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Town, December 1966

text: Austin John Marshall

Alexis Kanner, Town

‘I hated him. He made me feel uncomfortable.’ She wriggled and tugged at her mini skirt, surprisingly, for she was as poised and modern a dolly as you could expect to find. ‘No, I’ll be honest, he made me feel absolutely naked.’ And this remembered four months after last seeing him.

At the time, Sydney Newman, head of BBC Drama was more botanical than biological. ‘An orchid in a field of dandelions’ was his description of Alexis Kanner’s classic study in subversion in the BBC TV police series Softly Softly (making another try without Stone on our screens this winter). The trouble was, of course, not Matt Stone, not the orchid, but the bloody dandelions. Z-cars had for three years established an unparalleled standard for TV documentary drama. Superb scripting, casting, location photography, and above all, characterisation (particularly the personal chafings in the Newtown Police Station around the petulant, impulsive Barlow) gripped and held a vast audience. Of course, the Police PR department had objected to seeing the British bobby portrayed realistically, but caught on and eventually warmed to the fact that the public were able to love their coppers, warts and all. But the series eventually became a bit of a parody of itself and wisely it was decided to change and broaden the formula. Right: keep Barlow, Watt (and Blackitt in civvies); move to the West Country: concentrate on the newly formed regional crime squads: accent on crime prevention: get Fritz Spiegel to trick-up another folksong for a title theme: trendy graphics, and hey-presto! – it didn’t happen. No Hiding Place Goes West is perhaps the kindest description.

But what did happen was Kanner. About the time that Softly Softly was a memo on the BBC Head of Series’ desk, a young actor with hair the colour of polished copper and the face of a cherub turned hood, was absorbing and putting into practice ideas from Peter Brook at the Royal Shakespearian Company’s experimental group. Ideas like (Brook’s words) ‘What is silence?’ or ‘Eternal truths in the theatre must be constantly expressed through a surface glamour and fashionability. The audience watches a waltz between Einstein and Bridgette Bardot and can’t tell who is leading’, or ‘A scream that tells more about pain than the word pain.’ The ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ season (of which the Marat/Sade play became the widest known) had contained a notorious re-write of Hamlet by Brook’s associate Charles Marowitz. Kanner had explored many of the group’s ideas in this bizarre production, playing the title role in whiteface (Hamlet as clown, there’s a switch) and earning serious critical praise for his handling of the jump-cut, rejigged classic, involving among other accidental innovations, playing Gertrude’s bedroom scene swinging on a rope.

By rights, Kanner should have stayed on in the Royal Shakespearian Company. Charles Marowitz found him ‘the most talented actor I have ever worked with,’ and praised ‘his special actor’s qualities of conveying danger and impetuousity.’ But for want of a translation of one foreign play and the completion of another and a dispute over a part in Afore Night Come, Kanner found himself ‘rested’ for the first time in five years’ steady work. So he reconsidered an offer he had previously turned down to play one of the young detective constables in Softly Softly.

Matt Stone on paper was ‘brash, hard working’ and came from Gloucestershire. Alexis Kanner is brash, hard working and came from France via Canada. Born 1942, and carried in spy-thriller circumstances in his parents’ arms across the Pyrenees under Nazi guns to Barcelona and thence to Montreal, Kanner grew up in a tough block of that tough city. His ambitions to be a jazz violinist were thwarted one winter’s evening when his instrument was smashed down his throat on his way back home. Victimisation bred resource, mimicry and his own particular ‘cool.’ Success in school dramatics led him at 16 to chance his arm at Stratford, Ontario. A year of conscientious spear carrying elevated him to the part of The Dauphin in Henry V with Julie Harris. On, in 1959, to Dublin and Hotspur for Orson Welles, then a season and a half in rep at Birmingham, doing everything from Rashomon and Caliban (in The Tempest) to The Naked Island. A spate of TV plays and West End theatre plum-parts culminating with the punishing eighteen hours-a-day Peter Brook ‘acting laboratory.’

Kanner recalled: ‘I remember putting to Peter Brook that the mysterious thing about proper acting was, if there were three closed coffins on stage, two containing corpses and one containing a live Laurence Olivier, the audience would gradually focus on the one containing Olivier. Brook took me at my word and produced a non-script by Alain Robbe-Grillet where I had to sit still and do nothing, really nothing for twenty minutes. Try sitting in a chair without striking any attitude at all. Tough. You could have heard a pin drop.’

And so to Softly: the rest is history. After one episode people noticed someone appearing to cheek Barlow and get away with it. Not by anything in the script, mind you. Just hints of stance. A measured coping with translating a Canadian drawl into a West Country burr. Something dangerous was about to happen. A stroke of playing so unique, to fashion from the old music-hall cliché of the West Country bobby a figure so hip, so cool, so self-assured. A swinging provincial to end all swinging provincials. After two episodes he was embarrassed to find he had a fan club. After four he was getting major coverage in all popular national dailies and was chased down Baker Street underground by a mob of girls who ripped all the buttons off his coat. After eight he was due to record the programme’s title theme as a single. After nine appearances he was out. Beatlewide success had come and gone so quickly that he was still living ‘out of a paper bag’ in a bachelor basement off Baker Street, at a time when about five million females were squirming at his smallest gesture. There were hysterical protests (‘Groundswell’ Andrew Osborne, Head of Series BBC called them_ from Press and public, coolly parried by Sydney Newman, who announced that he ‘wasn’t going to sacrifice the integrity of the series for the sake, however desirable, of a couple of million viewers.’ This lofty-minded karate chop didn’t seem to help the later episodes and hasn’t helped Kanner one bit (his integrity runs hot and strong, too). The last six months have been spent in the wilderness. The celebrity-panel bit he didn’t ask for and cigar commercials are out, likewise he would rather join the dole queue than the Tea Set. Scripts thud depressingly into his mail box each day, like ‘Mickey Dunn’ wanting another Alfie, another somebody else. To keep from going nuts he gets involved in production committees on experimental movie projects. Pukka ‘possibles’ like the Jon Sturges/Warner Bros race track melo Day of the Champion folded when the movie folded in deference to a similar competitive production.

Kanner still lives simply, treating his body, as he always had done, like a piece of lab equipment, putting on twenty-four pounds of muscle to play a wrestler, or taking it off to play a 16 year old. But what of the person behind the acting equipment? Kanner turns the world upside down because he makes no distinction between work and play. His fulfilment comes in the work itself, done joyfully, not from security to be gained from its rewards. What he will need and has tried to grapple with, is the political necessity of gaining power to achieve this freewheeling state. He is generous because suspicious of personal possessions: universally sociable but having no close friends: enthuses equally about way-out movies, Shakespeare or Winnie-the-Pooh.

After the first Softly rehearsal Stratford Johns (Barlow) told Kanner, ‘Beware your enemies. They say that when you dry you hit people.’

Apart from the fact that he has never ‘dried,’ nothing could be farther from the truth, although nothing can be predicted about the next jump he will make. But one thing is certain: it must, it must be the right jump.

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