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Prescience of mind – when art reflects life

In his memoirs, actor Tim Pigott-Smith recalls his last great performance as Charles III

30 June, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman

Tim Pigott-Smith in the Almeida’s 2014 production of King Charles III. PHOTO: JOHAN PERSSON

DOES art follow life or vice versa? It is a fascinating question when Prince Harry reveals that along with Prince William and even their father Prince Charles are reluctant monarchs but will “do their duty” in the future.

His announcement comes at a time when PM Theresa May stands precariously on the edge of an abyss as her government seeks Brexit, the future prosperity of the UK under threat while Labour stands ready to pounce on every error.

And that echoes the acute controversy caused by Mark Bartlett’s play Charles III, premiered at Islington’s Almeida Theatre in April 2014 before moving to the West End and on to Broadway and then being shown to millions in a TV production.

It starred in particular the late Tim Pigott-Smith as the new king confronting the fictional male prime minister at their first meeting. He wants to introduce strict regulation on the freedom of the press. But Charles III refuses to give the Bill the monarch’s consent followed by spectacularly using the royal prerogative to dissolve Parliament altogether.

And the second half of the play spins the country to the real prospect of civil war, thus creating another historical link, this time with the Cromwellian revolution that resulted in hapless Charles I ending up on the scaffold.

Sadly, Tim Pigott-Smith, acclaimed by the critics for his “mesmerising” performance, died from a heart attack in April, aged 70, and it is only in his poignant, posthumously published memoirs, Do You Know Who I Am? that we can discover his own thoughts.

And all the more relevant since he and his actress wife Pamela Miles lived for many years in Highgate and more recently in Hampstead, sandwiched, so to speak, between Parliament Hill, where it is said the frustrated gunpowder plotters of 1605 awaited the explosive demise of James I at Westminster.

Praising the play, Pigott-Smith writes: “Mike had drawn a sympathetic and seemingly accurate portrait of a man betrayed by time, trapped within the confines of his principled, stubborn character. The play itself was so good, and it didn’t strike me as offensive…

“The writing is peppered with references to Shakespeare. You don’t need to recognise them, but they add to the fun. Civil war is familiar territory to Bardaholics, but here are many other allusions, to Lear, Macbeth, Prince Hall, and, centrally, Richard II – the man who is forced to give away his crown.

“Mike had achieved the unbelievable, how I will never know, a plausible, modern, Shakespearian tragical-historical saga.”

And Pigott-Smith tells how he modelled his performance partly on the real Prince Charles, whom he had once met and found to be “very charming and easy to chat to,” though he never came to see the production and nobody knows whether he watched the TV version.

Piggott-Smith asked the Spitting Image mimic Jon Glover for advice, and adds: “He immediately suggested the habit of holding his signet ring in one hand and twisting his little finger within it, and the way he pulls his lips down, and to one side when speaking,” he writes.

“I did not impersonate Charles, but I made judicious use of these recognisable traits, adding another for my own pleasure. Looking at a film clip, I noticed that his hands sometimes hover outside his jacket pockets, but rarely go in – giving him the air of indecisiveness.”

Born in Rugby, Pigott-Smith was the son of a journalist and the drama-conscious daughter of a middle-class grocer, and grew up with an acute social conscience. He had his first taste of fame playing the sinister Merrick in ITV’s The Jewel in the Crown, about the last days of the British Raj in India.

But he never took himself too seriously.

“Success for me was a heady, flattering mix of suddenly being asked to do all manner of things that I had never wanted – opening fetes, appearing in charity events, playing cricket for the Lord’s Taverners, being asked to put my name to things I knew nothing about – even modelling,” he writes.

“Adulation gives you a phoney sense of your importance. People defer to you. They call you a star, although that always made me uneasy.”

He questioned too the mystery of what it was to be an actor, a mere conduit for a writer’s words and intentions, a blank canvas for a director, a puppet for a designer to manipulate?

“The harsh and ultimate truth is that part of the mystery comes with the audience, and in the end it is the audience that counts,” Pigott-Smith concludes. “It is not our job to BE or to FEEL, but to APPEAR to be or feel, realistically enough to affect the audience.”

He quotes Ralph Richardson as saying: “Funny thing acting. One day it’s there, the next… nowhere to be found.”

Nevertheless, Pigott-Smith won awards for his talent, an OBE shortly before he died, when he was due to appear in a revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. How’s that for a truly memorable way to take your final curtain?

Do You Know Who I Am? A Memoir. By Tim Pigott-Smith, Bloomsbury, £18.99.

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