Friday, 21 March 2008

Paul Scofield

In the late summer of 1967 I travelled from Woodstock to Stratford-on-Avon by stage coach. The trip had actually begun in London, taking three days for the journey, over-nighting at coaching inns along the way. At 50 guineas the whole three days was prohibitively expensive (the other passengers were wealthy Americans), but we somehow persuaded the organisers to let us do just the last - and prettiest - day of the trip.

Running through the sunny, lush Cotswold countryside, along the old coaching roads from Oxford through Chipping Norton, the Vale of Evesham and Moreton-in-Marsh, it was an unforgettable experience. The coach was the famous Tantivy (now in the Hinckley Carriage Museum). With her full complement of 18 passengers and crew she weighed in at over three tons.

Suitably cloaked, I chose to ride on top. Up there one is as high as a double-decker bus, able to see over hedges and look into upstairs windows. The owner and coachman was Peter Munt, Britain's best coach driver, who has driven for The Duke of Edinburgh and achieved a record ten years unbeaten at all UK coaching events.

Peter drove with the four split reins in his left hand. With his right he held a long coachman's whip (never used), and pulled the heavy brake lever that applied a wooden block to the rear wheel rims. Every hour we stopped to change the horses.

Approaching our halts John, our top-hatted, pink-coated postilion, blew a long blast on his coach horn, and pedestrians and drivers stopped and stared. Where necessary Ann, the attractive groom, backed up the four horses and coach with consummate skill.

I am reminded of all this because, when we arrived in Stratford, we went to see Peter Hall's Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth, with the great Paul Scofield in the title rĂ´le, Vivienne Merchant as Lady Macbeth, and Ian Richardson (House of Cards) as Malcolm. Sebastian Shaw (Anakin Skywalker in 'Return of the Jedi') was Duncan. Others in the cast included Brewster Mason (The Dam Busters), Ian Hogg (Rockcliffe), Catherine Lacey (The Lady Vanishes, I Know Where I'm Going), Elizabeth Spriggs (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), Clive Swift (Keeping up Appearances) and Colin McCormack (Hargreaves in Inspector Morse). Guy Woolfenden was musical director. It was an unforgettable production. As always Scofield, who never seemed particularly charismatic in real life, was mesmerising.

Before the play was due to start we wandered along the bank of the Avon beside the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. We were idly discussing a swan with a deformed leg when I became aware of a man standing very still close by, listening to our less than scintillating conversation. I turned and saw it was Paul Scofield, perhaps gathering himself for the performance.

He died yesterday.


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