Monday, March 26, 2012

Tales from the TARDIS…

LA meets Dr Who

Finding theatre in unfamiliar places is a good sport so although I’d gone to Gallifrey One’s February Dr Who convention in Los Angeles for the fan in me that has loved science fiction ever since H G Wells’ lot and Radio BBC’s Journey Into Space in the 1950s, I kind of hoped that there would be some theatre pay offs. I like the stories actors and directors tell about their experiences and can listen to the yarns and legends all day. 

Top this off with some side gallops into Los Angeles proper to get a glimpse of Hollywood and to have a go at the two Getty museums all complicated by the time it takes to get around such a spread out town and you can see why I did not quite manage to follow up on a chance to see an experimental Richard III (which had had mixed reviews). That I also managed to have a glimpse of President Obama flying past Santa Monica pier in a helicopter phalanx while I was paying homage to Ray Bradbury, the tents of Cirque du Soleil and the end of Route 66 (where a busker was singing Here’s to You, Mrs Robinson) was just plain luck.

In Hollywood the acting starts as you come up out of the train station down the road from Grauman's Chinese Theatre. There’s all these people dressed as everything from Captain Jack Sparrow to Darth Vader and his Imperial Storm Troopers. Their job is to get you to tip them for having your photo taken with them and to make it just that bit more difficult to find Jean Harlow’s foot and hand prints that you’ve promised to find for your 100 year old mother outside Grauman’s. ‘She’s just up from Elizabeth Taylor’, says the man in the kiosk and so she is. Tiny feet, tiny hands and dead at 26 from renal failure, much to the sorrow of fans like my father who wrote to her, got a signed photo back but lost it in the numerous moonlight flits round the Cross in Sydney when the rent couldn’t be paid.

Actually all of the talent seems to have been tiny. I am spruiked into Grauman’s Chinese Theatre by a young Pom offering short tours of the inside (came out to break into Hollywood… well, he’s gotten as far as Grauman’s…) The film costumes on display in the foyer of Grauman’s don’t go above a size 10 and come to think of it the hands and feet in the cement outside are all on the small side too. Even John Wayne’s boots don’t have heft – R2D2’s footprints look bigger.

(Later on, back at Gallifrey One, Paul McGann (Doctor Number Eight, The Monocled Mutineer, Withnail and I) also turns out to be physically tinier than his performances would ever indicate. He has a superb singing voice that would go down a treat at the National Folk Festival.)

Inside Grauman’s it is all red and gold and restored Chinoiserie from the 1920s. That’s not as tinselly as it sounds. Between the wall paintings worked on by performers like Key Luke (a long CV but you might best remember him as the old bloke who passes on the gremlins in Gremlins with a warning) and Xavier Cougat and the silk house tabs and the Chinese gods and the dragons woven into the carpets this theatre that started out as a home to the old silent films has a gorgeous ambiance for film and live performance.

Outside they are getting ready for the Oscars, techie heaven with people in black with mobile phones, lights going up, the street blocked off, the seating going in for the red carpet entrance and a huge sweeping gold curtain set into the archway of the Kodak Theatre. Snapping away with a digital filmless ‘point and shoot’, I am not unaware of the ironies of the name.

Next door is the greatest of follies. I live near to a video shop that actually carries a copy of D.W.Griffith’s Intolerance but I hadn’t realised that the set for the Babylonian section was left up long enough to become a landmark and that the shopping mall next to the Kodak has been constructed as a kind of a homage to it. This means mad Babylonian architectural elements and elephants trumpeting from the ramparts. Encouraging quotations from those who ‘made it’ are immortalised on the pavements. You can walk in and view the HOLLYWOOD sign on the faraway hills from a great height or downstairs next to a sculpture of a huge couch – the ultimate casting couch upon which tourists can now cast themselves for pictures.

You can take one of those topless double deckers for a do it yourself hop on hop off tour. So I do that, being hopelessly out of time for anything else, and we rampage around Hollywood, spotting Hollywood High with its paintings of alumni like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, the old LA police department which was the exterior of Kane’s castle in Citizen Kane and resonant places like the La Brea Tar Pits. I end up eating at a Singaporean place in the Farmers Market where they actually seem to have heard of real food. As it gets dark I manage a snap of the Paramount parking lot’s outdoor sky screen which features in Star Trek IV and in The Ten Commandments when the Red Sea is being parted, get a glimpse of the cemetery where Rudolf Valentino is buried and see all lit up above the city the Griffith Observatory where James Dean carries on like a two bob watch in Rebel Without a Cause. We also glimpse a demo on Hollywood Boulevard on behalf of the Syrians, passed by Snow White and The Flash who are walking the other way, talking on mobile phones, apparently undisturbed.

Next to this the corridors of the Marriott Hotel, thronging with Daleks and people dressed in TARDIS costumes, are positively sedate. I don’t have a costume to put on but I’ve failed to arrive in America with a haircut and so I’m wearing a Harris Tweed flat cap and a bright red Thai silk scarf so I won’t disappear in a crowd of 3000 fans. A genial older bloke setting up for autographs hails me and says, ‘I like your hat!’ It’s the charming Richard Franklin, the slightly tragic Captain Mike Yates from Second Doctor Jon Pertwee's era.

But it’s the origins of the show in the 1960s that draw me and there’s William Russell, one of the first companions ever, now in his late 80s. Courtly and bemused by American teenage fans who stand in the queue muttering ‘What am I going to say to Ian Chesterton?’, he’s done stage and film and television, the Ghost in Hamlet with the RSC at Stratford, opened the New Globe in London in Henry V, has a son (Alfie Enoch) in the Harry Potter films and has a passion for teaching young actors stage work and Shakespeare. (He says ‘I like your hat’ too, which makes my weekend.)

Maureen O’Brien, another early First Doctor William Hartnell companion (Vikki) who has also had a long stage and TV career as well as being a crime novelist, has a fascinating conversation with me, not about liking the hat or the Zarbi or being chased around Nero’s Rome but about the lovely complexities of As You Like It and playing Rosalind despite it being traditionally the part that goes to a tall woman.

Michael Troughton (son of Patrick, the Second Doctor, and an actor himself) is signing copies of his biography of his father and that’s got more actor stories in it. Respected director Waris Hussein, the East Indian from Lucknow who directed An Unearthly Child, the very first episode of all, is gently describing the circumstances that led to Dr Who being born.

(1963 and change was about, even at the BBC. The show’s creator, Sydney Newman, was Canadian, Hussein, despite an English education, was seen as Indian, Anthony Coburn, writer of that first episode, was Australian and producer Verity Lambert was a woman. And Australian Ron Grainer composed the theme tune which was then arranged by BBC Radiophonic’s Delia Derbyshire. True, they’d been thrown a job that no one else much wanted but look what came of this combination of colonials and females.)

Daphne Ashbrook (companion Dr Grace Holloway in the 1996 McGann Dr Who TV movie) turns out to have actually done David Williamson’s The Coming of Stork in Los Angeles, for which the cast had to learn an Australian accent. I laugh out loud at the ironies of all those elocution lessons in the 50s and 60s that were supposed to rid my generation of women of such a thing when she admires the way I speak.

All of this is bloody wonderful but the unexpected bonus comes when I wander over to an older bloke who has a raft of pictures on a table of him in every kind of role from the Civil War to a Klingon prison governor and a rather kindly looking Vulcan.

‘I LOVE your hat!’ he says and he’s got my attention.

I don’t immediately register that he’s the older Canton Everett Delaware III in Dr Who’s The Impossible Astronaut and that the bloke nearby who, on hearing my accent, begins to talk about how good the Dr Who orchestral concert that just ran in Melbourne was, is his son Mark, and the younger Canton Everett Delaware III. (Fancy me having to scramble to keep up in Dr Who territory…) Aha. Penny drops. We are talking to W. Morgan Sheppard, Anglo-Irish, face with the wandering of the world upon it, trained at RADA, worked with Peter Brook and Grotowski, played in Pinter’s The Caretaker (‘Horrible characters…horrible...’) and was in the RSC’s Australian tour…

‘1970? Adelaide Festival?’ I ask.

Saw Judi Dench in Twelfth Night and The Winter’s Tale, I did, and never forgot her voice with that expressive break in it. Nor the bear that pursues Antigonus when, caught between the fires of his wife and his king, he abandons a baby on a sea shore…

It was a bit like that moment in Oedipus when the shepherd says ‘Here stands your baby boy’ except it wasn’t tragic. Here was that Antigonus (and also Antonio from Twelfth Night), calling out to passing Daleks and Tom Bakers,  ‘She remembers! She remembers!’ and going on to remember himself how as Antigonus he would look across the stage at Brenda Bruce’s Paulina and say to himself ‘I love her, she’s so lovely…’ and how that became the drive for the character.

I extend the story by telling him that I’ve just done that very scene with a group of Thai performers in a workshop on Shakespeare in Makhampom’s Chiang Dao theatre north of Chiang Mai and we part with a signed picture of him as the scholarly Vulcan elder because there isn’t one there of Antigonus and somehow this one seems to have the proper gravitas. And that all does not even begin to touch on his knowing the story of Paul Robeson singing to the workers at Sydney Opera House and how that resonated later with singer John McLaughlin who was singing in Sydney when an old bloke in the front row requested Joe Hill and it turned out he’d been an electrician on the building of the Opera House and a car drew up and a big black man got out of it and said ‘I won’t be able to come back and sing here when it’s finished but I’ll give you a really good concert’ and he sang Joe Hill to the workers and it was Paul Robeson…*

I had a go at both the Getty museums and they were quite wonderful, what with the reconstructed Roman theatre in the Getty Villa and the way the bigger Getty museum crouches on top of a ridge overlooking Los Angeles and divides your attention between the art and the views of a city on the shore that will be chaos if a tsunami ever arrives. I rode the buses and the trains and listened to Spanish being spoken and saw how this city is not all glamour and gold curtains. But I reckon it was the actors’ tales that made the trip.

That, and being able to say that Ian Chesterton, Captain Mike Yates and Canton Everett Delaware III all said they liked my hat. 

William Russell (Ian Chesterton) and The Hat.

By Alanna Maclean

1 comment:

  1. Lovely. Thank you Alana. I suspect any of us can go to LA and indulge in a fantasy of some kind. For me it was Chandler's 40s/50s LA and late 60s pop music in Laurel Canyon 8-)