So. Freddie Jones has died. I knew him from small roles in various things (he is wonderful as Adam Lambsbreath in Cold Comfort Farm) but his real claim to fame is, or ought to be, that he originated the role of Sir in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. The story, if I remember correctly, is that after playing it in the premiere and then in the West End, he decided that it would be too much of a fuss to get a visa for the Broadway run, and so he didn’t come over. Paul Rogers played the part in New York, and it was not one of his triumphs, and then for the film of course they got Albert Finney. Impossible to imagine what would have happened to Freddie Jones’ later career if he had triumphed on Broadway in 1981; he certainly didn’t have trouble finding work but he also didn’t get a lot of star roles after that.
Well, anyway, it turns out that while he did not get to play Sir in the film, he did in a radio version for the BBC, with Michael Palin as Norman, and that recording is currently available in its entirety on YouTube. Mr. Jones is wonderful, although the recording does have the radio-drama thing where quiet weeping must needs be audible and ill-health is indicated with shuddering gasps and croaks. Ah, well. Mr. Palin’s performance is fairly good—quite good in places, and less so in others. He seems to be imitating Tom Courtenay a fair amount, which is an excellent thing to do in that role. But there are places, particularly late in the recording, where he races through the lines far too quickly for my tastes.
But that brings up the question that is the reason I am writing this note, which is to consult with y’all Gentle Readers about what you think of the following exchange, one of my favorites in the play. Mr. Oxenby has just refused to help out with some backstage tasks, and asked (again) whether Sir has read the play he has written:
NORMAN: What are we going to do? Fancy not wanting to muck in.
SIR: He hates me. I feel his hatred. All I stand for he despises. I wouldn’t read his play, not if he were Comissar of Culture.
NORMAN: I’ve read it.
SIR: Is there a part for me?
NORMAN: Yes, but you wouldn’t credit the language. The Lord Chamberlain would get lockjaw.
My ques—timing!—tion is about timing. Is it funnier for Sir to pause before asking is there a part for me?, or is it funnier if the line comes without a pause? And then: is it funnier if Norman thinks about it, or if he, too, responds instantly? Mr. Jones asks instantly, and it’s wonderfully funny, an absolutely reflexive instantaneous response. But perhaps it’s funnier if it’s a slower, reluctant question, as if Sir really did not want to know anything about the play but can’t help himself. I don’t know. I can’t recall how Mr. Finney in the film (or Anthony Hopkins in the recent television production) give that line. Does Sir genuinely want to know if there’s a part for him in this play that Mr. Oxenby wrote, or is it simply the only possible response to any playscript? As for the second line, Mr. Palin gives it instantly as well, which I think is probably correct—Norman would read any play (at this time in his life) with an eye toward whether there is a part for Sir. On the other hand, perhaps that, too, could be a reluctant admission—one of the layers of the play, one of the veins of humor and pathos in it, is the way Norman covers his true affection for Sir with false loathing and his true loathing with false affection. While it’s a question Norman would have already decided in his mind, he might well pretend not to have given it a thought. So long as the audience can see that it’s pretense.
Sir is one of my dream roles, obviously, so I hope at some point to be able to try out the timing of that line in rehearsals. Someday.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,