TONY VAN BRIDGE. Also In the Cast: The Memoirs of Tony van Bridge. Oakville, Ontario, Mosaic Press and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, The Academy of the Shaw Festival, 1995. viii, 207 pp. Illus., theatrical chronology, index. $18.95 CDN paper only.
LESLIE YEO. A Thousand and One First Nights. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press and Niagara-on-the-Lake, The Academy of the Shaw Festival, 1998. viii, 294 pp. Illus., theatrical chronology, London Theatre Co. performance calendar, index. $19.95 CDN paper only.
During rehearsals for the Manitoba Theatre Centre's 1998 production of The Crucible, Martha Henry and I had a lively discussion about the enshrining of Canadian entertainment personalities in books. Martha deplored that we had so few, "Maybe 20." And I countered, "We're doing better" and came up with a list of 50, drawn from memory. Remembering that conversation, I went to my library today and was startled to discover that I actually have (or know about) not 50, but 154 Canadian biographical works! Are we losing some of that doleful reticence? Or, in answer to Denis Johnston's provocative editorial query in A 1001 First Nights, are there really some famous Canadian actors after all?
Christopher Newton, Denis Johnston, and Mosaic Press must be applauded for venturing into this co-publication series. At first glance, the two volumes sponsored by the Shaw Festival appear to cover similar ground. Both are by veteran Anglo-Canadian performers (and, ironically, former interim Artistic Directors) who trained in weekly British repertory, served in the war, and then emigrated to Canada in the 1950s. But there the similarities end, for these are memoirs by diametrically different personalities.
Tony van Bridge is a classical actor, as charmingly self-deprecating as his book title suggests, who aspired to be a singer, but studied acting at RADA instead, and then apprenticed with the Young and Old Vic Companies. Feeling that he was getting nowhere in postwar England, Tony came to Canada at the age of 37 where he was hired almost immediately to play memorable leading roles with the Canadian Players (Othello) and the Stratford and Shaw Festivals (Falstaff and J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, which he also directed). In 1970, he pioneered a solo tribute to G.K. Chesterton, possibly the first of a cycle of Canadian one-man shows that he toured for 25 years. And for three seasons in the 1980s, he headlined the CBC TV series Judge. A generous 24-page photo section evokes the range of this accomplished player. Tony gives us a smile or chuckle every other page and turns a phrase delightfully (Herbert Whittaker was "a kindly tongue in a kindly cheek"). Indeed his sense of humor blossoms as he takes to farm life in Canada and wonders about the conference potential of the two-holed privy. I'll not easily forget his delicious tale of designer Leslie Hurry's first attempt to make an 85 cent phone call at Malton airport armed with two moose, three schooners, and a beaver, nor Tony's assertion that "An autobiography is a story told by someone who suspects that if he doesn't write it himself, nobody else will." While Christopher Newton says that Tony sees himself at the "edge of the frame," there are also little nuggets of centre stage honesty amidst the anecdotal flow, such as Tony's analysis of himself as a romantic Englishman inclined to expect the best and get "quite put out when I don't get it." And there's also the day when his dignity is assaulted during a Galileo rehearsal when a lowly 12 year-old prompts him. Then, too, there's the vanity of adding a little "van" to his solid, middle-class name of Anthony Bridge. Tony writes insightfully about directors, such as Michel Saint-Denis, Michael Langham, and Tyrone Guthrie, but I missed some greater analysis of his own stellar performances. A short chapter on Falstaff reveals little or nothing of his approach to this great role. And while he admits to an ongoing love of trains, he omits telling us about his own superb model train collection. Tony's memoirs are deft and objective, like a carefully crafted performance. He handles pain or pleasure with gentle restraint.
Leslie Yeo is cut from different English cloth. He's "in your face," shrewd, and ballsy. What do you say about an autobiography that begins with a Grandpa who farts and "liked to put his hand inside ladies' blouses"? Or one that details his loss of virginity to a hooker, the fathering of an unknown daughter in India, and the ardent wooing of another man's wife? Where Tony's memories take us chronologically to 1990, Leslie quickly charts his sparky U.K. beginnings and then spends the rest of his book telling the amazing story of the founding and development of the London Theatre Company in St. John's, which he managed from 1951 to 1957. It covers approximately 200 pages and should be required reading for every artistic director in Canada. There's no need for a sequel because Leslie's post-1957 career is documented in the Theatrical Chronology, and he flashes forward occasionally to inform us about his second wife, 20 years as an entrepreneur of major Industrial Shows, and a quintuple bypass in 1986.
After catching "the actor-manager virus" on a 14-week historical visit to Newfoundland in 1947, Leslie maps out his cultural assault. At the age of 35 and self-taught, he emerges as a commercial genius; dissecting endless budgets with surgical skill; den-mothering actors through a 26-week season; one-upping a recalcitrant partner; and then taking the company on tour to Halifax, New Brunswick, and Southern Ontario, where often there had been no theatre for 30 years. And all of this unsponsored and unsubsidized. Eventually, the London Theatre Co. was defeated by television and one newspaper's hate campaign, but it ended "never having had a single losing season." They mounted 107 productions in their 6 years and brought 98 actors to Canada of whom Leslie and 22 others stayed. It's a funny, page-turning primer because Leslie wears his thoughts and emotions on his sleeve. In 1999, the Canadian Authors' Association chose A 1001 First Nights for the Birks Family Foundation Award for best Canadian biography.
Make no mistake; these are "good reads." Both these actor-authors can write. Tony confesses to poetic inclinations, a drawer filled with first acts and early chapters, and a pirate play he sold to the BBC. Leslie, too, is a playwright, and his early years writing advertising copy and editing in-house magazines explain his ability to capture and hold our attention. Currently at age 85, Leslie is completing a domestic comedy.
Both volumes have been meticulously edited (compared to Mosaic's previous unforgivable edition of William Hutt, a Theatre Portrait). I could find only one computer glitch (on p.144 of Also in the Cast). Sensibly, both books are published only in paperback to help them find the popular market they so richly deserve.