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Hooked on the theatre; Director Frith Banbury is still working at the age of 86 and still open to offers. He tells Terry Grimley about his latest production.

As soon as he was given a toy theatre at the age of seven Frith Banbury knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

That was in 1919, and 80 years later he is still doing it. At 86 it is probably safe to say that he is Britain's oldest working theatre director. His latest production, a revival of D L Coburn's Pulitzer prize-winning play The Gin Game with Joss Ackland and Dorothy Tutin, opened two weeks ago in Cambridge, and comes to the Malvern Festival Theatre this week.

It is the latest credit in a CV which, as both actor and director, traces a line through five decades of British theatre history. As a young man he appeared in Gielgud's 1934 Hamlet, and later acted at Stratford and in several films, including Michael Powell's The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp, before turning to production.

He directed the original West End productions of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea and the young Tom Stoppard's Enter a Free Man, and has worked with an illustrious roll-call of actors including Edith Evans, Ralph Richardson, Ingrid Bergman, Sybil Thorndike, Deborah Kerr, Paul Scofield, Michael and Vanessa Redgrave.

So extensive is his repertoire of anecdotes that for the purpose of interviews he is obliged to be selective. Mention Gielgud's Hamlet, for example, and he will ask if you want lightweight gossip or serious observations about Gielgud's performance.

"I played a small part, about eight lines, and understudied Anthony Quayle as Guildenstern; as far as Gielgud's performance was concerned, he was the absolute embodiment of a patrician and elegant and romantic Prince. It was very much to the taste of the public then, though people today might regard it as dated."

Curiously enough there is a direct link between that far-away production and Banbury's latest. Gielgud's Ophelia was Jessica Tandy, who more than 40 years later appeared in The Gin Game in London with her husband, Hume Cronyn.

"She was a very successful actress in London but went off to New York and emerged as an American," Banbury recalls.

"She met Hume Cronyn and married him, and I brought them over in a play called Big Fish, Little Fish. It got good reviews but nobody was very interested; they hadn't heard of Hume Cronyn and Jessica had been away for 20 years.

"It was another 20 years until they came over again to do The Gin Game. It didn't really do much business and they went on to Moscow. The play has not been done since then in England but it was revived in America with great success last year with Julie Harris and Charles Durning, and now it's on a coast-to-coast tour."

Banbury became involved in this revival at the request of Joss Ackland, whom he had previously directed in what sounds a remarkable 1971 production of Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion which also featured Ingrid Bergman and Kenneth Williams.

"We got together and I persuaded Dorothy Tutin to play the other part. I'm very pleased with it; its short and sharp and I'm all in favour of that. It's set in an old people's home but there's a lot of humour in it; it's a kind of much lighter Death of a Salesman , in that it shows through these card games the degeneration of a personal relationship.

"In all these games of gin rummy the audience have to do two things, and they seem quite prepared to do them; they have to follow the progress of the games and at the same time they have to follow the relationship. The audiences have been quite marvellous at Cambridge."

Banbury's conversion from acting to directing happened, as he says, quite fortuitously in 1947 after a chance conversation led to his being invited to teach at RADA.

He had been a student there himself after spending just a year at Oxford. For the son of a rear admiral, educated at Stowe School, I wondered whether the stage was on the family-approved list of professions.

"My father wasn't keen but my mother was . . . not necessarily keen on theatre but she thought I should do what I wanted to do. We lived in London, and always went to the theatre.

"Then I went to Oxford and enjoyed it, but I wanted to get on with it, so I was only up at Oxford for a year, then went to RADA." Ten days after leaving he got his first job, playing the piano with Gus Yorks (Potash of music hall duo Postash and Pertmutter) in a politically topical show originally called Hard to be a Jew but then blandly retitled If I Were You.

Banbury thinks he might have taken the piano seriously if theatre hadn't staked an earlier claim.

His first piano-playing engagement in If I Were You at the old Shaftesury Theatre, which later succumbed to wartime bombing, paid 30 shillings (pounds 1.50) a week and lasted ten days.

"The first two jobs I had in the West End both only lasted ten days - but I was very pleased because at that point one wanted jobs. I didn't get a really good part in the West End until 1938 when I did Robert Morley's play, Goodness How Sad!, which was specially written for a company we had at Perranporth in Cornwall. After that my career as an actor took flight."

At first he combined teaching at RADA with appearing in the West End, but having directed students he felt he should be directing fellow professionals.

An old acquaintance, Wynyard Browne, called him to look at a play he had written called Dark Summer. Banbury ended up buying the rights for pounds 100.

"It took me 14 months but I got it on at the Lyric Hammersmith, went on the road for four weeks and ended up at the St Martin's Theatre. If that isn't luck I don't know what it is. Then I formed a company and commissioned Wynyard Browne to write plays; he wrote three successful ones, A Question of Fact, Ring of Truth and The Holly and the Ivy."

One of the highlights of this period was the first night of Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea.

"I had just made a big success with Waters of the Moon, and I was flavour of the month. Also, I had known Rattigan when we were up at Oxford together, and I was in Follow My Leader and When the Sun Shines. It was a most exciting first night - one of those 'hear a pin drop' nights.

"There's been a lot of talk about whether he really intended it to be a homosexual play, but to my mind it's a lot of baloney."

One reason is that Rattigan was perfectly aware of the iron grip the censor had over what could be said and would not have wanted his work banished to a private theatre club.

Frith Banbury retired from producing about ten years ago, because "I didn't want any more to be responsible for raising money, finding theatres . . . it's a pain, to be honest.

"But I very much like working. The actual directing, that's something I'm always prepared to do. One can't really expect very much at 86, but here I am, hale and hearty at the moment, and quite willing to do things. The only plans I have are that I'm open to offers."

The Gin Game is at the Malvern Festival Theatre from tonight until Saturday. Box office 01684 892277. Also at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from March 1-6.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 1, 1999
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