Interview - Timothy West

19 March 2016

by Richard Dennis

The National Student Drama Festival started in 1956, and is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Actor Timothy West was there all those years ago, and we spoke to him about what he remembers and how the acting world has changed. 

What show did you do at NSDF?

It was Our Town by Thornton Wilder. We’d done it with the Student Players at the Regent Street Polytechnic. I had left the poly by that time but I was still involved with the Student Players and they wanted someone to direct it. We did it at the polytechnic and then I suppose someone from the NUS or the Sunday Times came and had a look and thought it was OK to enter into the festival.

What was the selection process?

I can’t remember. They must have come to see the performance, but there weren’t quite so many entrants then because no one quite knew what it was. 

Did it go well?

Well it won! Which is why I went into the business, because although my parents were both actors, and I think I always wanted to be in the theatre, my father thought I should get a proper job. It was when Harold Hobson – who was a critic for the Sunday Times and chairman of the judges – asked whether I was thinking of going into the business, and I thought, well yeah, alright. That was the push. 

Is there anything that stands out about the festival 60 years on?

Not much. It was quite a big cast and we were all housed in the university lodgings. We enjoyed it very much. Clive Wolfe, who went on to run the NSDF, played a part in it – Dr Gibbs. And Mrs Gibbs was played by the actress Ann Mitchell, who went into the business and I never saw her for 40 years, never even met her, until she was playing my girlfriend in EastEnders 40 years later. 

What was your career path immediately after NSDF?

I got a job as an assistant stage manager in Wimbledon. Sweeping the stage, making the tea, sending last week’s wigs and costumes back and picking up next week’s, things like that, then eventually I started playing very small parts. But the idea of the NSDF has never been to introduce people into the business – the business isn’t that big, and it can’t hold that many people. But it awakens them to the idea of drama and putting on plays, and to reading plays. An awful lot of people have gone into the business as writers, directors and producers, and as performers, and musicians, of course, and composers. If they’ve already got that spark of ambition, then it just gives them a bit of a leg being at the festival. They don’t have to win, but if they’re selected...

Has the transition process from amateur to professional changed in 60 years?

I don’t think the fact that you’ve been in a student drama festival means a thing for the profession – it’s how good you are, in the end. But it works in different ways, I think. You get people who actually do come to the festival – professional people who come and watch quite a lot of the shows and talent spot. Some people go on to do a postgraduate course at drama school, and they’ve probably been picked out from the number of applications that there are. I’m president of the LAMDA drama school and we take 3 per cent of our applications each year, so it’s difficult to get in. But the fact that you’ve done something and been at the NSDF does get you some brownie points. 

There’s quite a lot of new writing this year – has there been a shift in new writing as a form since the 50s?

There’s a lot of new writing, and there’s a lot of wonderful theatre going on in places all over the country. The trouble is that at the moment we’re trained to think that unless you live work and sell your wares within the M25 you haven’t really made it. And that’s holding a lot of people back. But it’s good that so much stuff is being shown and being seen by someone somewhere that could lead to better things. 

What are some of the changes that have happened in the industry?

Well there will always be people who know what they’re doing and those that don’t, and they’ve got to learn the trade. But the thing is, you can do a production in a fringe theatre now but it can be very difficult to cast because people cannot afford to work for nothing or very low salaries. If they’ve got a mortgage or a family, then it’s a lovely job and it needs doing well, but they can’t afford to do it. That’s the trouble. People learn to balance their work, once they are in the profession. They can look at things like voiceovers and commercials, which can just pay the bills so they can afford to go and do rather a good play somewhere above some forgotten pub in North London. 

Do you think access to theatre in London is getting worse?

Yes it’s getting worse, and it’s disgraceful. There’s plenty of diversity, or at least plenty of appetite for diversity, and there are wonderful things going on all over the country, but it’s very difficult to get, for instance, if you’re on tour at a number one theatre with a big professional touring company, it’s very difficult to get producers and directors to come and see you in Malvern or Nottingham. They don’t like it, they think, “Well, we’ll wait till you come to London.” And that’s the attitude that we’ve got to somehow stamp out. And we can only do it by pointing out again and again how much wonderful work is going on in the regions. 

If you were a student now facing £9,000 fees would you still go to university?

Well I wasn’t at university, I was at a polytechnic. But I would if I could afford to – god knows how I’d manage, though. 

Should students worry about being offensive?

It depends who you’re offending. It’s an easy word “offensive”, isn’t it? You should be allowed to speak your thoughts, but if you’re going to make somebody’s life difficult by what you say or do... people who are offensive to others because of their race or religion or because they’re different, that’s just disgraceful, isn’t it? It’s just being a bad human being. 

But do you think there’s an expectation of student theatre to be provocative?

You can be provocative without insulting people. You have to try to put yourself in the position of the person who you’re slagging off. 

Should students stick to their ages? Should they try Lear?

Why not? The stories in the Shakespeare plays are so simple and available to us in that we all understand the emotions involved – love, jealousy and betrayal and so on – some of the most readily accepted productions of Shakespeare I’ve seen have been with very young kids, because it’s their language. They know what Macbeth is about and why he wants to do it and what will happen to him if he does. 

I suppose audiences wonder if a student playing Lear really has the experience or knows enough to embody that character.

Well it’s got to be imagination, hasn’t it? You don’t expect an 18 year old to have gone through what Lear has gone through, but he or she should be able to imagine what it would be like. That’s a key part of acting. 

You’ve done a lot of screen acting. Are there any differences students should know about between acting onstage and on screen?

No, I think everyone who aspires to be an actor should try to do everything. And you should be capable of doing everything. And until you feel you’re capable of having a good shot at everything, you don’t deserve to call yourself an actor. It’s no good saying, “Oh I want to be a film star” or “Oh I want to be on TV” or “Oh I want to be a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company” – you’ve got to do all these things, really. And if you’re a proper actor, you should be able to do that. 

Are there significantly different skillsets?

Yes of course there are. The actual physical structure of your work is completely different in the cinema, for example, compared to the theatre, but you cope with that. It’s basically trying to tell the story, trying to play the part as well as you possibly can by being truthful about it. 

Have you ever sampled the wonders and delights of Scarborough?

Yes, I went up there many times when I was the chair of NSDF. 

Any good local places you’d recommend?

No, not really.

Richard Dennis (@RichardTzanov)