Actor is Wilde about his role
David Henshall You can’t beat the classic wit of Oscar Wilde, as David Henshall found out when he spoke to actor Tony Britton about a new production of Wilde’s classic comedy, An Ideal Husband.
Be sure your sin will find you out, the Old Testament tells us. But sometimes, with a bit of luck, it doesn't and you get a second chance. There was a time in politics when, if you were found out in some sort of chicanery, as a matter of honour you would resign from any position of influence and trust.
“Not any more,” laughs Tony Britton. “Whatever they've done, they just carry on today as though nothing important has happened.” We were discussing his role in Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband which starts a new tour at the Norwich Theatre Royal on September 8.
He plays the Earl of Caversham in this wit-filled work which revolves around political corruption and touches on the themes of public and private honour. Central to all this is the wicked and worldly Mrs Cheveley, who attempts to blackmail the under secretary for foreign affairs, Sir Robert Chiltern, into a crooked deal.
Kate O'Mara is Mrs Cheveley, returning to the part she played in Sir Peter Hall's celebrated West End production, this time with Michael Praed as Sir Robert and Carol Royle, from TV's Heartbeat and Doctors, as his morally inflexible wife. Robert Duncan, Gus in Channel Four's Drop the Dead Donkey, is Lord Goring with Fenella Fielding as Lady Markby.
Tony Britton is fairly familiar with An Ideal Husband, having appeared in it twice before - both times playing Lord Goring. “The first time was on television but so long ago that there was only BBC TV.”
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This time he is Lord Goring's father, a slightly irascible man whose frustrations are driven by an underlying affection and a desire to see his son married and settled. He would be very happy if Goring happened to choose Sir Robert's sister, Mabel.
“Wilde is such an exciting writer and this is a particularly good play,” says Britton. “And I love the clever way it is constructed. It was one of three plays I directed one year at the Chichester Festival.”
An Ideal Husband, he feels, is very English in its concern for fair play and, although very amusing, it has great faith in the nobility of the human soul - principles that have been lost in some people with the passing of the years - particularly among the political classes. We laugh together as we run through some recent names and naughties that once would have called for resignation, people who have been allowed to get away with outrageous things and stay in their well-paid posts.
“Wilde's play is full of wit but has a serious centre, revolving round the cost of being honest - and in his day it took so little to destroy a reputation for ever.” Wilde wrote: “Sooner or later we shall all have to pay for what we do.” It was something he discovered painfully for himself when this play had its first run in 1893 at the height of his success.
It opened on January 3 to great acclaim but, in April, Wilde was charged with gross indecency because of his relationship with the Marquess of Queensberry's son, Lord Alfred Douglas, and jailed. The Haymarket Theatre took his name off the play and Wilde was not even listed as the author when the play was published in 1899. They were hard, unforgiving times.
Mrs Cheveley's wickedness makes her a wonderfully attractive character, says Britton. She has this extraordinary ruthlessness that keeps her looking for a winning edge even when the chips are down. We discover early on that her now dead lover, Baron Arnheim, had convinced Sir Robert Chiltern many years previously to let him in on a cabinet secret about the purchase of the Suez Canal, days before the government announcement. It enabled both of them to make their fortunes.
Now she wants to involve him in a fraudulent scheme to build a canal in Argentina. If he doesn't agree she will produce the evidence of his crime and ruin both his career and his marriage, because Lady Chiltern believes Sir Robert to be the 'ideal husband', a model man in both private and public life that she can worship.
Sir Robert confides in his friend Lord Goring, who's a bit of dandy, and the play takes a number of clever twists and turns, allowing Wilde to bring some of his most brilliant lines into play.
Lord Goring: You see, Phipps, fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear.
Phipps: Yes, my lord.
Lord Goring: Just as vulgarity is simply the conduct of other people.
Phipps: Yes, my lord.
Lord Goring: Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.
Phipps: Yes,my lord.
Lord Goring: To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance, Phipps.
Phipps: Yes, my lord.
Father of TV presenter Fern, scriptwriter Cherry and actor Jasper, Tony Britton is especially remembered for television sitcoms like Don't Wait Up with Nigel Havers and for his roles in film classics like Sunday Bloody Sunday and Day of the Jackal. His career is full of great memories but, even after all this time, he treasures his days with the Royal Shakespeare Company as a very young man.
“People like Peggy Ashcroft, Dame Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier and the rest taught me so much and they were such exciting times. I also especially enjoyed my time [as Professor Higgins] in the first London revival of My Fair Lady. I can't think of much in my life that I would change if I had it again.”
tAn Ideal Husband is at the Norwich Theatre Royal from September 8-13. Call 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk.