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Interview: Sir Tom Courtenay

PUBLISHED: 09:00 25 March 2011 | UPDATED: 10:42 25 March 2011

Tom Courtenay in Pretending To Be Me

Tom Courtenay in Pretending To Be Me

Archant

Sir Tom Courtenay rose to prominence in the 1960s in roles such as Billy Liar was went on to star in a string of iconic roles. This week he visits Norwich with his own show dramatising the writings of poet Philip Larkin. ABIGAIL SALTMARSH spoke to him.

He is known for his work in some of the most celebrated films of the 20th century and now he is taking on the role of another great man.

Sir Tom Courtenay is bringing Pretending To Be Me, his own acclaimed dramatised compilation from the letters, articles and poems of poet Philip Larkin, to Norwich next week.

“The version I will be bringing to Norwich is more mobile than the original one,” he explained. “I quite liked the idea of doing that, of not using a full set and of simplifying the text and the music.”

And he added: “I have also been enjoying touring with it — and not having to go out on stage every night!”

Pretending To Be Me was first produced and performed by the actor at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2002 and transferred to the West End’s Comedy theatre in 2003.

Then last year, for the 25th anniversary of the poet’s death, Sir Tom was invited by the Larkin Society to perform his show in Hull, his own home town, and the place where Larkin wrote most of his best-known poetry.

He welcomed the opportunity to re-visit and reconsider the material he had used earlier, and to simplify the stag-ing.

“By making it simpler, it has become more like stand-up comedy,” he explained. “There are a few laughs in it — well, actually, there are quite a lot of laughs!”

Hull was where Larkin, one of the foremost figures in 20th century English poetry, was university librarian

The poet was widely recognised as one of the great masters of the English language and the actor reflects wittily and touchingly on his life, and his unflagging obsession with being a writer.

“I take the audience through his childhood, life and how he became a librarian,” he said. “In the second half, he gets a bit drunker and becomes more tactless, wicked and naughty!”

He went on: “I have enjoyed working on this production, reshaping it and changing it as I go.

“Larkin was a wonderful writer. I use his words, which are still witty and still get laughs. I am taking his jokes and putting them in front of the audience.”

Larkin’s first book of poetry, The North Ship, was published in 1945, followed by two novels, Jill, and A Girl in Winter. But he came to prominence in 1955 with the publication of his second collection of poems, The Less De-ceived, followed by The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974).

He was the recipient of many honours, including the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.

And he was offered, but declined, the position of poet laureate in 1984, following the death of John Betjeman.

Larkin died in 1985, aged 63, and 25 years after his death, Hull commemorated him with the Larkin 25 Festival and the unveiling of a statue.

Sir Tom’s career has spanned more than 40 years and encompassed both stage and film. He has starred in many of the most influential films of the past decades.

The 74 year-old actor rose to prominence with a starring role in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in 1962, for which he won a Bafta. One of his most iconic roles followed with Billy Liar in 1963, and then David Lean’s 1965 classic Doctor Zhivago, which earned him an Oscar nomination for supporting actor.

Eighteen years later, in 1983, he scored further triumphs in The Dresser – recreating a role he made famous on stage – and earned a second Oscar nomination.

In 1991 he starred in Let Him Have It, based on the 1950s case of Derek Bentley. He was also, alongside the likes of Michael Caine David Hemmings and Bob Hoskins, part of the ensemble of older acting talent assembled for the film version of Graham Swift’s Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders in 2001.

His extensive stage work ranges from Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests to Uncle Vanya and Art and recent television performances include A Rather English Marriage and The Royle Family.

“At the moment I am enjoying doing this,” said Sir Tom. “It is quite demanding — so touring and not having to do it every night is ideal for me.

“Once the tour is finished, I am hoping to have something else to work on, perhaps a film, but we will see.”

And he added: “It will be good to come to Norwich. I do not know it well and don’t think I have ever performed there before.

“But I do like Norfolk. I have been there several times on holiday and have memories of walking my dog on some beautiful beaches.”

t Sir Tom Courtenay will be appearing in Pretending To Be Me at the Maddermarket Theatre on March 31, £15 (returns only), 01603 620917, www.maddermarket.co.uk

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