by Philip Mackie
January/February 1981. Six episodes:
ITV (Thames Television)
One of the most absorbing and clever thrillers since BBC2's espionage classic Tinker Tailor begins on Tuesday.
At the centre of its intricate web is a classic Mr Nasty: a man with a mind like Hampton Court maze.
The new six-part serial is Thames's Cover, set in a Government security department. The Machiavellian Whitehall mandarin called Cragoe who leads it provides the Royal Shakespeare Company's leading actor, 43-year-old Alan Howard, with his first TV series.
Cover is an intriguing series of conundrums laced into an elaborately deceptive plot. There is far more cloak than dagger: nothing is ever quite what it seems and no one can ever be guaranteed to tell the truth.
Thames say they expect Cover, written by Philip Mackie who satirised office politics so effectively in his ITV series The Organisation, to gain a cult following rather than a mass audience - even though it goes out at the peak time of 9 p.m.
Much of that following may be generated by the novelty of seeing the celebrated classical actor, now playing Richard II and Richard III at Stratford and the first man to have played the star role in all eight of Shakespeare's history plays, making his debut in TV drama.
Howard, a shy and tentative man, totally unlike his
dessicated Cragoe, says:
"Of course there's a risk factor involved in coming to TV. As a general rule you have to stop being larger than life. Physically it's less exhausting than the stage, but it requires intense concentration just as demanding mentally."
Daily Mail, 17.1.1981.
The spy who came in from the throne
Alan Howard has an awesome record with the Royal Shakespeare Company: the only actor in history to play all eight Shakespeare kings.
Now, in his first starring television serial, Cover, a psychological spy thriller, starting on ITV tonight (9.0) he becomes a modern wielder of life-or-death power.
He plays Cragoe, head of a Government spy-testing organisation, a cold-blooded man whose only emotion is obsessive hatred of a feared colleague.
Meeting Howard in his Stratford-upon-Avon dressing room, I was relieved that despite his talent for portraying men at the top, he does not affect a grand demeanour.
At 43, his face framed in long red hair through which he constantly runs his fingers, he has the fine bone structure of good breeding. But in his worn trousers and cardigan he looked like a duke's unworldly younger son, not a ruler.
He was pleasantly flippant: "Playing Cragoe was a novel experience. I can't remember when I last wore a suit professionally, and held a telephone, a whisky.....a gun.
"For Shakespeare your weapons are swords and spears, which can be dangerous if you miss the target. But the main enemy is the heat of those heavy costumes, Richard III is the worst. His hump is very uncomfortable.
"Psychologically there is similarity between the kings of old and the top men of today.
"Heads of organisations are supposed to be iron men, but half the time when you take the lid off you discover them waking up in the night sweating and worrying."
Howard's own genealogy is distinguished. On his maternal side his great-grandfather David [sic] Compton* was gravedigger to Sir Henry Irving's Hamlet. Actress Fay Compton was his great-aunt, writer Compton Mackenzie a great-uncle.
Dominating the paternal side, in terms of success, was his uncle Leslie Howard, one of the screen's romantic greats.
"I don't remember him," Alan said. "My father, Arthur, 16 years his junior, suffered in his acting career because he looked like him.
"Ronald, Leslie's son, suffered too. He was working happily as a journalist, but because he resembled Leslie so strongly, after his father's death the film people insisted on signing him. Now he is an antique dealer.
"My late mother Jean Compton Mackenzie was an actress. My father is still available for parts. They did not do so well.
"And my parents were not pleased when I chose the theatre as a career. From the time I started, at the Belgrade, Coventry, I did have a lot of unemployment in the early stages."
Since Howard joined the Royal Shakespeare Company 14 years ago, however, he has never had to chase work. On the contrary, TV and film people wanting him have hardly been able to catch up with him. His last film, Work is a Four Letter Word, was 16 years ago. But the parts which have kept him happy in a thespian's ivory tower are some of Shakespeare's greatest.......right up to the two kings, Richard II and Richard III, he is playing in the current RSC season.
Howard, previously married to actress-turned-designer Stephanie Beaumont, now lives in North London with journalist Sally Beauman and their five-year-old son James.
He gazed through the net curtains of his dressing room to the snow falling on the River Avon.
"I'm playing Richard III this afternoon," he murmured. "I must go and get my hair curled. Since my television role it has grown again.
"That part also gave me a chance to replenish my wardrobe. I bought the suit I wear on screen. Now I own two suits."