Anthony Sher. Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images
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From Falstaff to Loman: behind the scenes with Antony Sher

It seems that Sher is never not speaking on the radio or being spoken about. 

The Radio 2 Arts Show
BBC Radio 2

“We decided he was an alcoholic, because there are several sections in part one where he says he’s got to clean up his act and then, a few moments later, he’s doing exactly what he was doing before . . .”

Antony Sher was speaking to Claudia Winkleman (8 May, 10pm) about ­playing Falstaff for the RSC and somewhat automatic-pilotly covering the same areas that his just-published diary of the production covered, recently abridged for Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4. Pre-first-night dreams, coping with nerves . . .

The British have a fondness for this sort of memoir. It provides that comforting sense of the extended family – casts, crews, intense shared experiences in touring theatre or on movie sets – that actors seem to thrive in. Yet it can sometimes feel that the BBC has handed the airwaves over to certain people. What with Falstaff, a new production of Death of a Salesman (in which he plays Willy Loman) and the burial of ­Richard III, it seems that Sher is never not speaking on the radio or being spoken about. The Today programme’s coverage of that absurd funeral culminated with Sher reciting, “Now is the winter of our discontent . . .” introduced forelock-tuggingly, as though he were Olivier.

In truth the actor, now 65, can sound fairly tremulous. But even if Sher’s voice is not what it was, his Loman is something to behold. Thickening the meaning, he makes you believe that Arthur Miller’s play is actually all about charisma-envy. College educations and Studebakers, giant refrigerators and paid-up mortgages – they are nothing compared to being “rugged, well liked, all round”. That’s the American dream – to be liked! (Richard wanted to be liked, too. “But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks . . .” he concedes, limping towards villainy.)

There was a nice, spontaneous bit in the interview with Winkleman in which Sher recalled finding one of the crutches he had used in his 1984 production of Richard III, so many years later, in the rehearsal room for Falstaff.

“It isn’t life and death,” shrugged Sher to Winkleman of all that effort and panic and memory, in a moment that sounded far more self-effacing than anything that had gone before. “It’s just a dusty prop.”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories