I Can't Get Next to You - the Temptations
In a sad past three weeks I've attended the funerals of two old, very good friends, one the actor and scriptwriter Bernard Strother, the other the barrister Peter Warne. Both died over the Christmas period for illnesses related to the long term excessive consumption of alcohol (ie alcoholism) and both died alone in their flats over the Christmas period, to be found at a later date.
Bernard was a talented actor who was part of the now now legendary Joint Stock Theatre Company during their latter years in the late 1980's, most notably in the role of Frank in Caryl Churchill's 1983 play "Fen". He was the only male in a cast of six, who, as part of the preparation for the production, lived "off the land" together in a farm cottage on the fens in Norfolk.
"Fen" was recently revived to much acclaim at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London. In one of those small ironies that seem increasingly frequent as one grows older, the run began this last February 10th, just over a month after Bernard's death.
Although Caryl Churchill generally premiered her plays at the Royal Court, for some reason "Fen" was premiered at the Almeida Theatre in Islington before touring the UK, returning to the London later for a run at the Royal Court Theatre, before heading across the Atlantic to the Public Theatre in New York and a short US tour.
The play is generally regarded to be amongst Churchill's best work, and I recall Bernard's wife saying that she (Churchill) rated Bernard as her best male lead (see https://www.csmonitor.com/1983/0602/060201.html and https://www.nytimes.com/1983/06/21/theater/fen-unusual-on-the-spot-creation.html )
I first met Bernard while I was living in a bedsit just round the corner from the Royal Court at the southern end of Eaton Place, which was must less salubrious and more Dickensian than the address suggests, presided over by a staunch Glaswegian landlady, Mrs Wilson, who, in sometimes successful attempts to catch us with illicit overnight visitors, would wake us by knocking, unlocking and opening our door in one swift motion while simultaneously asking "Are ye decent?"
When I found other accommodation, I recommended Bernard as my replacement to her, for which he never forgave me. This was because shortly after moving into my vacated room he developed dyshidrotic eczema on his feet, a condition that I suffered from in those days. He reckoned he caught from me via the carpet in the room.
We both, in our turn, visited a doctor who practiced just across the street and who was the spitting image of actor Wilfred Hyde-White. When I saw him, he had me squeeze one of the liquid-filled blisters that itched my feet so much, squirting the fluid onto a glass slide for his observation under a microscope. The doctor peered through the lens and said, with much satisfaction, "Ah there they are, the little buggers, have a look". So I did, and, sure enough, I saw a bunch of tiny transparent protozoa-like things wriggling aqueously. "Thank goodness" I cried, "so you know what it is, and can cure it then?" " Oh yes" he said, "I know what it is, it's dyshidrotic eczema. But if you find a cure let me know. I've had it for years!" Bernard subsequently visited the same doctor with much the same result.
In fact, when I last saw Bernard, in 2019, for the first time in over two decades, he complained he still suffered from it, and blamed me once again for its contraction. As technology has moved on, I was at last able to refer him to the Internet which states clearly that dyshidrotic eczema isn't contagious. It also suggests that it isn't curable, which I would contest, as I haven't had it since I left Belgravia. Maybe it was the room. Bernard then took the opportunity to regale me and others present with the tale of his visit to our mutual doctor, a story, to my amazement, that was identical to my own personal experience as just described: the squeeze, the fluid, the microscope, all of it. Did the same thing happen to both of us? It's possible I suppose - it was the same doctor. Or did one of us appropriate the experience of the other? I'm sure Bernard believed that what he was saying had actually happened to him, and I know that it happened to me, but has one of us told the tale so many times that it has become our truth? In classic Bernard fashion, we laughed together about it, each generously surrendering the story to the other while alternately reclaiming its authenticity for ourselves, and then extending the accusations of memory theft to more events that we knew the other had experienced. Not only was Bernard a very good actor, always very sharp, but he was also continually alive to the possibilities of people and situations, a great observer of others, their traits, foibles and personalities.
Bernard's acting has been preserved for posterity in the 1982 ITV adaptation of Stan Barstow's "A Kind of Loving" and in the film "Not Quite Jerusalem" (see American title "Not Quite Paradise" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3h7Y5YATFss ) based on Paul Kember's award winning play which broke Royal Court box office records on its original run in 1980. The play's cast was retained for the film version which was altered for the worst to accommodate American box office interest and provide a vehicle for lead Sam Robards, the son of actors' Jason Robards and Lauren Bacall. However, it's worth watching just for the ensemble of four Brits, including Bernard, who are excellent. It might be difficult nowadays to make a film about a kibbutz which barely mentions the displaced Palestinians, let alone examines the social and political context of Israel with regards to (a) the Palestinians and (b) the west, but it's enlightening to see that forty years ago filmmakers could could blithely make a comic romance that does exactly that, without criticism. The final terrorist incident is played straight with no demonisation of either side. As Paul Kember's play was revived by the Finborough Theatre in London in 2020, one wonders if the original script had been rendered less contentious for the film and the American public.
Interestingly, Carol Churchill's ten minute play "Seven Jewish Children", criticising Israel's treatment of Palestinians, was premiered at the Royal Court in 2009, with all proceeds going to families from Gaza. Churchill is a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
In the mid 80's part of Joint Stock transmuted into the groundbreaking community theatre company Common Stock where Bernard worked for several years before concentrating on scriptwriting for series such as Minder and Boon in partnership with actor Kevin McNally.
After Churchill wrote "Cloud Nine" (see last post), her third following play was "Fen". The third single that the Temptations released after "Cloud Nine" was "I Can't Get Next to You" written, of course, by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. It was Number One in America but only made number 13 in the UK on 7th January 1970. The UK Number One that day was Rolf Harris with "Two Little Boys" What on earth were we thinking of?
Play it loud. Drown the sorrows. Drown injustice. Drown the crap.