ACTORS Richard Briers and Daniel Weyman tell David Whetstone about the coincidence which brings them to the same Newcastle stage in the same moving play a generation apart.
ALL sorts of ghosts might stir when For King and Country opens at Newcastle Theatre Royal on Wednesday. It has stirred some memories for Richard Briers who played Lieutenant William Hargreaves in the play when it had its world premiere – under the title Hamp – at the Theatre Royal on August 10, 1964.
"I was in an amazing cast," recalls the actor, famous for his comic roles and especially for the role of Tom in BBC sitcom The Good Life.
"It was a long time ago but I think I must have got the part because I already had a bit of a name. I’d been in a thing called Marriage Lines with Prunella Scales (BBC sitcom, 1961-66) which had been popular."
Hamp is an intensely moving drama about a young soldier in the First World War who is court martialled for desertion after crawling out of a shell hole at Passchendaele and walking away from the battle.
John Hurt played the soldier, Hamp, in the original stage play. Briers was cast as the young officer, Lieutenant William Hargreaves, who is assigned to speak on his behalf. ‘Defend’ would be too strong a word since, in many of these cases, the court martial was a formality en route to the execution of the accused.
Adding lustre to the cast of Hamp was Leonard Rossiter.
All went on to become famous actors. For Briers and Rossiter, though, it was more for their popular comic roles.
Despite struggling in Newcastle with a ludicrously raked stage, meaning the actors were constantly acting uphill, Briers recalls that Hamp – which they nicknamed ‘Ramp’ – was well received.
"It was always very quiet in the theatre which meant people were listening and concentrating. I think there was a respect for the story. There certainly aren’t many laughs in it."
Hamp was written by a Scot, John Wilson, about whom little is known. Richard Briers remembers him as "shy, reserved – a nice fellow".
It was based on a novel, Return To The Wood, by James Lansdale Hodson who was a war correspondent in the Second World War before making a career in fiction. His war reports, as our reviewer of 1964 noted, were carried in The Journal.
The reviewer, incidentally, called Hamp "the most moving play I have experienced at the Theatre Royal for many years".
After its Newcastle run, Hamp went on to the Edinburgh Festival. Shortly after that, it was turned into a film called King & Country, directed by Joseph Losey.
The role of Hargreaves went to Dirk Bogarde. Richard Briers harbours no ill feelings although he recalls: "I think that’s what stopped us going into the West End because the play and the film were virtually out at the same time."
In his typically self-deprecating way, he says appearing in this tragic tale was good for his ego at the time, even making him imagine briefly that his future might lie in great tear-jerking roles.
But he came to realise quite quickly that this was never going to be. He says that even in the production photos from Hamp, some of which he owns, he can see the first stirrings of the comic expressions that would win him many laughs later on The Good Life.
Just as a Journal writer appears to have provided the inspiration for Hamp, it was a report in The Journal in 1990 that led to the First World War servicemen shot at dawn – at a time when shell shock wasn’t a recognised affliction – winning posthumous pardons.
The article was about Private Herbert Burden who lied about his age to join the Northumberland Fusiliers at 16 and was later executed.
It inspired a retired Newcastle teacher, John Hipkin, to set up the Shot at Dawn campaign which led to the pardons in 2006, eradicating decades of ignominy for the dead and their families. Hamp would have been a beneficiary.
John Wilson’s play was premiered some 45 years after the end of the First World War at a time when it seemed highly relevant. In 1964, the Cold War was at its height, the war in Vietnam was constantly in the news and capital punishment, which would be abolished the following year, was the subject of intense debate.
All this is pointed out by the next person to take the role of Hargreaves in John Wilson’s play which has been revived under the better title of For King and Country – although the original text remains unchanged.
Daniel Weyman is one of a good young cast assembled by director Tristram Powell to perform the play on the national tour which brings it to Newcastle this week – where the actors will not find themselves performing on the side of a hill.
Since there are so many North East echoes in the story of this play, it seems appropriate that Daniel should have been born in Newcastle in 1977.
"We left in the 1980s but we always came back," he says. "I’ve got friends in Jesmond and I was at the Theatre Royal not so long ago in Nicholas Nickleby."
By an extraordinary coincidence, Daniel is also friendly with Richard Briers. "I’ve been on the phone to him, asking whether he was happy for me to let out all his trade secrets," he laughs.
Daniel explains that Richard’s sister, Jane Briers, was one of his tutors at drama college in London. "She was an actress in her own right but then decided to teach. I remember we did a final year show and Richard came along to see it.
"After leaving college, I stayed in touch with Jane and she became a sort of a mentor as I went through my early career."
One day, says Daniel, Jane told him that Richard had got a new digital television and didn’t really know how to make it work. Could he pop along and fix it for him?
"I went round and did that and it started a friendship. He and Jane came to see me in Nicholas Nickleby.
"When I rang Jane to tell her that I’d got a part in this play about World War I, Jane said, ‘I seem to remember my brother being in something like that’. There are a lot of things about the war so I didn’t think too much of it but later she said it was the same play.
"They asked me to pop round to the house and, sure enough, they had these pictures of the original show in 1964.
"We had a long discussion about it because there were some things I wanted to find out. Because it was 45 years since he had done it and that was 45 years after the war, there was a nice symmetry about it. It was interesting to hear the play put in the context of the time."
Coincidentally, just days before Hamp opened in Newcastle there had been a big gathering of First World War veterans at Newcastle Royal Grammar School. Some of the old men recalled the conditions which led to Hamp’s alleged desertion.
They are all dead now but John Wilson’s play retains its power for a new generation. For King and Country is at Newcastle Theatre Royal from Wednesday to Saturday. For tickets, tel. 08448 11 21 21. There is no interval.