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Submitted by Neal Lofthouse
It's In The Blood
Interview with Roger Livesey
Saturday April 16, 1938
Roger Livesey, member of a great theatrical family, is now appearing in London in "The Drum". Here is the story of his stage and film career - told by Livesey himself to R.B. Marriott.
Roger Livesey. Tall, blonde, strong and muscular; magnetic personality; good talker and serious about his work.
He gets his first big screen chance as the hero in "The Drum", Alexander Korda's new colour film.
He is one of "the" Liveseys, stage people for three generations. His father was Sam Livesey who died a short time ago. his brothers are Barry and Jack, his sister is Peggy: all of them on the stage.
He was born in South Wales in 1906 when his parents were on tour. In his boyhood days in London, and during the war when the family lived in Deal, he dreamed about going on the stage. He used to dress up in old clothes with his brothers and sister and play at plays in the attic.
"There was practically nothing but stage talk in the house, my parents having been on the stage for years," he told me.
This talk got into Roger's blood.
"I went on the stage because there was nothing else to do," he says. But I think he would have gone on anyway - even if there had been something else to do.
Tales about travelling round the provinces in caravans; of his grandparents' adventures on tour; his mother's stories of this and that exciting event at York, at Wigan, in Scotland... All these things made Roger long to follow in his parents' footsteps.
So, after going to Westminster City School, he went to study at Italia Conti's academy. He made his first appearance at the St James's Theatre in 1917 as the office boy in "Loyalty."
"But I got ill, and my brother Barry took my part. It was only a tiny one, but I was sorry. Then news came that the King and Queen were to visit the theatre. I decided I must appear on that night, illness or no illness."
"Barry and I had a fight. He thought he should go on; after all, it was only fair. We fought until the very night. I got hold of the clothes for the part, put them on, and took my cue, leaving Barry protesting in the wings. But I appeared before royalty, and I was happy."
Even in those days Roger used to haunt the studios. With his best friend Barry, he appeared in all kinds of urchin and waif parts, enjoying every minute.
Down at Deal with the family he had to hide in cellars when the German planes came over. He was terrified, but found confort in his Nannie.
"Yes, that same Nannie who, after being with the family for years, went on the stage. The Liveseys must be dangerous. Nearly all our maids went on the stage. Nannie made quite a success and she is still there, in repertory."
His touring days were not spent in caravans. That was a bit of a disappointment. All the same, he had great fun with Barry.
He often understudied his brother (they always tried to get into the same company); he spent hours planning tricks to make him ill, just ill enough not to be able to go on. Then he'd step into the part. Much too much sugar in Barry's tea sometimes did the trick.
"I wanted to be funny then. I still do."
He thought he was going to be small in stature (he is now over six feet), and his innate sense of humour made him decide on a comedian's life. But nature, and the turn of events has prevented his dream from coming true. He usually plays serius or at least "straight" parts.
Perhaps that is why he is continually joking about the studio, pulling people's legs. He pulls kindly, but firmly. On every possible opportunity he puts funny bits, gags and comical twists into his acting.
"One can do this fairly easily on the stage without wrecking one's part," he said. "On the films it is harder. Men with scissors come along and cut out bits one thought were very good and funny. Very disappointing sometimes."
Having been behind the scenes for so long he knows all about ballyhoo. It is one of his aversions. The glamour of film first-nights doesn't appeal to him.
After an actor has done his work in the studios he thinks he should stand aside. If he can possibly avoid it, he will not appear on one of his own first nights.
In his quiet, exceptionally expressive voice, which at first seems to be pitched in one tone but is really full of subtle tones and undertones (and is an excellent talkie voice), Roger will tell you about his early film days with relish. Of the time when he appeared in a film called "Tommy Lad".
Every line in it was spoken in time with a metronome and records of music were made to synchronise. The film was shown in cinemas accompanied by the special records, and it made dozens of audiences cry. "One of the first attempts at taking pictures."
His early films included "The Four Feathers", "A Cuckoo in the Nest", "Lorna Doone" and "Midshipman Easy". His first important talkie impression was made as the Begger Saul in "Rembrandt".
"I'm quite ready to continue my screen work," he told me. "I enjoy acting for films. It is a different technique from the stage of course; but it fascinates me. I take an interest in other angles than acting."
His interest in "other angles" makes him chat to carpenters, lighting experts, designers, and other workers between shots. They say his enthusiasm is inexhaustible.
Roger likes colour, and plenty of it. He deplores the dull way in which Englishmen dress. All greys and blacks and dark browns. He would like to see a few bright green or bright blue suits. Better choices in hats.
"It is bad enough having black and white on the screen all the time..."
Outdoor film work attracts him, and he has been lucky in this respect. For "The Drum" he spent weeks in North Wales and for "The Cossack", his current film, he went to Hungary for outdoor shots.
Frequently he goes to the pictures at Watford, near where he lives. He pays his shilling and settles back to enjoy himself. He is tired of crazy films, thinks they have lost their spontaneity, but revels in action dramas and romances like "The Garden of Allah".
"They Like to Cry"
"There are not many films to make one cry nowadays, and I am sorry for that. Most people like a good cry and in silent days there were plenty to be had in the cinema. Perhaps when this cycle of over-sophisticated and crazy pictures has passed we shall get some tear-jerkers."
When he told me that he missed having an audience in the studio I asked him if he found something to make up for it.
"Yes," he replied. "As there is no audience as in a theatre, I have time to work out details and little tricks and moods. In the theatre when once I am on stage I have to go straight ahead with my work. In the studios I can stop and think and consider."
"Film acting gives one great scope. The actor however, is only part of the film-making machine. He is subject to the producer always but that does not prevent him doing original work."
Cottage in the Country
Up untill a short time ago Roger shared the Livesey family flat in Charing Cross Road. The Liveseys have always been a united family, sharing their happiness and troubles. Since his father died, and he married Ursula Jeans, he has lived in a cottage in the country.
In the old days the family had homes in Whitstable, on the Thames and in town. They foregathered whenever possible to compare notes and reminisce.
It is a long stride from boyhood dreams of caravaning to film-making at Denham, but Roger takes it all gaily. Everything that comes along he meets with zest.
"Yes I'll go to Hollywood if they want me. But I shall take the precaution of not having a New York test. Tests there are badly done and many an artist has lost his chance through not being tipped off about it."
Meantime, he looks forward to comparing himself as an Englishman in "The Drum", and as a dark-skinned native in "The Cossack". The story of "The Cossack" deals with a war-like leader who can only "reason" or settle difficulties by fighting. He comes up against a pacifist. The pacifist is killed.
"The man who won't learn to read or write or think and uses brute force, lives. The pacifist and reasoning man dies. That's the way of the world." was Roger's comment.