Reading an article in the Mail on Sunday recently, about one of Britain’s leading classical actors, Sir Anthony Sher, and his rather furious reaction to Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowe’s view that a university education was needed to understand Shakespeare, reminded me of the clash I once had with the actor.
In April 1981 a young South African actor by the name of Anthony Sher unexpectedly telephoned to ask if I would be willing to help him with some advice for a part he was about to take in a new play by Mike Leigh called Goose Pimples. The role was to play a Saudi Arabian student in London. My immediate response over the phone was that I had arrived in England at the age of eighteen, having lived till then in Palestine, and therefore could not
claim any expertise on the background and habits of Saudi Arabian students. My best advice was that he should make a direct approach to the cultural attaché at the Saudi Arabian embassy in London, or to any other institution with links to that country which would offer far more insight on the subject than I ever could. This was exactly the route he was following with his research, he said, but even so he would appreciate a few minutes of my time
if only to exchange views in general. A meeting between us, he added, would in any event be of some social benefit if nothing else. Naturally I did not wish to be uncooperative towards a newcomer to the country who was under the impression I could be of some help to him. That, combined with his insistence, led me to say that of course I would be delighted and I suggested he come to my office at Namara House.
Our meeting took place soon after and I formed the impression that a major new talent was about to make an impact on the London stage. (Time would show I was right in my assessment.) We chatted endlessly about the theatre, a medium that I was beginning to be passionate about, but barely touched on how he could best play a Saudi Arabian student. He must have realized by then that my knowledge on the issue was very limited indeed. Probably he was curious about my own assimilation into British society and wanted to find out, as a Jewish South African émigré, whether assimilation was possible where a wide cultural divide existed. We parted with my saying that I looked forward to seeing the play on its opening night and that I only wished I could have been of some assistance.
The fateful evening came. I took my seat in the front row of the theatre, from where I could hear every word and pick up every nuance. As the play progressed, I felt a growing sense of outrage at the way Arabs were being ridiculed. It seemed to be holding Arabs up to mockery, portraying without any subtlety whatsoever the plight of the inebriated student. The whole performance, to my eyes, was vulgar in the extreme and left me deeply shocked. The liberal tolerance and sense of humour on which I prided myself deserted me and frankly I could not stomach the crudeness of the play. I refrained from clapping at the end of the show – a fact noticed, of course, by Anthony Sher and his fellow actors as they took their bow. The theatre was too small for me to conceal my disgust and anger and when I found my name wrongly spelt where I was given a credit in the programme notes it was the last straw. I left the theatre as soon as I could find my way to the exit.
To vent my anger I reviewed the play in the Literary Review. I made no bones about saying I had found it ‘nauseating and dishonest since it is based on a series of premises that are demonstrably false’. The press then made quite a story of my review being the most savage the play received, although I was listed in the programme notes as a ‘special adviser’ to the cast. This went down badly with me, as did the rest of the piece ‘Atticus’ wrote in the
Sunday Times after he had asked me for my comments. The play was appalling, I said, and I hated the hypocrisy of those involved who claimed that it portrayed Saudi students sympathetically. Under the heading ‘A Belief in Freedom – Up to a Point’, ‘Atticus’ claimed that Anthony Sher had tried his best to pacify me by saying that, from a Muslim point of view, the play was a cautionary tale that showed the dangers of drinking and attempting to womanize. ‘Atticus’ then ended the piece by expounding on its headline: ‘While one does not want to give even more publicity to this storm-in-a-teacup play, it is none the less worth doing for Attallah’s immortal riposte: “I am a publisher and I believe in total artistic independence. But there are limits.” ’
My response was to write a letter to the Sunday Times, which published it under the heading ‘Editorial Freedom’ on 24 May: The piece in your Atticus column (May 3) under the heading ‘A Belief in Freedom – Up to a Point’ shows varying degrees of inaccuracies.
I was not listed as ‘special adviser’ to the cast. It was a simple credit in the programme, where I was listed with scores of others. I told your reporter that my name was spelt wrongly, and I also told him that my advice was never sought by Anthony Sher nor was it given. In the last paragraph purporting to convey my feelings on editorial freedom, I am again misrepresented. As a publisher, I believe in editorial freedom but recognize sometimes this freedom is abused under the guise of artistic licence. This is what I recall saying. I did not contradict myself by suggesting any limits.
It is a sign of changing times that where matters of race are concerned in today’s social climate political correctness has become something of an obsession rather than a natural awareness of the evils of racism. In view of this I do not believe it would now be possible to stage Mike Leigh’s Goose Pimples in its original form. There would be no alternative but to tone down some of the more offensive elements. The public has become highly sensitive to the question of race – some would say over-sensitive, to the point where freedom of expression has become jeopardized. In retrospect, my reaction to the play was largely amplified by what I felt to be the unfair criticism of the Arabs to be found everywhere in the media at the time. Arab largesse was rewarded with sneers. Very rich people did not circulate money in the way the Arabs did in those days. The Arabs were never given the credit they deserved for this and therefore the balance was uneven. It was true that, with the advent of
oil and the wealth that came with it, the behaviour of some Arabs put out the wrong signals, but this behaviour was not, as was usually assumed, typical of Arabs in general. Ostentation and vulgarity are to be found everywhere; a sudden excess of wealth may have a destabilizing effect for a time and cause a deterioration in moral values. Faced with the play today, I would be less angry and more composed.
It was an irony that the producer of Goose Pimples, who crossed swords with me over my attack on the play, should later have married Fiona Golfer, an enchanting woman who worked for me for a brief period at Namara House, and also have counted me among his theatrical ‘angels’ on more than one occasion. It went to show how a conflict can sometimes be the prelude to a beneficial association. Many years later, when the impresario Howard Panter and I collaborated on a few theatre productions, he took me backstage to effect
a reconciliation with Anthony Sher. We buried the hatchet, Goose Pimples by then being little more than a distant memory. I felt sure his playing of the Saudi Arabian student, however misjudged, never had any malice in it. He had played the role with his usual professionalism. As I predicted, he became a great actor, and over the years his contribution to the English stage has been immense.