IN recent months as everyone knows, I have been writing a
book about inspiring people: from Ray Brooks to Bettina
Here is a portrait on the wall of her flat in Kensington,
where Sam Beckett used to visit her and accompany her
on piano as she sang. I accompanied her, with introductions
to her readings for her Little Garden at the Albert Hall,
supported by Peter Brook. Having just come back from the
Berliner Ensemble putting on 'Jungle of Dreams' I was interested in both their takes on
exile and theatre, which Edward Bond also joined us in: 'inner exile' he called it.
You can make out her flat in the background of the photo filled with art works of her friends and fans.
As is well known Brook left the Uk as he felt it too insular, and found a place he could be more experimental in Paris. Although the Young Vic has invited him to
put on a section of his Mahabharata, 'Battlefield' based on his
earliest work, which promises to be inspirational next summer.
This people have open, fervent faces that show how they are
here with us now, willing to give of themselves. Not the bored faces
of those propping up a bar with a beer, not of those who hide
in their faces trying to evade a gaze, nor of those who watch
television as a way of tuning out of the issues of our society, as Ray
describes in Learning My Lines : 'This is tv for clowning and red noses'
Much is transferred in a matter of seconds through these faces,
they wish to communicate, to share, to listen to me even, when I was a young person who knew no one.
That reminds me of East Berlin, where we were welcomed with open arms by the dissidents from the Former dictatorship, who put on spreads in the canteen. The obscurity of life on the streets was a worthy subject for a theatre that has a reputation going back 120 years of putting on People plays. The People's Stage was where Brecht began, under Erwin Piskator, and also subsidised theatre so that ordinary people could go and attend.
There is no doubt that Ray feels alienated and in exile in his own world though, every bit as much as Edward, Bettina, Peter and Irina, his daughter:
'As I've got older, I feel like an old man sitting on top of a mountain in the wind who doesn't know how to get down to the valley to find shelter and warmth...stand up as long as your legs work, walk down that mountain and shout.'
There is the resilience of a man who has principle which has meant he always had friends at the local Coach and Horses, even when Nel and Joe were sadly left by much loved Emma.
There was the mix up with being chased around Baker Street by the Rolling Stone manager,Oldham, even though he did not know Ray, a chance meeting with John Lennon, with Oasis lead singer, who wanted to meet Mr Benn. There was also 'On the Razzle' at the National Theatre with Tom Stoppard who lived around the corner from him, coming to knock daily on his door, with new improvements on script, even when the show was running.
He kept it all up and still had time to be friends with young kids like me and Paul, a schoolfriend I was invited to bring to watch him in 'On the Razzle'. He went out of his way after the performance to chat, also with my mum, who he was so kind to after her divorce, when she felt along way from Fiji where she had grown up.
'In exile‐who doesn't feel in exile with wars blaring out from the media and the street kids on our own doorsteps?' I ask Annie.
She replies by reading from T. S. Eliot
So here I am in the middle way, having had twenty years
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres...
Trying to learn to use words, and every attemptIs a wholly new start,
and a different kinds of failure.. ... And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion'
'All that imprecision is countered in some way,’ Annie says, reading Ray’s ‘Learning my Lines’, it reveals so much of the times he grew up in.’ She turns the pages. ‘Like working at at Butlins as a young performer when Billy Butlin lands in a helicopter outside the theatre and is treated like a god, by those
'Post war traumatised,' I add.
'Yes,' her eyes are vague like she is far away as she goes on: ' those rubble women whose lives have been changed a little for the better by the first chance they have had to get away, for a holiday that he has made possible.'
' the moment when he writes about the lights going out, and he and the cast all light candles so they can continue.’
‘Doesn’t that also show how important it was that life goes on, that it moves forward?'I add.
"Yes, they are no longer troubled by war.'
'Yes, they want to accelerate out of the inertia that is what Eliot describes in his Quartets.’
‘It intrigues me: he has written a historical document of the times, his mum on the buses, his paper round, and the time he spends all day by the Clock Tower at the Cinema, as his granddad works there, sitting watching films all day, where Boots now stands. It’s a useful book to a historian, it’s not the work of some sad actor celebrating his rise to stardom.’
She reads on:‘Sitting here in my dressing room, it all seems like a dream. But everybody, even those ghosts in the black and white photographs, lived in ‘the now’, like serious faced Billy. Then was now to them.’
‘Time present and time past,’ I interrupt referring back to TSEliot, ‘but without the sense of predetermined gloom Eliot must have felt, when publishing Four Quartets in 1944,’ I interrupt.
‘So say you,’ Annie counters and goes on reading from the book: ‘The fear, the fleeting happiness, all that pathetic hope that we know now came to nothing.’ ‘Yes, well, you’ve got me there.’
'The next line,’ she says, although he then goes on about an encounter with a huge bodyguard for Liam Gallagher telling him ‘Liam wants to meet you, you’re Mister Benn, aren’t you?’ ‘Of course,’ I say, knowing Ray would be unfazed.
Look on the back of the book‐he actually has a cartoon of himself standing with his arm around Mister Benn, sketched by the creator, David McKee. He has more stature than Oasis’s lead singer.’
Annie is giggling lying back on the grass at Hyde Park, enjoying the sunset, while Jennifer, Jeremy, accompanied by an orphan they are helping over her mother’s death, Andrea. They have gone skinnydipping in the Serpentine in the twilight.
‘Andrew Oldham followed Ray out of Baker Street offering him a record contract in 1962, before even hearing whether he could play guitar.’‘He has something about him: they all want to follow him, put on a magical costume and walk into one of Mister Benn’s adventures with him,’ I counter. ‘There was a time in the filming of his Hollywood debut, ‘the Knack and how to get it’ when John Lennon came in and sat next to him.’ ‘David Lester had just been shooting a Hard Day’s Night with them, so John wanted the company back‐and showbiz, and Ray delivers.
He used to sit in the bar of 'The Coach and Horses' when I was growing up, and he had invited a schoolfriend Paul and I to see him in ‘On the Razzle’ at the National Theatre. It was the latest play by Tom Stoppard, who lived round the corner and kept coming by with rewrites.’‘You must have loved that, Charlie. Like your Mum hanging out with my heartthrob, Jeremy Irons.
Why does Ray refer to: ‘All that pathetic hope that we now know came to nothing?’
‘Cos he’s a philosopher, Annie, like Terry Francis. Sadie and he had kids around the corner from my parents and Emma, his daughter, my chief playmate, watching Mister Benn between paddling pool and nursery.’ I paddle my feet in the Serpentine, lost in mystical poetic thoughts of how we might really be stuck in the present, and how it has not got much better: still those sleeping rough, that Jimmy and Kevin came to meet at Trafalgar Square, often Scots actually, thinking that Culloden being in the past, London might offer them a sweeter present.
In the water I can hear Jeremy singing, out further, trying to lighten the head of depressed novice, with her pain.‘You can change lives, by letting people feel they have a piece of the pie,’ Annie adds. ‘Isn’t that why we like celebrities? They have a piece extra and so cut it in half or quarters.’ ‘Nicely put, but Ray has a grandson Joe to think of now. So he better try believing in the future being some way positively linked to the present.’So what happened when you went to Beyond the Razzle?’ she asks.‘We were ecstatic, seeing Ray strut his stuff, and Mum was. In fact we all went into the Coach and Horse when ever we could to sniff out Ray, seeing if he was going to tell some more stories, like how he imagined as a kid there was a secret tunnel from Brighton Beach that led to Rodean through which he could reach the girls dormitory.’ ‘We have wikced phantasies,’ Annie laughs.