- actors /male
- The acting tradition in Britain stretches back to medieval mystery plays. For professionals, theatre is generally regarded as the greatest test although it is now difficult to earn a living on stage. Most actors therefore also do television or films unless, like Jim Dale, they star regularly on Broadway. Although cuts in arts budgets have led to many repertory companies disappearing and while the film industry is almost invisible, television fills the gap. There is no shortage of acting talent. But television has largely abandoned the literary plays that once gave theatre its cultural importance, replacing them with sensationalist drama, action series, sitcoms (see situation comedy) and soap operas, although some would dispute whether the latter’s formlessness qualifies it as drama. Music hall traditions continue to exert an influence, primarily through stand-up comedy. Overall, the social revolution of the 1960s, combined with television’s thirst for talent, have fostered a cohort of actors whose ability is often enlivened by concern for cultural and social issues.From about 1970, with Peter O’Toole, Tom Courtney, Albert Finney, Michael Caine and Nicol Williamson established as international stars in sixties social realist films, British theatre and cinema declined. There are few famous living stage playwrights. Television occupies the conversational place once held by theatre and is making its own national stars. Actors such as Richard Briers, Geoffrey Palmer, Rowan Atkinson, Benjamin Whitrow and Peter Sallis are well known, partly through ability and partly because producers favour proven performers. But once an actor is identified with one type of role, changing image can take Herculean efforts. Very few actors transfer successfully from soap opera to other genres. Perennial favourites tend not to have taken top billing initially and the career paths of even the best actors are unpredictable. Stephen Rea found success in I Didn’t Know You Cared, Peter Tinniswood’s 1980s television comedy, and has since appeared in several relatively low profile but high-quality plays and films. David Jason’s first television show was in 1968, but his first starring roles came in the 1980s. Regulars range from Chekhov to situation comedy, so the distinctions between stage, film and television acting are blurred. Television and film were initially considered unworthy of serious actors. Laurence Olivier was lauded for renouncing Hollywood to establish the Royal National Theatre. Actors such as Ian McKellen, David Suchet and Alan Rickman made their names working there or in the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the 1990s these companies keep serious theatre alive, free from the constraint of chasing what managements call ‘bums on seats’. By contrast, commercial theatre stars such as Tom Conti utterly reject what they see as the easy option of subsidized work.Modern acting technique emphasizes inner motivation, but many actors would endorse Olivier’s advice to Dustin Hoffman, who appeared on the set of Marathon Man sweaty and exhausted after a run his character was meant to have taken off-screen: ‘Try acting, dear boy.’ Theatre demands more technical ability than film work, for which it is often enough to stand still and avoid blinking (according to Michael Caine). Most British actors achieve tremendous range by fusing Stanislavsky, Method and classical acting with a dash of music hall if required, which is what makes them popular in Hollywood. Recent transfers include Hugh Grant, Daniel Day-Lewis, Ralph Fiennes and the alarming Steven Berkoff. Stage work makes actors learn from repeat performances, while television or film appearances are usually one-offs. New talent, including Jimmy Nail, Kenneth Branagh, Robert Carlyle, Kevin Whately, Phil Daniels and Robbie Coltrane represent different paths to recognition, yet some have no experience of stage acting at all. Whether alternative routes such as rock music or stand-up comedy give actors a solid technique remains to be seen. Some think standards will decline, or have declined.Television’s obsession with ratings allows little room for experiment. Programmes are often designed by committee so that, while the actor’s task remains that of putting flesh on the bones of a writer’s words, the increasing tendency for drama in all media is to concentrate on social issues, with publicity emphasizing close identity between actor and part. Mass education and leftleaning postwar society have given actors a position of cultural importance in which they are taken for Everyman figures by the media—national barometers of every issue. Actors’ needs for publicity sit comfor-tably with the media’s hunger for occasionally outrageous, professional, lively chat-show material, discussing work or relationships at length. Their range of backgrounds and wide variety of life experiences apparently produce empathy with television audiences; hence the large number of actors who appear in quizzes, magazine programmes and game shows. This exposure can place intense pressure on actors’ private lives and is seen by some as professionally unhealthy. It has prompted mockery of ‘luvvies’, an epithet referring to the emotional way in which actors sometimes discuss each other and their work. Acting is a genuinely demanding job, nerve-wracking and physically draining, made worse by its chronic instability and the destructiveness of critics, but, compared to many jobs, it is fulfilling and can be lucrative. Some questions fired at actors might be better addressed to a writer, but writers are less mediafriendly, which leaves actors with a tight-rope to walk between surliness and over-exuberance. The decline in the theatre has brought a decline in writing for the stage. The number of companies like John Godber’s Hull Truck, which bring fringe productions to national recognition, is tiny and the West End has been largely taken over by musicals since the 1980s. Radio and television drama (see radio drama) make opportunities for new writers but often only one and much of the writing required is formulaic. If theatre continues to limit itself to literal-minded social realism or musicals, it seems unlikely to make up any of the ground lost to television and work will decline. There is evidence that people are disenchanted with television but whether they will return to live theatre remains to be seen, as does the question of whether the decline of live theatre will eventually produce a decline in acting standards overall. Many fine performers have sadly gone unmentioned, and there are excellent performers even at student or amateur level, and at the turn of the century British acting is thriving.See also: actors (female)Further readingCallow, S. (1985) Being an Actor, London: Penguin (thoughtful and witty survey of an actor’s life).STEPHEN KERENSKY
Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . Peter Childs and Mike Storry). 2014.