British actor recalls life in the ?glorious profession?
''Acting,'' the late American film star Jack Lemmon once remarked, ''is a glorious profession''. But for British actor John Swindells, achieving his childhood dream of joining the glorious profession was far from easy.
On a recent visit to Hong Kong, Swindells, 71 ? one of the last surviving actors to appear in Stanley Kubrick?s science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey ? reflected on his career.
In his room at the Salisbury Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, he recalled the journey that brought him from modest beginnings in Liverpool to appearing on stage in London?s West End and in Broadway in New York.
''I did it through the school of hard knocks... but fate smiled on me,'' Swindells told the SCMP.com.
His career brought him into contact with some of the greats. They included: Stanley Kubrick, Sir Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger and Sir Ian McKellen.
But before becoming an actor, he worked as a clerk for the Liverpool shipping company Alfred Holt Co: The Blue Funnel Line. In 1957, they sent him to Hong Kong.
''In those days Hong Kong was quaint and full of history. There were a lot of junks in the harbour and great merchant ships ? and none of these tall skyscrapers.''
Swindells recalled how children living on the junks had ropes attached to them to stop them falling in and drowning.
''The Tiger Balm Gardens were also fascinating. Kids used to be taken out on a Sunday to learn about Chinese culture. And there were 1,000 squatters a week coming into Hong Kong from the mainland and they lived in cardboard shanties.''
But there were things he missed. ''The tragedy I find is that the old merchants ? who sold things like lacquerware and oriental screens ? have gone. Today, it is all hi-fi cameras and computers,?? Swindells said.
His acting career began at 16 in 1948 in a play in Liverpool alongside Leonard Rossiter ? who later went on to delight television audiences in Britain in the 1970s comedy The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. ''At the time, I got a scholarship to the Liverpool College of Art, which John Lennon later went to. After that I just kept on with amateur theatre.''
The northern English port city was rich in talent. It would soon produce the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, singer Cilla Black, comedians like Jimmy Tarbuck and Kenny Everett, writer Beryl Bainbridge, playwright Alan Bleasdale, poet Roger McGough and others.
Post-war Britain was offering new opportunities to people from working-class backgrounds.
''The Beatles did not just become a wonderful rock group, they also broke down the barriers... people like myself from Northern England and all this rich plethora of talent could now converge on London and have a decent chance of success,'' he said.
After turning professional in 1964, Swindells headed south. ''In 1964, London was swinging ? it was a fantastic time.''
It was also an exciting era for British theatre. While actors were still classically trained, new types of plays presented additional challenges. The ''Angry Young Men'' ? writers like John Osborne and his play Look Back in Anger ? were overturning traditional institutions. More innovative theatre, such as Harold Pinter?s absurdist plays, had also arrived.
One theatre manager told Swindells how he had been approached by a young man wanting them to perform his unusual new play. It was rejected, ''and so Harold Pinter took The Caretaker to another London management,'' he said.
Unable to get into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), Swindells joined the Intimate Theatre at Palmers Green as an assistant stage manager (ASM).
''In many ways it was easier then for a young actor to break in than now,'' he explained.
''You could get into a theatre company as an ASM and do all the odd jobs, learn the craft from the ground up, sweep the stage, do everything, get kicked around ? it didn?t hurt you.''
Actors were paid little, and often could only work a few months a year. ''As an ASM, I was hired for five pounds, 10 shillings a week ? which was nothing,?? he recalled.
Swindells believes actors need theatre experience. ''Because theatre is the fountain from which acting springs. Actors coming into television today without theatre experience have tunnel vision. Theatre gives you options, choices and opportunities for variations,'' he said.
At the time, British actors were expected to be well-versed in Shakespeare?s plays. Swindells said performing them could be very demanding physically.
''Macbeth, for example, has never been performed without some actor being injured or killed,'' he explained.
Swindells recounted how one of the sword fights in Macbeth had ended in tragedy. ''One night an actor made a mistake and ran another right through the heart; the actor died on stage.
''You never mention a quote from Macbeth in the theatre unless you are playing in it. If you do, you have to go outside the dressing room, turn around three times, spit, knock and ask to come back in. If you don?t then something will happen to you on stage.
''I have seen actors say this is nonsense and then go out, miss a line and screw up,?? he added.
Slowly at first, more parts came his way. By 1968, Swindells was working at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton under director Colin MacIntyre. There, he performed in 17 plays in 20 weeks.
Around this time he received a phone call from the man many regard as the greatest actor of the 20th century: Sir Laurence Olivier.
''He was known to us as either Sir Laurence or God,?? recalled Swindells.
Olivier needed someone to play Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night within 48 hours.
Colin McIntyre had told Olivier that Swindells had experience with the role.
''I picked up the phone and a voice said: ?Hello is that John Swindells? Larry Olivier here. How have you been since we last met?? ? and I thought you old bullshitter ? typical actor ? because we had never met''
Swindells told Olivier he had never played Sir Toby.
?You have never played him ? then I?ll kill Colin,? exclaimed Olivier.
''I said: ?Colin is just trying to help me get work and I?ll stay up for 48 hours and learn the part of Sir Toby?.
''?No?, he said [declining to offer the part] ?thank you for your honesty? and then we just chatted. It was wonderful.''
In the late 1960s, the golden age of British television was beginning with new shows like Coronation Street, A Life Of Bliss, All Our Yesterdays, Maigret, and the pioneering police drama Z-Cars.
Swindells successfully auditioned for Z-Cars and went on to playu Sergeant Ted Bowman. He would continue with the series until 1973.
In the mid-1960s, he was also offered the chance to appear in Stanley Kubrick?s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Swindells recalls auditioning for the part of an astronaut at MGM studios in London. ''And all of a sudden, this owl-like man came around the corner with this beard and these bulging eyes.
''My impressions of him [Stanley Kubrick] were of a very intense man, obviously with a hell of a lot on his mind.''
Swindells said Kubrick instructed him and another actor to get their hair cut very short. He did as he was told but not the other actor. ''And Kubrick said to him: ?I told you to get your hair cut ? you obviously did not hear me. You are off this movie?
''The lesson from this is always do what a director tells you!''
While Kubrick was demanding, Swindells said they enjoyed a good relationship. ''He knew what he wanted and he was considerate, professional and utterly brilliant. And he was a gentleman.''
Swindells said Kubrick also picked exceptional actors to star in his films. These included: Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, Peter Sellers, James Mason, Leonard Rossiter, Malcolm McDowell and Jack Nicholson.
''I think he liked actors who had been in the theatre, he wanted voices, people who could be innovative and inventive,'' he said.
2001 a Space Odyssey was released in 1968. ''A few years after it came out, I realised, my goodness, I was part of something big.''
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Swindells continued working in London appearing with comedians Des O?Connor and Joe Baker and in guest roles in Coronation Street.
''I was also employed as a stage actor; I did the West End, the Ludlow Shakespeare festival and played at the Old Mermaid Theatre on the banks of the Thames which has now gone.''
In 1973 he emigrated to Canada, where he worked on stage, in television and taught drama at Regina University in Saskatchewan.
Swindells went to the United States in 1981. ''I was there for four and a half years doing plays, teaching and then I joined the touring company of Amadeus, which included John Wood and Mark Hamill''. Hamill had starred as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.
''And we toured Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia.''
Swindells then decided to put on his own play in New York. Called ''Woodbine Willie'' ? based on the life of Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy. The British clergyman became famous in World War I for risking his life to comfort soldiers in battle.
Then came one the great highlights of his career. In September 1983, he appeared on Broadway in Amadeus and Beethoven?s Tenth. ''It was electric, and I said to myself you have come a long way from Liverpool ? a hell of a long way.''
Swindells returned to Canada in 1986. In the late 1980s, he worked with American actor Rod Steiger. They both appeared in a television film about the murder of millionaire Sir Harry Oakes in the Bahamas in 1943.
Steiger played Sir Harry Oakes. Swindells remembered the ''semi-staccato'' way the late actor delivered his lines. ''Steiger was brilliant ? a genius ? and a very gracious man.''
Swindells said great actors were usually modest. ''The bigger the ego, the lesser the talent,'' he added.
Today, in semi-retirement, Swindells lives in Victoria, British Columbia, where he still teaches acting.
One of his recent projects was a recording of an audio version of Charles Dicken?s A Christmas Carol, in which he did 26 different voices.
His advice to aspiring actors is ''respect the craft and continually work at it''. ''All actors should work on their voice and their bodies; acting is two main elements: the physical presence and the spoken word.
''Young actors should try to read two different types of plays a week. In a year they would have read 100 plays by a range of authors, different rhythms, styles ? whatever. And they should always have two or three audition pieces ready.''