Continuing my ‘lockdown letters’ to some of my favourite performers, I wrote to the wonderful Carol Burnett via her production company in Santa Monica earlier this year, enclosing this simple portrait sketch for signing, which she dedicated and quickly returned.
Rated one of the best TV shows of all time by a variety of notable publications including TIME magazine, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW ran for 11 seasons from 1967-1978, with a total of 279 episodes and a further nine in 1991. I don’t think I missed one of them. The groundbreaking comedy-variety show was one of the first of its kind hosted by a woman. It featured Carol with regulars Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and in later episodes Tim Conway and Dick Van Dyke, collecting 25 primetime Emmy Awards.
Beginning with student productions while studying at UCLA in the early 1950’s, Carol’s impressive seven-decade career in stage, television and film, with a mixture of dramatic and comedic roles has been recognised with numerous awards including six Emmy Awards (23 nominations), seven Golden Globes (18 nominations) a Grammy and a Tony (three nominations each). In 2005 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom “for enhancing the lives of millions of Americans and her extraordinary contribution to American entertainment.
During her student days, Carol was struggling to pay her tuition bills. An anonymous benefactor came to her rescue. She had to pay back the interest-free loan in five years, never to reveal his identity and if she became successful, help others in financial need. She kept all those promises, contributing to scholarships at both UCLA and the University of Hawaii.
Shakespearean stalwart Amanda Harris won the Best Performance in a Supporting Role Olivier Award in 2005 for her portrayal of Emilia, the wife of the evil Iago (played by Anthony Sher) and Desdemona’s maidservent in the 2004 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of OTHELLO, directed by Gregory Doran. After its initial staging in Stratford-upon-Avon, followed by a tour of Japan it returned to England and opened the larger of the two theatres at the Trafalgar Studios in London in June.
My wife and I were fortunate to see Amanda in the RSC’s staging of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW at the Barbican Theatre in London in 2019 as part of our annual Shakespearean tradition to celebrate our wedding anniversary. The production switched the genders for every role with Amanda playing Minola Baptista, one of the wealthiest ‘men’ in Padua and ‘father’ of Kate, the ‘shrew’ of the play’s title and Bianca.
Her screen credentials include appearances in all the popular British TV programmes, including MIDSOMER MURDERS, THE BILL, A TOUCH OF FROST and HEARTBEAT. Amanda has taught drama and Shakespeare at the University of Alicante in Spain and is an Associate Artist at the RSC, where I sent this Emilia/Baptista sketch of her as for her to sign, which she kindly did and returned with a nice complementary note.
Agatha Christie’s genre-defining murder mystery play THE MOUSETRAP opened on the West End in 1952 and ran continuously until 16 March 2020, when it was discontinued as all London’s theatres went dark due to the Covid-19 pandemic, ending the longest initial run of any play in theatrical history. It will hopefully celebrate its 70th anniversary next year. As restrictions eased in England, the classic whodunnit resumed at St Martin’s Theatre on 17 May this year with two separate casts alternating each week.
As news spreads of a murder, a group of strangers find themselves snowed in at Monkswell Manor, a stately countryside guesthouse outside of London. When a police sergeant arrives, the guests discover that a killer is in their midst. Who will be the next victim? Two of the characters are Mrs Boyle, a pompous, pretentious critical older women who is a former court magistrate played by Susan Penhaligon and Louise Jameson and Miss Casewell, a strange, aloof, masculine woman who speaks off-handedly about her horrific childhood experiences was portrayed by Lizzie Muncey and Sarah Moss.
To mark the welcome return, I drew these sketches of the four cast members and left them at the theatre prior to The reopening, which they all kindly signed and returned. I added an additional image on Susan’s drawing of her as university student Prue Sorensen in ITV’s 1976 drama series BOUQUET OF BARBED WIRE.
The late Marvin ‘Mr Showbiz’ Hamlisch remains one of the most decorated composers in entertainment. One of sixteen people to have won the E.G.O.T.; an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award, only he and Richard Rodgers have added the Pulitzer Prize to this distinguished set of American awards. His 50 plus movie scores range from spoofs such as NAKED GUN to tearjerkers like SOPHIE’S CHOICE and include a memorable Bond tune, ‘Nobody Dies It Better’ from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977). With a dozen nominations, Marvin’s three Academy Awards were all won in 1973, two for THE WAY WE WERE and one for THE STING. His 1975 musical, A CHORUS LINE won two Tony Awards, including Best Musical, a Pulitzer for Drama and a Best Musical Olivier for the London production a year later. His four Grammy Awards were also won in 1975, collecting Best New Artist, two for THE WAY WE WERE soundtrack and title song and one for his adaptation of Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’, which featured in THE STING.
After a short illness Marvin passed away in 2012, aged 68. He was in London three years earlier for a two-date gig (“too brief to be called a ‘whirlwind’, he quipped) at the PizzaExpress Jazz Club in Soho in August 2009, where he signed for me.
In the early years of television transmission in New Zealand during the later half of the 1960s I used to watch an Australian show called SKIPPY THE BUSH KANGAROO. It followed the adventures of a young boy and a highly intelligent marsupial, set in the fictional Waratah National Park near Sydney. A popular character was Clarissa ‘Clancy’ Merrick played by English actress Liza Goddard – my first introduction to one of my and Britain’s favourite performers.
Since then, Liza’s stage and small screen career has spanned five decades, with over 30 theatre appearances in the UK including a number of West End productions. Another telly favourite of mine was BERGERAC, which starred John Nettles in the title role as the unorthodox police officer and recovering alcoholic on the Channel island of Jersey. I mention this because Liza played the recurring role of glamorous jewel thief Philippa Vale, nicknamed ‘The Ice Maiden’. Years later Liza reunited with her ‘old flame’ John (as Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby) in an episode of MIDSOMER MURDERS, another favourite.
During the gap between the pandemic lockdowns this year, Liza appeared in the Theatre Royal Windsor’s socially-distanced production of Agatha Christie’s gripping psychological thriller, LOVE FROM A STRANGER, which ran for a week last month. I posted this quick portrait sketch to her and she kindly signed it for me.
Award-winning British comedian Zoe Lyons was God for a short period last Winter… more on that later. Born in Wales, Zoe’s family moved to Ireland then to Surrey and on to Glasgow, where she got her first job in a jam factory. After graduating with a degree in Psychology from the University of York, Zoe’s comic career escalated after a stint on ITV’s reality game show SURVIVORS in 2001, later appearing on such popular TV favourites as MOCK THE WEEK, QI and a regular panellist on THE WRIGHT STUFF, among others.
Back to the Almighty. Zoe appeared as the supreme being in the European premiere of Emmy Award-winning writer David Javerbaum’s AN ACT OF GOD at London’s subterranean venue The Vaults, below Waterloo Station from late October last year until January. It originally opened on Broadway with Jim Parsons in the title role. As Zoe’s adjusted slogan said, ‘God is back… and she has a lot to say!’
I managed to get my sketch signed with a bit of divine intervention, when Zoe took a break between matinee and evening performances on the final Saturday of the season.
English actress Gwendoline Christie returned to the London stage in the Autumn of 2019 to play the Queens, Titania and Hippolyta, in Nicolas Hytner’s immersive production of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at the Bridge Theatre.
She previously played the Queen in the Barbican’s staging of the Bard’s CYMBELINE in 2007 and Mag Wildwood in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S at the Theatre Royal Haymarket two years later. In 2010 she was Lucifer in DR FAUSTUS at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. The 191cm (that’s 6′ 3″ in the old money) Gwendoline has portrayed dominate roles on both the small and large screens, playing Brianne of Tarth in HBO’s fantasy-drama series GAME OF THRONES and First Order storm trooper Captain Plasma in STAR WARS:THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) and THE LAST JEDI (2017). She received her first Emmy nomination for the former in 2019.
Gwendoline kindly signed both my sketches at the Bridge in October 2019.
Lithuanian operatic mezzo-soprano and the 2015 International Opera Awards Young Singer of the Year, Justina Gringyte returned to the London Coliseum earlier this year to reprise the titular role in the English National Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s CARMEN. The exotic and wilful Spanish gypsy girl is Justina’s signature role and considered one of the summits for a mezzo.
After initial studies at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, she continued her learning at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Italy’s Accademia Musicale Chigiana and at the National Opera Studio in London. Between 2011-2013, Justina was a member of the prestigious Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. During the 2014/15 Opera season she played Maddalena in RIGOLETTO at the Royal Opera House and the Bolshoi Theatre and Hansel in HANSEL UND GRETEL for the Vilnius City Opera, but it was the role of Carmen that dominated that and the following season. She performed it for the ENO, staged at the London Coliseum, the Scottish Opera, the Lithuanian National Opera and the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre known as the ‘Siberian Coliseum.’ She also appeared in semi-staged performances in Moscow and St Petersburg.
The London and Scottish productions were radically different. The ENO’s was very contemporary, set in the 1970’s near the end of Franco’s regime, using the English translation with some edgy character breakdowns… and a few cars. The Scottish production was performed in its original French, set in 1825…. with a few tables. The one similarity: no big flamenco dancing scenes. Richard Bartley in his Spectator review described Justina’s “smokey voiced” Carmen as “terrific.” She also returned to the role for the Lithuanian National Opera from October 2017- May 2018 and again the following year.
Justina signed my sketch at the Coliseum during the final week, which completed its limited run on 27 February, before the coronavirus pandemic closed the West End.
Twenty-one year old Sam Tutty made his West End debut late last year to rave reviews. Playing the title character in the London run of the Broadway musical sensation DEAR EVEN HANSEN, Sam, a recent graduate from the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, plays a teenager with social anxiety. DEAR EVAN HANSEN was written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and opened on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre in the Winter of 2016. It was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning six.
The story of teenage isolation has provided and encouraged open dialogue about its themes of mental illness and youth suicide. Evan Hansen is assigned by his therapist to write daily letters to himself about why every day will be good, which becomes the catalyst for the plot-hence the title DEAR EVAN HANSEN.
It transferred to London’s Noel Coward Theatre with previews beginning in October 2019, before opening on 19 November. “It captures the agonies of youth, allows the songs to grow out of the action and boasts a great role, here memorably taken by Sam Tutty for its lead actor,” wrote the Guardian’s veteran critic Michael Billington.
Sam had stiff competition for the lead role during auditions-competing against 8,000 other aspirants. After 13 callbacks he was offered the alternate Evan Hansen before finally securing the lead. He has since won the WhatsOnStage Award for his performance and is nominated for an Oliver, which was due to be presented at the Royal Albert Hall in April, but was cancelled due to the coronavirus. An announcement of the winners is expected this Autumn.
Sam signed my sketch at the Noel Coward stage door in January this year prior the shutdown of the production due to the pandemic, but is due to reopen “as early as practical” in 2021.
One of the last surviving stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Dame Olivia de Havilland passed away peacefully at her home in Paris on Saturday, just a few weeks after her 104th Birthday. Her career spanned five decades, from 1935-1988, including 49 films. At the time of her death she was the oldest living performer to have won an Oscar.
Dame Olivia was renowned for playing strong, beguiling characters in difficult circumstances. The first of her Academy Award nominations, was for Best Supporting Actress, as Melanie Hamilton in the 1939 classic GONE WITH THE WIND. She won the Best Actress Oscar twice, the first for her performance as WW II fire warden Josephine ‘Jody’ Norris in TO EACH HIS OWN (1946) and her second, three years later as Catherine Sloper, a women who is controlled by her wealthy father and betrayed by her greedy lover in William Wyler’s THE HERIESS. She also won a Golden Globe for the role.
Dame Olivia continued to act until the late 1980’s winning her second Golden Globe Award in 1986 for ANASTASIA:THE MYSTERY OF ANNA. She also featured on the stage, appearing three times on Broadway, ROMEO AND JULIET (1951), CANDIDA (1952) and A GIFT OF TIME (1962). In 2017 she was appointed a Dame Commander of the British Empire, the oldest recipient of the honour.
Last year I sent this sketch to Dame Olivia with a signature request, but it was returned with the attached letter, which is self explanatory.