The Peace Initiative

That’s the umbrella name I came up with (rather than the already used Peace Project) for those projects of mine which are connected to peace issues.

For some years now I have been reading and researching and writing about Britain’s First World War Conscientious Objectors – truly brave young men (and the women and men who supported them in their struggle against military conscription in 1916 and beyond).

Young men who were willing to endure all kinds of punishments, even willing to face the firing squad, in order not to compromise their consciences, their beliefs – that human life is sacred, that warfare is not the way to solve international disputes, and that a man cannot, must not be forced to kill another man.

Inspiring men – whose story is too rarely told and honoured.

This led me to organising an event 100 years to the day that general military conscription came into force in this country – an event at Conway Hall, London, on May 25th 2016, COMRADES IN CONSCIENCE, involving a semi-staged reading of my dramatic piece on the subject called THIS EVIL THING, followed by speakers with expertise on the subject, Cyril Pearce, Lois Bibbings, and Ben Copsey (of the Peace Pledge Union), beautiful songs sung acapella by the Helen Chadwick Song Theatre, and with photos, images and quotes around the walls of the Hall, plus lovely posters on anti-war themes by Emily Johns. A special evening – with a very supportive crowd.

My solo version of THIS EVIL THING was performed by myself at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016 to very positive reviews. Through 2017, I toured the play to non-theatrical venues as well as theatre venues.  To places which feature prominently in the COs’ story: to cities where the prisons can be found that held them captive, Winchester, Maidstone, Brixton, for example; to Dyce near Aberdeen, where there was a pretty gruesome quarry and work camp for the COs … etc etc.   Touring dates can be found here.

BEYOND THAT..?

THIS EVIL THING is the first part of a planned ‘anti-war’ trilogy … go to the page The Mistake – a new play about Hiroshima for news on the ‘second part’ of this mooted trilogy.

And then for 2018 I had this idea for  a while, which may well still materialise, to walk the whole of the Western Front, as was, which is about 475 miles from Switzerland through to the Belgian coast.  It needs planning and research, but I would love to do it – in aid of peace causes and charities of course… and perhaps perform poetry readings and dramatic pieces along the way.  Might take about eight weeks to do.  I had thought that if I could finish it on November 11th 2018 (at 11am??) that would be quite something…

I walked 500 miles from the French border along the Pilgrim’s way to Santiago de Compostela in 2003, so I knew what it might involve!

[ UPDATE: see blog TO WALK OR NOT TO WALK…the Western Front walk didn’t happen in 2018 after all…I came to the decision that I felt it was more important at that time to tour THIS EVIL THING, about the WW1 conscientious objectors, as there was considerable demand for the play around the UK.]

Do check out the Network for Peace, the Peace Pledge Union and the many other great peace organisations …

And the wonderful organisation PEACE ONE DAY – every September 21st – please check them out and support them too.

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Was I a priest in a past life?

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.’

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