THEMES FOR SECRET AGENTS ( The Phase 4 Stereo Effect Part 1: James Bond, Roland Shaw, et al. )

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Note: Where indicated, audio only tracks are transfers from original vinyl in my collection, yielding the best sound quality. Otherwise, audio tracks are from 2009 CD reissue of selections from Roland Shaw’s spy soundtrack albums (where masters are unknown).

James Bond Theme (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

Roland Shaw More James Bond Thrillers

Anyone who collects records has the story of a Eureka moment.  A moment when they happened upon a new record of unfamiliar music that, for whatever reason, was a revelation, and subsequently became a firm favorite, a cornerstone of their collection.  I’ve had a number of these, but one of the first happened when I was around 12.  Leafing through the record bins I happened upon a collection titled The Phase 4 World of Thrillers.  The cover was the first thing to catch my attention.  It featured all the accoutrements of the gentleman spy and world adventurer, guaranteed to pique the interest of a kid who was already devouring James Bond’s adventures on the page and screen at every possible opportunity.

phase4 world of thrillers

But the title intrigued too.  What was this “Phase 4” thing all about?  Quite a few “Phase 4” records littered the bins, both in the Classical and Easy Listening sections.  Scanning the track listing of The Phase 4 World of Thrillers revealed an eclectic range of music drawn from movies and TV shows.  It was on the Decca label, and the price was right – 99 pence – (ie. almost one pound sterling) – so I plonked down my lawn-mowing pocket-money and hurried home to listen.  This is what I heard:

The Man with the Golden Arm (Stanley Black and the London Festival Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Elmer Bernstein, composer of The Man with the Golden Arm

Elmer Bernstein, composer of The Man with the Golden Arm

Immediately I knew this was a different kind of record.  The sound was Technicolor rich and vivid, with the stereo image panned sharply to the left and right channels, in the manner of the early Beatles stereo records.  The arrangements were likewise larger-than-life and eclectic in the manner of Easy Listening records of that vintage.  The tracks featured an array of Decca’s top so-called “light music” performers and session players, along with some one-offs, like the French children’s choir version of Michel Legrand’s Oscar-winning theme from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), “Les Moulins de Mon Coeur” (“The Windmills of your Mind”).

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in publicity shot for The Thomas Crown Affair

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in publicity shot for The Thomas Crown Affair

The Windmills of Your Mind (LP transfer):

 

Michel Legrand

Michel Legrand

Divvying up the main duties were two label stalwarts: Stanley Black and Roland Shaw, supplemented by Frank Chacksfield and his Orchestra and what I can best describe as the “stereo novelty act” of Ronnie Aldrich and his Two Pianos.

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Charade (Ronnie Aldrich and his Two Pianos) (LP transfer)

 

Charade BRITISHQUAD poster

All the music was compelling, from Leonard Bernstein’s jazz-inflected On the Waterfront to Miklos Rozsa’s lurid Hollywood fantasmagoria, Spellbound, but the tracks that most caught my schoolboy imagination were those by Roland Shaw, of themes from spy movies.

The music flew out of the grooves, sexy and sassy, with gigantic drums and bass guitar, tight brass licks, and kinetic strings.  The track that really blew my ears back was I Spy.

I Spy (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Just listen to the way those opening mega drums propel us forward. (The drumming on Phase 4 records was always fantastic – was it the same player, and if so, who was he?). The brass kicks it up a notch, and then that propulsive, MASSIVE bass guitar anchors the groove while the strings punch out the theme like they are on a combination of speed and caviar. A blistering sax solo unfurls against rhythm guitar, then it’s back to those strings and fat horns punching out that 60s spy glam.  On a good stereo, the vinyl practically catches fire, filling the room with three-dimensional sound.

I spy record

I did not know it then, but Phase 4 Stereo was something more than a marketing gimmick.  Decca had long enjoyed the highest reputation amongst audiophiles for the quality of its classical recordings, achieved by the famous “Decca tree” of microphones.  This was a simple arrangement of three microphones suspended above the conductor’s head, whose aim was to “hear” the orchestra like a listener would, in natural proportions, from this optimal position. (A few supplemental microphones were carefully placed at strategic points within the orchestra to add detail to the primary sound image).  It was a minimalist approach to recording which echoed that of the similarly esteemed American audiophile labels, Mercury and RCA Living Stereo.

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Decca Tree HVKSofiensaal1Ed1

Herbert von Karajan recording with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Sofiensaal. You can see the “tree” above his head.

In many ways the apogee of this approach to recording had been the historic issue of Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle of operas under Georg Solti, produced by the legendary John Culshaw between 1958 and 1965, complete with sound effects and singers wandering around the space of an imaginary stage, just like in a radio drama.

recording Gotterdammerung

Recording Wagner’s Ring cycle in the Sofiensaal, Vienna. The singers moved between marked-out squares on the stage to create a realistic “theatrical” space for the action.

With the advent of multitrack recording in the 60s, more microphones crept into recording sessions, and the increasing tendency was for the producer and engineer to fine-tune the balance of the orchestra long after the session, rather than have the conductor do so as the recording took place.  The result, over succeeding decades, was a sound which, while more refined, with each instrument carefully placed and balanced against every other instrument, lost some of its energy and sense of “aliveness”.

What was different about the “Phase 4” recordings was that, even though they were multi-miked and artificially balanced, deliberately incorporating the idea of “stereo cool” into their marketing, they retained that sense of “aliveness”. There was a palpable excitement in the grooves, as you can hear in this arrangement of the Mission Impossible Theme of Lalo Schifrin by Roland Shaw.

Mission Impossible (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Lalo Schifrin

Lalo Schifrin

An ad for Phase 4 Stereo

An ad for Phase 4 Stereo

The instrumental colors were rich and vibrant, at times almost over-ripe.  The recordings retained many of the qualities that had made earlier Decca records audiophile favorites, while adding the extra spice of the Easy Listening palette of unusual instrumental combinations.  The arrangements reveled in artificial stereo effects, exotic orchestrations and sound effects, and the result was records which were spectacular showcases for the musicians, the music – and the listener’s stereo system.

Cover art featured eye-popping visual design

Cover art featured eye-popping visual design

Record collectors are obsessive types, and can talk for hours about the relative merits of different pressings of the same record from different eras and countries.  Early Decca records were mastered using an all-tube chain of electronics which added an organic warmth to the sound, a physical palpability to the instruments and voices.  When the company switched to solid-state electronics in the mid to late 60s, the gain in precision was offset by a loss of the natural quality which tubed electronics brought to the recording chain.  Compare identical records in different pressings made before and after the switch and you can clearly hear that difference.

Phase 4 middle of the road

Collectors will tell you that the American versions of Phase 4 records, released on the London Records imprint, are brighter sounding than the Decca originals.  Interestingly, unlike many of London’s classical releases, Phase 4 records were all mastered in England.  I hear the brightness on some titles, but not others.  Clearly some records destined for the American market were simply EQ’d differently.  I guess the assumption was that Americans needed everything a little brighter and brasher than the Brits to maintain their interest.  I’d love to know whether that assumption was based on any kind of quantifiable research.

Phase 4 Foreign Film Festival cover

In a later article I will talk about some of the other Phase 4 records which occupy pride of place in my collection, including seminal recordings of his film music by Bernard Herrmann which, along with the RCA Classic Film Score Series, played an important role in establishing the legitimacy of film music recordings as standalone LPs.  But for now, this article focuses on Phase 4 recordings of music for the various secret agents who spread across movie and TV screens in the wake of the massive popularity of James Bond.

Cover for first American edition of Ian Fleming's novel

Cover for first American edition of Ian Fleming’s novel

Here is a typical example of how the Phase 4 label spiced up the originals, with Roland Shaw doing the honors for Burt Bacharach’s theme for the “alternative” Bond romp, Casino Royale. Note the addition of screaming teenage girls to Burt Bacharach’s catchy original.

Burt Bacharach

Burt Bacharach

Roland Shaw

Roland Shaw

Phase 4’s compilations of spy themes were entirely the province of arranger/orchestrator Roland Shaw. He was one of Decca’s principal house arrangers, working for Vera Lynn, Mantovani, Ted Heath, and the label’s principal conductor of film music, Stanley Black. He also worked on several films himself as composer, including The Great Waltz, Summer Holiday, and Song of Norway. He had a passion for motor cars, of which he owned several exotic examples over the years. These ranged from a Rolls-Royce to a Bentley and a beautiful classic red Ferrari. He competed in club meetings at Silverstone, Goodwood and Brands Hatch, where he often acted as a race marshal. In fact, it was while parking his Rolls near his home in Barnes (purchased with a royalty check from Tutti Camerata) that he got his break with Decca Records. He was approached by an admirer of the vehicle, who turned out to be Frank Lee, head of A&R at the label.

Roland Shaw - the James Bond thrillers

Monty Norman

Monty Norman

Shaw’s first spy genre album, Themes from the James Bond Thrillers, was released in 1964 to coincide with Goldfinger. It was a massive hit, spawning a series of further records of “Spy” themes.

Monty Norman had composed the music for the first film in the Bond series, Dr. No, and Shaw’s arrangements filled out the minimally orchestrated originals to great effect. In this track, Underneath the Mango Tree, the addition of rippling flute and harp, plus swirling strings, creates a sense of travelogue exotica.

Underneath the Mango Tree (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

John Barry

John Barry

However, it was John Barry’s iconic arrangement of the James Bond Theme, and his scores for Goldfinger and beyond, which defined the “Spy Sound” of the Swinging Sixties soundtrack. Barry seamlessly blended his jazz and bop background with lush romantic strings and heavy Wagnerian brass chords (interspersed with fabulous, soaring breaks that wailed over the propulsive drums and bass) to create a sound that defined the cool of Bond every bit as much as the beautiful girls, designer clothes, exotic locations and futuristic gadgets.

Every bit the epitome of Swinging London: John Barry and his wife, Jane Birkin.

John Barry epitomized Swinging London just as much as the spy whose musical identity he forged on the big screen. Barry is seen here with his then wife, actress and singer Jane Birkin

You can hear all these elements at work in this music from the pre-credits sequence in Thunderball, which culminated in Bond making his escape with a jet-pack.

Chateau Fight (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

Thunderball jet_pack_2

Record labels were jumping over themselves to create knock-off compilations of Bond and other spy music, using various Easy Listening arrangers and scratch bands. The results were frequently lacklustre, but every so often these cover versions struck gold. Such was the case with Roland Shaw’s series of albums for Decca Phase 4.

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Roland Shaw rear sleeve

In his arrangement of music from Diamonds of Forever you can hear how Shaw, while remaining true to the essence of John Barry’s original, has embellished the orchestration to highlight the Hi-Fi aspect of the recording and give it more zest.

Diamonds-are-forever-James-Bond-Poster

He has added soaring and swooning contrapuntal string lines to the original, no doubt a legacy of his arranging for Mantovani’s orchestra. Then fat, funky bass lines combine with propulsive guitar licks (even throwing in a bit of wah-wah for good measure), latin drums and stabbing brass to give the whole thing an extra tinge of pop and of the exotic. (Many Phase 4 albums highlighted unusual percussion and other sounds from world music to lend a sense of travelogue to their albums).

Roland-Shaw-Themes-From-The-J-376147

Staying with Bond, here is Shaw’s arrangement of one of Barry’s most lyrical inventions for the Bond series, You Only Live Twice.

Bond girl Akiko Wakabasyashi behind the wheel of her one-off Toyota 2000 GT convertible

Bond girl Akiko Wakabasyashi behind the wheel of her one-off Toyota 2000 GT convertible in You Only Live Twice

Interestingly, one of the theme songs that Shaw leaves more or less unchanged, is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Maybe this was because the track was already one of Barry’s most exciting inventions — and why mess with perfection? It was the first title sequence in a Bond film not to feature a vocal.  Instead, to accompany visuals that recapped the previous Connery adventures in preparation for George Lazenby’s assumption of the role, Barry built a driving chase fanfare over a Moog synthesizer playing in unison with a bass guitar.

Robert Moog pictured with his invention

Robert Moog pictured with his invention

The Moog was a completely new kind of instrument, purely electronic with no acoustic elements, and sounds radically different even on Barry’s own various recordings of this theme.

ohmss title

In the wake of Bondmania, film and television companies fast-tracked numerous secret agent projects, all demanding their own John Barry-tinged music. One of the most successful of Bond imitators was the series starring James Coburn as an urbane American agent, which kicked off with Our Man Flint.

Japanese poster for Our Man Flint

Japanese poster for Our Man Flint

 

Jerry Goldsmith

Jerry Goldsmith

 

Jerry Goldsmith, one of the most distinctive film composers to emerge at that time (his credits include Planet of the Apes, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Alien) provided a theme which channeled the Barry sound in its guitar licks and brass stabs. But he also added his own elements (percussion and jazzy improvisations) to convey a sense of the send-up that the film encapsulated.

Our Man Flint (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Back in the U.K., a quirky TV series that combined Bondian elements with fantasy and sci-fi became a cult classic and ran for many years.

the-avengers-series

The Avengers launched the careers of several subsequent Bond girls — Honor Blackman in Goldfinger and Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The hero, John Steed, always immaculately dressed in the finest Savile Row suits, with accompanying umbrella and bowler hat, was played by Patrick MacNee, who later featured as Roger Moore’s accomplice in A View to a Kill.

Diana Rigg and Patrick MacNee

Diana Rigg and Patrick MacNee

The Avengers had a killer theme written by Laurie Johnson.

Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

The Avengers (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

One of the most successful TV riffs on Bond was The Saint, which also proved to be a training ground for a future 007, Roger Moore. Based on Leslie Charteris’s series of novels about a Robin Hood-like character, the show’s catchy theme song was the work of Edwin Astley, a prolific TV composer who became a regular contributor to ITC Entertainment which produced the show. He also scored the themes for Patrick McGoohan’s iconic Danger ManRandall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and, in a different vein entirely, Kenneth Clarke’s epic documentary series, Civilisation. The theme for The Saint opened with a characterful motif for flutes, echoed woman’s voice, vibraphone and muted trumpets which would play as a halo appeared above Roger Moore’s head. It perfectly mirrors the cheeky quality of the character and show.

The Saint - Roger Moore

This kind of unusual instrumentation was typical of the genre, and is why so much of this music is such a good fit for the exotic orchestral palette of Easy Listening records. (Shaw’s arrangement dispenses with the woman’s vocal but goes to town in the blaring brass section; there’s that terrific drumming again too.)

the-saint- with car

The Saint (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

A precursor to Bond was the American TV show Peter Gunn, the creation of maverick film-maker Blake Edwards, one of the most underrated talents among post-War American writer/directors, who found enormous commercial success with the Pink Panther movies.

Peter_Gunn poster

The iconic theme song, by his long-time collaborator Henry Mancini, undoubtedly influenced later composers working in the genre (including Barry).

Henry Mancini receiving the Grammy for his album of music from Peter Gunn

Henry Mancini receiving the Grammy from Peggy Lee for his album of music from Peter Gunn

Peter Gunn has been much covered, most notably by cult 80s group The Art of Noise, with Duane Eddy taking on the guitar “twanging” duties. In his version, Roland Shaw doubles that guitar line with an early synthesizer, adds some percussion pops for Hi-Fi glitter, and plays up the drums and jazzy improvised elements.

Not all spy movies of the 60s were upbeat. John Le Carre’s The Spy who Came in from the Cold offered Richard Burton one of his most celebrated roles in a gritty cat-and-mouse game set in a divided Berlin. The muted, evocative score was by Sol Kaplan.

The Spy who came in from the cold

The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Another highly successful series that, tonally, fell somewhere between Fleming and Le Carre, was launched with The Ipcress File, starring Michael Caine as the world-weary British agent Harry Palmer. The series shared much of Bond’s DNA, not surprisingly because the producer was Harry Saltzman (half of Eon Productions), bringing with him Bond’s editor, Peter Hunt, and production designer, Ken Adam. The music was also by John Barry, who used his taste for exotic instrumentation (in this case the cimbalom) to evoke eastern menace on the streets of London.

ipcress-file- Music by John Barry

The Ipcress File (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

John Barry also contributed a memorable score to The Quiller Memorandum (1966). George Segal and Alec Guinness starred in this straight ahead cold war thriller, with a script by Harold Pinter.

Quiller_memorandum_EP6305

Wednesday’s Child from The Quiller Memorandum (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

In finest Easy Listening fashion, even Shaw was not afraid to go with a somewhat cheesy vocal arrangement when called for. Here is his take on one of Burt Bacharach’s numbers from Casino Royale. (In the film it was only used as an instrumental; this is the version with Hal David’s lyrics).

Casino Royale record cover

Note, as always, the fabulous drumming and that tight rhythm guitar. I wonder how many bachelor pads have echoed to this track at the cocktail hour…..

Martini anyone?

James-Bond-Martini

“Let the Love Come Through” from Casino Royale (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Avengers - cocktails

Twisting with James (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

Bond Connery aston martin Goldfinger

 

HAPPY 450th, BILL! ( How I Celebrated Shakespeare’s Birthday with Sir Ian McKellen )

Acting Shakespeare - France

We’ve all seen them – those fun pictures of fellow knights of the British stage, Sir Ian McKellen (aka Gandalf and X-Men maverick Magneto) and Sir Patrick Stewart (aka Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise and X-Men leader Professor Xavier) hamming it up before the Super Bowl —

McKellen - Stewart Super Bowl

— and living it up, in and around the Big Apple.

patrick-stewart-ian-mckellen Wall Street

Patrick Stewart Ian McKellen Empire State

McKellen Steward in bar

It’s the unlikeliest bromance of the moment. It has grown out of this power duo’s Broadway performances of a hard-core theatrical double-hitter: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land.

Stewart - McKellen Godot w:hats

 

Stewart McKellen No Man's Land

The shows have garnered rave reviews. No surprise here. Several of my most memorable theatre-going experiences have been courtesy of these two theatrical lions. In the RSC’s staging of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, directed by Trevor Nunn at the Barbican in the 1980s, Patrick Stewart was an unforgettable King. The scene where he realizes, on his deathbed, that the son he thought was a wastrel is actually going to be a great monarch (Henry V), and the two are finally reconciled, was indelibly moving.

Patrick Stewart, Gerard Murphy Henry IV

Ian McKellen terrified in a studio-sized, in-the-round production of Macbeth (with Judi Dench) that has achieved a well-deserved legendary status (it was also directed by Trevor Nunn).

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Ian McKellen Macbeth with weird sisters

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Some years later, in a Peter Hall production of Coriolanus at the National Theater, McKellen brought that difficult study in hubris to alarming light. I doubt I will ever see that tricky play done better.

McKellen Coriolanus fight

Like Patrick Stewart, I had the good fortune to work and hang out with Ian, in Boston and New York, though at the end of an earlier era, the 80s. And it was just as much fun. We may not have gone to Coney Island…..

mckellenstewart Coney Island

…… but we did have the surreal experience of sitting in a wharf-side restaurant near Wall Street as the stock market crashed. As we sipped coffee and wrote our script, even the air was jittery.

Acting Shakespeare - Broadhurst Theatre

I had persuaded Ian to work with me to adapt his one-man show, Acting Shakespeare (which he was touring around the States), into a 2-hour special for National Public Radio, to be produced under the auspices of my radio station, WBUR in Boston. The program would tell the story of Shakespeare’s life and examine the lasting appeal of the plays, through autobiographical nuggets, commentary and performances by Ian, and a range of interviews, historic recordings and music. It would then extend into a discussion of Shakespearean performance in America. It was somewhat unusual for a radio station in America at this time, even one in the NPR network, to undertake an enterprise of this nature. Radio drama of any kind, let alone something as ostensibly highbrow as Shakespeare, was hard to find on the dial. But our station manager, Jane Christo, thought unconventionally, and was a big fan of Ian’s work. It did not hurt that we were able to attract substantial corporate underwriting for the project too.

The program began, as had Ian’s one-man show, in really the only way it could, with the opening of Henry V, in which the audience members are exhorted by the Chorus to enter the world of the play through the full exercise of their imagination. Is there any finer call to arms for the theatregoer?

During the course of the program we interviewed a range of people who studied and performed the plays in America.

Joseph Papp in front of posters for his many legendary productions

Joseph Papp in front of posters for some of his many legendary productions

Joseph Papp, the iconoclastic director and impresario who had done so much to promote quality non-profit theatre in New York, entertained with his impression of Al Pacino doing Richard III, and his often irreverent but unique insights gleaned from a lifetime of producing the plays.

1964-June-17_31992_Hamlet-at-the-Delacorte-with-view-of-Belvedere-Castle_lg

Hamlet at the Delacorte Public Theatre (1964)

 

F. Murray Abraham AMND coverF. Murray Abraham illuminated the actor’s point of view.  He talked about why he loves performing the plays, and how young audience members were in thrall to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which he was starring as Bottom.

 

 

 

F. Murray Abraham as Shylock, Melissa Miller as Portia, in The Merchant of Venice

F. Murray Abraham as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, with Melissa Miller as Jessica

 

Marjorie-Garber-Shakespeare-and-Modern-Culture-Pantheon-2009

garber Shakespeare after all

 

 

garber with dogs

 

 

Professor Marjorie Garber of Harvard University, a leading gender studies and Shakespeare scholar, brought to life many historical, academic and philosophical issues connected to the plays and their author (not least the fascinating question of whether Shakespeare was really an actor from Stratford-upon-Avon, or someone else altogether).

 

 

Edward de Vere, one of the leading candidates for being "the real Shakespeare". The film Anonymous dramatized his story.

Edward de Vere, one of the leading candidates for being “the real Shakespeare”. The film Anonymous dramatized his story.

We also recorded a class of school kids who studied with the pioneering New England theatre company, Shakespeare and Company.

A senior figure with that troupe, Kristin Linklater, had coached Ian in speech and diction early in his career at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and she discussed the ways in which American performances of Shakespeare were often preferable to those by British actors.

Kristin Linklater leading a class

Kristin Linklater leading a class

The program also looked at the ways in which Shakespeare has permeated the popular culture, from West Side Story to the pop songs of Sting. Interviewing Sting resulted in one of my more memorable encounters with a celebrity.

The former lead singer with The Police was doing a photo shoot in New York, and suggested I come to the studio and talk to him during a break. I remember walking into the lobby of an unassuming building in midtown, only to be confronted by 15-foot-high walls covered, floor to ceiling, with cover shots from Vogue and other iconic fashion magazines. I suddenly realized this was no ordinary photo shoot.

I was led to Sting’s dressing-room. On the way I glimpsed the rock star, naked save for his Calvin Klein briefs, posing for an effervescent, wiry photographer who spoke in a flurry of Italian-English. I did not know it at the time, but this was one of the legends of the fashion scene, Francesco Scavullo. When I later told my girlfriend (who was part Italian and a big follower of the fashion-world) where I’d been, she admonished me, half in American, half in Italian, for a) not knowing how fortunate I had been to be admitted into the presence of this legend (Scavullo, not Sting), and b) not taking her with me. When I then further revealed that throughout the interview Sting remained clad only in his form-fitting Calvin Kleins, I received a sharp jab of rebuke on my arm. Clearly I had seriously messed up for not allowing her the opportunity to see the rock star au naturel. It took a while for me to emerge from the doghouse. (And, ladies, the answer to your question concerning Mr. Gordon Sumner’s attributes is, “Yes, he is.”)

Francesco Scavullo with his photo of Sting

Francesco Scavullo with his iconic photo of Sting

One of the most memorable evenings of my sojourn in New York now takes on the hue, in retrospect, of an historical moment in theatre lore. Ian and I were laboring intently on the script, preparing to enter the studios of WNYC to lay down his tracks before he resumed his tour. We were under the gun, but nevertheless one day he declared that we were going to take a break that evening and go to the theatre.

“You wouldn’t mind doing that, would you dear boy? I’ve been told it’s a play we absolutely must go to,” he said as he peered over his half-moon spectacles. “Absolutely” is one of his signature words. His eyes betrayed that twinkle of mischief which the world has come to love in his portrayal of Gandalf. There is a part of Ian’s psyche that remains thoroughly that of an errant school-boy, “creeping unwillingly to school”. It is one of the reasons he is a great actor: he likes to play. On this occasion he was clearly in the possession of privileged knowledge he was not about to share, but he was relishing what my reaction would be when I discovered what it was.

Rehearsing Richard II (with Mark Strong)

Rehearsing Richard III (with Mark Strong)

Thus we found ourselves heading off to Sardi’s for dinner, New York’s most famous watering hole for the Broadway set. Of course, everyone wanted to come over to our table and pay their respects. Ian held court to the manner born, garrulous and friendly, but always ready with a biting quip. The possessor of a mind every bit as lean and quick as his performances, Mr. McKellen does not suffer fools, or the lazy opinion, gladly. He’s call you on your BS. You’ve seen him do this on the chat shows, where he has become a popular guest with hosts and audiences alike.

King Lear

King Lear

We walked into the theatre and made our way to our seats at the front and center of the stalls. A murmur of excitement flowed through the audience – at this time McKellen was already a huge star in the theatrical firmament, even if he had yet to achieve the broader celebrity status that came with The Lord of the Rings and X-Men. He turned and shook people’s hands, and greeted old friends. Finally we settled into our seats and the play began.

An actor came out, thin with long black hair falling about his coiled shoulders.

John Malkovich in Burn This

From the second he took the stage I was riveted. His energy and intensity were extraordinary, and it was the kind of showboating role that makes a star. Now I could better imagine the galvanizing effect of Brando’s legendary performance in A Streetcar called Desire. I knew why Ian had insisted we come, and I felt like I was watching theatre history being made. After the show we went backstage and Ian introduced himself. I just stood by and watched, in awe. What a moment!

Walking home Ian commented: “You don’t see that every day – a star is born”, or words to that effect. True enough.

The actor’s name was John Malkovich, and the play was Burn This by Lanford Wilson. Also in the cast was the young Joan Allen, giving an equally powerful performance for which she won a Tony award. Amazingly, Malkovich only received a Drama Desk nomination. He was, as they say, robbed. But his stellar career was officially launched.

John Malkovich and Joan Allen in Burn This

John Malkovich and Joan Allen in Burn This

A few days later Ian and I entered what were then the newly refurbished studios of WNYC to record his scenes and linking text. As with the writing process, Ian was completely collaborative and openly solicited my advice on his acting and presentation. It was a somewhat daunting experience for a comparative neophyte to be asked to guide one of the greatest actors of his generation, but Ian was intent on scaling back the pitch and scale of his performances so that they worked for radio. His conversational manner as host occasionally veered towards being more “BBC-like” than one normally heard on American radio, not surprisingly, but that hardly seemed inappropriate in a program about Shakespeare hosted by an Englishman.

Rehearsing Macbeth with director Trevor Nunn and Judi Dench

Rehearsing Macbeth with director Trevor Nunn and Judi Dench

We wanted his commentary to feel comfortable and unintimidating, like a fireside chat, with hot tea and scones to hand. When it came to the play extracts he completely understood how one could go small and intense, rather than big and theatrical, honing in on the psychological thrust of the speeches. Radio is wonderful for this kind of “interior” approach to drama, and it also allows an actor to mold and color the language in a way that the demands of projection in a large theatrical space often preclude. Only occasionally did we shift into a proscenium, or to be more accurate, thrust-stage mode, when a scene like the opening of Henry V would be aurally placed within a theatre setting through the use of sound effects and artificially added reverberation. I particularly enjoyed doing Prospero’s Farewell from The Tempest (opening Part 2 of the program). Ian brought out all the lyricism and melancholy in the speech, and I backed it with the Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim’s music, drawn from his ballet of the play. It lent just enough of an otherworldly, eerie quality to those extraordinary words in which the playwright expressed his intention to retire from the stage.

"I'll drown my book...." McKellen as Prospero at the opening of the London Paralympics

“I’ll drown my book….” McKellen as Prospero at the opening of the London Paralympics

In another standout sequence, Ian plays a pivotal scene from Hamlet, involving the arrival of the traveling players at Elsinore, Hamlet’s family castle, taking all the roles. The listener is able to go right inside Hamlet’s head as he launches into the soliloquy “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I”.

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To get this kind of “interior” quality of sound one has to speak as close to the microphone as possible. In this way one removes all the room resonance, so the voice is completely isolated. The problem is that in the process of doing this, every little mouth noise, lip smack, pop and breath is picked up by the microphone, and can distort the recording. We were working in the days before digital editing and mixing, so the only editing we could do to remove unwanted pops and distortions involved actually cutting the tape itself. Tricky stuff, and especially so when there is such a wide dynamic range as there is here. When Hamlet explodes with frustration in the middle of the speech, McKellen had to back off the microphone and the engineer rode levels so he would not distort. Listen to the completed scene (contained in the following clip). I think you will agree that it is a masterly piece of microphone technique allied to brilliant acting.

Ian McKellen as Hamlet (1971)

Ian McKellen as Hamlet (1971)

Once the sessions in New York were completed, Ian disappeared for the rest of his tour. (While he was on the West Coast he interviewed the Craig Noel, who had run the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego for decades).

Craig Noel in 1980

Craig Noel in 1980

I was left with a mountain of recorded material to whittle down to two 1-hour shows. I disappeared into the editing room with my indefatigable engineer, David Greene, and his trusty razor-blade.

The author (l.) and engineer David Greene (r.)

The author (l.) and engineer David Greene (r.)

One of the interesting things that happens when one works on an audio project like this is one comes to learn in intimate detail every tic and inflection of someone’s voice, their particular habits: the way breaths are taken, the way certain combinations of consonants and vowels can sound out oddly, and how even well-trained voices can reveal the layers of their background. McKellen grew up in the north of England and had a strong regional accent as a young man, but in order to pursue a career in theatre at that time (the late 50s and early 60s) it was mandatory that he not have anything other than a proper Queen’s English kind of voice. He rigorously trained away the accent of his boyhood, but as David and I labored over the tapes, those characteristic northern sounds would occasionally reveal themselves within the words. Fascinating. There were also certain, shall we say, bad habits or tics that even the most well-trained voice will fall into, and I will admit to certain moments of levity when we came across these McKellen aural signatures. Put it down to the punchiness that every editing bay plays host to.

Rehearsing Coriolanus in Greece, with director Peter Hall

Taking Coriolanus on tour in Greece, with director Peter Hall

What many people do not realize is how much of what they hear on the radio is not people speaking off the cuff. In fact, the reporters, interviewees, and commentators on fully produced programs are mostly edited before the shows hit the air to remove unwanted mistakes, pauses etc. (except when it is a live news show, like All Things Considered, though here it is mostly only the hosts who are live; the rest are mostly live on tape). In the days before digital, this kind of editing was done with a razor blade, cutting the master tape. To be a really good editor is a considerable art, with little room for error – you can only reassemble minute pieces of cut tape so many times. My editor on this show, David Greene, was one of the best editors I have ever worked with. Every session was a master class in how to cut tape. It wasn’t just a question of editing interviews for content: David would clean up odd little mouth noises and tighten the rhythmic flow of speech. Here you have to be so careful, because if you overdo it to get rid of redundant “ers” and “ums”, you can disrupt the speaker’s natural flow and rhythm of speech, and the end result can sound choppy.

King Lear

King Lear

Finally, with all the elements in place, we mixed the show. Now you might think this would be a hi-tech affair, with multi-track tape and a state-of-the-art mixing console. Far from it. At the time WBUR had yet to gain the luxurious facilities it currently enjoys. We only had several ¼ inch decks, and Betamax video decks for digital playback.  The mix was all coordinated manually, with David and myself literally leaping from one source to another as different sound elements were cued in. It may have been crude, but it worked.

As Richard II (1968)

As Richard II (1968)

With a certain level of anxiety I sent Ian the finished program for approval. He had a few salient notes, but declared his satisfaction, and the program aired on April 19th, 1988, in time for Shakespeare’s birthday on the 23rd, on over a hundred stations across the land. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that NPR ran it again the following year on even more stations.

King Lear, with Sylvester McCoy (aka Doctor Who) as the Fool

King Lear, with Sylvester McCoy (aka Doctor Who 1987-1989) as the Fool

An interesting coda to this whole experience came a few months later. Ian made worldwide headlines by publicly coming out. He was one of the first celebrities in the acting world to openly declare his homosexuality, and it was an act of considerable bravery at that time. It turned out that he had been seriously mulling over whether to do so or not throughout his American tour, when we had been working on the program. In San Francisco he had been staying with the writer Armistead Maupin (whose Tales of the City was a landmark work in chronicling the impact of the AIDS crisis on the gay community), and this was when he finally reached his decision. At the time, his coming out was partly driven by a desire to protest a new law discriminating against homosexuality being promoted by Margaret Thatcher’s government. McKellen has remained active in support of LGBT rights, recently adding his signature to those of 27 Nobel Laureates who wrote an open letter to Vladimir Putin to protest Russia’s policies of active discrimination against, and criminalization of, this community.

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We had chosen to end the program with a speech from Henry VIII, a play that scholars believe, while attributed to Shakespeare in the First Folio, was actually written in collaboration with his contemporary, John Fletcher. Sir Thomas More confronts a mob of rioters who are protesting against the flood of immigrants entering London. In retrospect I can see how More’s condemnation of discrimination and intolerance would have resonated with Ian as he pondered his decision to come out.

                                      Would you be pleased

To find a nation of such barbarous temper,

That, breaking out in hideous violence,

Would not afford you an abode on earth,

Whet their detested knives against your throats,

Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God

Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants

Were not all appropriate to your comforts,

But chartered unto them, what would you think

To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;

And this your mountanish inhumanity.

NPG 1; William Shakespeare attributed to John Taylor

It was the perfect humanist note on which to end this personal look at the greatest of all literary humanists, granted by one of our foremost practitioners of the actor’s art. Working on this show was one of the singular delights of my radio career.

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You can listen to the complete broadcast of Speaking for Everyman: Ian McKellen Celebrates Shakespeare’s Birthday here:

PART 1

Ian McKellen b&w

PART 2

In Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (1974)

In Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1974)

Here is a video of Ian analyzing Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” speech.

 

AND, on a lighter note, for Stewart/McKellen fans this is essential viewing:

THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER ( Full Dramatization )

rime of the ancient mariner title

Directed and Produced by Mark Ward for WBUR-FM and NPR Playhouse.

Engineering by Rick Wolff.

Starring BRIAN WAY as the Ancient Mariner, and ROBERT REAMES as the Narrator. Also starring PAYMAN K., RONALD GOLDMAN, and LEILA SAAD. Introduced by MARK SCHILLING and FRAN McQUADE.

You can listen to the full radiophonic dramatization of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner here —

or here —

(If the player fails to load, you can follow this link, from which you can also DOWNLOAD the program).

You can read about the making of this dramatization here.

The following are selected illustrations by Gustav Doré from the 1876 edition, with one illustration by Mervyn Peake.

Frontispiece of 1876 Edition

Frontispiece of 1876 Edition

"It is an ancient mariner, And he stoppeth one of three..."

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.

"The guests are met, the feast is set: May'st hear the merry din."

‘The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.’

"The bride hath paced into the hall...."

The bride hath paced into the hall….

"And now the storm-blast came, and he Was tyrannous and strong...."

And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o’ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.

"And now there came both mist and snow, And it grew wondrous cold...."

And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

"The ice was here, the ice was there, The ice was all around..."

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

"The Albatross did follow, And every day, for food or play, Came to the mariner's hollo!"

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!

"With my cross-bow I shot the albatross."

With my cross-bow
I shot the albatross.

And I had done a hellish thing, And it would work 'em woe: For all averred, I had killed the bird That made the breeze to blow. Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, That made the breeze to blow!

And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!

"We were the first that ever burst Into that silent sea...."

We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.

"Water, water everywhere...."

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

"And some in dreams assurèd were Of the Spirit that plagued us so; Nine fathom deep he had followed us From the land of mist and snow.

And some in dreams assurèd were
Of the Spirit that plagued us so;
Nine fathom deep he had followed us
From the land of mist and snow.

mariner with dead albatross

Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
(Drawing by Mervyn Peake)

"The games is done. I've won! I've won!"

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
‘The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!’
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

One after one, by the star-dogged Moon, Too quick for groan or sigh, Each turned his face with a ghastly pang, And cursed me with his eye. Four times fifty living men, (And I heard nor sigh nor groan) With heavy thump, a lifeless lump, They dropped down one by one.

One after one, by the star-dogged Moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye.
Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.

'I fear thee, ancient Mariner! I fear thy skinny hand! And thou art long, and lank, and brown, As is the ribbed sea-sand.

‘I fear thee, ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand!
And thou art long, and lank, and brown,
As is the ribbed sea-sand.’

The moving Moon went up the sky, And no where did abide: Softly she was going up, And a star or two beside—

The moving Moon went up the sky,
And no where did abide:
Softly she was going up,
And a star or two beside—

Beyond the shadow of the ship, I watched the water-snakes: They moved in tracks of shining white, And when they reared, the elfish light Fell off in hoary flakes.

Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.

And the coming wind did roar more loud, And the sails did sigh like sedge, And the rain poured down from one black cloud; The Moon was at its edge.

And the coming wind did roar more loud,
And the sails did sigh like sedge,
And the rain poured down from one black cloud;
The Moon was at its edge.

Around, around, flew each sweet sound, Then darted to the Sun; Slowly the sounds came back again, Now mixed, now one by one.

Around, around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun;
Slowly the sounds came back again,
Now mixed, now one by one.

How long in that same fit I lay, I have not to declare; But ere my living life returned, I heard and in my soul discerned Two voices in the air.

How long in that same fit I lay,
I have not to declare;
But ere my living life returned,
I heard and in my soul discerned
Two voices in the air.

A little distance from the prow Those crimson shadows were: I turned my eyes upon the deck— Oh, Christ! what saw I there!

A little distance from the prow
Those crimson shadows were:
I turned my eyes upon the deck—
Oh, Christ! what saw I there!

Each corse lay flat, lifeless and flat, And, by the holy rood! A man all light, a seraph-man, On every corse there stood.

Each corse lay flat, lifeless and flat,
And, by the holy rood!
A man all light, a seraph-man,
On every corse there stood.

The boat came closer to the ship, But I nor spake nor stirred; The boat came close beneath the ship, And straight a sound was heard.

The boat came closer to the ship,
But I nor spake nor stirred;
The boat came close beneath the ship,
And straight a sound was heard.

Under the water it rumbled on, Still louder and more dread: It reached the ship, it split the bay; The ship went down like lead.

Under the water it rumbled on,
Still louder and more dread:
It reached the ship, it split the bay;
The ship went down like lead.

I pass, like night, from land to land; I have strange power of speech; That moment that his face I see, I know the man that must hear me: To him my tale I teach.

I pass, like night, from land to land

I have strange power of speech; That moment that his face I see, I know the man that must hear me: To him my tale I teach.

I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.