INTERVIEW: Actor Clifford Rose – ‘I can’t believe I joined the RSC 60 years ago’

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Clifford Rose photographed at Kempe Studio, Stratford, by Mark Williamson

To say Stratford-based actor Clifford Rose is a veteran is a major understatement. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company upon its foundation in 1960, and has been busy working since. The 90-year-old famously played Kessler in television series Secret Army before starring in its eponymously titled sequel, and most recently he has appeared in hugely popular Netflix series The Crown. He has a son and daughter and was married to actor Celia Ryder, who passed away in 2012. Gill Sutherland caught up with him at the Kempe Studio, Stratford, ahead of a recent poetry recital he was taking part in.

A look through the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) picture archive reveals many splendid photos of you from the past. What was it like when you joined the company?
I joined in 1960, which is a hell of a long time ago, I can barely believe it!
I was brought here by [RSC founders] John Barton and Peter Hall. I had worked with them before in a small touring company in the west of England called the Elizabethan Theatre Company doing Shakespeare – which was a marvellous training as a young actor. When Peter was going to start the full RSC ensemble he invited me to join. I stayed for ten years working with Peter, John Barton, Peter Brook and Michel St Denis – that sort of echelon of directors.
I counted myself very fortunate to be in that sort of company which was pioneering in every sense of the word – the idea of an ensemble, actors staying together for more than a year, three years or more – that was so wonderful. It was crucial; as a company you get to know each other so well, you can take all sorts of shortcuts in rehearsal. It saves time as you get to the nub of something very quickly.

Tell us about your route into acting.
Well I was originally going to go into medicine. I was rather a bright boy, I have to say! I went to school at King’s Worcester, and I was mad about being a surgeon. I left school in 1948 and I wanted to go straight to medical school but I couldn’t get in because they had a quota system whereby you had to have either been in the army or have done your national service, which I didn’t want to do – how arrogant! The result was I didn’t get a place even though I tried five times.
My younger brother was already training at RADA, so my parents told me to have a go at being a theatre actor. It was rather surprising considering we came from the remotest Herefordshire and my father was a preacher, so a very strange theatre background.
My headmaster, who I must say was a very enlightened man, was marvellous. He had directed me in Macbeth, and in my last year he wrote in my school report: “If you ever want to become a professional actor I think you have the makings of it and I would back you.” Or something like that – it was very nice anyway.
I eventually went to King’s College London and I did an English degree, and then I went into the theatre by writing letters to people.

Is that when you joined the RSC?
Well, first I wrote to Hugh Hunt at the Old Vic and he told me to come and audition. I didn’t get in but he told me he knew somebody who was forming a small company – the Elizabethans. Which led me to audition for John Barton. At the end of my audition I couldn’t believe it when he said: “Clifford, that was very good what you did there. I would like to offer you a place in this company.” I was over the moon.

Clifford with Desmond Barrit as Falstaff and Lord Chief Justice in Henry IV Part 2, 2000 (photo John Hayes/RSC)

How was working with John?
Oh wonderful. For a start I was very lucky to have worked with him so early when he really started formulating his ideas on text and speech – how you treat Shakespeare’s verse. That stayed with me all my life.

Did you always want to be a classical actor?
Not especially, no, although we used to come over here from school every summer in sixth form and see a play at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre [now the RSC]. One that impressed me most was Doctor Faustus with Robert Harris, who was a wonderful actor, and Paul Scofield playing Mephistopheles. I thought, that’s it, that’s what I want to do. It was sort of an epiphany.
So I joined John’s company… I dried on my first line on my first night. I was playing the French Ambassador who brings on the tennis balls in Henry V and I got to my line “You cannot revel into dukedoms there” and I could not think of the word “revel” and it was just a huge chasm of nothing. I was terrified but thank God it came suddenly. It popped into my head and then I did something rather extraordinary: I said the word but I gave him a defective “r” which I think rather suited the character – a rather supercilious and effeminate man. To my surprise the audience liked it. So I kept it in my performance.

Denholm Elliott, Clive Swift, Derek Godfrey, Diana Rigg, and Frances Cuka appeal to Clifford as Priam in John Barton and Peter Hall’s Troilus and Cressida, 1960. Photo: Angus McBean

Who was in that ensemble in those early days?
My great favourite was Peggy Ashcroft who I worked with a lot – in the Wars of the Roses [1963] for example, where she played Queen Margaret and I was Exeter, which was quite a nice part.
Donald Sinden played York. We both wore this heavy chainmail costume, which was like being a deep sea diver – Donald’s was even heavier than mine , and I remember he weighed his costume, and reckoned it was over 100lbs!
I adored Peggy. I later did Ghosts with her for the company. We got on terribly well. She often invited me to her dressing room after a show for a drink. Others I really liked were Paul Scofield, Eric Porter, Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Diana Rigg and Patrick Stewart, all those greats.

Cover from Kessler DVD box set

Looking back, what were some of your career highs? How was it when you became so recognisable from being on TV?
The remaining time at the RSC was lovely. I was in some very nice productions. I worked a lot with Peter Brook who was my great guru. I adored him. I know a lot of people didn’t, but I really hit it off with him. He gave me a part in King Lear and that was the first time I actually worked with Paul Scofield. That was a marvellous period, and as a result of that I went into The Marat/Sade [the 1964 stage production], which we took to New York and made a film of. It was hugely successful – a hit play. I’ve been involved in so many lovely things: As You Like It with Vanessa Redgrave, who was absolutely fantastic as Rosalind, and I played Adam at 29! I was always playing old men in those days. That all went very smoothly, but the time came to leave the RSC. I thought, I can’t stay here for ever.
I hadn’t done any commercial work at all, but I got into television, sort of willy nilly – there was some luck. They were doing a television series on BBC2, a classic serial: The Roads to Freedom by Jean-Paul Sartre. It was a mammoth 26 episodes and it was a prestige production with a marvellous director called James Cellan Jones. I went to see him about a part and we got on well. The lead was played by wonderful TV actor Michael Bryant – and I looked like him, so luckily got the role of his brother! I went in and I did six episodes without ever having done any television at all. It was very splendid.
As a result of that, because it was seen by absolutely everyone that mattered, I just never stopped doing TV, it was extraordinary – every sort of decent drama series I was in. James Cellan Jones even started asking me what parts I would like.

You became very well known as Kessler in Secret Army and then in follow-up Kessler. I remember you were quite a scary character – did that change the public perception of you?
Yes, although I used to get quite a lot of letters about it, but they were quite nice letters. I know Anthony Valentine, who had played a similar character in Colditz before Secret Army, told me he used to get lots of really nasty letters, but I never got any nasty ones. I once got a letter from a German woman who told me I reminded her of her husband who was killed in the war – “Will you come and have tea?” – but that was it.

Of all the roles you’ve played, who have you most enjoyed playing?
I have to put Kessler near the top because that went on for a very long time – three years of Secret Army [1977-79] and then the Kessler spin-off, so about five years not doing anything else really because it was utterly time-consuming. It was probably one of my favourite parts. It got an enormous amount of recognition and people did stop me in the street.
Another part would be the director of the asylum in The Mahabharata. I also enjoyed playing Antonio in The Merchant of Venice in a production by David Thacker [1993]. It was a very modern production. Another part I loved was Polonius, with Michael Maloney as Hamlet [Greenwich Theatre, 1996] – I would have loved to have played it again.

You mentioned your brother went to drama school. Did he go in to acting?
He did. My brother David was very different to me. He was very much a young leading matinee idol; very handsome with a huge mop of blond hair. He was in the theatre but went easily into television really because he was so good-looking and personable. He worked in things like Crossroads. He died quite a long time ago.

Did your parents see your success?
Yes they did. My father unfortunately didn’t see much of it because he died youngish but my mother saw virtually everything.

I understand you see most of the productions at the RSC – what do you think is different about the RSC now compared to when you started?
I think the ensemble idea that was there at the beginning of the RSC is very important and worked. I think that is, to some extent, still there but it’s not quite as strong as it was. I think we see more starry kinds of performances. They don’t seem as worried about creating a production whereby you have four or five really standout stars, which I do think is the way they should work. I think that when they hit it – which they do often – it’s wonderful.

Who are some of your favourite more recent directors?
The last time I was at the RSC I worked with Dominic Cooke who did a lovely version of The Crucible [2006]. I rate him very highly. I adored Sam Mendes. Likewise I rate Rupert Goold. I think he did the best Merchant of Venice [2011] that I’ve ever seen. I like people like Blanche McIntyre, Erica Whyman… There are quite a few recent productions that I’ve enjoyed – one that stands out was the most recent Titus Andronicus with David Troughton [2017].

Are you more or less retired from acting?
Well, not really no, because I’ve just been in The Crown [the Netflix series]. It’s very splendid. I played a lovely little part, the Dean of Windsor. I’ve also played the vicar in the new American-made miniseries Four Weddings and a Funeral [available online via internet TV channel Hulu]. As long as I’m asked I’ll keep working.

And you were in Disney blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean [2011]?!
It was a brief part in a scene with Johnny Depp. He was lovely. In the scene he is pretending to be a judge and I was the bailiff. I got his autograph for my son who’s a huge fan and he took the trouble to do it.

Is there one RSC play that you’ve seen over the years that’s really stood out?
Trevor Nunn’s The Revenger’s Tragedy [1966] stands out, which starred Alan Howard and Ian Richardson. I was actually in that! In those days we didn’t have all these health and safety things, and we even had a dress rehearsal at midnight! Trevor asked if we were all up for staying, and we did an absolutely full dress rehearsal starting at midnight. I phoned up my wife, who was in north London, and I said if you want to come and see it get your skates on, and she came down in a taxi. Great days.