Alan Howard comes of not one but two theatrical families; the son of Arthur and hence a nephew of the late Leslie Howard; he is also on his mother's side a great-nephew of Fay Compton.
Given that family background, could he have been anything but an actor? "I suppose not, though it took me a long time to find out that was what I wanted to be. My family tried to discourage me at first, I think because most of them knew what a rotten business it could turn out to be". Howard's early childhood was spent largely in the Hebrides, where he stayed with his great-uncle Sir Compton Mackenzie; from there he went to school at Ardingly, where he began to act: "First Celia in As You Like It, then one play a year ending up with Autolycus in The Winter's Tale when I was 17." Two years' National Service in Germany followed Ardingly, and by this time Howard was convinced he wanted to act: "I don't think, though, that it was due to any direct family influence, except that I've always admired the Compton attitude and the traditional kind of professionalism of an actress like Fay. I'm the fifth generation in the theatre on her side, and she always says I am like her father who was an underrated but I believe very good actor called Edward Compton.
After his National Service, Howard went to work for Bryan Bailey at the repertory theatre in Coventry: "I joined in 1958, when I was just 20; for nine months I was a general stage cleaner and dogsbody, then I got promoted to assistant stage manager and at last I had a position of some kind which felt marvellous. But I got my first real break a few months later when Clifford Williams came to Coventry to direct Major Barbara. I was on the book, and as the actor playing Lomax was away (it wasn't a very big part, so he only planned to rehearse for the last week before we opened) Williams asked me to read in the lines. Then, he suggested I should learn the part and rehearse the moves with the other actors, and finally he decided that I should be the one to play the part. After that I got off stage-management altogether and later I was in Roots which transferred to London. All in all I was at Coventry for two and a half years, and in that time we played everything from Shakespeare to Reluctant Heroes."
Howard never went to drama school; did he now, I wondered, feel he had missed anything by going straight into Rep? "Not really, though at the time I suppose it might have made my life a little easier. When I started acting at Coventry it was all extremely new to me, and I didn't have any arrangement with myself whereby I could judge what I was doing. I was just terribly glad to be playing anything and everything. But I think I learned as much there as I would have at school, and people who were at Coventry with me (like Frank Finlay and Richard Briers) reckoned I was doing all right without it. They said I'd be mad to go back to a school after the work I'd already been doing at Coventry, and I think I learnt a good deal by just watching them on the stage."
Though he began to attract the attention of the London critics with his performance in Roots, an illness soon afterwards put Howard out of work for several months; his career only got off the ground again with the offer to join Laurence Olivier's company for the opening season at Chichester in July 1962: "It was a marvellous company, and I think Olivier was knocked unnecessarily for those first two productions. I enjoyed the excitement of opening a new theatre, but I was still having trouble with my health and I didn't work again for a while after that first season. Then I heard rumours that I might be asked back the next year but I couldn't be sure and as I needed the money I went into the musical at the Mermaid, Virtue in Danger. It was pretty disastrous for me because I couldn't really sing and they had to keep cutting me out of the numbers. In the end I was only allowed to sing when there were lots of other people on the stage."
Three years ago, after playing in A Heritage And Its History and on a South American Shakespeare tour with Ralph Richardson, Howard joined the Royal Shakespeare Company to play Orsino in Twelfth Night and Lussorioso in The Revenger's Tragedy at Stratford. "At first I found the company life difficult to adapt to, and I was very nervous; when we started to rehearse Twelfth Night I'd never met Diana Rigg (who was playing Viola) and somehow I'm very bad about introducing myself so for a while we just never spoke except in the play. Once I got to know the company better that kind of tension disappeared, but there are still areas of self-protection in any group of actors which it is difficult and even dangerous to penetrate. At Stratford one is much more aware of company life than at the Aldwych, where somehow it gets dissipated by life in the city. In some ways though I like it better at the Aldwych; the organisation can get on top of one at Stratford."
Howard's wife, Stephanie, is also with the RSC, as an assistant designer: "It works out very well, provided we aren't actually involved in the same production which might be tricky. At the moment, though, I'm based at the Aldwych and she's constantly working at Stratford which makes life rather complicated, especially since I've had my driving licence taken away for twelve months."
Last year at Stratford, Howard played Jaques in As You Like It and Edgar in King Lear before going on the recent and somewhat calamitous RSC tour of America. This season at the Aldwych, in addition to Achilles and Benedick, he'll also be playing Cokes in Bartholomew Fair, St Just in Danton's Death and again Lussurioso in The Revenger's Tragedy:
"I think that the RSC must soon reconsider the amount of work that an actor can do successfully inside one season. At times one feels there's some kind of a race on to see who can work the hardest, and although I know that's probably true in lots of other organisations it really does begin to catch up with you after a long period of time. But by and large I am very happy working with the RSC and I hope to stay with them for a while. Their contracts are very good in that one is allowed to do other work from time to time, and we all need the area of uncertainty that lies outside the company. Playing leading roles like these away from the RSC would mean more personal publicity, but working within the company one simply gets on with the parts and lets one's reputation rest with that of the RSC as a whole; there's none of the stardom that exists in the commercial theatre, and yet if critics and audiences like the company's work, that must reflect on each of us to some extent. It is only when you leave the RSC that you discover your own private rating and where you stand in the profession as a whole."
Plays and Players, September 1969.