I’ve always been a fan of John Betjeman. My earliest recollections of him are his TV interviews with Michael Parkinson, where he would come across as slightly bumbling, endearing like a favourite uncle, and with a wicked sense of humour. My big connection with him came with his TV film of Metroland. I went to Merchant Taylors’ school, in the heart of that mythical metropolitan county, and remember seeing the film crew at Moor Park station coming to record a sequence of him playing golf and watching the security guard refuse entry to a driver who just wanted to cut through the estate (after all, it was private!) He also filmed in Amersham, where I had many friends, and his Metroland journey ended up north of Aylesbury, where the train ran no more, at the little halt known as Quainton Road Station. That’s now a tourist attraction where Thomas the Tank Engine often comes to entertain, and I don’t know what Betjeman would have made of that.
Betjeman played by Edward Fox? An interesting concept. Like Betjeman, Edward Fox often cuts a larger than life figure on stage, making full use of his extraordinary voice with which he can make magic. His sonorous loquaciousness swirls around his throat like a 20-year-old Tawny coating the sides of an antique cut glass. He can stretch out a sentence, a phrase, even a word, so that it lasts so much longer than it would appear on a page, giving your brain uninterrupted opportunity to appreciate its full significance. I first saw Mr Fox on stage back in 1979 in Michael Elliott’s gripping production of T S Eliot’s The Family Reunion – he was every inch a star then and it has not diminished one iota since.
But as Betjeman? Betjeman didn’t sound like Edward Fox. He had quite a thin voice, somewhat tentative and lacking authority; the voice of the quiet, unassuming man that I believe Betjeman truly was. I always thought of Betjeman reading his own work as like listening to someone observing life from the sidelines, rather than participating in it. He would obsess on minor details in the background, and allow the reader/listener to fill in the gaps. But here’s the thing – Sand in the Sandwiches works absolutely! Mr Fox’s Betjeman acquires the patina of age; he is a more rounded personality, not bumbling but resolute. Moreover, Betjeman’s poetry responds beautifully to his interpretation. Miss Joan Hunter Dunn has never been so physically relished as she is in Mr Fox’s eyes; Oscar Wilde has never been so firmly removed from the Cadogan Hotel.
Hugh Whitemore has taken a number of Betjeman’s works – both popular and less well-known – and woven them seamlessly into a sequential narration of important events in Betjeman’s life, to create this charming and insightful one-man play. There are his well-documented days at Marlborough, and vivid recollections of friends like W H Auden and Tom Driberg; there are also the private experiences like the extraordinary day when his train stopped for ages at the station nearest to his father’s office, and he wondered whether he should visit him. It’s not all whisperingly reverent either. When Mr Fox tells us how it is decided he should address his new father-in-law, or Churchill’s reaction to Driberg’s marriage, or his own reaction to the Manchester Guardian’s opinion of his becoming Poet Laureate, he has us in stitches.
I thought this play could go one of two ways – it would either be serenely terrific, or it would be po-faced and dull. I’m delighted to tell you there’s nothing remotely po-faced nor dull about it. Mr Fox holds your attention from the very start to the very end; his delivery is intricate and exquisite; if he left a long gap of silence, you wouldn’t dare try to fill it. A surprise hit; after its few days in Northampton, the show has a week at the Theatre Royal Haymarket followed by visits to Cambridge, Malvern, Woking, Brighton and Bath. If you’re a fan of Betjeman, you’ll adore the reminiscences and the chance to hear his words again. If you’re a fan of Edward Fox, you’ll wallow in his effortless skill at bringing these words to life. Highly recommended!