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Ian Talbot

Going Out with a Bang!

Sheila Connor talks to Ian Talbot as he approaches his last year at the Regent's Park Outdoor Theatre

Before he embarks on what promises to be a manic workload in his final year at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre it seemed a good idea to talk to Ian Talbot about his years as Artistic Director and the many changes which have taken place so far. Originally created in 1932 through a partnership between Sydney Carroll and Robert Atkins, the theatre ran into commercial difficulties in the fifties and was closed for a year or two, but was brought back to life in 1962 by David Conville and David William who could see the potential of this most magical of theatrical venues and formed the New Shakespeare Company, signing a contract for a three month season - and forty five years later still going strong.

It is always a pleasure to visit Regent’s Park and I enjoyed my walk across to the theatre. I really must read my e-mail messages more carefully! I should have been at the offices, not the theatre, but another short walk brought me to the Inner Circle and the Ironworks where, hidden behind large hedges, the administrative work of the theatre takes place – and there Ian was waiting to greet me.

The walls of his office are covered with posters from every year at the park – there is space for only one more – could that have influenced the decision that the time had come for him to go and leave the problem of where to put following posters to his successor? “Well,” said Talbot, “I know I have to go at some point. I don’t want to go out of here in a coffin, and I don’t want to stay long enough for people to mutter and say, he really should go now. I’ve done most things that I wanted to do in the theatre. We’ve extended our repertoire – we seem to be very popular at the moment – and it’s twenty years for me and the 75th anniversary for the theatre, so it’s good timing”.

While the theatre was being reborn he was actually training as a Drama Teacher, which must have stood him in good stead in dealings with insecure actors, but half way through the course “a tutor at the college, who was also the producer of Dr. Who in the first series, said ‘You know I think you could act, but don’t tell anybody or you’ll lose your grant’…….The prize, if you get a distinction, is to place you at a drama college as a teacher, and I was frowned upon when I went up to receive this prize and said….well I can’t do that because I have got a job as ASM in Barrow in Furnace – so that’s how I started.”

At one stage Talbot and his actress wife Liz Gebhardt were both out of work, so being able to do supply teaching for a time helped pay the bills, especially necessary when son Joe was born, but it wasn’t long before Liz began a very successful and lucrative television career beginning with the hit sitcom Please Sir where she played the love struck pupil Maureen Bullock, and this enabled him to go off to different repertory companies, eventually leading to his time at the Park which in turn allowed him to pay for private medicine when Liz succumbed to cancer – tragically dying in 1996 after a seventeen year illness.

It was in 1971 that he first came to work at Regent’s Park – playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and Robert Atkins, now in failing health and in a wheelchair, came to see him with the warning, “I shall be watching you, old son.” This was particularly daunting as Atkins had played this part for so many years. At that time the seating arrangements were simply deckchairs, and it was not until 1975 that the present auditorium was constructed. The work here got way behind schedule, the result of a very wet spring, so The Taming of the Shrew with Zoë Wannamaker and Jeremy Irons had to transfer to the Roundhouse, while Ian with Dream went on a wonderful Middle Eastern tour and then had the kudos of opening the new auditorium half way through the season. Later he directed Look Here Old Son, Atkins' catchphrase. “At the opening we invited anybody who knew Robert Atkins….and all these mistresses came out of the woodwork, and they all looked very respectable ladies. He was married for many many years, but he was a terrible old letch.”

He performed at the Park for the following ten years before spending five years with the RSC. “Then in '86 David Conville came to see me at Stratford and said ‘How would you feel about taking over the Park?’ and I said I’m just a jobbing actor – I can’t do that. Then I thought well the worst thing that could happen is that I fail and I could still go back to being a jobbing actor, so I said OK, I’ll have a go then --- and I’m still here. I never thought I would stay this long. I suppose the reason that David asked me was that I had worked here for ten years and I obviously loved it. I think he thought I had leadership qualities, and I knew the erratic nature of the weather and that we sometimes cancelled performances and so on, but I think that on a perfect night it’s the most idyllic theatre ever”

I asked what he considered the most successful season at the Park.

“Well I suppose The Boy Friend has taken us all by surprise because it didn’t really have a very good advance, but all the shows this year have had wonderful reviews. We spent more money and I think it shows in the production values – costumes and sets – and ironically the publicity department often nag me if I don’t provide a ‘name’. Well we haven’t got any ‘names’ this season and it’s the most successful we’ve ever had. I know the weather was marvellous in June and July, but I think we’ve got a real company feel with this company. If we had a ‘named’ actor to play Lord Brockhurst I think it would overbalance it.”

He took this part in The Boy Friend by default having auditioned a lot of quite eminent actors who didn’t want to do it, and was persuaded (David Conville again) that he could manage to both direct and perform which, with a musical, meant sharing the directing responsibility with the choreographer and the musical director. Also his wife, Claire Carrie, already had the part of Hortense which she performs superbly with a hilarious French accent and that is another reason for feeling this is the time to leave. The couple, married in 2001, now have a daughter, Amy, and would like to spend more time with her and travel a little before she starts school.

Leaving, however, is no reason to stop working, and there are a great many projects in the pipeline. The first one hopefully will be The Boy Friend in the West End prior to a national tour, which reminded Ian (checking the posters again) that possibly High Society could be called the most successful as it was sold out before it opened and had such a long run and toured for a year (and another tour possible) “but I think back…some productions of The Dream have been so successful. Kiss Me Kate was a huge hit – there were queues outside Queen Mary’s Gardens. The first night of The Fantastics was pretty special for me because everybody said it wouldn’t work – and it did! Also one of the real hits that I presented was The Boys from Syracuse that Judi Dench directed”.

Had he always gone for comedy parts – they’ve been mostly comedy even in Shakespeare?

“Yes, I think so. Once at the RSC they asked me if I’d play the King of France in King Lear and I said, 'Honestly I don’t think I’d be doing it any favours. I’ll come on and they’ll laugh.' I don’t know what it is, but yes I like comedy – I think it’s really challenging. It is more difficult and I love the timing. I love it when you get a laugh and then another night you’ve lost it and you wonder why and analyse it.”

Are there difficulties in casting a summer season in the open air?

“Well I go to the end of school presentations, and the way I start casting is with the other directors – I say ‘Look we’ve got to cross cast at least two thirds of the company, so write down the actors you love working with, and I will as well’ and there’ll always be three or four that we all like, which has always happened, and that’s a starting point. I suppose I get about 3,000 CVs. I have a casting director as well now, and certainly between us we go through every one, but you have to eliminate somewhere, and if they can’t sing, well they can’t be in the musical …. I think it’s very daunting on that first public performance when you go out there and it’s full and it looks huge because you’ve got nearly 1300 faces looking at you and you can see them all. At the beginning they don’t like seeing their faces, but after about a month they get used to the idea and feel it’s a point of contact”

When were musicals first included in the repertoire?

“In '88 I introduced the musical Babes in Arms and it brought in a new class of audience – much younger people – a gay influence who really love musicals, and what’s interesting you can tell what kind of an audience they are by what food and drink they have. When I first came there was a tent where they used to serve suppers after the show and where I introduced doing late night shows, and it was only with the lottery grant five years ago that we had a proper room which is the studio now”.

Next year is going to be an exciting one. After a very successful Babe the Sheep-Pig there will be another David Wood play for the children, the musical will be Lady be Good, and there will be a new production of Dream where he will again play Bottom. The second Shakespeare is yet to be decided, and there will be at least one production at 1932 prices. No guessing whether that one will be sold out!

They are also hoping for a Royal visit as the Queen attended a performance in.1982 which was their Golden Jubilee year. The theatre was founded in the same year that Queen Mary’s Gardens were opened to the public, so the Royal Parks are very keen to join in the celebrations, and there will be an exhibition of archive material, and seminars by people who have made their names since they have worked there. The list is endless. It is going to be a very exhausting year, but very rewarding.

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©Peter Lathan 2006