Brad Spurgeon's Blog

A world of music, auto racing, travel, literature, chess, wining, dining and other crazy thoughts….

Rigby Shlept Here

Rigby Shlept Here

CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – I am back again in my favorite summer retreat, roasting on the beach in 40-degree temperatures; but for the past week my mind has been reliving my life in dark, cold London, England in the winter of 1977-78. Those two years were amongst the most turbulent, and enriching of my life as I traversed a state of intellectual revolution that began in Toronto and New York, continued in England, and culminated in a three-month period of social revolution in Iran, where I arrived just in time to experience one of history’s fastest revolutions. Sitting right in the middle of this transition from my life as an aspiring actor to that of a writer and journalist was the period in which I worked as a barman in the Green Room of The National Theatre in London; and most importantly during that time, when I briefly befriended one of Britain’s greatest character actors, Terence Rigby.

He was also one of the most unusual actors – and people – of the time. During nearly a year that I worked at The National Theatre, I would meet and serve many of the greatest actors, actresses and playwrights of the second half of the 20th century. Among them were John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Albert Finney, Diana Rigg, Paul Scofield, Ben Kingsley, Dorothy Tutin, Kate Nelligan, Julie Covington, Robert Stephens, Peter Hall, David Bolt, David Mamet, Alan Ayckbourn, and although I never served him in the bar – as I think he was too ill to come to drink – I did see Laurence Olivier present once or twice, as well, in the cafeteria. And, finally, let me not forget serving drinks to Harold Pinter.

I mention Pinter last because he is one of the best ways to introduce Terence Rigby. Rigby’s big break in British theatre happened when he created the role of Joey in 1965 in Pinter’s play, “The Homecoming.” A decade later, in 1975, he created the role of Briggs, in the Pinter play, “No Man’s Land,” starring just four actors, Rigby, Michael Kitchen and the two leading actors, Gielgud and Richardson. Rigby also played in Pinter’s “The Caretaker” in the early 2000s, and the two remained lifelong friends. Rigby performed as Pozzo in the Peter Hall 50th anniversary production of “Waiting for Godot,” in 2005.

Rigby as Pozzo, left in Godot

Rigby as Pozzo, left in Godot

At the same time that he maintained an important career in theatre, he also had an excellent career in British television, becoming a household name – or face, or character – in a series called, “Softly, Softly,” as a policeman with a police dog. He worked constantly as an actor throughout his life, in fact, ever expanding his experiences and roles, and even performing a notable part in the film “Mona Lisa Smile,” opposite Julia Roberts in 2003.

But let’s jump back a little here: I was 19 when I started my job at the National, and I was serving all of those above named actors and directors. And there was only one of those – and the hundreds of other stage-related workers at the theatre – that paid any personal attention toward me at all, and that was Rigby. Moreover, we met, typically for Rigby, not in the Green Room, the private bar designated for the actors, but in the front of house bar of the Lyttelton Theatre, where I began to work as a bartender. (The National was made up of the Cottesloe – now called the Dorfman Theatre -, the Lyttelton and the Olivier theatres.)

Rigby was performing in Robert Bolt’s play “State of Revolution” in the Lyttelton, in the role of Stalin. I recall looking into the room and seeing this extraordinary presence of a man playing Stalin, standing behind a pulpit and making a speech in a booming, powerful, extraordinary voice, with a presence so strong you could practically feel it through the wall separating the bar from the auditorium. He was more Stalin than Stalin, with an uncanny physical resemblance that strengthened the illusion – even if Stalin was a small man, and Rigby was imposingly built.

Rigby the Loner Who Stood Apart

But before I even saw him in the production, I had been introduced to him by the head barman, as Rigby would come out after the show, when most of the public had left, and he would stand on one end of the bar, always the same spot, and drink to wind down. (It was the left end of the bar if you are facing it, or my right end of the bar as the bartender.) While all of the other actors of the show – and the other shows at the other theatres in the complex – would hide away in the Green Room bar, as I said, Rigby would come and stand in the public bar. He would drink quietly, and occasionally strike up a conversation with the bartenders.

So it was that he learned that I was an aspiring actor, and so began a friendship that would last for several months, would mark me for my life, and would end as quickly as it began, when my own personal state of mental revolution led me to Iran, and I left the theatre. I would never see or communicate with Rigby again. But I always remembered him and how he took me out to private actors’ bars two or three times after the National closed, and especially, how he helped me prepare my audition to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he himself had studied from 1958 to 1960. Over the decades since then, once the Internet came into existence, I would occasionally look him up online to see what was happening in his career.

For reasons I cannot recall precisely, I somehow found a way to write him a letter in around 2008 to try to make contact again, and tell him what had happened to my life and speak about his own. But I never heard back from him. Then, after some months I did another internet search and discovered that at about the time I had sent him the letter, he had died. Of lung cancer, at the age of 71, in August 2008.

I was left with a feeling of loss for someone who had been very important to me, and with whom I would have loved to have had just one more meeting of some kind. So imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered last week that a memoir of Rigby’s life had been published in 2014, and that it was available for free download to read in Kindle on my iPad. Called, “Rigby Shlept Here,” it is also available in paperback, according to Amazon, and it was written by a very good friend of Rigby’s, a successful scriptwriter for radio, television (Eastenders, The Archer) and film (Cameleon), named Juliet Ace.

Terence Rigby

Terence Rigby

The moment I saw the book existed, I downloaded it and started reading it, and I have now finished it. And while I never did get to meet Rigby again, this book written with love by a woman friend he knew for more than 40 years, made me feel from beginning to end that I was once again in the presence of this unusual man. And when I say “unusual” to describe him now for the second time in this post, I want to expand for a moment about the use of this word: The second day that I began to read the book I spoke to someone about it and I found myself starting to describe Rigby as “a strange man,” until I corrected myself instantly, and said, “no, he was not a strange man. He was an unusual man.” Then I sat down to read the book again and within a few pages I found this sentence by Ace: “Britt once said to me, ‘He’s a bit strange, isn’t he?’ And I said, ‘No, he’s not strange, he’s just a bit unusual.'” I knew from then on that I was definitely in good hands in reading about the life of Rigby.

Enter Rigby’s Cup-of-Tea Ladies

Ace describes herself as being one of several of Rigby’s Cup-of-Tea Ladies: “I am one of a handful of ‘Cup-of-Tea Ladies’ in his life. We’re not romantically attached to him, but each of us enjoys a special friendship. One woman satisfies his intellectual needs, another his worry over religion, a third, theatrical gossip. I regard myself as his vulgar, common friend.”

There is nothing vulgar in this book. Ace tells the story through a mixing of her own “table talk” moments with Rigby at her home at the table where he got a plaque made that reads: Rigby Shlept Here. It was his spot at her great wooden table, a spot to be taken by no other man. She also uses Rigby’s many letters and postcards to her; his many diary entries from a diary he kept from time to time. She quotes from her own diaries and letters. She also did a huge amount of journalistic labour in tracking down and interviewing the people who worked with Rigby – including interviews with Peter Hall and other actors and friends, family members, and even other Tea Ladies. Rigby himself had asked her to help him write his own memoirs, and there are snippets here and there of writing he did for that; but he was overwhelmed by the task, so did not get far.

In any case, my point is that we have here an absolutely fantastic look not only at Rigby himself – something that might be of most interest to those who knew him personally and desperately want to understand the man behind the enigma – but more importantly, an inside look at British and American theater through the life of an actor from 1958 to 2008, and passing by way of some of the most important dramatists, directors and actors and productions during that period. We see Pinter behind the scenes. We see the life of an actor who was not a leading star … this is not the tale of a Gielgud or a Richardson or an Olivier; this is the story of a man who often played small roles, lived in small digs, almost like a gypsy, but never, ever stopped working as a highly, seriously, committed actor.

Rigby in the Hard Life of the Actor

It is also the story of a man who had come out of provincial, working class Birmingham, to arrive in London and live for some 50 years between the great stages… and the streets and the bars, of both London and New York. As a bartender at the National Theatre, I confirm here that one of the things that made me change my mind about the idea of becoming an actor was this lifestyle. The obvious life on the periphery that this committed life of the actor entailed; but also the massive amount of alcohol that so many of the actors drank. I recall one day one of the actors who was performing in Ayckbourn’s play “Bedroom Farce,” whose name was Derek Newark, came in to the Green Room at around 11 AM and said to me: “My doctor has told me that I have to cut back on my alcohol. So, here’s the plan: I want you to put three bottles of champagne in an ice bucket behind the bar for me. That will be my ration for the day. When it’s finished, that’s it.” Of course, my eyes rolled a little, and I carried out the instruction – even though I knew that this genuinely was a reduction in his usual intake of vodka and other drinks. (Remarkably, Newark made it to age 65. But here is the report from wikipedia in the section about his death: “Newark died of a heart attack, brought on by liver failure after years of alcoholism, on 11 August 1998 in West London.”) Another of the actors I served was Robert Stephens, a friend and drinking partner of Rigby, and we find Rigby talking about visiting Stephens in the hospital after a liver transplant. In fact, Stephens then died of liver and kidney problems, age 64.

Ace says in the book that she had been tempted to say to Rigby after his visit to Stephens in the hospital that it could have been him having that transplant; because by the time he was into his 40s he was drinking up to three bottles of vodka per day. He then went through his own personal state of revolution when he decided to quit drinking at around age 50, and he never did drank anything at all again. It was an extraordinary battle at first, outlined in the book through a horrendous trip to Zagreb for some film work, that ended up in a hospital he barely got out of. He would, nevertheless, continue his life in the pubs of London and New York, but would drink mostly tea, never a drop of alcohol. On the other hand, he was never able to give up cigarette smoking, and he died of lung cancer.

In fact, one of the beauties of this book is to see, precisely that relationship between Ace and Rigby. They first met in the mid-60s, then lost contact for a couple of decades before meeting again in the 1980s, and the relationship was then permanent and close. When he wasn’t dropping by unannounced for Tea at all hours of the day or night, they were writing letters, postcards and generally always keeping in touch. A romantic relationship between them seems to hover in the sidelines, but is never entered into due to mutual agreement of one kind or another. And it was not always simple, even in day-to-day moments, as for example when she describes him keeping her awake all night talking, then he suddenly disappears without a goodbye…only to return with a big morning breakfast of bacon and eggs, etc. Yes, this is also Juliet Ace’s personal memoir, and it was written by an equally unusual woman, now 83, who has survived bouts of melanoma, breast cancer and cancer in her spinal cord (at the time of the publication of the memoir in 2014).

Rigby as a Mentor to Young Actors

While I am wandering around in this story in this apparently disconnected manner, I want at this moment to wander back to my own relationship with him for a moment, and lead from there into his work as an actor: When he found out that I was going to audition for RADA – he might even be the one to persuade me to do it, as I stubbornly wanted to avoid drama school, having found work already in Canada before going to the UK to try to devote myself to repertory theatre and find I could NOT get work – he coached me on how to do the audition. He suggested that I do a piece from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” the scene where the seaman, Antonio, is captured.

“One of the most difficult things for an actor to do,” Rigby said to me, “is to stand still. The judges will be aware of this. And the beauty of this piece is that you can stand with your hands bound behind your back, your legs firmly planted on the ground, and speak the piece from beginning to end without moving. There will be no temptation to move, it will be simple, as your hands are supposedly bound. This way you will have high marks for being able to stand still, and yet you are being helped by the bound hands making it simpler than it appears.”

Young Terence Rigby

Young Terence Rigby

He told me that he himself had done the same piece in his audition to RADA. I think he also helped me with the choice of the modern piece as well – we had to do one Shakespeare and one modern piece – and I chose a bit from “The Glass Menagerie,” because of my North American accent. As it happened, I did not pass the entrance audition to RADA. I did, however, get past the first audition and I was called back for the second one. I think that the reason I did not get accepted is that there was only ONE place available to a non-British, foreign student, each session, and probably there were a number of other young hopefuls who had already come to audition in previous years. In fact, I learned that Rigby himself had failed to get into the prestigious school after his first attempt, and he had been sent away told that he would never get rid of his horrible Birmingham accent – he was as conscious of that as I was of my Canadian one, I suppose! – and he only got in the second time. Albert Finney, I learned, had made nine attempts to get into RADA before he was accepted!

Rigby Tackles Macbeth for Finney

And speaking of Finney, this brings to mind another Rigby memory of mine, which will get us back on course about his acting career. During the 1978 production of Macbeth in the Olivier theatre at the National, directed by Peter Hall, Rigby was in another role, but sas also the understudy to Finney for the lead role of Macbeth. One day Finney could not make it – I cannot remember if he was ill or there was some other reason – and Rigby was called upon to play the lead role. Naive fool that I was, I was so happy for him that I decided that I would take a moment away from the bar to go backstage to show my support for him on his big night! (Remember. I had access to the stage as a bartender in the Green Room.) So, for the first time, I went into the wings of the Olivier stage and waited for him to exit his scene.

Suddenly, he appeared, in full concentration, in the role of Macbeth, and there I was, standing in the wings, smiling my support! The poor man! His face broke into a look of horror mixed with a tinge of anger, seeming to say: “What the hell are you doing here!?!?!” I instantly understood that I had made a huge, huge error. Rigby was involved in one of the most important moments in his acting career, playing Macbeth in the Olivier Theatre of The National Theatre company, and in comes this kid off stage to give him encouragement that not only did he not need, but that broke his concentration, withdrew him momentarily from the role.

I got away fast. And I felt terribly ashamed. But it did not destroy his performance. I heard immediately after the show that the audience gave him a standing ovation. I don’t recall the moment doing anything to hurt our friendship.

But the whole experience of this period also showed me that the actor’s life was not the one for me, combined by my ongoing mental revolution about the discovery of literature and my greater affinity with writing. In some ways, Rigby himself represented the reason why the actors life was not for me. He lived like a gypsy in many ways. He lived either on stage or in bars or in the streets, as he was coming down from performances. His personal lodgings while he was in New York City in the final years of his life – as he shuttled between the U.S. and the U.K. for roles – were nothing but a small room with nowhere even to sit comfortably.

One friend described his place in New York to Ace this way: “Pinter would have been proud of him and how he lived,” he said when speaking of seeing his place for the first time. “I walked in. It was Pinteresque. There was an iron bed, an old army bed with a thin mattress, and this wide. No comfortable chairs. A tiny writing desk. No kitchen – a hotplate and a saucepan – no kettle. ‘I’ll buy you an electric kettle.’ He didn’t want one. It was stark. A tiny bookcase. Nowhere to relax at all. Tiny little bathroom. He’d just bought himself an air conditioner.”

But I have now learned through this memoir, “Rigby Shlept Here,” that my perceptions of the man and the mystery of who he really was were also those of people who knew him for most of their lives. But certain things shone through that everyone could agree upon: He was above all a hugely generous man to his friends and to people in difficulty. Throughout his life he acted as a mentor to young actors and actresses, helping them through the first stages of their careers, taking them aside and coaching them on auditions, etc., as he did with me. But unlike in my case, many of them went on to have excellent careers in theatre and film or television.

Rigby as and Actors’ Actor

Above all, Rigby was 100 percent actor. Despite his success with Macbeth, he was usually cast in secondary roles, which is why we do not know his name as we do the illustrious big name actors he worked with. But in those secondary roles, he was just as illustrious as the leading men: An enormous presence on stage, a complete professional, an extraordinary voice, and a generosity on stage amongst the ensemble as big as his personal generosity with others. Yes, we also learn in this account that he was capable of being extremely cold and difficult with his friends – and especially his Tea Ladies – as anyone, but that he would also come through for them when they needed it. He never married, never had children, but he certainly loved.

Portrait of Rigby by Anthony Palliser.

Portrait of Rigby by Anthony Palliser.

His friends mostly said also that it was necessary that their friendship be done on his terms. He chose when he wanted to speak, or when he wanted to reveal himself, but he was a man also of complete integrity and no pretension. He was, in short, the characters he generally played, especially the Pinter characters that were written for him. A great story we learn of the Pinter relationship – and the Peter Hall relationship – was when he first auditioned for the role of Joey in “The Homecoming” in 1965. He had thought that the audition was an elimination process, and after they started out as several actors, he found he was being called back two or three times with fewer and fewer, and then, suddenly, there were several more of them. Here he speaks about the audition:

“Feeling that I’d done fairly well, I pitched my voice into the darkness and asked if they would mind if I said a few words. A voice came back to go ahead. I went on to say that I had enjoyed my third trip and much appreciated their time – but that I didn’t think I wanted to come back again as I thought I had shown them all that I could offer – and also that I’d noticed that there were even more actors now waiting in line to be seen than there had been before, and that somehow, as far as I was personally concerned, the situation was becoming counterproductive.”

As he then writes, it was a bold move, and no doubt seemed a good way to be kicked out immediately. But instead, he writes:

“Out of the darkness and down to the footlights came a figure dressed in black, who of course turned out to be Harold Pinter. He told me my comments were appreciate, that I had done very well, that Peter [Hall] was going back to Stratford for the weekend to examine the play once more, and that word would be sent to me by the following Tuesday – so off I went.”

By the Tuesday he had the job. Certainly this kind of directness was exactly what Pinter – and Hall – were looking for in the character. Rigby then says, however, that at that time he had no idea how important the role would be for his career, or how important Pinter was as a writer.

While he may have been direct, he was never a person to believe that he had learned enough about acting or had a great talent that could no longer grow or be questioned. He struggled with self-doubt throughout his career, but never debilitating self-doubt. Rather, the kind of doubt that leads to improving oneself. He wrestled with the idea of how an actor was supposed to speak iambic pentameter, for example. And yet by all accounts, he was an instinctive actor. He professed a dislike for most of the new methods for seeking and defining character, but paradoxically he actually employed them in his own way. And despite being a loner, and a slow learner during rehearsals, he would always end up doing just what was needed, and more, always his own terms.

Rigby’s Incredible Power as a Character Actor

One director he worked with, Alan Plater, said: “In rehearsals he was quiet and contained. In performance astonishing. He had a quality of not being in the real world.” Which is why Plater thought Pinter must have loved him so much.

Perhaps the best description of the kind of power he had onstage, and his incredible ability to inhabit the character, is given about a moment connected to Rigby having played the role of Stalin also in a film about the life of Shostakovich. It was a film by Tony Palmer, and made in 1987, with Ben Kingsley playing the composer. Palmer had as an adviser in the film the Soviet musician and writer Solomon Volkov, who knew Shostakovich. After a filming day, the director and Volkov and his wife and Kingsley all went to eat in the hotel restaurant where they were staying during the filming that day.

“Volkov sat on my right,” wrote Palmer in the Times after Rigby’s death, and quoted in this book, “looking towards the door of the restaurant. Suddenly, he dropped his glass of wine and, white-faced, began to tremble violently. I was sure he was having a heart attack and I began to rush for the door in search of a doctor. Then I noticed standing in the door was the actor who was playing Stalin in the film, still dressed in that murderous villain’s costume. That actor was Terence Rigby. The irony was that Rigby was one of the gentlest of men, whose personal kindness knew no limits. But 20 years later when Volkov and I were together at a Shostakovich festival in Rome, Volkov told me that the image of Rigby standing in that Wigan doorway still haunted him.”

Rigby as Stalin

Rigby as Stalin

Michael Billington, the theatre critic of The Guardian, attended his funeral and spoke about him, and later wrote an appreciation of him for the newspaper:

“What Rigby’s curious career conceals is that he had a vital quality as an actor: physical and emotional weight. It was this that enabled him to play the thuggish Briggs in Pinter’s No Man’s Land, Stalin in Robert Bolt’s State of Revolution, and the bullying Pozzo in Peter Hall’s Waiting for Godot. ‘Weight’ is a hard quality to define: Timothy West has it, as did the late Leo McKern. But what is fascinating about Rigby is that he possessed it from the start, which is why he was a natural for TV cops in series like Z-Cars and Softly, Softly, and why he was so brilliant as the boxer, Joey, in Pinter’s The Homecoming.

Pinter, in a letter to Rigby’s sister, Catherine, wrote: “I was so shocked to hear that Terence had died. He was a dear friend of mine – since 1965 – and a terrific actor. He was wonderful in my plays. He meant a great deal to me. He was a man of such great honesty and absolute integrity.”

I think I should leave this long piece there, on those words. I started out with the desire to write a regular blog post about the book, and a few personal words about Rigby in my life. But both Juliet Ace’s book and the man himself drew me out and drew me along, and I found myself writing this long appreciation for both the man and the book. And yet I have still only scratched the surface of the man, and of “Rigby Shlept Here.” I highly recommend this book, which, for reasons I can only assume are due to Ace’s love and respect for Rigby, is free of charge for download from Amazon.

Powered by