Feuds and power struggles often make great drama: just ask William Shakespeare. But sometimes the friction isn’t only on the stage. Last January, the behind-the-scenes turmoil at the Bolshoi Ballet erupted on to the street and into the press when the artistic director had acid thrown his face. In comparison, the turbulence at the National Theatre during the early 1970s as it made the difficult transition into its new home on London’s South Bank – well documented by then artistic director Sir Peter Hall in his Diaries (1983) – was relatively civilised. But it was keenly felt. Such was the friction between Hall and associate directors Jonathan Miller and Michael Blakemore that both men resigned. Only last year, a biography of Jonathan Miller reignited his feud with Sir Peter, and now Blakemore has written his own account of that time in a new memoir, Stage Blood.
In the intervening four decades, Blakemore, now 85, consolidated a successful and distinguished career as a director. And the very name of the book suggests that he brings a degree of ironic perspective to events. Even so, as we sit sipping tea in Blakemore’s sunny central London flat, all those disputes seem, as indeed they are, half a lifetime away. The dust has surely settled. Why blow it off now?
The answer, says Blakemore, a courteous and quietly spoken man, is partly practical – he has only recently had the time to write the book – and partly personal. “I wanted to do it because I felt that the account given in Peter Hall’s Diaries is an incomplete one, to put it at its most charitable. But, also, when I returned to the story, it seemed to me to be much more interesting than I realised at the time. ”
Stage Blood is, indeed, a vivid, personal account of a fascinating period in British theatre. Blakemore, an associate director at the National Theatre under Laurence Olivier, was on hand to witness the highs and lows of the protracted move to the new theatre. His book describes life with Olivier, chronicles the change of guard from Olivier to Hall and charts the shows good and bad. It also details his growing unhappiness at Hall’s management style and the role of the associate directors. Matters came to a head when Blakemore delivered a paper, outlining his concerns, to an associates’ meeting in March 1976. His anger arises not just from Hall’s response but from the way that period was portrayed in Hall’s Diaries.
“If I’d been after revenge, the easiest way for me to do it would have been to resign and kick up a fuss outside,” he says. “But I didn’t do that: it was done in-house. And the most hurtful thing to me was that I’d taken immense pains to establish the integrity of the process whereby I criticised him and to have that afterwards represented as a conspiracy with outside people made me very angry.”
In his autobiography Hall refers to Blakemore as an “enemy within”; in Stage Blood Blakemore describes Hall as “the greediest man I had ever known”. Yet Blakemore also records that in recent decades, when he and Hall have met, they have “invariably been courteous to each other”. So is he concerned that his memoir will open old wounds?
“I am concerned because I have no wish to cause him or his family unhappiness,” he says. “I don’t want to do that ... Other people will have to decide whether I have been malicious. I don’t think I have. I tried really hard not to be.
“I felt I must give my side of the story. I don’t think I had a great thought of settling of scores – it’s all such a long way away. But I certainly wanted to put my side of it. I have to say that in writing it my real pleasure was in thinking, ‘Wow, this is quite an interesting story.’ ”
Interesting, he adds, partly because of the bigger picture. “I think round about the 1970s, with Thatcher coming to power, throughout British society, we were moving away from the old ethos of public service and community and into this new world that we now occupy ... When, as an Australian from a rather conservative country and a very conservative background, I arrived in England [in 1950] and experienced things like the National Health, the Labour Exchange and the public libraries, I found it quite thrilling. I hated to see all this undone.”
Politics of all varieties aside, the book also offers an eye-catching cast list. Names you now see only on bookshelves walk the corridors: playwright Harold Pinter, director John Dexter, critic Kenneth Tynan and, surely the most striking of all, Laurence Olivier. Blakemore gives an intimate description of working with Olivier and of directing him, in 1971, in Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth drama Long Day’s Journey into Night. So what was the legendary actor really like in the flesh? That, says Blakemore, depended on “which Olivier” you met.
“He was so many different things. He could be generous, he could be quite spiteful, he could be, as a performer, quite extraordinary. I don’t think he was a better actor than a lot of his contemporaries but as a performer-magician there was nobody like him. He could pull things out of a hat that just took your breath away.”
While Long Day’s Journey was a revival, perhaps Blakemore’s most rewarding experiences were in steering new works on to stage. Among the premieres he staged were many works by Peter Nichols – including Privates on Parade (1977), The National Health (1969) and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967) – and Michael Frayn, such as his brilliant farce Noises Off (1982) and nuclear physics play Copenhagen (1998). Both these playwrights have recently been celebrated in British theatre, with audiences marvelling afresh at their audacity. But it must have been nerve-racking to rehearse those plays not knowing, as we do now, that they were going to work.
Looking back over his career, Blakemore says, it is moments such as the instant when he and Frayn realised that the audience was embracing the serious challenge of Copenhagen that had given him the most joy: “It recharged my faith in theatre.
“I’ve had moments of pleasure watching my shows out of all proportion to any other aspect of my life,” he admits, with a smile. “It’s quite shameful! It’s also tragic because once it goes, it goes ... Still, it’s been a pretty good way of filling the time.”
‘Stage Blood’ is published by Faber on September 19, www.faber.co.uk