When Alan Howard was seven a little girl came up to him and said, "What are you going to be?" Unhesitatingly, he replied: "A King Arthur." This could be taken as evidence of the first stirrings of theatrical ambition; or simply as a sign of a vivid childhood imagination, nourished by Malory and Tennyson. Anyway, it was followed by a very firm desire to go into the theatre despite a certain amount of family opposition. That opposition was at least based on a knowledge of the profession: on his mother's side, Alan is descended from five generations of actors and both his uncle and father (Leslie and Arthur Howard) were actors of distinction. Today, of course, Alan Howard has escaped from the shadow of being part of a famous theatrical family and is highly regarded in his own right. He has already played three major rôles at Stratford this season (Edgar, Jaques and Achilles) and on October 14th opens as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.
What does he remember of his early life? "If I think of my childhood, I think of the Hebrides where I stayed with my great-uncle (Compton MacKenzie) during the holidays. Up there it's a bit like the Greek Islands without the sun. It was marvellous for a child. I used to spend all day just roaming around and living off cockles and limpets. I didn't read all that much - I used to walk and climb all day. In fact I used to be taken out and left on a small island to play by myself. I started acting, I suppose, when I was in the forces - there was a drama group where I was in dreary Westphalia. Most of the stuff we did was fairly ordinary, but I remember there was one play, Behind My Skull, where I had to play a blind, crippled half-wit and spend half the time with my back to the audience."
After National Service, he went straight to the Belgrade, Coventry, where he began as a General Assistant sweeping floors and doing odd jobs. He calculates that he got 1/- an hour for an 84-hour week. He thought about going from there to drama school, but both Patrick O'Connell, whom he shared digs with, and Richard Briers advised him against it. Looking back on those early days, he admits he hated them - "all these lads came up from drama school and got jobs as ASMs straight away when I was perfectly capable of running a show on my own." Clifford Williams gave him his first real opportunity in a small part in Major Barbara: an actor was off for a week during rehearsals, Alan was on the book and knew the part and so was asked to take it over for the run. From there he graduated to a succession of lead rôles, including Higgins (at the age of 22) and Dave Simmonds in I'm Talking About Jerusalem, the third play in the Wesker Trilogy. Of this performance Bernard Levin wrote: "Mr Alan Howard as the man who wants to make things with his hands and learns the hard way that he can only make them with his heart, has a fine and quiet style which well fits the mood of this fine and quiet play."
When he left Coventry his career took on the familiar, patchwork quality of the jobbing actor untethered to a company. He was in the Wesker Trilogy and The Changeling at the Court; went to Spain to do a part in HMS Defiant, but finished up with Spanish tummy and had to come home; had five months out of work; went on tour in a play that never came to London; and did some Schools Television. He was at Chichester, however, for the opening season of te Festival Theatre in 1962. The season opened with The Chances ("intended simply as a colourful demonstration of how the theatre worked") and Ford's The Broken Heart, both of which received a critical drubbing. After this, Olivier apparently began rehearsals with the Uncle Vanya company by saying, "OK. Let's go and get the next flop on." Like most actors, Alan speaks of Olivier with great affection; "He showed great consideration to me - I had back trouble then and he made appointments for me to go and see his own specialist. He also used to create a very relaxed approach in rehearsals - there can be too much of this searching around. It's only when someone drops their knickers and commits themselves to a line that one can get on with it. Most of the best directors aren't imposers and like to shape what you yourself are offering."
Alan came to the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966 and has done some fascinating work since then. There was his Lussorioso in The Revenger's Tragedy, a golden-haired bisexual exquisite; a complex, self-torturing, conceivably pox-ridden Jaques in As You Like It; a notable Edgar this year in King Lear. He also turned in an excellent cameo performance in Peter Hall's film, Work Is A Four-Letter Word, where he played the sort of vengeful, muscular vicar who reminded one of Jonathan Miller's remark in Beyond The Fringe about "the need to get violence off the streets back into the churches where it belongs." He talks about his own career with the sort of diffidence that is not uncommon amongst good actors. "I think there are really two ways to approach a part. If there is a developed characteristic in yourself that is connected with the part then one should seize on that and build the structure round it. The other way is to start from the fact that the character may have a limp or red hair and work inwards. Let's take Edgar: it really is a very odd character. Odd because of the fact that a complete personality does not emerge until the end of the play. The man is forced to assume personalities that are very far from what he is himself. At the beginning he seems to be man without any of the normal experience of life: I think of him as a curious filing system in a busy office but one that never gets opened. The thing that's got to happen is for a bit of blood to be pumped into him."
Flourish : RSC News vol 2. No. 1.