In the early part of 1994, I embarked upon the concluding stages of the Post Graduate Certificate of Education (FE, or Further Education) I’d been working on since the autumn of ’92, and whose passing would have permitted me to teach French in further education establishments throughout the UK. Its progress however had been somewhat hampered by my alcohol and prescription drug problems, which resulted in my postponing Teaching Practise (TP), scheduled to have been completed in 1993, until the following year.
TP is an integral component of what is known as the PGCE, or Post Graduate Certificate of Education, the successful achievement of which allows a person to go on to work as a primary, secondary or further education teacher depending on the nature of the course.
I mention this because my own history incorporates three unsuccessful attempts at the PGCE. The first took place at the University of Cambridge (1986-’87), the second at the former West London Institute of Higher Education (1990), and the last at the University of Greenwich (1992-1994). I quit both Homerton College (Cambridge) and the West London Institute immediately prior to Teaching Practice, which had been due to begin in the case of the former in a secondary school in a deprived inner city area where I had received a rapturous reception from the kids, all from relatively indigent backgrounds as I recollect. There was a time when I would have gladly endeavoured to live up to this phenomenally positive first impression, but at 30, I was already in thrall to deep jadedness despite my seraphic countenance, the wry wariness of self of one who had already covetously and wilfully partaken of so many experiences in defiance of the Will of God.
The latter on the other hand was to have taken place in Hounslow, a racially diverse region of outer west London, close by to WLIE itself which was based on two campuses in the suburbs of Isleworth (where I was briefly resident) and east Twickenham, both of which then formed part of the University of London, prior to the Institute’s merging with Brunel University, while the Twickenham campus where I did most of my studying was recently sold off to property developers.
I finally completed a full TP early in 1994 at Esher College, a higher education school in the leafy Surrey faubourg of Thames Ditton, but had sadly neglected to demonstrate sufficient authority in the classroom or something of the sort according to the report I was proferred at my request, fact which understandably went on to jeopardise my final mark. In consequence, despite my passing every one of the requisite exams save the TP component, the latter including a detailed account of my teaching experience, I failed the course as a whole. To be fair, my Greenwich tutors offered me the opportunity of retaking the section of the course I botched, but for reasons I can no longer recollect I chose to turn them down. Pique may have been a contributory factor.
The precise duration of the mood of disappointment to which I was doubtless subject, if only fleetingly, as a result of mismanaging a course which had cost me so much not just in financial terms but by way of time and effort as well I cannot say for certain. What is sure however, is that within a short period of time of being apprised of my fail, I successfully auditioned at a newly formed fringe theatre group known as Grip, based at the Rose and Crown public house in Kingston, Surrey, for the main part of Roote in a relatively obscure play by Harold Pinter, the monumentally successful British dramatist, screenwriter, director, actor and poet, born in Hackney in London’s East End in 1930 of Askenazic Jewish ancestry.
I was genuinely excited about the prospect of interpreting Roote, the director of an unnamed government psychiatric hospital, the “Hothouse” of the title, my success rate with respect to auditions for fringe productions never having been high, perhaps because so many of those I’d attended had involved me reciting sections from a play (or film or whatever) before what always seemed to me to be a disquietingly impassive panel of observers, while Tim had us reading in small groups from the play to be performed, while inter-reacting with fellow hopefuls, which enabled the actors involved to attain a basic feel for whichever character they might be interpreting at any given time.
“The Hothouse” is perhaps not among Pinter’s greatest plays, but it is a superb piece nonetheless, and eminently ‘Pinteresque’ with its almost high poetic verbal virtuosity and inventiveness and dark surreal humour laced with a constant sense of impending violence. Penned in 1958, it was not performed until 1980, when it was directed by Pinter himself for London’s Hampstead and Ambassador Theatres.
From the auditions onwards, I established a strong connection with the kind-spirited American director, Tim Williams. An actor himself as well as a playwright, Tim was very much an actor’s director, which I would define as one who delights in establishing close relationships with actors, by dint of a deep respect and affection for their art. He demanded from me an interpretation of Roote which was distinctly at variance with my usual highly Method-oriented, subtle, intense, introspective and yet somehow also emotionally hypra-vehement approach to acting, but his directorial instincts were immaculate. The impression of a bumptious despot with the potential for sudden arbitrary brutality which he coaxed out of me was arguably the most successful of my spotted career, garnering glowing reviews not just in the local press, but also the London version of the celebrated international listings magazine “Time Out”, in which Kate Stratton described my performance as “flawlessly accurate” and “lit by flashes of black humour”, adding that the production faltered whenever I left the stage. My triumph as Roote in “The Hothouse” offered me the opportunity of late flowering glory in my chosen career, including what could be termed agent interest. Permit me to elucidate:
Given the comparative rarity of performances of “The Hothouse”, Tim’s production at the Rose and Crown, a pub-theatre situated almost 10 miles from the centre of London, attracted at least one theatrical agent of distinction, which was highly unusual for a fringe production, especially given its distance from the city centre, and the aforesaid agent, whose name now eludes me, went out of her way to ask me to ensure my details reached her. And yet, having attempted to do just that, I never heard from her again, and to this day I am uncertain precisely why, but she may have taken one look at my CV, and peremptorily shelved it. I say this because although it had been professionally produced, it was of a remarkably low standard as I recall.
The “Time Out” review created a real aura of excitement about the production, and especially its lead actor who for all the world looked set to capitalize on this unexpected success and become something of a West End star or something akin. The remainder of this piece may go some way towards explaining my failure to do this, for those among my readership presently wondering, whether silently or out loud, how I managed to bungle such a precious opportunity.
Although I was nearly 40 years old at the time of “The Hothouse”, I feel safe in asserting that I barely looked more than 25, 30 at the very most, and so possibly seemed to be an ingenous young man at the start of his career, rather than one with some decade and a half of experience as an on-off professional actor under his tightly knotted belt, to say nothing of the long history of dissolution which had only recently wrought such chaos on a physical level that he was convinced of his imminent quietus. I was thence a kind of a Dorian Gray figure perhaps, and yet one who, far from being the secretor of a once perfect portrait corroding in tandem with its subject’s increasing depravation, was a newly born again Christian who, despite the apparent hopelessness of such a task, was hungry for holiness, as the Bible exhorts us to be.
Nevertheless, despite the aura of carefree youthfulness I emanated against all the odds, I was suffering within, sorely missing the lethe ethyl alcohol once offered me, and the revels extending deep into the night that once succeeded my appearances in plays during which I’d throw my youth and affections about like some kind of maniacal delinquent gambler squandering his life’s savings at the poker table in the face of imminent insolvency.
After each show, where my fellow actors at the Rose and Crown were able to repair to the bar for a glass of beer or wine or a cocktail or whatever to facilitate the socialising process, I had to make do with something like aerated cola, which I was imbibing in perilously large quantities at the time, often to be found swilling from a litre bottle of the fizzy liquid in the vain hope that it would serve as a mild euphoriant. Compounding my sufferings, I started being subject during the run of “The Hothouse” to heavy spiritual problems related to my thought life, possibly connected to my pre-Christian existence which after all had only recently ceased to be. Within a year I would actively seek refuge in what is known in Pentecostal-Charismatic Christian circles as Healing Ministry, in consequence of these and other torments.
My faith didn’t violently clash with the contents of “The Hothouse”, although its unremitting sombreness of tone certainly caused me qualms. Still, I had a high regard for the work’s artistic merits, and its unsavoury elements didn’t provoke revulsion in me, unlike certain plays I considered in the mid 1990s. I mention this to make it manifest that fame as an actor, indeed as an artist or entertainer in general, was no longer the obsession it had once been for me. With respect to this sometime idolatry, a very close friend once averred specifically with regard to me that it is possible to want something too much, perhaps implying that my thirst for renown or notoriety was of such a pathological degree of fervour that it ultimately set about consuming me, although whether such a theory has any real basis in truth I cannot say for certain. It may have been more of a case of my not desiring them sufficiently.
Certainly since coming to faith, my priorities had drastically shifted, and I viewed worldly acclaim with a freshly sceptical eye. For all that, however, I was still far from as content as I should have been in ’94 with all that God had done for me, finding compulsive sobriety so insufferable while delivering lavishly acclaimed theatrical performances that at some point I announced to my mother my decision to quit the stage altogether. In point of fact, I appeared in only three further plays after “Two”, two in 1995, and one in ’98, and so was almost as good as my threat.
Within a short time of “The Hothouse” reaching the cessation of its two week run, Grip’s warm-natured artistic director Martin Richards asked me if I’d care to audition for his forthcoming production of “Two” by the playwright Jim Cartwright, best known for the play and film “Little Voice”, to be directed by Martin, and produced by his fiancée Chantal. I of course answered in the affirmative, going on to audition successfully and so to play all the male parts opposite the gloriously versatile and engaging Liverpool actress Jane Gelardi, who played all the female. The production was an unqualified triumph which procured uniformly enthusiastic reviews, although sadly only in the local press. And yet, while working with Martin, Jane and Chantal was an unalloyed pleasure, I dreaded the end of each performance, seeking only to distance myself from the audiences who came nightly to see me do what I did best as soon as it was possible to do so without giving any great offence.
Sweet release from a prison of sobriety presented itself whilst I was attending some unrelated function at the Rose and Crown, if I’m not mistaken, some days following “Two’s final performance, and a tall, bearded man I was conversing with offered to buy me a drink, whereupon rather than the soft drink I normally opted for, be it cola, tomato juice or whatever, I hazarded a single glass of wine. It was the first alcoholic beverage to pass my lips since January 1993, that is without taking into account an incident at my parents’ house during a dinner party when I mistook vodka, or perhaps gin, for water, and took a massive gulp of the offending liquid. Far from having an adverse effect, however, the wine made me feel wonderful, its intoxicating properties doubtless enhanced by the purity of my system . Cycling home that night I felt quite delirious with joy as I recollect, emancipated at long last or so I thought from the torturous shackles of sobriety.
From this single glass of red wine, my drinking escalated be degrees over the ensuing few weeks as I recall only to culminate in an evening of massive toping and smoking spent with an old university friend, Henry W., in a Twickenham pub, close by to where he’d been recently completed a course at St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill. This was disgraceful behaviour for someone supposed to be representing Christ to a quiet and complex spirit of whom I’d once been very fond. Little wonder that I have only seen him once since then.
I said goodbye to Henry in a state of acute and pathetic intoxication, and cycling home, came off my bike as I was passing a bus shelter near Hampton Wick in Kingston, and dashed my head against it as I fell. I deserved to die there where I lay, but thanks to the infinite mercy and faithfulness of God, I was presently on my feet, and cycling homewards.
However, weeks of controlled drinking, not to mention one colossal temulent binge, possibly combined with the adverse effects of violently smashing my head against a bus shelter, resulted in my becoming ill and incapacitated for a period whose duration I cannot say for sure, but it may have been a fortnight or more.
There were times during this terrifying trial when if my memory serves me aright, I would awake in a frantic state, sickly pale and in a deathly faint, close to blacking out, fearful of death, but each time I felt God came to my rescue just when things looked desperate.
All I could do was lie around, waiting, praying to get better, but it seemed to take an eternity, and yet once again, the Lord was with me at all times, and saw me through this hellish period of recovery.
I would like to say that it my first and final relapse, but alas, it was merely the first in a long series of them, more often than not separated by a few years, the most recent of which was only just a little over a year ago, after which I definitively called a halt to any notions on my part of being able to drink in moderation.
I am profoundly indebted to Tim Williams and Martin Richards of the sadly now defunct Grip Theatre Group for having sufficient faith in my acting gifts to afford me the opportunity of delivering my two most succesful ever performances on the London fringe, namely those of Roote in Pinter’s “The Hothouse”, and all the male parts in Jim Cartwright’s “Two”. By doing so, they set me up for further, deeper acclaim as a character actor, this being far from the first time one with the requisite clout to do so performed such a service on my behalf. And yet, as I have made manifestly clear in the preceding story, I utterly muffed this gilded opportunity, ending up quite literally flat on my back while befuddled with drink in the dirt of a suburban London street.
It might have been the end of me that autumn night had not God in his infinite mercy picked me up from the ground where I lay abject and stinking of ethanol, before healing me by degrees of the damage I’d inflicted on myself through weeks of alcoholic self-abuse thereby offering me still another chance to fight for the righteous life He saved me for.