The Brettish Empire


"Troilus and Cressida" caricature by Sam Norkin 1956

by Lisa L. Oldham

The cue bells sound, alerting theatregoers that the play is about to start--time to take their seats. The house lights dim. The curtain goes up.

A tall, slender, handsome young man walks onto the stage. His name might be Mercury, or Troilus; Roderick, or Ron; Peter, or Reverend Highfield--or even Hamlet. He moves with patrician grace and speaks in a regal, cultured voice.

Who is this chap? Programmes rustle. Ah, here it is--"Mr. Jeremy Brett."

Long before Jeremy Brett portrayed the Sherlock Holmes we came to know and admire, he had a successful and distinguished career on the stage. His stage career spanned 35 years. During that time, Jeremy performed in plays ranging from the classic to the avant-garde; from grave drama to light comedy; and, he was privileged to work with some of the greatest names in international theatre.

Unfortunately, because of the ephemeral nature of the theatre--plays open and close, and many aren't recorded for future generations to enjoy--most of us never had the opportunity to experience Jeremy's theatrical performances. What follows is a glimpse at what we missed:

In 1951, Jeremy entered London's Central School of Speech and Drama. Founded in 1906 by Elsie Fogerty, Central's most famous alumni was arguably Laurence Olivier, who graduated in 1925.  

Actress Jennie Goosens, who entered Central during Jeremy's final year there, later told author Lolly Susi that JB the student was "too gorgeous to look at directly"[!]

While at Central, Jeremy adopted the stage name of "Brett" and made his feature film debut in Svengali, starring Donald Wolfit and Hildegarde Neff. Although his name is not in the credits, Jeremy played a French art student in this obscure version of the famous Svengali story. And, as mentioned in "Berkswell Boy, Pt. II", Jeremy had difficulty saying the "r" sound (an impediment clinically known as "rhotacism"), which the excellent Speech Therapy department at Central helped him to overcome.

Jeremy was also associated with Mask and Dagger, a Central student organization founded to raise money to build a standalone school (Central classes were actually taught in the Royal Albert Hall building at this time). One way the Mask and Dagger raised money was by putting on plays. During his second year at Central, Jeremy helped another student serve coffee at one of the plays. 

One of the student plays in which Jeremy acted, Purcell's King Arthur, was an unintentional comedy of errors. The play's director had inexplicably lowered an extra bar of lights at Stage Left. As the curtain rose, the cast paraded onstage carrying banners, which got caught in the lowered lights and ignited. The parade of actors tripped and fell forward like dominoes into the smouldering banners. Things continued to go downhill from there, but Jeremy's performance as "an Iceberg" was later recalled as "memorable" by students in attendance. 

Before leaving the Central School in 1954, JB participated in the annual "public matinee" performance and received what may have been his earliest review in the Times of London: 

"The annual matinee by students of the Central School of Speech and Drama is always worth watching, and the performance at the Scala Theatre yesterday afternoon, which went to Shaw, Moliere, Mr. O'Casey, Mr. Maugham, and Henry Arthur Jones for its excerpts, once again introduced two or three young actors whom one would like, and rather expects, to see again.

 "Of the hero and heroine of the afternoon there was no doubt whatever. The scene from The Misanthrope, in Mr. Miles Malleson's translation, had not been under way five minutes before it was plain that the brilliant bickering of Celimene and Alceste proceeded from a mutual affection as deep as it was differently expressed. It is not impossible to drill young actors into stylish performances, but when the characters begin to show between the lines, as Miss Wendy Craig and Mr. Jeremy Brett discovered Celimene and Alceste to yesterday's audience, we may be sure that it is the work only of strong natural talent. 

"Since even good actors are better in some parts than in others, and may be quite bad in parts which do not suit them, it is the sensible custom at these matinees to show most of the performers in more than one role. Mr. Brett was fortunate in having, in the part of the disappointed host in the second act of The Liars, a part that suited him, and it must be said that the second act of The Liars was fortunate in having him." :)

The Times review notes that Jeremy was awarded the "Elsie Fogerty Prize" (named for the school's founder) and the "William Poel Memorial Prize" (named for one of Fogerty's mentors, a British theatrical producer) following the matinee. (Some sources say that Jeremy also won the "Gold Medal" and the "Laurence Olivier Award" for "best all-around actor", but the Times review does not list a Gold Medal award here and the Laurence Olivier prize was actually awarded to another actor.) 

When Jeremy left the Central School in 1954, he became a repertory player at the Library Theatre in Manchester, England. One of his first roles was as "Bruno Hurst" in Marching Song by John Whiting. He appeared in other plays including Shakespeare's Othello, where he played "Cassio" ("Desdemona" was portrayed by Rosalie Williams, who would later play "Mrs. Hudson" in his Sherlock Holmes series), Amphitryon 38, Puss in Boots, Saint Joan, Richard II, and Julius Caesar. Young Jeremy specialized in juvenile leads and reportedly nearly lost his job at the Library because he made his older leading lady look...well, older.

Jeremy Brett as "Brother Martin Ladvenu" in Saint Joan 
at the Manchester Library Theatre
(with actress Jessie Evans, 1955)


Jeremy managed to stay employed, however, and caught the eye of American film director King Vidor. Vidor saw Jeremy's photo in Spotlight, a directory of British actors, and cast him as "Nicholas Rostov" in the Technicolor spectacle War and Peace, released in 1956. Jeremy spent six months filming at Rome's Cinecitta Studios (with some location filming in the Italian Alps). Although he was dazzled by the bright Italian sun ("The sun was so bright I had to sit in the loo") and by his brilliant co-star, Audrey Hepburn ("I almost drowned in the pool because of the beauty of her"), Jeremy returned to the British stage after his brief fling with film.

JB and co-stars on Italian magazine cover, 1955

Jeremy joined the venerable Old Vic theatre company and made his London stage debut on April 3, 1956, as "Patroclus," the slave whose death leads to the tragic denouement of Shakespeare's Trojan tale Troilus and Cressida. Troilus ran in repertory with Macbeth (where JB played "Malcolm"), Romeo and Juliet (where he played "Paris" and understudied John Neville's Romeo) and Richard II (where he played "The Duke of Aumerle").

Incidentally, a programme for Richard II in the author's collection captures one audience member's enthusiastic reaction to the play. The anonymous playgoer wrote on the programme, "Marvelous...High spot of shows so far...John Neville and Paul Rogers excellent...John of Gaunt [Rogers] gave curtain speech in his night gown and brought down the house...About 10 curtain calls and calls for speeches...Audience went wild as at a baseball game or bobby soxers for Frank Sinatra."

Old Vic programme, London, 1956    

Also in the cast of Troilus and Cressida was Jeremy's future Sherlock Holmes sibling, Charles Gray, portraying "Achilles." (Both actors are shown below in the London production, JB at left and Gray at right, with Richard Wordsworth in the center as "Ulysses.") 

Photo by Houston-Rogers, 1956

By the time this production reached Broadway in December 1956, Jeremy had graduated to playing "Troilus" opposite Rosemary Harris' "Cressida" (see below). 

Autographed publicity pic of JB & Rosemary Harris, 1956

Before the Old Vic reached Broadway, however, the company toured the UK during the summer of 1956. Troilus and Cressida wasn't presented on the UK tour. The tour repertory consisted of the three other plays performed in London:  Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II. The itinerary included such cities as Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester. 

Then, the troupe traveled  with the three plays to Montreal and Toronto in Canada. In Toronto, the Star newspaper described Jeremy as "a stalwart if glum Paris" in Romeo and Juliet and "a handsome Malcolm" in Macbeth.

Finally, the Old Vic reached the US in late October. The tour's Broadway leg kicked off with Richard II, joined in rotation by Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. 

Old Vic playbill, New York, 1956

Troilus and Cressida
re-joined the repertory in late December. Although it premiered last, it was hardly least. Troilus was the production which generated most of the publicity and reviews during the Old Vic's stint on the Great White Way. 

And, no wonder. The Old Vic's Troilus and Cressida was staged both in London and New York by Tyrone Guthrie, the famed theatrical director who had encouraged Jeremy to attend the Central School. Guthrie was known for his unconventional stagings, and this production was no exception. Some reviews described this version of  Troilus and Cressida as having an "Edwardian" setting, circa 1912. (In the play's program, Guthrie sets the date at "just before 1914.") 

According to Gradesaver, "Tyrone Guthrie's 1956 Troilus at the Old Vic in London was sardonic and unapologetic. This enormously influential production was set at the beginning of World War I, which Guthrie explained was the last time Europeans thought of war as a game."

However, elements of other eras were evident, as well. Some scenes seemed to take place in no particular era at all. Part of the cast wore Edwardian apparel; others wore Graustarkian garb; still others wore suits of armor. (Jeremy's Troilus wore a white mess jacket and bow tie.) Guthrie wasn't overly reverential toward the material: directing Jeremy and Rosemary in a scene, he advised, "This is where Shakespeare needs a little help."

Critics didn't know what to make of this Troilus and Cressida. Brooks Atkinson called it "Mr. Guthrie's practical joke." He had kinder words for Jeremy: "Jeremy Brett's youthful, eager Troilus, who can hardly believe Cressida's treachery, is...a first-rate bit of straightforward acting."

Jeremy Brett and Rosemary Harris by Alfredo Valente 1956

Debuting on Broadway was a magical experience for Jeremy. He and his co-stars were caricatured by cartoonist Al Hirschfeld for the New York Times. (No, Jeremy's likeness didn't contain the "NINA"--that honor went to Coral Browne.) They were also sketched by caricaturist Sam Norkin (see above). 

Jeremy later told an interviewer about a star-studded party he attended with Rosemary Harris in New York. After going from room to room and glimpsing celebrity after celebrity--Edward G. Robinson, Charles Laughton, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, the Gish sisters, Judy Garland, Stanley Holloway--Jeremy told his leading lady he was going to lock himself in the kitchen because he was afraid if he saw any more stars, he'd faint!

JB (center) enjoys a performance by entertainer Burl Ives along with other Old Vic players including Claire Bloom and John Neville (right). This photo was presumably snapped during the Old Vic's Broadway run in 1956, 
when Ives was portraying "Big Daddy" in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.

In early 1957, the tour traveled to other US cities including Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Jeremy debuted on US television on March 4, 1957, as "Paris" in Romeo and Juliet. (John Neville and Claire Bloom played the title roles.) This NBC broadcast also marked the Old Vic's debut on US television, and was the last stop on their 1956-'57 tour. 

Accent on Youth

After his tour with the Old Vic company, Jeremy returned to England. In 1957, he appeared (and sang) at London's Aldwych Theatre as "Roderick" in the period musical Meet Me By Moonlight. This production also ran briefly at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge. A reviewer for the Cambridge Daily News described Roderick as "a young man, played in a very bronzed and personable way by Jeremy Brett, who is so Byronic and romantic that he nightly leaps a ten-foot garden wall and presents the object of his elevated desires with a rose from her own father's garden, when all the house is asleep."

Programme, London, 1957    Programme, London, 1958

Jeremy still played roles with an accent on youth. For example, in 1958, at age 25, he starred opposite Margaret Leighton in Terrence Rattigan's Variation on a Theme (at London's Globe Theatre, following a six-night tryout at the Hippodome in Golders Green) directed by John Gielgud. "Mr. Jeremy Brett" (as the British reviewers customarily referred to him) played "Ron," a handsome ballet dancer who affects a French accent, and, according to one hysterical review, "has no hips and no morals." 

In Cannes, Ron meets "Rose" (Leighton) a consumptive, much-married older woman from Birmingham. Rose is planning to wed a wealthy German industrialist, but falls for Ron when she learns that he, too, is actually from Birmingham! This annoys Rose's fiancÚ, who gives Ron such a shove that the boy suffers grievous bodily harm. Rose is further dissuaded from pursuing Ron by a visit from his former "patron." Rose reluctantly dictates a "Dear Ron" letter and prepares once more to marry Herr Moneybags. However, Ron returns and tearfully asks her to reconsider. Rose is so touched, she abandons her fiancÚ to spend the final days of her life with Ron, the hipless wonder.

Despite the stellar talent involved, Variation on a Theme was an earthbound effort, generally dismissed by critics as a variation on Camille, retooled as a vehicle for Ms. Leighton. (Although Noel Coward wrote, "Young Jeremy Brett excellent.") The fault was not in the play's stars, however, but apparently in the characters themselves. One reviewer grumbled, "The two principal characters are utterly worthless."

(Incidentally, the Globe Theatre where Variation on a Theme was presented  is now called the Gielgud Theatre in honor of John Gielgud.)

Also in 1958, Jeremy portrayed "Eugene Marchbanks" in George Bernard Shaw's Candida. But, his most important role that year was "husband." On May 24, he took 21 year-old actress Anna Massey as his bride in a society wedding photographed by Lord Snowdon. Anna had charmed West End audiences as The Reluctant Debutante in 1955. Although Anna received no theatrical training before debuting in Debutante, she had a theatrical pedigree. Her father was Canadian-born character actor Raymond Massey, who had begun his film career in the 1930's playing Sherlock Holmes in a British version of The Speckled Band. Her mother was British actress and socialite Adrianne Allen. Anna's brother, Daniel, had attended Eton with Jeremy, and many years later played "Neil Gibson" opposite Jeremy's Holmes in The Problem of Thor Bridge. Jeremy's and Anna's only child, David Raymond William, was born on August 14, 1959.

Programme, London, 1959    Programme, London, 1959

Now with a family to support, Jeremy kept busy in 1959. He portrayed "William MacFly," the scheming secretary in Mr. Fox of Venice. As the program noted, "...Jeremy Brett has another rewarding role:  an unusual sort of major-domo with most unexpected duties in unpredictable situations. But, he is, of course, even in this early stage of his career, a young actor with a quite varied experience and a particular flair for the nonchalance essential to this type of part."

Critics weren't crazy about Mr. Fox, but Theatre World thought that all the actors, including Jeremy, brought "distinction to their parts."  

Later in the year, Jeremy played "Archie Forsyth" in the musical Marigold, and "Sebastian," an eccentric, lovestruck young duke in The Edwardians.

In 1960, Jeremy starred as "Reverend Richard Highfield," a conscientious East End vicar in the musical Johnny The Priest, based on The Telescope by R. C. Sherriff.

Rev. Highfield ministers to a gang of hoodlums. He nearly succeeds in reforming one boy, Johnny, by giving him a telescope. With the telescope, Johnny is able to use his imagination and peer beyond his dreary slum surroundings into a future with promise. However, Rev. Highfield later faces a moral dilemma after Johnny commits assault while robbing a junk store. The frightened youth asks the vicar to corroborate his false alibi to the police. However, Highfield refuses to lie for Johnny, and the boy is incarcerated.

JB & Bunny May in "Johnny the Priest" 1960

It wasn't exactly West Side Story, and most reviewers didn't rave about the play, although they seemed to like Jeremy's performance. In fact, The Daily Mail stated, "Jeremy Brett...displays a compelling stage presence that holds much of the play's action together."

The Times of London
said, "Mr. Jeremy Brett plays the vicar with sincerity, and sings his not very taking songs well, but some of his lines are terribly parsonical, such as 'I don't smoke myself, but I keep a few [cigarettes] for my friends,' or 'We must find you lads something interesting to do on these long evenings.'" 

And, from the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post: "Jeremy Brett, in particular, deserves credit for his presentation of Highfield. The danger in acting a man who will not tell a lie to save a friend is manifest; one touch of priggishness and the sympathy of the audience is lost. Mr. Brett gives him the honourable simplicity which convinces us that for him only one course of action is possible. Also, and this is a surprise to me at least, he sings acceptably." 

Finally, Harold Hobson wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: "Jeremy Brett gave a fine and patient performance as the parson."

Unfortunately, Johnny the Priest was a bust at the box office. It lost a whopping 25,000 pounds in just 11 days at the Princes Theatre in London, and, not surprisingly, closed after only 14 performances. 

Critic Hobson noted that the play was booed on its first night. He suggested Johnny the Priest failed because (a) it echoed West Side Story, but wasn't as good; (b) the score was in a minor key, which fit the story, but which also meant there weren't any hummable tunes; and (c) it dealt with Christianity at a time when much contemporary British drama was anti-religion. 

Hobson concluded, "...I consider Mr. Sherriff's play, while far from perfect, a very striking and gallant contribution to a stage which has for the moment largely forgotten the Christian tradition of English literature."

Johnny the Priest also marked Jeremy Brett's last appearance in a British stage musical until 1977 (when he starred in Robert and Elizabeth). Although Jeremy loved to sing onstage and off, an unwritten code of the British theatre was "Serious actors don't do musicals." 

Jeremy personally thought such distinctions were "stupid," but, he wished to be taken seriously as an actor. In November 1960, he appeared as "Maurice Bowers" in Donald Howarth's All Good Children, which ran for 10 days at the Bromley Little Theatre. All Good Children examined the problems of a permissive society. In the play, a South Yorkshire parson is visited by his two sons on the eve of his retirement. One son did as his father wished and became a successful biochemist. The other son, Maurice, became a sailor and is considered an immoral ne'er-do-well.

In 1961, Jeremy appeared as "Alsemero" in the English Stage Company's Royal Court production of Thomas Middleton's The Changeling (which, incidentally, was the first time this Jacobean tale of lust and murder had been professionally presented since the 17th century).  

Programme for The Changeling, 1961

A Prince Among Players

And, Jeremy's next role was very serious, indeed: Hamlet.

In 1959, Tyrone Guthrie had planned a modern dress version of Hamlet with Jeremy in the cast. However, this production was never staged. 

In 1961, Jeremy played the melancholy Dane for director Frank Hauser on a nearly bare stage at the Oxford Playhouse. His performance was a critical success:

"...The text received full consideration and was delivered with good sense by every speaker, but, as to acting, Jeremy Brett as Hamlet was alone remarkable...Here, everyone was in black or dun and it testified to Jeremy Brett's fitness for the part of the Prince of Denmark that he did not seem to require greatly the usual sable sartorial distinction. He was manifestly a prince among players. His voice was pleasant and pliable, nor did he seem to tire, from his natural surprise and concern at the news of the apparition to the moment of sad realization of Laertes' treachery. Somewhat taller than most, he was princely in looks, manner, speech and authority, and had an easy transition of mood..." ("H.G.M.", Theatre World)

"Hamlet was directed with all Frank Hauser's customary refreshingly direct approach to Shakespeare, with its insistence on clear and musical speech so that sound and sense were indivisible, as, ideally, they should be. The Hamlet of Jeremy Brett came like a fresh cooling draught after our recent agonized wanderings in the desert of the Ian Bannen-Peter Wood Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon. Here was a Hamlet youthful, princely, embittered, passionate in his vengeance-seeking, mordantly witty in his encounters with Polonius and in the play scene yet, albeit, a man of whom Ophelia could very conceivably have referred to as 'the expectancy and rose of the fair state'--a man who in voice and mien suggested a royal personage.

"Mr. Brett's speaking of the language had a consistently fine and expressive musicality--I do not think in recent years I have heard the soliloquy 'How all occasions do inform against me'-- spoken with such a range of nuance and such flexibility of rhythm." (Frank Dibb, Plays and Players). 

The production then transferred to the Strand Theatre in London for a successful four-week run.

Programme, London, 1961

The London reviewers now had their say on Jeremy's Hamlet. Most were polite with their praise, calling Jeremy's performance "correct" and "acceptable," and crediting him with making Hamlet's sufferings understandable. Some critics said that the production (which ran for three and a half hours each night) lacked "depth" and "excitement."

However, Harold Hobson noted, "I have never seen Hamlet so brutal to Ophelia and Polonius as Mr. Brett is. But this seems to be Mr. Hauser's only innovation. The brutality must be deliberate, for it clearly is not part of Mr. Brett's own character or his stage presence. He is a slim and graceful actor, courteous in bearing, and he treats everyone in the play with careful consideration, except for Ophelia and her family. It would appear that this Hamlet's idea of marriage and love has been polluted by his mother and his uncle, and that, after learning of their treachery, he cannot bear to see anything that might remind him of normal relationships between men and women."

Actually, Hamlet's anger in this instance was apparently Jeremy's innovation. He revealed in a 1994 BBC2 documentary on Hamlet, "I couldn't believe the circumstances [of the story]...I thought they were so monstrous, and I was very rough on my 'mother,' I think. I mean physically rough. I think, yes, I was angry at that time--my mother had been killed savagely in a car accident in 1959, and I was very angry about that, because my son, when she was killed, was only three months-old. And I was--there was anger--it was interesting--there was anger in me. And I think that came through. I felt cheated--I felt my mother had been cheated--the rage of that came through."

(Also at that time, Jeremy's marriage to Anna Massey was falling apart. They were divorced in 1962.)

Peter Carthew of Plays and Players weighed in: "Jeremy Brett's Hamlet is one of the youngest since [John] Gielgud. Mr. Brett is exceedingly well graced in both looks and voice, and his white-faced Byronic Prince had a romantically melancholy air. He managed the comedy and the mock madness scenes extremely well; this was a Hamlet with a sense of humour. But he failed to do justice to the soliloquies, displaying at times a tendency toward ranting and impotent mouthings. This may not have been entirely his fault. These speeches are so well known, so often recited, that they are in danger of becoming mere party pieces...yet in spite of this [Brett] made an interesting and notably unself-conscious Hamlet."

The London theater critic for the Glasgow Herald noted: "Now to the Strand Theatre has come the Oxford Playhouse's Hamlet. Jeremy Brett is cast in the name role--which he acts intelligently as Hamlet feigning madness--in the almost forgotten tradition of striking good looks.

"His physique is that of a ballet dancer: his profile reminiscent of Forbes Robertson or John Barrymore. A little immature, perhaps, and too inclined to put sound and youthful rhetoric before sense, Brett still looks as though he may be a great Hamlet one day."

Indeed, still photos from the production reveal that there was probably never a handsomer Hamlet than Jeremy Brett. But, this didn't seem to matter to Jeremy, whose understanding of the role was more than superficial. In the end, he was his own harshest critic. In the afore-mentioned documentary, he summed up his feelings on his portrayal of Hamlet:

"I was too young in many ways--I was too young intellectually, I was too young philosophically. I was Byronic, I was very handsome, I had qualities--but I'd much rather seen other [actors]--I wasn't convinced by me."

Incidentally, a slip of the wrist led to an unexpected twist during the London run of Hamlet. One night while Hamlet was battling Laertes, Jeremy's sword suddenly flew out of his hand. It landed in the lap of a young woman sitting in the front row! Hamlet and Laertes stood like statues on stage and the audience remained hushed until the good lady handed the sword back to Jeremy. The duel resumed as if nothing had happened. Jeremy told an Associated Press reporter at the time, "The girl saved the situation and when we took a curtain call I blew her a kiss!"

Continuing in a serious vein in 1961, Jeremy played "Peter," a German cook who goes berserk after being jilted in Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen.  

Programme for The Kitchen, 1961

Times were changing--a handsome, classically trained leading man such as Jeremy may have seemed out of place in the gritty dramas being written at the time by "angry young men"--but critics were impressed by Jeremy's first foray into "New Drama" (if not by his accent). The Times of London remarked, "Mr. Jeremy Brett['s] tragic Peter is played with an intelligence and sincerity that override his hardly consistent search for a German accent."

A reviewer for The Montreal Gazette gave more insight into the character: "Wesker shows us the kitchen through the eyes of Peter, a German chef (very well portrayed by Jeremy Brett) who bullies, jokes and quarrels with his fellow-workers. A highly-strung, excitable person, Peter is suspicious of those around him: In a leisure moment he impulsively builds a castle of pots and pans and invites the other chefs to tell him their dreams. One dreams of a shed full of tools, another of money, another of women, and another of friendship. 'I ask for dreams and you give me nightmares', groans Peter; for he dreams of destroying all kitchens before they destroy all those who work in them..." 

Production pic from The Kitchen by Mark Edmark, 1961

Someone's in The Kitchen with Jeremy 
(actress Sandra Caron, both pictures, 1961)

Rehearsal pic from The Kitchen by Sandra Lousada, 1961

In 1963, Jeremy performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre, portraying "Dunois" in Shaw's Saint Joan (Joan Plowright played the title role). The Chichester Festival cast also performed St. Joan at the Edinburgh Festival in 1963. 

Photo by Angus McBean, 1963
Jeremy as "Dunois" in Saint Joan, 1963

At Chichester, Jeremy also portrayed "Maurice Sweetman" in John Arden's The Workhouse Donkey, which premiered July 8, 1963. Donkey, a play about political corruption in a West Yorkshire industrial town, is difficult to categorize. Was it a drama? A comedy? A melodrama? A musical? (All of the above?)

Jeremy later described The Workhouse Donkey to an interviewer: "It was a good, serious, profound play, and it kept the customers away in droves, while Joanie [Joan Plowright] in St. Joan packed them in."

John Arden saw The Workhouse Donkey as "...a straightforward classical comedy in structure. It's based on the sort of Jonsonian type of comedy in which you get a fairly large cast, a contemporary theme with social comment in it and then an elaboration of plot which is not realistic but fantastic, ending up in a sort of classical shape to the play--you know, the various threads of the plot culminating in a big scene at the end, for instance, in which everybody's exposed, and the use of verse to give an extra dimension to the goings-on. I'm also using some shreds from English music-hall and pantomime tradition, which are more apparent when the play's staged than when you read it because there is a sort of running musical background to the whole thing, which sometimes becomes the accompaniment to songs and and sometimes is just played behind speech. I call it melodrama in that sense, you know--a play with music. It's not a musical by any manner of means, but it has this integrated music with it."

The reviewer in Plays and Players threw in the towel: "As I have suggested, the plot is so hopelessly involved, and there is so much of it, that we are clearly not intended to take it in detail by detail, turn by turn (which is my excuse for not trying to summarise it here!) but simply to derive from it a general impression of little people scurrying backwards and forwards, grouping and regrouping like ants, while from this intricate pattern emerge two commanding, opposed, but not dissimilar figures, Alderman Charlie Butterthwaithe and Colonel Feng, the chief constable...the rest [of the characters] are modern, they are without principle, they work entirely by expediency from moment to moment; Butterthwaithe and Feng ...are lost in the present and this is why they are both doomed to defeat."

Anyway...Jeremy's Maurice Sweetman is the son of  Tory Alderman "Sir Harold Sweetman," who also secretly owns the tawdry Copacabana Club. Young Sweetman ends up drunk with a hostess bunny on his lap while Labour Alderman Butterthwaithe is visiting the club. Butterthwaithe has the Copacabana shut down on moral grounds. The elder Sweetman reopens the club as a toney art gallery, but Butterthwaithe stirs up demonstrators against it. The demonstration backfires and Butterthwaithe and the protestors are arrested. 

Production photo from "The Workhouse Donkey" 1963

Also at Chichester, Jeremy met up with the man who would have a major influence on his career--Laurence Olivier.


  1. The Central Book, Lolly Susi (with additional research by Keith Skinner), 2006. Published by Oberon Books (in association with the Central School of Speech and Drama), London. 
  2. "First Steps to a Stage Career - Central School Matinee". The Times of London, 6/10/54
  3. BBC2 Radio Interview, 7/18/89.
  4. Programmes, Old Vic Company, 1956-'57 UK/North American Tour.
  5. "The Old Vic Unveils Its Final Production," Cue, 1/5/57.
  6. "Mars Is Mauled," Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times, 12/27/56.
  7. Caricature, Al Hirschfeld, The New York Times, 12/23/56.
  8. Caricature, Sam Norkin, The Sunday News, 12/23/56.
  9. "A Shakespeare Tragedy by The Old Vic," The New York Times, 3/3/57.
  10. Review, Meet Me By Moonlight, Cambridge Daily News, 7/16/57.
  11. Review, Variation on a Theme, The Morning Telegraph, 5/17/58
  12. Variation on a Theme, Theatre World, 7/58.
  13. Burke's Landed Gentry, 18th Edition, 1965. Published by Burke's Peerage Ltd., London.
  14. "To Be a Woman," Georgina Brown, The London Independent, 3/4/96.
  15. Program, Mr. Fox of Venice, 1959.
  16. Review, Mr. Fox of Venice, Theatre World, 5/59.
  17. "Adaptation of Edwardians--Too Many Hares for Hunting," The Times of London, 10/16/59.
  18. "A Musical, But the Music Misses," Daily Mail, Wednesday, 4/20/60.
  19. "Music Does Not Help Johnny the Priest," The Times of London, 4/20/60.
  20. "Songs Blunt Play's Edge - 'East Side Story'," W. A. Darlington, Daily Telegraph and Morning Post, 4/20/60.
  21. "Johnny the Priest Loses 25,000 Pounds," Daily Telegraph and Morning Post, 4/26/60.
  22. "R. C. Sherriff Musical Play is Withdrawn" (review of Johnny the Priest), Harold Hobson, Christian Science Monitor, 5/21/60.
  23. Theatre World Annual, London, No. 11, Frances Stephens. 1960, The Macmillan Co.
  24. All Good Children (Programme) 11/1-10/60
  25. Theatre World Annual, London, No. 12, Frances Stephens. 1961, Barrie & Rockliff.
  26. Review, Hamlet, Theatre World, 7/61.
  27. Review, Hamlet, The Glasgow Herald, 6/24/61
  28. "Plays and Players at Home...Frank Dibb in Oxford," Plays and Players, 7/61.
  29. Five and Eighty Hamlets, J. C. Trewin, published by Century Hutchinson Ltd., 1987, pg.115.
  30. "A Man Without a Man Within--Prince of Denmark Compromises," The Times of London, 6/21/61.
  31. "An Acceptable Hamlet," Harold Hobson, The Christian Science Monitor, 6/24/61.
  32. Review of Hamlet, Peter Carthew, Plays and Players, 8/61.
  33. Playing the Dane, BBC2 Television, 1994.
  34. "Hamlet Throws Sword Away," AP News, 7/3/61. 
  35. "Still Cooking," The London Times, 8/22/61.
  36. "First Play is Best Effort," Tony Aspler, The Montreal Gazette, 11/15/61.
  37. Chichester 10--Portrait of a Decade, Zsuzsi Roboz and Stan Gebler Davies, published by Davis-Poynter Ltd., 1975.
  38. "Arden of Chichester," Plays and Players, August 1963
  39. Review, The Workhouse Donkey, Plays and Players, September 1963
  40. JB Obituary, The Times of London, 9/14/95.
  41. JB Obituary, The Daily Telegraph, 9/14/95.

Theatre programme covers scanned from L. L. Oldham's personal collection of JB memorabilia.

Originally published (as TBE Vol. II #9): July 14, 1996
Last updated: December 23, 2011

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"The Brettish Empire"/"TBE" Copyright Lisa L. Oldham.