Fringe Preview: Bringing Tony Benn to life on stage

Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn in Tony's Last Tape. Pic: Comp
Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn in Tony's Last Tape. Pic: Comp
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TONY Benn was one of the most recognisable politicians of his generation, his trademark pipe and sibilant ‘s’ defining the public image of a politician much maligned in life, but now looked back on fondly as a man of principle.

There’s a chance to get to know the man (whose father, William Wedgwood Benn, 1st Viscount Stansgate, was elected MP for Leith in 1918) in the play Tony’s Last Tape, at the Pleasance Courtyard, this month.

As Jeremy Corbyn runs for the leadership of the Labour party it’s a timely piece, Benn’s left-wing tendencies seen by many at the time as detrimental to Labour.

The piece examines the struggle of a man who realises that maybe it is time to withdraw from the fight, to let others take over, but just doesn’t quite know how.

‘For more than 50 years, Tony Benn has recorded everything that happened to and around him, and as the years passed so the burden of this documentation has grown.

‘Today he has decided to make his last tape...’

Written by Andy Barrett, actor Philip Bretherton plays the controversial figure, who died in March 2014, in the solo piece based on Benn’s famous political diaries. However, as he reveals, originally another actor had been cast as the tea-loving MP.

“I was asked to do this with two days notice before we started rehearsals after the actor playing the role dropped out,” he reveals.

“Tony is 87 in this imagined episode of his life and I think some of the older actors, who were around that age, had said, ‘I don’t think my memory is up to learning it’ - the play is an hour and a quarter.

“As I had worked with the director and writer before, they suddenly came up with the idea and rang me.

“At first I thought with two days to go and two weeks rehearsal I’m not sure I can do it.

“I only had a day to think about it but my partner said, ‘You might never get the chance again to do a one-man show’... now I had never seen myself as Tony Benn, but they obviously saw something.”

Taking on the challenge was one thing, bringing such a distinctive character to life quite another, concedes the actor, although once he had mastered the voice, Bretherton soon found himself slipping into the shoes of the elder statesman.

“The gift that Tony gives you is that his voice is quite distinctive. We’re playing him quite old and that particular eccentricity that he had, that ‘S’ sound, is one that we normally associate with ill-fitting teeth later in life... or smoking a pipe... but he had it even as a young man.

“Plus the fact that his voice was a very old fashioned voice, with that upper-class high vowel. He never made any concession, he never tried to speak like the people to whom he was appealing, he never lost who he was or tried to be modern.

“So I listened to him a lot and his vocal style, and the class he is from, was very much the way into his character.

“He was a child of the establishment. He lived in Westminster, was schooled there and was eventually destined for the House of Lords.”

The pipe too, helped provide a short-cut to the character.

“We use a vape pipe in the show. It defines the way he moves. He always has the lighter and the pipe there by his breast and he punctuates with it, he takes time to think with it,” explains Bretherton, who never met Benn, but did hear him speak once at Hyde Park.

He admits that, like many, he was the victim of a certain amount of prejudice about Benn’s ‘single-mindedness’, ‘arrogance’ and ‘his sticking to his guns’.

“They were actually good things about him, but there are people who believe his very adherence to principle probably kept Labour out of power,” he says.

“Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock thought he really scuppered their chances by attempting to get the deputy leadership and flirting with Militant and those other, what became, quite ugly tendencies in the late-70s and early-80s.

“I had been prejudiced by those ideas, but reading a bit more of his stuff, his autobiography, I learned far more about the guy.

“In later life we associate him with his chairmanship of the Stop The War Coalition, yet he was not a pacifist and never professed to be. He just didn’t think that war was a means of achieving political ends.

“At first he was pro-Europe and then he was anti-Europe which surprised me because, at heart, he was a democrat. As we say in the play, he wanted people to participate in politics democratically, rather than watching from the sidelines. He believed the way to keep the professional politicians out was by real people getting involved.”

Bretherton also discovered a very caring 87-year-old beneath the caricatures.

“This play humanises him. We forget what a deeply sentimental man he was. We forget about that because of the way the press vilified him. He loved his family and his relationship with his wife was extremely fond and tender - he proposed to her on a particular bench, then bought that bench and had it installed in his garden, and then, when she died, had it put next to her grave.

“He was famous for crying at the film The Railway Children, no matter how many times he saw it. Whenever he cried at anything else, his children used to say he is having a ‘railway children moment’.”

Benn was in middle-age when Bretherton last appeared on the Fringe in the 80s, he laughs as he recalls. “We did a version of Kafka’s The Trial in a school hall which was far too light, so we had to thumb-tack bin-liners over the skylight, an unbelievable fire hazard.

“Actually, today we wouldn’t even get away with the ladder we put up to reach it.

“But the first time I went to the Fringe was actually in 1975. I remember there were five of us sleeping in a room smelling of chips and beer and farts. The Fringe was part of your right of passage as an actor; all going up to Edinburgh in a van, praying to god that it wouldn’t break down and living on fourpence. Fantastic. Just such good fun.”

Great fun indeed, but this year looks like being a bit more civilised, so join Bretherton as he takes out a vape pipe, peels a banana, and pours himself the first cup of tea of the day as, for an hour, he becomes Tony Benn.

Tony’s Last Tape, Pleasance Courtyard, Pleasance, 7-30 August, 12.15pm, £11-£12, 0131-226 0000