Why did Rowan Atkinson infuriate him in Love Actually? Could he have started his own religion? And was Betty the tortoise any good on stage? Stars from Ruby Wax to Richard Curtis remember an acting colossus
‘From furnishings to sausages, his taste was impeccable’
The most remarkable thing about the first days after Alan died was the number of actors, poets, musicians, playwrights and directors who wanted to express their gratitude for all the help he’d given them. I don’t think I know anyone in this business who has championed more aspiring artists, nor unerringly perceived so many great ones before they became great. Quite a number said that, latterly, they had been too shy to thank him personally. They had found it hard to approach him. Of all the contradictions in my blissfully contradictory friend, this is perhaps the greatest: this combination of profoundly nurturing and imperturbably distant.
He was not, of course, distant. He was alarmingly present at all times. The inscrutability was partly a protective shield. If anyone did approach him with anything like gratitude, or even just a question, they would be greeted with a depth of sweetness that no one who didn’t know him could even guess at. And he was not, of course, unflappable. I could flap him like nobody’s business and when I did he was fierce with me and it did me no end of good.
He was generous and challenging. Dangerous and comical. Sexy and androgynous. Virile and peculiar. Temperamental and languid. Fastidious and casual. My list is endless. There was something of the sage about him – and had he had more confidence and been at all corruptible, he could probably have started his own religion. His taste in all things, from sausages to furnishings, appeared to me to be impeccable. The trouble with death is that there is no next. There is only what was and for that I am profoundly and heartbrokenly grateful.
The last thing we did together was change a plug on a standard lamp in his hospital room. The task went the same way as everything we ever did together. I had a go. He told me to try something else. I tried and it didn’t work so he had a go. I got impatient and took it from him and tried again and it still wasn’t right. We both got slightly irritable. Then he patiently took it all apart again and got the right lead into the right hole. I screwed it in. We complained about how fiddly it was. Then we had a cup of tea. It took us at least half an hour. He said afterwards: “Well, it’s a good thing I decided not to be an electrician.”
‘He suggested me for a David Mamet play’
I first met Alan after a benefit show at the London Palladium in 1994. At that time, I knew and loved his work in Die Hard: the seriousness but lightness of touch. I remember chatting to him after and telling him that I really wanted to do dramatic acting, my first love. He said he didn’t think I was crazy, which was nice of him, but we left it at that. Next, I was suddenly told Alan had suggested my name to play opposite Lindsay Duncan in a David Mamet play. It was a wonderful thing for him to do and Lindsay was a fabulous actor to be working with.
Later in 2003, I saw him in New York when I was doing a play. Afterwards, we all went to eat in a restaurant. Alan had started playing Professor Snape from the Harry Potter films. He portrayed him with an intense and brittle spirit. I asked if Snape continued in future stories. “Well,” he said, “the latest book has just come out, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Then he quietly added: “And I – I am the Half-Blood Prince!”
He went on to give classic and heartbreaking performances in the Harry Potter films that will live with us for ever.
‘Our tortoise Betty starred in The Taming of the Shrew’
My mission in life was to make him laugh and when I did it was better than winning an Oscar. When I hit a comedy nerve, he would fold on to the floor and heave laughing, then he’d make me heave back until we were both on the ground, hysterical.
We had a tortoise called Betty, which was like our adopted child, when we were both performing at Stratford. (Alan played leads, I played seaweed along with Juliet Stevenson.) Alan promised he’d help me get Betty into a show. I had tried to get her into Antony and Cleopatra, telling Peter Brook, the director, in front of Alan, that I’d like to audition Betty for the role of the asp. Alan almost died, because he was playing Antony. I know he was partially upset because Betty would have upstaged him.
In the end, we got Betty on stage during The Taming of the Shrew. Every night, when I’d bring Betty on during a crowd scene, Alan proudly watched from the wings, both of us sick with laughing. He broke my heart by leaving and there isn’t a day when I don’t remember him.
‘Rowan was taking his time while Alan was acting his socks off’
I wanted to cast Alan as the lead in Four Weddings and a Funeral – before we got stuck with Hugh Grant – because he’d been so perfect in a film called Close My Eyes, both tender and funny. So it was a great joy to me when Alan agreed to be in Love Actually. My strongest memory was when we were doing the shopping scene where Rowan Atkinson takes too long wrapping Alan’s illicit gift. Rowan was taking his time, doing long, improvisatory takes, even chatting casually to me about ideas – while poor Alan was acting his socks off, in character, angry and impatient, sometimes for 10 straight minutes. It was a great example of true commitment. But also I’m pretty damn sure by the end Alan was actually, quite rightly, extremely angry and extremely impatient.
Another thing about his performance: the most memorable scene is probably Emma Thompson in her bedroom, listening to Joni Mitchell after she’s discovered her husband’s betrayal. I’m convinced that what makes it twice as strong is the subtlety and truth of Alan’s performance with her before that moment. If their scenes hadn’t completely captured a proper, long-term, adult marriage – if Alan hadn’t been so solid, so cool, so not a person who would fall so far – it wouldn’t have all hit so hard. It was an honour to know him and work with him.
‘He turned down perfectly OK jobs because they were just OK’
One thing Alan couldn’t do: he couldn’t drive. And that was a blessing because it meant that I could give him a lift every night after The Seagull or The Lucky Chance, the plays we did at the Royal Court. We talked in the car and then he’d ask me into his flat and there I got to know his wife Rima and we’d talk politics and gossip into the early hours over bottles of wine.
In that flat, it struck me that every colour, every piece of furniture, every witty object, had been deliberately chosen and lovingly displayed and prized. Nothing was accidental or superfluous – just as Alan’s jobs and his political causes were very deliberately chosen. Long before he was well known, he’d tell me how he had turned down this or that seemingly perfectly OK job because it was just OK. It was as if he knew that life is short and must be filled only with the things that really matter to you.