'We aren't giving people the chance to be bad in order to get good'

Dame Penelope Keith admits she was terrified the first time she set foot on the Chichester Festival Theatre stage 41 years ago.

Saturday, 2nd June 2018, 10:36 pm
Updated Tuesday, 26th June 2018, 2:36 pm
Penelope Keith in rehearsal for The Chalk Garden at Chichester Festival Theatre, May/June 2018. Picture by Catherine Ashmore.

There will be no such nerves this time round. Coming back to Chichester is just like coming home, she says. The CFT main-house stage will be the perfect platform from which to explore all the riches of Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden.

'I first came here in 1977 in The Apple Cart with Keith Michell. Patrick Garland directed it, and it was the most wonderful cast. Then it was a company of younger actors that would usually do three or four plays. 

'I came down for the last play, and I had never worked on such a space before,' recalls Dame Penelope, still known to millions for massive TV success in series including The Good Life and To the Manor Born.

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Penelope Keith and Ben Whitrow in Entertaining Angels at CFT in 2006. Picture by Louise Adams

'I found it terrifying in Chichester. And I really did terribly! The critics said so! I had been so cosy in The Globe with a proscenium arch. You knew where everything was. It is difficult enough to play dialogue on that stage. But actually, the more I have done in Chichester, the more freeing I have found it. By the time I did Entertaining Angels on that stage (2006), it really did feel like coming home.'

Entertaining Angels remains particularly fond in memory, a play in which Penelope  played a newly-widowed vicar's wife coming to terms with her new and very different life: 'I had the most amazing number of letters for that. A lot of them were from clergymen's wives. Rarely have I been in a play that had such a reaction. It was fascinating.'

Part of the impact of the play was its English country set with real grass growing: 'It was wonderful. I used to bring dandelions in from my garden to plant in the grass to make it look even more real. By the end, there was tons of real wildlife in there. People would come up in the interval to dip their hand in the water to check it was real!'

The play later came back to Chichester on tour slightly changed: 'That's the fascinating thing about doing new plays. They are not set in aspic. New plays used to be '˜tried out' in days of yore.'

It's all about learning your craft.

'Comedy is so ephemeral. My great gods are the stand-up comedians, a few of which I had the joy of working with, people like Morecambe & Wise. And Frankie Howerd who I knew as a friend. Their skills are amazing, such great skill to make everything look so easy  '“ when of course it is absolutely not. Comedy is the art that conceals art. I always say that people laugh when they are comfortable, and I don't mean cosy comfortable. I mean when they believe in what is going on. You really do have to believe in it.'

But it is a different kind of reality, Penelope stresses.

'I remember once a young actress saying "I am going to go for reality in this play", and I said "There is nothing real about standing on stage eight times a week saying exactly the same lines in exactly the same clothes."'

Penelope's point is a rather subtler kind of reality '“ the stage skills born of years of graft and experience: 'It is the old adage that you have got to get bad to get good. When you think of the really great stand-ups, you think of the fact that they spent years and years working the clubs and the halls with people shouting "Rubbish! Get off!"

'But I don't think young actors now get the chance to be bad in order to get good. Everything now is very instant. Everything is about overnight success. People have to be instant stars. We are not giving people the chance to be bad in order to get good. We are not giving people the chance to find out.

'What I am noticing is the lack of attention to language, and that saddens me. So many people of my age say '˜I think I am going deaf. I didn't hear that.' But I say "No, you are not going deaf. (The actors) are not relishing the words in the way that they used to."

So many productions see the actors mic-ed up: 'But I don't think that helps. I remember Michael Gambon saying to me that if you don't project your voice, you don't project anything. There are a lot of lovely people sitting in the stalls but you have got to remember those sitting further away! 

'I understand that in musicals you have to have microphones because you have orchestras that are terribly loud, but I think a lot of the craft of acting has gone because it is not being emphasised.'

The Chalk Garden sees Dame Penelope reunited Alan Strachan who also directed her in Entertaining Angels and Mrs Pat (2015)

'He said do I want to do it, and I never know what I want to do next. I saw the play with Dame Edith and Dame Peggy in 1956, a long, long time ago. But I never really look at a part and think "Oh gosh! I want to do that!"

'Usually I wait for someone to suggest it. Alan did, and it is the writing that I find so wonderful. The language is just like fencing. People know exactly the right button or the wrong button to press with each other at the wrong time. The challenge for all of us is to find a way of using the language like it is every-day language.

'It is a fascinating piece. It is 1955. Being born during World War Two, I don't remember it vividly, but I know that the country was very class-conscious at the time, not in a bad way, but in a way that was very structured. After the war, a lot of people had nothing, and they clung to the standards that they had had before. In desperate times you go back to where you were secure, and I play a woman who was a society hostess. 

'And she has the most  incredible standards. She is very, very demanding... I am casting my mind back to the 1950s, and I am thinking of my own grandmother.'

The Chalk Garden is at Chichester Festival Theatre, from today until June 16, tickets from £10. Go to cft.org.uk.