Claire Cocks talks to veteran actor Robert Hardy about Oxford in the 1940s, his friendship with the late Richard Burton and his plans for the future
Hardy’s Oxford: Tutorials at ‘The Bird & Baby’
An English undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford in the 1940s, Hardy’s Oxford offered its own unique experiences, being what he terms “a curious time”, “a time of weird in-between-everything”. For such students, concerns ranged more broadly than impending essays and reading lists, with the ever-present knowledge that they would be needed to fight for their country, thus fulfilling their military duty for “his Majesty” (Hardy and his close friend Richard Burton were in the RAF).
When asked why his choice of degree subject (English), Hardy is perfectly honest: he should have read History, the subject which was to be the love and interest of his publications in later life (Hardy admits to his preference for the medieval history lectures during his time at Oxford, and being inspired by the Magdalen history tutor, Bruce McFarlane).
Nevertheless, at school he was advised that to read English at Magdalen College Oxford would mean having a certain ‘Mr Lewis’ (C.S) as his tutor. Decision made. As for Hardy’s Anglo-Saxon tutor, non other that the Pembroke- based J. R.R Tolkien, (Hardy’s first response upon being told he would be having tutorials at Pembroke was to say “what, in Wales?!”) whose tutorials would take place in the pub of the literary world: ‘The Bird and Baby’ otherwise known as The Eagle and Child’ Stopping C.S Lewis in the cloisters of Magdalen college, Hardy remembers grovelling about a late weekly essay (don’t we all know that feeling?…); his tutor’s response to such an apology was telling: “Enjoy yourself, hand it in next week.” Hardy’s was the era in which some men would leave the dreaming spires in his Majesty’s service never to return.
What did Hardy take away from his student days? : The skills of research that would later be applied to his work on the Longbow (Hardy’s interest in the longbow was not, as is commonly assumed, sparked by his role as Henry Vth of Agincourt: it was actually triggered by the finding, aged six, of two eighteenth century longbows in his family attic), the agility to scale Magdalen’s walls after the 11pm curfew (or lower ladies over them!), and his love of acting. Hardy took his final schools in November 1948, after which he immersed himself in the acting world as part of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre’ s production of Hamlet. Robert Hardy’s early years in Oxford were to be characterised by his inspirational tutors and his friendship with fellow Oxford man (Exeter College), Richard Burton, described by Hardy as “the most extraordinary man that I ever met”.
At first it seemed an unlikely friendship, for the initial encounter between Burton and Hardy was one of friction: a meeting of the Experimental Theatre Club at which the need to find a director for a production of The Dog Beneath the Skin was under discussion. Burton piped up that he knew a “the best director there is” and upon being asked who this might be, answered: “my father”. His arrogance struck Hardy and it was not until a navigation class they had together, when both men bonded whilst poring over a map. Both spotted the river Trent, and recited in Shakespeare’s words: “See how this river comes me cranking in,” said one; the other, “and cuts me from the best of all my land a great half-moon, a monstrous cantle out.”
According to Hardy’s memories of his friend, his relationship with Burton was an extremely rich and colourful one. Particular anecdotes include a quarrel between the two men over Burton’s decision to play the role of Henry VIII with black hair and a beard, which Hardy deemed to be “a disgrace”. The quarrel took place whilst on a yacht on the Thames by Traitor’s Gate, a location Hardy deemed “highly appropriate”.
Another memory was of a production in the Oxford Playhouse in which Burton played Dr Faustus to Taylor’s Helen of Troy, for which Burton failed to learn his lines but claimed it “to be the only play I don’t have to work on because I am Faustus.” For Hardy this served as the perfect epithet for his friend: Burton as the man who had sacrificed himself to the women and the wretches of the world. Hardy remembers the sense of impending doom he felt for his friend upon their both being sent to an RAF station in Norfolk, where he left Burton a note saying, “Whatever you choose to do – actor, politician – you will do greatly, because within you is greatness”. Indeed Hardy believes his prophecy to have been more than fulfilled; even Burton’s mistakes were, according to Hardy, “great mistakes”.
In the post-war years, Hardy returned to Oxford without Burton who was not to finish his degree, to find that his tutor Tolkien had been replaced by J.A.W. Bennett. Hardy and his companions assumed the professor had chosen the route of pleasant retirement, with little awareness of the trilogy on which he was working, which “was to make him millions”.
Upon being asked for his thoughts on the contentious subject of university tuition fees, Hardy was evasive, defining himself as “not a political animal”. Nevertheless he shared his obvious sympathy with the problems and difficulties faced by a student in today’s world, where family connections at an Oxford college no longer hold the command that they once did. He was sympathetic also in the difficulties faced by those wishing to now enter the acting world. Comparing his own entrance into the field with the competition faced today by the would-be-actress/actor trying to enter prestigious drama schools of the likes of LAMDA and RADA, Hardy seemed saddened. Hardy’s was a time in which the atrocities of war had created a gap in the dramatic industry, a window of opportunity left open by the casualties and lost men on the front that needed to be filled. Such a demand for actors allowed Hardy the chance to experiment with unlikely roles and productions. Hardy speaks about the excitement of such freedom for experimentation of character, of playing a role for which, as Hardy replied to the request that he play the King in a play directed by Tyrone (‘Tony’) Guthrie: “I’m too young, too short and the wrong kind of actor”. Guthrie’s response: “I quite concur, might it not be fun to try?”
Why did Hardy choose to act? Hardy grew up in the time of the first British and Hollywood films and was fascinated by the world of the screen, knowing it to be a world to which he hoped one day to belong. Is there therefore any advice or an ideal formula for the budding actor, for those, as Hardy terms it, who want to go in ‘that mad direction’? Answer: “A certain amount of talent, luck, a spine of steel, a ruthlessness of mind that does not jib at murder (you can get by in theatre playing reasonably, honestly – but a lot of interesting things will pass you by!), and patience.
There is quite simply insufficient space to do justice to such a prolific acting career, with Hardy’s roles ranging from Hamlet to Winston Churchill and most recently Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter films. When asked what it was like to play historical figures such as Winston Churchill and Von Ribbentrop, Hardy deemed such roles to be “much the most fun”, being in his opinion roles to be snapped up. Why? Because they enable those Oxford-learnt research skills to come into play, they allowed for his love of History. Hardy has played Churchill in several different productions both in the UK and overseas, and though originally reluctant to play such a character, after “several expensive lunches” he was won over. Hardy commented that it was particularly fascinating to play such a character, Churchill being a figure that was viewed by Hardy’s generation as “papa”, a man that “had led us through the war by the hand”, in such a way that was “sufficiently uplifting to enable them to face life.”
Famous for his role as Siegfried Farnon (based on the character of Donald Sinclair) in the James Herriot adaptations All Creatures Great and Small, Hardy expressed his initial fear upon reading the albeit charming, delightful books that it would “bore the towns and annoy the country”. The vast popularity of the adaptations proved how wrong he was. Under the director’s strict instructions not to meet the real-life people upon whom the book was based, Hardy’s response was to drive straight out to meet the eccentric Sinclair. Interestingly, in later episodes, frustrated with the new young writers for All Creatures Great and Small who “did not do their homework” in researching the back copies of earlier episodes, Hardy applied for script approval enabling him to personally write the scenes in which he acted.
Particularly popular amongst younger generations for his role as the Minister for Magic, Cornelius Fudge in the adaption of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter, Hardy enjoyed the role though admitted it was not a particularly challenging one, and with friends such as Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton being in the star-studded cast, “we all behaved rather badly”. Sadly however, Hardy’s days in Harry Potter came to an end when life insurance costs of over one million were deemed too much to pay by the film’s directors and producers.
Plans in the pipeline?…
Aged eighty-five, Robert Hardy claims that “I’m too old” and “too expensive” to have future acting plans and now enjoys focusing on his love of military warfare, and reading at important occasions. In June, Robert Hardy will be helping open a new theatre at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in memory of Richard Burton.
Hardy said that to talk about himself was difficult, describing it as a subject about which he knows very little: “I don’t know much about my life”. With echoes of King Lear (the one role that Hardy regrets never having played) “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (Act I, iv) Hardy is indeed a man of many lives and many parts, the script for this particularly unforgettable lifetime being still to be written.