Author Q&A: Edward Petherbridge

  • February 17, 2012

A Q&A with the British actor and author of Slim Chances and Unscheduled Appearances, The Life of Edward Petherbridge.

“Edward Petherbridge is one of Britain’s finest and most highly respected actors.  In a distinguished career spanning more than half a century he as proved equally at home in Greek tragedy and French farce, in Shakespeare and Chekhov, Moliere, O’Neil, Beckett and Bennett, Coward and Kurt Weill.  In this fascinating collection of essays, he tells the story of his life in the theatre, from his first acting lesson…to his role in the formation in the of the democratic Actors’ company and his membership in the Royal Shakespeare Company.”

Vanessa Becknell’s Q&A with Edward Petherbridge

Reading Slim Chances is like getting the opportunity to sit down with you and talk – it reads like a chat with an old friend, right down to the footnotes. When you set out to write your memoirs, did you intentionally approach it in an informal manner or did you find this happening naturally?

Very nice of you to say it’s a friendly chat. A rather one-sided chat, I fear, and so long! I wanted to write the sort of book that I was hoping to find as a boy on the theatre-section shelves of my local library – an honest book that would divulge some of the mysteries of acting and allow me to inhale the authentic backstage ‘smell’.

It may seem both superficial and hifalutin to say that I always feel a pang of something like friendship, or at least comradeship, when a youngster surprises me by being old enough to remember me from something I did two years ago, or an ancient theatre buff tells me they still recall a particular production I was in in the 1960s (I have fond memories of playing Washington D.C.). These were, after all, occasions when we breathed the same air and played the same intimate game of let’s pretend; a rather vital game I have come to realize. If it’s a television production they mention (my film career is subliminal), radio or audio book, it is as though we might have passed like ships in the night in some virtual world. You’d better ask me another before I get pretentious …

You had an incredibly imaginative and inventive childhood, which led to creating wonderful plays and parties for your own children – I still remember putting on plays for my parents and even my dog! Do you still see that focus and imagination in children today?

One hopes that those convenient child minders, TV and the game console, are not cramping the latest generation’s imaginative style. But I heard a heartening obituary piece on the radio about a pioneer of music therapy and his success with autistic children. And drama is now used much more in education than ever it was when I was small. There is evidence that the same human spirit that has created the dense, brick-built, terraced conformity of the suburban London l live in is a spirit with remarkable resources of creative nonconformity.

You’ve had a long friendship with fellow actor Ian McKellen – do you find working alongside friends helps or hinders your creative process? Is it difficult to look past the person you know in real life and see only their character?

Interesting one this. In my recent comic and musical coupling with Susie Blake as Wilde’s Miss Prism to my Canon Chasuble, we had an interesting day one – the first reading and music rehearsal – when, as strangers to one another, we were in at the deep end of our characters’ besotted, undeclareable love! I got to know Chasuble and Miss Prism as we went along, whilst, at the same time, learning more about the ramifications of the very different ‘real’ Susie, and vice versa. I suppose the vital elements are trust and rapport, and, if one is fortunate enough to discover those, the act of pretending is not hampered either by slight acquaintance or close friendship.

You pulled double duty this past spring, appearing concurrently in Antigone and Coco – two very different plays! What was it like jumping back and forth between such different roles at the same time?

I was perhaps better as Coco Chanel’s suave confidante and lawyer than as Sophocles’ blind prophet, Tiresias. It was one thing to stand barefoot on the stone floor underneath the railway arches at London Bridge, wrapped in an old Afghan bedspread, waiting in the wings at the end of the tragedy to tell Creon the doom-laden prophesy – a scene in which I found the authentic tone elusive to achieve (nowadays we don’t usually have portents indicated by the behaviour and innards of birds or by burnt offerings). I was conscious what a long line of blind prophets had gone before me since 440 BC, yet how fresh and urgent and inescapable the play was. It was quite another thing, however, to dress in black tie on Sunday afternoons and sit on stage for the concert version of André Previn and Alan Jay Lerner’s Coco. I spent most of the time admiring Sara Kestelman’s Coco Chanel, at once warm, witty and acerbic, and I admit that my solo number in the last act was a delicate gift of a showpiece and made me feel almost French and rather sophisticated!


The contrast between these two roles took me back to my six years in repertoire in Olivier’s National Theatre company at the Old Vic, when one flitted from French farce, Restoration comedy and Jacobean tragedy to Stoppard, Shakespeare, mime and modern domestic drama, etc., etc., and thought nothing of it.

Speaking of two totally different roles, you played the blind seer Tiresias in Sophocles’ Antigone to incredible reviews, and then received more accolades for your brilliant portrayal of Dr. Chasuble in the musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest – how important is it to you as an artist to keep yourself open to such different characters?

One just prays for such opportunities.

Speaking of artistry, a lot of fans may not realize that in addition to being such an incredible talent on stage and film, you’re also a gifted poet and artist – you chose to include a selection of your poems and artwork into your memoirs – what was your process for deciding which works made the cut?

Not a rigorous enough process at least one friend thinks. There is an embarrassing proliferation of self-portraits (but I am the cheapest model I know). I’m reminded of the TV extra, some years ago, who said he had heard I wrote poetry.

‘Verse,’ I said modestly.

‘Have you had any published?’

‘No,’ I replied.

‘I have,’ he said

‘Oh. Where?’ I asked

‘In a volume of unpublished poetry,’ came his reply.


One piece I was sad to see not included in your book, which fans can check out on your website ( was the terracotta work “Lear and the Fool in the Storm” – it’s one of my favorite pieces you have posted on your site. You recently hosted an art exhibit at Burgh House in Hampstead to launch the release of Slim Chances – have you considered publishing a volume of your artwork or your poetry exclusively so those of us who couldn’t attend can still get the full experience of your artistic talents?

It is a very flattering question, but I feel I might have to build up a more worthy and convincing oeuvre before I entertain such a scheme. Recently I set myself the exercise of writing a sonnet a day for a week and I really should make sure I draw or paint every day too, if I am really serious. But there are only so many hours in the day.

In fact, both my terracotta depictions of ‘Lear and the Fool in the Storm’ made the final cut, as it were (see Slim Chances, p.348).

You’ve recently begun using technology like the iPhone and iPad to create incredible artwork – do you see more artists moving towards this medium?

The illustrious artist and fellow Bradfordian David Hockney has rather cornered the market in iPad art.

You’ve done so much in just the past year alone, what’s your next adventure?

The next adventure lies in not knowing what the next adventure might be. I’m going to do a curious two-man tinkering with, or exploration of, King Lear with Paul Hunter, my clown companion in The Fantasticks (Duchess Theatre, 2010), a workshop under the auspices of the RSC. And there is the ongoing project of writing a book with my friend and editor, Kathleen Riley, about London NW6 where I live; it is chiefly her research that is proving the human spirit’s power to transcend nineteenth-century brick-built terraced conformity, though we do have our share of pretentious villas, but that is another story…

I hope I haven’t gone on at too much length. Now I must see what I can do in the way of transcending this particularly dank and grey suburban day. Perhaps Emily (my wife) and I will go to see the silent movie The Artist. Thank you for your questions.

Vanessa Becknell is the TV & Film Department Editor at the Donnybrook Writing Academy and an entertainment reporter for

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