I was every teacher's nightmare: the class
performer, impersonating the staff. . . It was actually a survival
mechanism, because I was mildly dyslexic. I failed every exam I
ever took, and was always being told I was stupid and lazy. So,
from the age of about 12, I knew I wanted to be an actor. My family
weren't unsupportive - just worried and sceptical, and waiting for
the day I would come to my senses. I think they still are.
My first job was sweeping the stage for a Carry
On-team summer season at Southsea. I did six weeks'
work for one week's wages to get an Equity card. After that, I just
got lucky: my next job was a West End play, followed by the cult
I played Freddie in a stage adaptation of A Room
With A View inthe West End, with Derek Jacobi,
Timothy West, and Jane Lapotaire. Playing comedy in a great classic
to a packed house is a big rush for any actor.
I got fed up with waiting for the phone to ring as an
actor; so I started my own fringe theatre company, the
Upstream Theatre, in an empty church hall near the Old Vic. It was
very successful, and I was artistic director for several years. But
I couldn't settle; so I started writing. It was like coming
Entertaining Angels is my fifth published stage
play. It's about a grieving clergy widow and her family
secrets. It's a comedy with a strong story exploring the difficult
subject of forgiveness. I love that kind of mix. Penelope Keith
starred in it originally, and it opened at the Chichester Festival
Theatre, playing to 26,000 people in three weeks. Ironically, I
nearly binned it on several occasions, but it's now done all over
the world. That's how wrong one can be. It is exciting to see a
piece of work connect so well.
I'm always playing with new projects, some of
which may come together and others may vanish. And then past work
has a habit of popping up again unexpectedly. Entertaining
Angels is being performed in South Africa this year, and also,
rather unexpectedly, in the Arab-Jewish Culture Centre in Haifa.
I'm not sure what they will make of a story of an Anglican vicarage
Film, television, theatre, animation all follow the same
rules. Animation licences you to become a child again, and
movie-writing has become a new science; but you have to find the
fun in all the disciplines, otherwise what's the point? Theatre is
a great challenge: two hours' traffic on the stage requires craft.
Plays are like bits of clockwork: every moving part has to function
perfectly. There's no fast-forward button in a theatre: if you lose
your audience, you lose them on a grand scale.
Every ordinary day suggests a hundred stories.
You just have to look with the right eyes. That's what Sound
Bites is all about: finding ordinary lives behind
It is a collection of short, five-minute scripts I've
written over the years. They are for Christmas, New Year,
Lent, Easter, Mothering Sunday, Father's Day, and so on. I have no
interest in a faith that doesn't feature real people. The Old and
New Testaments are full of real characters, living ordinary and
often very flawed lives, but around which extraordinary events
unfolded. So I've gone in search of those lost characters and
conversations - some biblical, some fictional, some not - from the
chauffeurs of the Wise Men checking the Bethlehem A to Z
to Jethro explaining to his wife Miriam that he's lent their
precious donkey to a couple of strangers, which is why somelunatic
is now joyriding it round the town.
There's a Roman soldier on execution duty, who
has a strange encounter a week later while fishing on a beach, and
a young man visiting his mother on Mothering Sunday who is greeted
by a strange woman claiming she is God, and many others, not
forgetting the Junior Angel explaining to the Senior Angel that the
Bethlehem Hilton was booked - which made Prince William and Kate
and the Middleton family laugh out loud in church on Christmas
Drama isn't something you use. Church services
are full of drama, without anyone reaching for the dreaded tea
towel and sandals. The communion table is a place of incredible
drama, a powerful re-enactment of a hugely dramatic event. But I've
tried to provide some simple five-minute scripts, like mini radio
plays, that can be done at a moment's notice by anyone who can read
competently. No lines to learn, no costumes.
I was reading quite a lot of Henri Nouwen, and
he writes of working as the international pastor for the L'Arche
Community. There's a L'Arche near me, at Bognor, and the drama
person there was going on maternity leave. The timing was
The first workshop I did showed me what it would be
like. The cathedral was doing an Ash Wednesday service,
and asked if we would do something on Jesus' being tempted in the
desert. The others were all playing their parts, but when I asked
one man who he wanted to be, he said: "I'm going to be Terry
Wogan." "I don't think he was there." "Yes, he was." And he went on
a brilliant stream-of-consciousness monologue of Terry Wogan
interviewing Jesus and the Devil.
Working with L'Arche has been immensely
rewarding, and a great privilege. It's also very
grounding. At the end of the day, I have to ask myself: "Who is
really the one with special needs here?"
I was born in leafy Surrey. My family lived
there for most of my early life, and then moved to London. My
father was a successful businessman, and my mother was a freelance
writer and journalist. All a bit ordinary and middle-class, really.
I was public-school-educated, hated every minute of it, left
without a single exam passed, and leapt into the acting
I love the mountains. I taught my daughter to
ski in Switzerland, and soon I hope to help her teach my wonderful
new granddaughter, Lettie, as well. She's nine months old.
Lettie's laugh is the most reassuring thing in the
Many people have influenced me, in different
ways. Friends are important. Friendship itself is
undersold. It is the place where hard things and good things can be
shared. Real change and influence can happen among good friends who
know you well, and make you feel safe to take risks. I sometimes
think that the Church should disband all fellowship groups in
exchange for exploring the art of friendship.
One underlying principle of theatre is that you have to
make the audience feel safe before you take them on a
journey. Good acting is authoritative and trustworthy. I've found
the loyalty and faithfulness of friendship to be something which
helps me as a Christian living in the real world.
I read very slowly, so I have to choose what I read
carefully. I think the book I have been most influenced by
recently is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield; the book
I have most enjoyed is 10 Second Sermons by Milton Jones;
and the books I return to most often are by C. S. Lewis.
At a young age, I saw Laurence Olivier in
Othello. Without understanding the play, I knew I was
seeing a powerful piece of work. And seeing a production of
Equus was an exciting moment, as I watched all sorts of
boundaries - physical, creative, and emotional - being smashed in
the best sense. More recently, War Horse and The
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are both plays
that I came out of a little bit different from when I went in.
If I found myself locked in a church for a few
hours? This is the Church Times; so I'd probably
better not say Halle Berry; probably ought to say St Paul.
Richard Everett was talking to Terence Handley
Sound Bites is published by Monarch Books (Lion Hudson,
£10.99 (CT Bookshop £9.90 - Use code CT127