I’ve been working as a professional actor for over 40 years now – just writing that sentence fills me with a certain sense of awe and wonder as well as an undertow of where have all the years gone? ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their entrances and their exits, and one man in his time plays many parts.’ Thus says Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Looking back now, I’ve played a goodly number of parts: various lawyers, doctors, politicians – not forgetting a trio of different undertakers (because of my tall lugubrious looks?) – oh and once I even played an exorcist! But it sometimes seems to me that the majority of the parts this ‘one man in his time’ has been called upon to play, have been members of the clergy. The one with the highest status was probably the Inquisitor in Shaw’s SAINT JOAN.
I’ve yet to be asked to play the Pope however. Any Pope. Though last year I did play an Italian priest sent by the Pope (to investigate alleged miracles occurring in Rwanda). Usually it’s been a humble vicar or reverend that I’ve been asked to don a dog-collar for. And most of these parts have been played onstage.
But about thirty years ago I was called upon to play my first on-screen priest. An Italian one, and a young one (well, I was young then) – in a charming film about the Italian community in London called QUEEN OF HEARTS. One of my scenes involved me presiding at a baptism, which was filmed in St. Peter’s Church in Clerkenwell, and one of the priests there was on hand to ‘give me advice’. He was a short, stout, keen-eyed Italian man, who gave me tips on how to hold the baby. He watched me closely and after I had successfully finished shooting the scene, he came up to me and said, ‘You should be a priest.’ I laughed and thanked him. ‘No, I’m serious,’ he went on. ‘You should become a priest.’ ‘Well,’ I responded, ‘There are similarities between acting and the priesthood, I suppose. You know, standing in front of a crowd of people, addressing them from a pulpit or ‘stage’. Needing to have a decent voice, being able to project…there are similarities…’ I tapered off as I noticed him waiting for me to finish. ‘I am serious. You should become a priest.’ ‘But I love acting and I’m only in the early years of my career…’ ‘Think about what I say,’ were his final words as he ambled off back to his office. Two years later I was walking from my then home in Streatham to Tooting Bec tube station. As I approached a bus-stop near the tube I saw him – he was unmistakable. ‘Father! It’s me! Do you remember? The actor you gave advice to for the film a couple of years ago.’ He looked at me keenly. ‘Oh yes, I remember you well.’ ‘What are you doing here in south London?’ I asked. ‘Visiting Catholic prisoners at Wandsworth Prison.’ ‘Ah yes.’ He then scrutinised me for a moment before saying, ‘So, are you a priest yet?’
I didn’t succumb to his ‘hard-sell’ then or at any other time, but in a sense I did fulfil his almost-command to ‘become a priest’ – by portraying so many of them on stage and screen through the subsequent years. My latest incarnation, a German Jesuit priest, an atomic-bomb survivor in Hiroshima, is one that I have worked on during lockdown – it’s an extraordinary story and he comes across as a very special priest, not that he would ever have described himself as such.
This performance, THE PRIEST’S TALE, was filmed and livestreamed on August 6th but is still available to view on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/438259377 or by going to http://www.sandsfilms.co.uk and clicking on theatre events. (There’s also a wonderful Japanese violinist, Chihiro Ono, who provides musical interludes.)
But why? Why all these priests? A chap I met and talked to about this a few years back, and who claimed to be psychic, said it was obvious. ‘You must have been a priest in a past life.’ Of course! That’s the answer I should have given to the priest advising me on the film. ‘You should become a priest.’ ‘No need, I’ve already done that – in a previous life.’