“You’ve Got a Fucking Cheek, Haven’t You?”

A funny anecdote from Antony Sher’s book Year of the King: An Actor’s Diary and Sketchbook (a book which details his process playing Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company). Sher was daunted by the ghost-images of the great actors who had played this part, and the journal details his struggle to find his “way in”. Things he tried, things he threw away. How to deal with the hunchback aspect without hurting himself (the list of actors who were forever physically damaged by playing in an extended run of that play is long), images he tried, ways he tried to imagine himself into the role. So all of that is wonderful and very read-able. But it’s also a gossipy backstage look at a world of theatre, with names you recognize. That’s fun, too.

Here’s just one of the anecdotes told in the book, and it’s not even Sher’s anecdote. It belongs to Michael Gambon.

Tuesday 21 February

CANTEEN I’m having my lunch when I hear a familiar hoarse shout, ‘Oy Tony!’ I whip round, damaged my neck further, to see Michael Gambon in the lunch queue …

Alan Howard (a previous Richard III at the RSC) is standing in front of him, puzzled as to who is being sent up.

Wonderful seeing Gambon again. He and Howard have been rehearsing a play here. They’ve just heard it’s been cancelled because of the scene-shifters’ strike. Everyone assures us that it will be over by the time we go into studio in four weeks.

Gambon tells me the story of Olivier auditioning him at the Old Vic in 1962. His audition speech was from Richard III. ‘See, Tone, I was thick as two short planks then and I didn’t know he’d had a rather notable success in the part. I was just shitting myself about meeting the Great Man. He sussed how green I was and started farting around.’

As reported by Gambon, their conversation went like this:

Olivier: ‘What are you going to do for me?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘Is that so. Which part?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘Yes, but which part?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘Yes, I understand that, but which part?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘But which character? Catesby? Ratcliffe? Buckingham’s a good part …’
Gambon: ‘Oh I see, beg your pardon, no, Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘What, the King? Richard?’
Gambon: ‘ — the Third, yeah.’
Olivier: “You’ve got a fucking cheek, haven’t you?’
Gambon: ‘Beg your pardon?’
Olivier: ‘Never mind, which part are you going to do?’
Gambon: ‘Richard the Third.’
Olivier: ‘Don’t start that again. Which speech?’
Gambon: ‘Oh I see, beg your pardon, “Was every woman in this humour woo’d.”‘
Olivier: ‘Right. Whenever you’re ready.’
Gambon: ‘ “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d –” ‘
Olivier: ‘Wait. Stop. You’re too close. Go further away. I need to see the whole shape, get the full perspective.’
Gambon: ‘Oh I see, beg your pardon …’ Gambon continues, ‘So I go over to the far end of the room, Tone, thinking that I’ve already made an almighty tit of myself, so how do I save the day? Well I see this pillar and I decide to swing round it and start the speech with a sort of dramatic punch. But as I do this my ring catches on a screw and half my sodding hand gets left behind. I think to myself, “Now I mustn’t let this throw me since he’s already got me down as a bit of an arsehole”, so I plough on … “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d –”‘
Olivier: ‘Wait. Stop. What’s the blood?’
Gambon: ‘Nothing, nothing, just a little gash, I do beg your pardon …’
A nurse had to be called and he suffered the indignity of being given first aid with the greatest actor in the world passing the bandages. At last it was done.
Gambon: ‘Shall I start again?’
Olivier: ‘No. I think I’ve got a fair idea how you’re going to do it. You’d better get along now. We’ll let you know.’

Gambon went back to the engineering factory in Islington where he was working. At four that afternoon he was bent over his lathe, working as best as he could with a heavily bandaged hand, when he was called to the phone. It was the Old Vic.

‘It’s not easy talking on the phone, Tone. One, there’s the noise of the machinery. Two, I have to keep my voice down ’cause I’m cockney at work and posh with theatre people. But they offer me a job, spear-carrying, starting immediately. I go back to my work-bench, heart beating in my chest, pack my tool-case, start to go. The foreman comes up, says, “Oy, where you off to?” “I’ve got bad news,” I say, “I’ve got to go.” He says, “Why are you taking your tool box?” I say, “I can’t tell you, it’s very bad news, might need it.” And I never went back there, Tone. Home on the bus, heart still thumping away. A whole new world ahead. We tend to forget what it felt like in the beginning.’

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5 Responses to “You’ve Got a Fucking Cheek, Haven’t You?”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention “You’ve Got a Fucking Cheek, Haven’t You?” | The Sheila Variations -- Topsy.com

  2. Rob says:

    I’m totally reading that in Gambon’s voice in my head. Fantastic story. The last line goes right through you.

  3. Phil says:

    I love this anecdote. I remember reading another funny Gambon/Olivier story a few years aho, and here it is as relayed by Nicholas Hytner:

    “Gambon is a young spear-carrier in the newly founded National Theatre at the Old Vic, terrified (as are they all) of Olivier. He’s having breakfast one morning early in the canteen, all alone. Enter Sir Laurence. Gambon quakes. Sir Laurence realises he has to sit with Gambon, fraternise with the junior, do his bit as company leader. So he takes his coffee and sits at Gambon’s table, says good morning, Gambon quakes some more.

    Desperate for something to talk about, Gambon sees that Sir Laurence is carrying an impressive leather document case, embossed in gold with the letters NORGE.

    “Norge,” says Gambon.

    “What?” says Sir Laurence.

    “Norge, Sir Laurence,” says Gambon.

    “What the fuck are you talking about?” says Sir Laurence.

    “On your case, Sir Laurence, it says Norge, Sir Laurence. That’s very interesting. Norge – it’s Norwegian for Norway, isn’t it. Did they give you that in Elsinore, Sir Laurence? For playing Hamlet?”

    “Elsinore is in Denmark,” says Sir Laurence, gathering up his coffee. “And Hamlet was Danish. And you’re a cunt.”

    Exit Sir Laurence.

    It has to be said that most of Michael’s Olivier stories end with Olivier saying cunt. “

  4. sheila says:

    Phil – DYING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    “What the fuck are you talking about?” hahahaha laughing out loud!

    Okay, I need an entire book of Gambon/Olivier anecdotes.

  5. Ken says:

    That’s funny. Talk about having “the cheek to make verses about Eärendil in the house of Elrond.”

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