TOPSY-TURVY TOM

The Visual CV: in a career spanning half a century, Sir Tom Courtenay has gone from a new-wave warrior to a grand old man, via a fool or two (usually called Norman). Irving Wardle picks his best roles on stage and screen

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

1960 The Seagull
Arriving on the London stage as a RADA graduate from the fish docks of Hull, Tom Courtenay achieved overnight fame as Chekhov’s Konstantin. This was a time when British audiences were used to seeing Konstantin as a lyrically romantic juvenile. What they saw in the 23-year-old Courtenay was a shabby, flat-vowelled malcontent whose filial conflict with Judith Anderson’s queenly Arkadina went beyond the play to dramatise the theatrical war then blazing between the new wave and the old guard. Never has a young actor’s debut been better timed.

1962 The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner
1963 Billy Liar
Always most at home on the stage, Courtenay went on to consolidate his reputation with three films. In "The Loneliness..." he played a borstal boy who wrecks his chances of an athletic career as a gesture of class defiance. It is a thoroughly English film, rendered extraordinary by the coup of dropping Courtenay’s Dostoyevskian outsider into a true-blue approved school. His inner monologue in that film broke surface in "Billy Liar": the tale of an under-achieving undertaker’s clerk whose drab existence is interrupted with riotous enactments of fantasy life. Courtenay explores his stylistic resources and searches for his own voice, while bursting into full bloom as a comic actor.

1965 Dr Zhivago (right)
In David Lean’s Pasternak adaptation Courtenay resumed his Russian persona as Pasha Antipov. Without much screen time, he delivers the arc of an entire life: a non-violent idealist who suffers the brutality of tsarist repression, only to freeze into an impersonal agent of the Bolshevik state. No actor is better at registering the shock of a fresh physical wound; particularly here, where the process of healing into an unsmiling zealot in steel-rimmed spectacles is uglier than the wound itself.

1974 The Norman Conquests
After Billy Liar, Courtenay was inescapable casting for the anarchic assistant librarian hero of Alan Ayckbourn’s family reunion trilogy.  Another dead-end fantasist like Billy, Norman at least tries to shake things up in the real world—attempting to infect the rest of the party with escapist dreams. Indefatigably chipping away at the domestic façade while tanking up on dandelion wine, this wild-card performance was essential Courtenay—a life of quiet desperation turned up to full volume.

1975 The Fool  
1980 The Dresser
In Edward Bond’s "The Fool" Courtenay was bleakly memorable as John Clare, driven into silence and madness by the inhumanities of daily life. He played another fool in Ronald Harwood’s "The Dresser", a play about the last days of a Lear-ish actor-manager which also echoes the plot of "King Lear". The role of Norman the dresser/fool was made for Courtenay’s ugly-duckling tenacity—rousing the inert hulk of his boss into a semblance of kingship while nursing a half-bottle of Scotch. It seemed that the experience of a whole working life had gone into this commandingly old-maidish portrait.  

1993 Moscow Stations
Courtenay’s Russian odyssey moved on to the Soviet Underground in this one-man adaptation of Venedikt Yerofeyev’s novel. A dropout bureaucrat celebrating his regained integrity with a non-stop binge on the Moscow-Petushki line, the role showed Courtenay once again releasing a buried dissident voice. The cawing tone and the despairingly assertive gestures took you back to Billy Liar, while the sense of achieving freedom and intellectual self-respect through suicidal drinking led him to the topsy-turvy centre of Brezhnev’s Russia.

2008 Little Dorrit (top)
Mr Dorrit in this BBC series illustrates Courtenay’s belief that drama arises from the tension of inner and outer life—made visible in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison and the streets of London. The imprisoned Dorrit is a nonentity who sees himself as a star; and escaping his cell is no escape from his inner reality. He capitalises on his inability to play leaders; Dorrit’s pretence of leadership arouses irritation and pity. The portrait glitters with giveaway details, illuminating the contradictions of incurable narcissism. His final collapse, at a society banquet, into a Marshalsea of the mind is another example of essential Courtenay, raised to tragic magnitude.

2012 Quartet
After a cameo as an improbably tweedy major in "Gambit", Courtenay appears, heart-warmingly, as a retired opera singer in the film of Harwood’s "Quartet". Senior film-goers who find their pulses skipping in response to this affirmation of old age might spare a thought for the bitterly unreconciled performances that made Courtenay’s name.

Quartet now showing in Britain

Irving Wardle was the theatre critic of the Times 1963-89. He is the author of "Theatre Criticism" and "The Theatres of George Devine"

Picture BBC, Kobal