Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Thank You Sir Peter Hall

The passing of Sir Peter Hall is sad news. Over the last sixty years his work has given us a great deal of pleasure and memories of the theatre which are among the happier occasions. We recall the production of "Coriolanus" at Stratford of 1959 with its insights into the worlds of Shakespeare and of Rome.

The Spectator did not like it much concluding "It all makes a jolly evening, as most of the critics have confirmed. Personally, I think even the best is only good enough for Shakespeare. I found this production far too slapdash and self-assured to be acceptable." In short this new kid on the block is brash and short on tradition.

My in-laws had moved down to Stratford upon Avon in the late 1950's and over the next decades during our many visits going to the RSC was something to do. Rarely planned and often relying on returned tickets it was a hit and miss business with very few misses.

If my memory is correct the opening of "King Richard III" of his production was radically different from the one of the film. It was pensive, hesitant and has Richard more or less steered by forces that he could not control in his own mind and in the world about him. It would not have come over well on film, but on stage it was a striking and enthralling piece.

I could say a lot more, there was not only Stratford where we saw his productions but The National Theatre and the Royal Opera House. It was not that we sought them out, he happened to be the director of works we wanted to see and managed to get to. In most if not all he tried to give food for thought as well as putting on a production which would satisfy the audience as well as putting over a message.

One work I would mark out particularly is the 1974 film "Akenfield", see Wikipedia and picture above, dealing with three generations of life in East Anglia for the ordinary villager and largely derived from the book "Akenfield: Portrait Of An English Village" written by Ronald Blythe in 1969 which meant that it had a solid base in history.

It was this world that was the family history of Sir Peter. His father may have been the Station Master of a very small station, but his grandparents were ordinary villagers among the rural workers and labourers. Uncles, cousins and connections had been among the men who went to France in 1914-1918 many of whom had never returned. Further back in time it seems that as for many of that class in East Anglia, the Army was the only way out.

His life at the railway station, albeit as a child, will have taught him the need to take great care with the detail, how to deal with different classes and types of people, that timetables mattered and were crucial but at the same time applied common sense was often the best answer to a problem.

Sir Peter did his time on National Service with the RAF Brylcreem Boys and at Buckeburg by Minden in Germany, then an area with a major military presence at a very sensitive period of The Cold War. I have a sneaking suspicion that his impatience with authority and the ruling classes may in part derive from his conscript military period.

It may have revealed to him the closeness of farce and tragedy. I doubt if he wanted to do it and may not have enjoyed it, but decided to get it out of the way before going up to university as did many others. It was tempting to be a conscientious objector but the penalty was severe and it could be very damaging to later careers.

He was Left leaning politically, as so many in the theatre etc. are and have been. He was knighted in 1977 during the period of James Callaghan's government, youngish then at 47, was it Shirley Williams who put the honour forward? It was deserved for all that he had done for theatre and the arts.

The irony here is that there is one other person I have looked at who had a similar background and not far away. She was a Margaret Roberts who married a Denis Thatcher. Did they ever make eye contact with Peter wondering what role she might play had she taken to the stage?

Again, thank you Sir Peter for the many occasions we have enjoyed in the theatre and elsewhere.


  1. I've never seen Akenfield - I'll file it as one to watch.

  2. It was this world that was the family history of Sir Peter. His father may have been the Station Master of a very small station, but his grandparents were ordinary villagers among the rural workers and labourers.

    Never mind the size of the station - could he do his job?