It must be a nightmare being theatrical crumpet because no one ever takes you really seriously as an actor. Alan Bates left RADA at a charmed moment in British theatre. In 1956 he was 22 years old and played Cliff in Look Back in Anger. And since he has been closely associated with Osborne, Pinter, Storey, Gray and Bennett. He created roles in The Caretaker, Butley, A Patriot for Me, and Life Class. He even dipped into Shakespeare at the right age for a swift Petruchio and a Hamlet. But he’s just too good looking to get any real credit. Maybe it’s because he took his clothes off in Women in Love or maybe it’s just that his style doesn’t shout about what he does. Despite the wildness of his looks and the power of his presence, particularly in his sensitive-men-of-the-soil phase in the early 60’s, he is in the right role a very subtle actor. And equally in the wrong role he is for the same reasons excessive and wonderfully bad. He describes these with a laugh as “short detours from something that actually matters”
Also he probably suffered from being one of theatrical triplets. He doesn’t have the monastic intensity of Tom Courtney, whom you imagine to live his life in a cold cell on a hard bed, or the working class heroism of Albert Finney, who must surely have lead a Trades Union insurrection somewhere in the North at some time. Instead Bates has beauty and men are rarely so sensitively sexual. In the way that some fat people can be light on their feet, Bates is masculine yet extremely delicate. But Courtney and Finney will always be endowed by critics and audiences with the aura of achievement. They suffer properly for their art and have done enough of the classics to warrant the eventual theatrical knighthood or the blue plaque. But Bates has an ease about him, a physical charm and a lightness of touch, which deflects this kind of serious assessment. And in Britain If you don’t appear to be making an effort no one is ever going to think you have gravitas. And if you play as much in the commercial theatre as he has done then you definitely won’t be taken seriously.
He is about to embark on another West End show, his eleventh collaboration with the playwright Simon Gray, “Life Support” directed by Harold Pinter. So he is reluctantly being interviewed and as he stood in his agent’s office he looked like a prep school boy waiting for the head master. He doesn’t like being interviewed. However once we had established that we had met socially before, he relaxed. “I used to be almost silent in these things, now I ramble stupidly on. But I’m strange about doing them before the show because I like people to discover it without being told before they get there.” We make a pact not to give away the plot because the play is about the discovery of truth – unpredictable and not particularly obvious truth. The reality of the characters’ relationships is revealed in exchanges between a well-known travel writer and accomplished embellisher of the uneventful – Bates as ‘JG’ – his brother, his agent and a doctor, all over the body of his wife who is lying in a coma and whom he is desperate to revive. “ JG has kind of chanced through life, taken the easy route but been canny enough to turn it into something successful. It’s a play about confronting all that fakery. And of course it’s about guilt too.”
Because they’ve worked so much together you’re tempted to assume that Gray wrote this for Bates. But Bates says not. He just offered it to him. You’re also tempted to make the probably crass assumption that it is in some way about Bates. This is simply because in 1992 his wife Victoria tragically died in Sardinia after an illness, refusing medicinal help, relying on nature and most significantly alone and absent from him. The wife in this play is agonisingly present yet absent. But I didn’t mention it for fear of trespassing. Bates did though. “I responded to the play instinctively. I read it through and loved it. I had no doubt about it. I was waiting to see what identification I had with it. And one is, I suppose, grief, which I’ve been through. That’s the principle one.” And grief has played an enormous part in his life over the last few years. Two years before his wife died, his son Tristan, one of twins, also died of a freak asthma attack.
“This play has been a kind of exorcism…. is that the right word? No I mean catharsis… exorcism means emptying churches doesn’t it? And that’s not something to be resisted at all. If these things have happened in your life you can’t just push them away.” The play is also about how you take people for granted. JG knows how desperately his life depends on his wife though he’s always resisted that. “Yes”, says Bates “when people are alive they can be horrible to each other and let each other down but that doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. You remember all the good things when they’re gone and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that…. as long as you keep your feet on the ground.” He talks with such warmth about his wife and his son. “There are people who just don’t go. They are part of your everyday life and I welcome that.” What he regrets most for his son Tristan is that he “was a potential. He is someone who only did everything once, who never had the chance to develop.” This has inevitably affected Bates. He can’t pinpoint the effect it has had on his work, but it has changed his ambition. “I just had pure ambition. But when terrible things happen in your life your priorities are not sharply but subtly and slowly changed. You think about someone like Tristan and you think he would probably have been an extremely good actor and I’ve already had 40 years and he wasn’t allowed that so why should I have any more? And then you think hey wait a minute, he was one of the main inspirations of my life. I’m going to do it for him.”
Bates says all this unsentimentally and unanalytically. It struck me as he talked that maybe the reason he usually holds back is not that he doesn’t want to explain, it’s that he can’t explain things. He once said that you can’t talk about acting, you can only talk around it. He is no rationalizer. Consequently his career has taken no particular path. “I don’t have a calendar” as he puts it. He takes work on a hunch and he had a great launching pad. “The sixties and seventies gave me a standing that I’ve lived off”, he says. Thus he has been able to choose what he has wanted to do. Although “not always wisely” he added, alluding presumably to some of his schlockier films like ‘Royal Flash’. Throughout his career he has had an enviable association with new writing but after an acclaimed Master Builder directed by Peter Hall, might he start to head towards the classics? He is after all 63. “I’m glad you had a note of astonishment in your voice about my age” he says without missing a beat. “That’s certainly not out of the question. It’s just about sorting it out with the right people who want me to do such things and then having a go. Now or never really, isn’t it?” Absolutely. But “having a go”? This is art Alan. They’ll never take you seriously if you say things like that. Think Tom and Albert and suffer.