John Betjeman (1906-1984) is probably the best-loved of our contemporary poets, a man who wrote about the ordinary emotions and everyday experiences which we all recognise.
In Sand in the Sandwiches, the new play by Hugh Whitemore, Betjeman is brought vividly to life by Edward Fox, one of our most popular actors. His extensive CV includes a number of poetry recitals among the many stage plays, television dramas and films which he has made during his long years as an actor.
But you sense that Sand in the Sandwiches is a particular labour of love. Ironically, Fox needed to be persuaded to take on the challenge of playing Betjeman.
“”It was an idea of Hugh Whitemore’s and we first began talking about it four years ago,” recalls Fox. “ Hugh suggested that I play Betjeman but I wasn’t convinced. I pointed out that I neither looked like Betjeman nor sounded like Betjeman. Hugh disagreed with me.
"He argued that it’s who he was that is important and which has to be conveyed. We worked on it for a bit and then we did a reading for Betjeman’s daughter, Candida, and I think that we all felt that it had reached a certain stage of being good.
"All the people that I met who had known Betjeman said much the same thing. They warned me not to be fooled by his apparent devil-may- care attitude and light-heartedness. Underneath, there was hard steel and his passions ran very deep.
"We continued to work on the development of the play and we gave a performance of it at Chichester and now we feel that it’s rather good. I’d like to think that our audiences will say to themselves. I’m enjoying this. I’m glad I bought a ticket.”
To his regret, Fox never met Betjeman but he rates him very highly in the hierarchy of poets.
“He is both a young man’s poet and an old man’s poet and his work is completely accessible. He has the human touch. He is so perceptive about life. He sees the truth in something and in a single line he can make it completely comprehensible.
"His insights can make an audience sense that they are connecting with a feeling that might have long lain dormant somewhere in their subconscious. He was a great satirist, conjuring up the kind of people we’ve all met in just a couple of lines. “
The play opens with a reading of A Subaltern’s Love Song, one of Betjeman’s best-known poems which has all the qualities one associates with Betjeman’s work; his charm, his romanticism, his nostalgia for an upper middle-class world that was fast disappearing, his affection for his characters.
As a leading light of the Victorian Society, he fought many battles to preserve the great monuments of the nineteenth century from the developers and town planners. He lost the campaign to rescue the Euston Arch but was instrumental in saving the Gothic splendour of St. Pancras Station. He had the great gift of communicating his enthusiasms for country churches or domestic architecture to a much wider public and he was a natural for television.
He loved being in the public eye, a taste for the limelight which earned him the disapproval of his wife Penelope. In an unlikely open marriage, she shared her husband with his long-time companion Lady Elizabeth Cavendish in an arrangement which seemed to satisfy all three.
Fox has enjoyed a long friendship with Hugh Whitemore, the author of Sand in the Sandwiches.
“We met at the RADA and we pursued the same girls,” says Fox with a smile. “Then I played the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in Hugh’s play A Letter of Resignation which ran for a year in the West End.”
Does Fox have a favourite Betjeman poem? And how would he describe Betjeman’s work to somebody who didn’t know it?
“I think that it is difficult to categorise him. You could argue that his work is mainly light-hearted although Slough is both comic and very tough. I don’t really have a poem which I like more than the others, although I admire his ability to say no more than is necessary.”
It seems that Fox is perfectly happy to work on a solo show without the aid and comfort of his fellow-actors. He cites previous examples of one person shows.
“I saw Emlyn Williams as Dylan Thomas and Max Adrian as Shaw and another one based on Trollope’s Barchester novels which wasn’t exactly the talk of the town. However, I enjoyed the Trollope and what it suggested to me was that it was perfectly possible for an audience to be very happy simply listening to one man.”
Should anything go awry during the performance, Fox only has himself to get out of trouble but he is undaunted by the prospect.
“Technique can help and I find that learning the lines is a pretty straightforward task provided you work methodically at it. People outside the business don’t realise that most of an actor’s work takes place in the home, learning the lines.
"Margaret Thatcher once asked me “Do you have an office, Mr. Fox? “ I replied that I had - on the streets and in the field. I don’t think she was very impressed.”
Fox and his companion, the actress Joanna David, have two children - Emilia, star of Silent Witness and Freddie who recently played Romeo both in Sheffield and London.
“Neither Joanna nor I ever suggested to them that they should go on the stage or not. It was their decision and as children of actors they knew that it is not a glamorous profession. It does worry me, however, that young actors these days no longer have the ability to train at one of the regional repertory theatres where we learned our craft.
"They leave drama school, acquire an agent and they go into television or are cast in a film. It is a very makeshift way to start.”
Fox returns to the subject of John Betjeman.
“He wanted to be a poet from a very early age and Betjeman regarded the writing of poetry as a duty and as a service. He was popular with the public but not with the world of academe who were rather snobbish about him and he had enormous periods of depression when he doubted the worth of his poetry.
"He saw himself as a sieve, sorting out words and ideas so that people could understand. He was quick-minded, witty and very human and he generally wrote about the more positive aspects of life. Working on this play, I’ve been both stimulated and invigorated by the man and I hope that audiences will feel the same.”
Sand in the Sandwiches can be seen at Northampton's Royal & Derngate from Thursday May 25 to Saturday May 27. Tickets for the show can be booked by calling the box office on 01604 624811 or www.royalandderngate.co.uk