The awkward art of acting English

The Oldie Magazine|June 2020

The awkward art of acting English
Diffidence, restraint, over-politeness... Robert Bathurst, the modern master of playing Englishmen, salutes the craft of his heroes
Robert Bathurst

This is a very broad commission – to discuss the acting of Englishness.

Rather than ring up the Editor and ask him to narrow the definition a bit, I’ll make a guess that what we’re tackling here is the unfashionable end of the market: the portrayal of middle- and upper-class, white, male characters whose emotional range is limited to restraint, embarrassment, insularity, awkwardness, perverse obliqueness, fear of intimacy, self-deprecation, hypocrisy, modesty, courtesy, deception, fair play, sarcasm, understatement, fence-sitting, fuss-avoiding, over-politeness, conformism and a searching for the happy medium in all things.

It’s a rich seam, full of subtlety. The actor of Englishness must get all of the above into the line ‘I do beg your pardon.’

The finest exponents of this style of acting, historically, often were from very different backgrounds from the characters they played. Part of an actor’s impetus to ToffIt Up A Bit in their off-stage persona came from within the profession itself.

Henry Irving lobbied vigorously for his knighthood, awarded in 1895. In accepting the honour, he said that it had elevated the acting profession’s respectability, giving long-overdue recognition of its place in society and at last actors could be accepted at Court, when for centuries they’d had the social status of vagrants and criminals.

Aside from the vainglory Irving may have enjoyed, he did have a point – though it is questionable why anyone thinks an actor should be given a gong. The profession, especially today, gets recognition enough and a K doesn’t make you a better actor. Most honour citations for actors should read ‘For services to their career’.

Despite Irving’s ennoblement, the acting profession remained insecure. In the 1930s, an actor in a play in London could be reprimanded by the management and threatened with suspension if seen walking in the West End without gloves and a hat; this criminal slovenliness let down the reputation of their profession.

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June 2020