The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Look at Leo

Leo McKern, best known for playing Horace Rumpole, was the author of a memoir, Just Resting (1983). I'd long wanted to read it, as I am a fan not just of McKern's portrayal of Rumpole, but his work in A Man for All Seasons, The Prisoner, and his superb Gloucester in Laurence Olivier's Lear. In all his acting, I sensed a nuanced intelligence, and an emotional depth held in check, that hinted something about the private man that I found intriguing. And, to be frank, I was curious about the backstage view, especially, but not only, of the Rumpole teleplays.

Recently, I found a copy of McKern's memoir, and it's a fascinating read, though not what I expected. McKern was not that interested in backstage gossip, and considered Rumpole to be a piece, and not the largest, of his career (he was known as a distinguished interpreter of Ibsen's plays, and valued that reputation). What I did find, though, was a writer of surprising sensitivity, with an enjoyably literary style, and with a wry sense of humor.

I'm only partway through the memoir, but two passages struck me. The first is a sonnet McKern wrote, which he uses as the book's epigraph:
Actor's Birthday

Another onion-skin, another year
Is Gynt-like thinly stripped and drops behind;
The cues for laughter difficult to hear
And reasons for excitement hard to find.

The thicker make-up in the mirror's heart
Hides deeper now the frantic youth within
Who impotently watches every part
Grow duller, greyer, weaker, paler, thin.

Bitter, that while time perfects the skill,
Supplies at last all motives and intents,
The gifts of age that complement the will
Sharpen the craft, but dull the instruments.

A juvenile; his rusting, certain cage
An old fat actor exiting downstage.

L. McK.
I have to say, I rather like that.

I also rather like McKern's sense of justice; he tells a story that illuminates, better than I have ever been able to explain, why I have never been able to enjoy gambling, eve when I win:
I remember a poker game with some of the all-male cast of a war film, one of a continuous series of games that took place during the inevitable waiting periods between set-ups. The star of the film was a winner, which I am not, and though this is a possible shortcoming in me, I think it depends on where you want to go. He would use the weight of his money in these otherwise friendly games to block out players who may have had better hands, but not the riskable money to bank them. During this particular game, I was dealt, and sat on, the 7, 8 10, and Jack of Clubs, discarding and buying one card. I would have been very lucky to have drawn another club, but for the first time in my life, I drew the 9 to make a routine flush. Bidding began and rose until only the "winner" and I were left. He had bought two cards, and a good hand was indicated by the possibility of three of a kind. He drew in fact a pair of Queens, and had a full hand, aces high, and with this ammunition pushed hard at the bidding to make the biggest killing he could.

The pot reached about L 90.

I knew that my hand was unbeatable. I knew that high bidding would not win him this hand. He simply could not win. And that was unfair.

So I called. And that, I suppose, makes me a loser.
Not to me. I get it.

Here's Leo McKern, as Rumpole, reciting William Wordsworth: