T he late, great Alan Bates came to mind recently as it was Open Gardens in the hamlet where my granny-in-law once lived. Bates was her godson and there is a photograph, famous within the family, of the celebrated thespian standing on her lawn next to a donkey (Betsey Trotwood would not have approved). While the donkey gives the camera its best side, Alan Bates has his back firmly turned. There is not even a hint of a profile. He could be anyone.
More actors. We went to Stratford to see Henry IV Part One. I love Shakespeare’s history plays, partly because there are relatively few ‘big speeches’; the action rattles happily on. Perhaps I am a philistine, which was certainly the opinion of the person to my rear in the stalls. Delighted at the entrance of a deliberately ridiculous Owain Glendower, I silently nudged the children and was promptly told by the pompous ass behind to sit still, something that hasn’t happened to me for about forty years.
I tried to rise above it but spent the next few scenes fantasising about putting itching powder on his seat in the interval. And then returning the ‘sit still’ compliment during the second half. Thus does Shakespeare elevate the soul.
When not making enemies in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre I was wandering round with the family doing the tourist thing. We went to Nash’s House, from where you can explore the site of the Bard’s final home, New Place. New Place was knocked down by its owner, a grumpy Georgian cleric, because he was fed up with all the Shakespeare fans. Now Shakespeare fans flock to see the site of the house knocked down because of Shakespeare fans. It’s a crazy mixed up world.
Afterwards we walked by the river and were thrilled to spot Henry IV puff past in his jogging outfit and Lady Percy in a pink neon top towelling herself down on her dressing room balcony. The children begged to hire a rowing boat. Avoiding ‘Ophelia’ for obvious reasons we settled for ‘Antonio’, remembering too late that he didn’t have much waterborne luck himself. It was because Antonio’s ships sank that Shylock was able to insist on his famous pound of flesh. Despite the fact both children insisted on rowing, we managed to get back in one piece. Then to the famous Dirty Duck for a tall glass of Pimms.
The current Artistic Director of the RSC, Gregory Doran, hails from my own native county of Yorkshire. And my own native West Yorkshire too, not the posh North bit one might imagine. Gregory, a Barry-Gibb-from-the-Bee-Gees-alike, comes from Huddersfield. This makes him, in my view, seriously hard-core. I was waxing lyrical about Doran’s amazing post-Huddersfield achievements to my Halifax-born mother. She proudly rebutted the idea he was a one-off and said James Mason came from there as well.
And it’s true that Huddersfield has its Shakespearean aspects. The Bard would have loved the well-worn joke about going there to have your udders feeled. And the tripe in the market would have been right up Falstaff’s street. On his first trip Oop North I took my public-school-educated southern husband to see the stall of black fat, elder (udder), weasand and pigbag. All sounding like Shakespearean insults and all now sadly gone.
My husband was amazed, as he was at the skyscape of mill chimneys and a Huddersfield suburb called Fartown. The people who named this place never considered the risk of the first few letters being emphasised at the expense of the rest. Mind you, the same is true of nearby Penistone. And you have to drive through Thongsbridge to get there.
Queen Elizabeth I certainly never went to Huddersfield. She never went further north than Stafford, but she did go to Kenilworth a lot. On our way back from Stratford we swung by this erstwhile home of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and Gloriana’s favourite. But long before him Kenilworth Castle was a power-base. The gorgeous remains of John of Gaunt’s banqueting hall are here and it was fun to imagine some real-life scenes from the history plays taking place in it, as surely they did.
Upstairs in the gatehouse tower is a marvellous new exhibition about Dudley’s entertainments for the Queen. He did these frequently and at vast cost to himself. His aim (despite having a wife already) was marriage to Elizabeth; the allegorical masques were constantly, if obscurely, popping the question. Dudley overdid it though; one entertainment deemed too near the knuckle had to be abruptly cancelled. Bad weather was the official excuse.
Dudley’s royal wedding hopes finally hit the buffers when his inconvenient wife conveniently fell downstairs and died. Everyone suspected Gay Lord Robert. But, like Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, would he really have done something so obvious? Discuss, on one side of the paper only.
Finally, good news on the novel front! I have finished Wild & Free, my comedy set at a summer festival. I’m absolutely thrilled with it, I think it’s my best novel ever, and it will be out next year. There'll be exclusive extracts on the website nearer the time, wendyholden.net. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter.
Love to you all and have a wonderful rest of summer!
PS Late extra – my funny festivals feature just published in the Sunday Express magazine. Get a taster of Wild & Free here!