On their life and acting times, told by some British acting lovelies…
Barbara Roisman Cooper shares a number of her candid interviews with some acting greats from British cinema, television and stage in the first of two reviews on her star studded books.
If you asked me the question on whether I’d read Lee Grant’s biography or autobiography, I’d pick the latter every time, and then read the biography to complement it. There is something wonderful about hearing those true stories and anecdotes directly from the person it happened to. It’s like you are there with them as they tell you their life story and that makes it a more compelling and riveting read.
Recently I reviewed a book on Moonlighting (1985-89). The writer complied an intricate telling of the true story of this television series, as was told using his interview responses from those in front of and behind the scenes. This more personal touch made it more autobiographical than a biography. Recently, I was approached by the writer, Barbara Roisman Cooper to review two of her entertainment themed books where she took a similar approach in her books and compiled her interviews with actors and directors.
These books were Great Britons of Stage and Screen: In Conversation (2015) and her follow up book from 2019, Great Britons of Stage and Screen: Volume II: Directors in Conversation. This former book tells about their acting careers in film, television and stage careers and is not one dishing the dirt on everyone and anyone. The review is on this book with the second coming soon. But both books will easily appeal to budding and professional actors and directors, entertainment historians and bloggers and fans of those British lovelies interviewed.
Just reading the contents page of Great Britons of Stage and Screen: In Conversation (2015), I knew instinctively this would be an interesting and meaningful read. There are twenty-two interviews of British acting treasures in this particular compilation. It was like finding a treasure chest with over twenty autobiographies. These names were admittedly for me, remembered from their film and TV appearances, but I was looking forward to hearing more from them about their careers as a whole.
Roisman Cooper starts this book with a foreword from the late Robert Osborne, the presenter of Turner Classic Movies. He gave a glowing account of the author, Roisman Cooper and advocated this American writer’s skills as an interviewer as he adds that she is exemplary;
“when it comes to asking the kind of questions you’d want to pursue if you were spending thirty minutes or three hours visiting over several cups of tea with Dame Angela Lansbury, Simon Callow, or Jeremy Irons, who are but three of twenty-two Brits she has interviewed at length”
The book also has a lengthy list of acknowledgements to those who helped in the writing of the book and an explanation of the abbreviations used at the start of this book. It ends with an afterword from Kevin Brownlow, and a short bibliography and more on Barbara Roisman Cooper herself. Kevin Brownlow, a film historian and filmmaker advocates this book is both “a cultural history of our time”. And I agree with him as he concludes he is sure that;
“for those concerned with and interested in the arts, Great Britons of Stage and Screen: In Conversation will prove one of the most valuable books they could own”
And now to the book… Roisman Cooper’s preface beautifully sets the scene, with a wonderful anecdote on how this book came about. She credits Laurence Olivier for the book’s inception, as she met the actor, Stephen Greif, at the unveiling ceremony for Olivier’s statue at The National Theatre, in London. After they fell into a relaxed conversation about Greif’s stage career, they met again to talk more. This chat then spurred her on to meet with others to learn about their entertainment careers.
This warmly told preface was followed by her extensive interviews, with each of her subjects interviewed individually. The star-studded names are listed – as the cliche goes – in alphabetical order. Each chapter contains a wonderful quote from her interviewee, then a pictorial description of their meeting and a relevant biography written by Roisman Cooper. This information does not overlap the information recounted by her subject but adds to it.
The interview text covers their full careers from their childhood beginnings to their then present-day acting projects. Each question is tailored to the individual and their responses. Roisman adds a biographical list of credits relating to these individuals careers on stage, film and TV, awards and more. This is accompanied by some notes to illuminate more from the interview.
The chapters are accompanied by photographs of her subjects. In a nice thoughtful touch, these photographs are often supplied by her subject or the photograph taken by Roisman Cooper at their meeting. These photographs support the strong feeling that Roisman Cooper respects and cherishes the participants and this feeling is conveyed throughout this book.
So with Roisman Cooper as my companion, I now feel I’ve eaten pastries with Angela Lansbury, chewed the rag about Dynasty (1981) with Joan Collins, talked about the Second World War with Jean Simmons and talked Bond and Indiana Jones with Julian Glover. The book is a delight with so many familiar names interviewed. These also including Stephen Fry, Dame Eileen Atkins, Michael York and Simon Callow. To be honest, there was only one name I wasn’t familiar with. However, through reading this chapter, I was able to then remember them through their answers and their television career.
I use the word “interview” loosely here, as the book suggests these subjects aren’t so much interviewed, as it seems like they are more having an informal chat with a trusted, close friend in Roisman Cooper. She makes this “interview” more intimate by interviewing them in more relaxed surroundings including their green rooms, their personal homes and coffee houses.
Roisman Cooper’s questions are open, professional and insightful. They are tailored for each of her subjects as an individual and easily show Roisman’s extensive knowledge of these subjects. She clearly has an in-depth knowledge of all their contributions at all stages of their careers on stage and on screen and what interests them on a personal level. It is clear she listens to her subjects and as a result, the answers given to her could be beautifully weaved together in a more personal autobiography.
Roisman Cooper does not patronise or play up to her subjects. She speaks to them at their level in a way that is meaningful for them. Her always relevant questions demonstrate that Roisman Cooper has a firm grasp of subjects that are of interest to her interviewees. This technique is shown to benefit all, in those wonderfully detailed lengthy and wonderful personal answers. As well as providing an autobiography of sorts for her subjects, many of the responses tell anecdotes on other familiar names as they enlighten us with unique biographical tales of their acting peers such as Judi Dench, Albert Finney, Ian McShane, Lawrence Olivier and Bette Davis.
Her chapters include a few married acting couples – such as Jeremy Irons and his wife, Sinead Cusack and Isla Blair and her husband, Julian Glover. These acting couples were interviewed as individuals and not as a couple, giving each a chance to talk more as an individual performer. Sadly, Roisman compilation included a few interviewees in this book who had passed away before writing the book, and this book is now their legacy with a touching personal autobiography from those who hadn’t written one and a wonderful addition to those who had.
I am sure that in these interviews, Roisman has uncovered some previously unknown facts. It is clear her subjects were at ease with her as often difficult times and subjects were talked about. Or they were able to express things they hadn’t previously. Simon Callow for one expressed that learning a character was like learning a language and this thought was one that he spoke about naturally in his conversation with Roisman Cooper for the first time.
Here, from my notes from reading this book are a list of the subjects – also in alphabetical order – in this book (in block), with just some of their touching anecdotes as discussed with Roisman Cooper…
Eileen Atkins talked about how she created the period dramas, The House of Elliott and Upstairs Downstairs with actress Jean Marsh. Isla Blair added a delightful story about roles in Hammer films and working with Richard Harris. Simon Callow mentioned his Scottish acting debut and on directing Rod Steiger. Joan Collins remembered television work with Orson Welles and Lee Remick and revealed – to my joy – some Dynasty facts. Peggy Cummins recounted her – now lost – movie, Dr O’Dowd. And Sinéad Cusack revealed she is really called Jane, and her family refer to her antics as “doing a Janey”.
Samantha Eggar recalled films with Ian McShane and Donald Pleasence. Stephen Fry disclosed a passion for eating gull’s eggs. Julian Glover revealed he was a “serious contender” for the James Bond role. Stephen Greif remembered playing Captain Hook as a child with part of a coathanger for a hook. Jeremy Irons talked about his roles with Glenn Close. And Derek Jacobi added that his acting talents were spotted as he was working in Birmingham Rep by Lawrence Olivier.
Felicity Kendal talked about her childhood acting roles in India at the end of the Raj. Ben Kingsley beautifully described performing accents as “like playing a musical composition in different keys”. Angela Lansbury recounted her film debut in Gaslight. John Mills spoke about how his daughters Juliet and Hayley got their acting debut roles with more personal stories. And Alfred Molina remembered the musical where he met his actress wife, Jill Gascoine.
Lynn Redgrave remembered meeting Vivian Leigh, the day before Leigh died. Jean Simmons recalled the time she acted as Leigh’s double in a movie. David Suchet told of his LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) audition with a speech from Alfie. Richard Todd recounted how he became a founder member of the Dundee Rep theatre company and doing a Scottish accent for a movie. And last but by no means least, Michael York remembered working on those Musketeer films.
So reading their lovely true tales, I certainly don’t have a sinking feeling at the thought of this follow-up book, which is told from a director’s perspective. Looking at the cover, I immediately recognised the familiar name of Ronald Neame. He was the film director of one of those great disaster films with all-star casts, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and many more films and I Could Go On
A disclaimer and personal thank you to Barbara Roisman Cooper for giving me a copy of her book Great Britons of Stage and Screen: In Conversation. Also thanks for providing the photographs from this book that accompany the film posters in the slideshow. All copyright for these photographs belongs to Barbara Roisman Cooper. Financial compensation was not received, however, I received a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions expressed here are my own. If you would like your book to be featured or promoted here, please drop a line to me via my Contact Me Page.