Old Romeo’s Almanac

Our theater gossip columnist spills the beans on his fellow actors and gives us some predictions for the new year

On the Stage

What might the year 2020 hold in store? Looking into my crystal ball — inherited long ago from a woman of noted powers in Leigh-on-Sea — the fog clears to predict the following:

★ Desperate to end claims of hypocrisy after years of luxury flights to Hollywood, actress and environmental “activist” Dame Emma Thompson announces she’s been inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg and will from now on sail to America. Dramatically rescued when her recently-purchased solar-powered catamaran runs into technical difficulties 40 minutes out of Southampton, Thompson is later caught by the paparazzi downing bubbly in the first-class lounge at Heathrow.

John Bercow — The Musical closes early after being critically savaged. Not even the “courageous” casting of Elaine Paige, rolling back the years as Sally Bercow, can save this one.

★ Angry northern star Christopher Eccleston rides south with Salford henchmen, ruthlessly hunting down “posh Oxbridge types” daring to tread the boards. Sinister rumours emerge of burnings at the stake near Guildford.

★ Posing for her latest glamorous photo-shoot, Dame Helen Mirren again speaks at length about how she “tires” of discussing her good looks.

★ A nation reels in shock when Gyles Brandreth doesn’t attend a showbiz memorial service and fails to describe the deceased star as a “dear friend”.

★ Fresh evidence emerges suggesting Shakespeare was indeed an adulterous, sexist property magnate from the Midlands, once guilty of a “#MeToo moment” in an Oxfordshire tavern while travelling back to Stratford-upon-Avon. Calls quickly mount at Warwick University for a boycott of the Bard’s works, while leading actresses of the day cast doubt on ever working with him again.

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While misty-eyed contemporaries remember his days “on the prowl”, Sir Ian McKellen mournfully says of his time in the closet: “There was a period in my life when I lied the whole time, every single day . . . I hated it and I hate it now.” Friends recall the daunting moment proud northerner Ian, aged nearly 50 at the time, finally summoned up the courage to tell stepmother Gladys he was not really seeking a lassie from Lancashire. The old girl pointed out: “I’ve known that for 39 years!”

Amid the many tributes to the recently-deceased Sir Jonathan Miller, my own memories turned to his time at the helm of an early 1980s BBC production of “Antony and Cleopatra”. After I’d briefly succeeded in injecting much-needed energy into the laboured adaptation, perhaps only someone as ungenerous as Sir Jonathan could have so loudly mistaken this for the “soldier at the back over-acting”. 

Alarming talk that the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane was to be crassly renamed “The Lane” has mercifully proved wide of the mark. I should declare an interest: the historic venue boasts a significant and, alas, unfortunate family association. My nineteenth-century ancestor Robert Coates, also a thespian of note, was run over by a passing hansom cab shortly after leaving said establishment in February, 1848.

Not long after his demise, aged 75, disreputable types began publishing scurrilous anecdotes suggesting Robert’s bold and unique interpretations of the Bard’s works — funded at no small cost by himself — had led to him being widely considered “the worst actor in England.” Proud descendants have been defending his good name in the face of such slander ever since.

How dare that troublesome gossip Christopher Biggins think it acceptable to spread uncharitable tales about the late Irene Handl. I’m reliably informed he’s been indiscreetly casting doubt on my old pal’s professionalism during a long-ago run in Brighton, insultingly adding that she was “mad as a hatter”. Dame Biggins should be warned that Irene, recently reached via a séance in Earl’s Court, intends to “come for him in the night”.


On hearing prominent New York critic John Simon had fallen off his perch aged 94, I was reminded our very own Dame Diana Rigg was unlikely to have shed a tear. Required to appear in the buff on the Broadway stage in the early 1970s, she has since bitterly recalled: “A nasty little critic [Simon] said I was ‘built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses’.” Patriotic types would be quick to point out Dame Diana’s flying buttresses were widely admired for many a year.


Relations with casting giant Spotlight have not been the easiest down the years — regrettable doubts were once raised about yours truly’s CV — but I feel the old fusspots are now being unfairly chastised for trying to maintain some semblance of standards when accepting new would-be performers onto the books. All they require is for these applicants to have proved themselves worthy of the professional status the rest of us rightly regard as sacrosanct. Also, that they’ve been trained by one of the land’s recognised establishments, not some shabby backstreet enterprise selling itself on false pretences. (And which, incidentally, still owes this “guest lecturer” £180.)

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A public appeal from a “friend of a friend”: can impertinent journalists please refrain from asking Vanessa Redgrave silly questions about her old days in the Workers Revolutionary Party? It was all a very long time ago and such tiresome lines of inquiry are beneath her. 

Prickly old bird Dame Maggie Smith, who announces she doesn’t consider her performances in “Downton Abbey” proper “acting”, never appreciated attempts to win her round. Mischievous rumour has it a certain Downton DVD box set she was optimistically presented with during filming (after Maggie admitted to never watching the show) might be found in a West Sussex charity shop.

Sir Kenneth Branagh: an apology
After what have been described in some quarters as “ungenerous and bitter” remarks concerning Sir Kenneth Branagh in a previously published column, I’d of course like to clarify my comments were meant in only the kindest of jest about one of the very finest actor-directors to grace this land.

Following a message from my new agent that she may have secured an eleventh-hour audition for a “small, but pleasing” role in Ken’s upcoming instalment of the Hercule Poirot movie franchise, I trust all those involved in this memorable chapter in cinematic history will not allow such playful words on my part to be misconstrued. They were made with the utmost respect, affection and admiration for a man whose knighthood barely seems adequate when recognising all he has achieved both in the past, and most certainly in the future.
Thank you, Ken.

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