth century) but my exposure to high comedy of any sort (happy now?) had been limited to several stylised productions at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, so it was good to see a staging which may have been a bit of a museum piece but in a style which I'd never had a chance to ... well, to delight in before, as Gray says. And it wasn't difficult to believe that we were watching an unbroken line from its first staging. I can't remember how many asides were written into the play but I well recall that Sinden's Sir Peter indulged in quite a few.

That production was, I think, in the early eighties. A few years later I got the chance to see the great man at work up close when I attended rehearsals for a Thames sitcom pilot called Fiddler's Green.

I can't quite remember the justification for my being there, but the London college where I was being trained for a dominie's drudgery had a tutor whose neighbour happened to be the TV director and producer Tony Parker (Shelley etc) and somehow it was arranged that I should sit in on rehearsals for the show, which starred Donald Sinden and was written by Ian Davidson and John Chapman.

Actually, I suppose there was a media studies type of justification for my presence. But essentially it was my good luck that the timetabling of a two week project at my training college coincided with the rehearsals.

The sitcom didn't lead to a series though it was a good, gentle comedy, as pleasing as others of its sort, even if it didn't happen to be wildly original. Tony Parker took care, he told me, in casting the smaller parts, avoiding caricature.

I wrote up a report afterwards and sometime later proudly presented it to a tutor on a Media Education course I was attending in the evenings. She informed me that it needed to be boiled down to a couple of A4 sides if it was to work as an educational tool. This was a bit of a blow at the time, but then I'd already fulfilled what I considered to be the primary object of the exercise, namely to understand, for myself, more about how sitcom worked.

Rehearsals took place over a week in a Scout hut in Teddington, with me scribbling away in a notebook as Sinden boomed. It was undoubtedly his show. He was playing a retired admiral, or something of that type, whose elderly nanny was still living with him and keeping him in check.

She was played by Eleanor Summerfield, who may be familiar to some for her many roles in British films; Elspet Gray, the wife of Brian Rix, was the doting and attentive neighbour who secretly yearned for him while he was busy making a fool of himself, at least in this pilot episode, over the arrival of a younger woman in the village.

It was reassuring to see the care that was taken in all aspects of the production: one small piece of business was rehearsed over several hours, for example, and all the questions about motivation that would apply to more serious work were certainly asked during rehearsals. I remember feeling reassured that they were taking it seriously.

Which is not to say that it was without enjoyment. Tony Parker pointed  out with glee the barbs from Eleanor Summerfield's character which gave the show an extra sting: her role was essentially Sancho Panza to Sinden's Don Quixote, a pairing common to many sitcoms (Steptoe and Son, Frasier etc).

I seem to remember that on the Friday when the camera crew came into the rehearsal hall Sinden raised his game a bit, although everyone was giving a huge amount all the way through, and I was told it was an unusually happy company, thanks to the generosity of its star.

I can't pretend that I remotely got to know him. We only exchanged a few words, and rather stupidly I thought it was my role to stay at a distance, forever scribbling. Now I regret not taking more part in the general conversations between bouts of work: I ought to have trusted that I would remember the essentials and written them up on the way home.

But the director, Tony Parker, who had given permission for me to be there, was very kind to me, driving me to the station after rehearsals, and discussing comedy en route.

One of the discussions which I was party to, I think with Eleanor Summerfield, Donald Sinden and others in the cast, was the business of responding to the studio audience; Ms Summerfield remembered seeing Frankie Howerd unable to resist playing to them. And Tony had an anecdote about directing a sitcom - it may have been an episode of Shelley - which had to be recorded at the last minute without an audience because of a strike.

That same evening, after it had all been done and dusted, word came down that an audience would be permitted in the studio after all, and so a second version of the show was recorded. And even though the cast were all thorough professionals, and the presence of an audience is problemmatic (you can't play directly to them), their being in the studio nevertheless lifted all the performances.

When Fiddler's Green finally got into the studio on the Sunday, following a week of rehearsals in a nearby Scout hut, I have to admit it was slightly disappointing for me, for reasons which were nothing to do with the actors. I'd had the privilege of watching them perform only a few feet away from me; now, for the first time, I was introduced to the frustrations of being in a studio audience for a sitcom: the stopping and starting for technical reasons, the need to watch at least some of the action on the TV monitors when the cameras were in the way on stage. There was a warmup man, who would come to the fore again when there were hitches, although Donald Sinden himself often stepped in to jolly the audience along, mugging away for the camera if he or someone else fluffed a line.

But throughout the process, and not simply in that final, more public section of it, I have to say that Donald Sinden never gave any sense whatsoever of slumming it when he could have been doing King Lear or whatever. I suppose rehearsals were not that onerous, in the sense that they started in the morning and usually stopped by early afternoon, but there was a sense of steady industry throughout.

Which is not to say there wasn't enjoyment, including Sinden's mischievous variations in his delivery of a line like: "I shall tell her about my experiences in the Senior Service." At the end of the show Eleanor Summerfield's nanny asks Sinden's character what book he is reading, to which he answers with relish: "Oh, Balzac!" at which she storms out; there were times in rehearsal when he essayed alternatives such as "Suckling," which I assume he had coined. I hadn't seen Tony Parker direct before, but it was clear that he was greatly enjoying the process too. At one point I recall he remarked happily on having the urine extracted from him at regular intervals.

So there we are. Not exactly a Ken Tynan-style profile of a great comic actor, I admit, nor even an overview of his career (you can find that in one of the many obituaries online, such as Michael Billington's, here).  Simply a few memories of what, thanks to its generous star and director, was a very happy experience for me and it seems, the whole company.

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