George Coulouris Memoirs

Various Memoirs

Written by GC in 1988

Written by GC in March 1989

Written by GC in April 1989 just before his death on April 25th

Farewell to Salford - 1923

(An unfinished draft)

One night in August 1923, I crept downstairs got my bicycle out of the toolshed, holding a campbed in one hand, wheeling the bicycle with the other, 1 walked to Urmston station and got the midnight slow train to London.

At the end of six years at Manchester Grammar School, I was pitchforked into an intellectual desert. No one to talk to, nothing exciting happening.

What was I leaving behind? A frowsty yard in Salford full of damaged goods which 1 was supposed to spend my life refurbishing.

Only now, after sixty years do I realise what I was really leaving behind. All I needed was the talent to write a really great novel. The material was certainly there. The family rows, the ups and downs of my father's life, and the range and power of life in Salford.   It was as if fate had determined to throw at my feet all the material to make a wonderful book and the pity of it is that only now at the age of 85 am 1 able to understand what I've missed and begin to appreciate the riches that came from my mother and father, my grandmother and grandfather! suppose most people go through this process by not squeezing every drop of life out of the past.

I don't know what'll be left in the future for people of eighty when they look back on the past. I had a grandmother who belonged to feudal times. She thought the Lord of the Manor, Lord de Tatton, was a god. Even from the outlines of the stories she told me I was able to understand that her life in Knutsford was idyllic in many ways. And I realise now that she was forced out of Knutsford to become a weaver in Macclesfield and rescued by my father from semi-starvation to come and look after me soon after I was born in 1903.

Now I understand the nature of the relationship between me and my grandmother, me and my father, me and my mother. When I heard my grandmother's voice in the morning calling to me upstairs, "Get up, cock robin!" with my clothes warming in front of the fire, to me she was there by magic. Now I understand and know what a struggle her life had been to get there and how lucky I was. My mother's story was just as accidental but completely-different.   My grandmother, on the verge of starvation,

My mother had gone out to service at the age of fourteen and, by the time I was born, had made herself into a very-good middle class housemaid, ending up as a hotel chambermaid with a room on the top floor which was infested by rats.

she showed me the scar under her left eye where she'd woken up on night to find a rat at her. My father was the most dynamic member of the family. He was a rather small, slightly potbellied, Greek peasant. Handsome when he was young, and an incessant chaser of women, which made him in Salford eyes an arch criminal. What I shall try to show is this. That these people had enough human material in them to make a dozen books and the irony of it is that when I left them, it was partly because I had been devouring all the stories, Russian, French, Chekhov, Tolstoy and found nothing in the arid life of Urmston to compare with them. Now I realise what a fool I was. They were my War and Peace. They were my Chekhov stories. All I needed was the talent. Still, better late than never. My father, for example, was an arch creator. His mad struggle to go on living caused him to bring into being extraordinary situations which even then I knew were unusual.

(Opera,           Buxton,          Strikers)

So why did I think there was nothing interesting in my life? Why was I forced to dream, first of all of becoming a historian, a writer, then in desperation an actor? (Father's reaction to …)

Why did I plunge so avidly into modern music, Satie, Mussorgsky read every book I could lay my hands on, Conrad, O. Henry, Dickens, Wells, Shaw, Sinclair Lewis. As 1 began to realise that my only hope was to be an actor.

When my father stopped me from going to university I was ...

and the only alternative was my father's business for life, I began to realise that my only way out was to be an actor, and so my love of Shakespeare became more and more obsessive.

(Shakespeare recitations in street)

Mother twisting little scrolls of paper into hole into drawer. Serving two penn\'orth of tobacco twist to docker after docker. She listened spellbound to a customer who stopped at the cash register facing her and began:

One more unfortunate weary of breath

Rashly importunate gone to her death

Take her up tenderly lift her with care ...

going on to recite the whole of Hood's Bridge of Sighs.

I heard this as I was scrambling around my mother's feet looking for lost coins which I found had a habit of rolling into the bottom slots of the mineral water bottle rack which went along under the length of the counter.

(I came running in one day crying to my mother because the boys wouldn't let me play with them outside. To comfort me, she got out the football she was keeping for my birthday.)

First artistic stirrings

Paradise regained - yes, but I find I'm temperamentally unsuited to living in paradise. It takes me about three or four years to exhaust any stimulus I get from its temptations. Until Dad got back several months after me I had a completely free hand to live my own life. I practised singing - nearly always Chaliapin's repertoire. I read all the books I could find which described famous actors: Edmund Kean, of whom it was said that to see him in Shakespeare was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning. His whole life was wildly exciting to read. From the description of his first appearance in Drury Lane playing to an almost empty theatre and rousing them to a frenzy, to his continued success for years during which Byron, Coleridge, Hazlitt and no doubt hundreds of others, could hardly find words to express their admiration until his pitiable decline into brandy-soaked oblivion.

I devoured Gordon Craig's description of Henry Irving in "The Bells" and realised it was the same sort of acting as Chaliapin's and had the same effect on the audience. I decided it was the only sort of acting I was interested in doing. I mean by that the sort of acting that catches the breath of the whole audience and holds them together for a magic moment enthralled in the intensity of what's going on on the stage. I set myself an impossible task because the time was not right for it. When Salvini played Othello, he spent fifteen years perfecting his performance. When Kean appeared in London as Shylock, he'd been playing the part for years in the provinces. It was impossible for any modern actor to do the same. Some of my ideas now seem very foolish. For instance, I didn't believe in any form of realistic acting and thought it would be too embarrassing to pretend to make love on the stage. I felt that such intimacy had no part in great acting. By then I was a culture-snob. I began to be ashamed of liking Caruso in "Vesti la juba" and I no longer bought Italian opera records: among all the intellectuals, I too despised Verdi and revered Mussorgsky, not realising what I was bound to come round to: that "Othello" and "Boris" are equally great. I was the same about books. I turned away from Dickens and took to the Russians: they were honest painters, he was a caricaturist but I have come to realise his greatness, also. "Don't you think it's a real tragedy that a man like Thomas Hardy has to die?" was my casual remark on our way through the Corinth Canal to a young Englishman. He didn't reply. He was too busy working out my share of the morning's refreshment in Corfu to two places of decimals. What a strange youth I was. When I was building up a head of steam, it made it impossible for me to stay in Urmston. There were only two people I could talk to about books and music. One was a middle-aged bank manager, Mr Pratt, a fellow commuter on the train to Flixton, the next stop after Urmston, with whom I had got to talking about cricket in the first place and there was no distinction in those days between the game and the arts. About once a week I went to his house to listen to gramophone records on his wind-up HMV machine. A colleague from the bank, Beatrice, who was lame with polio, always sat in a corner of the room near the fire. We sat in fireside chairs in the cosy living room listening to Brahms' clarinet concerto, and I irritated him if I dared to say a word before the end of the piece. One evening, Pratt regaled us with a reading from "Babbitt" by the new American novelist, Sinclair Lewis. It was astonishing to us that such people as Babbitt existed along with a whole world of the 'booboisie' being uncovered by Nathan and Mencken. Mrs Pratt, a doctor's daughter dressed fashionably nineteen twenties with straight bobbed hair, brought us very weak half coffee half milk. She smoked!

Tom Kelly, a student teacher at a Catholic school, was my other soul-mate. I started talking to him on the train, too, and he made some snide remark about hackneyed music and I knew immediately that he was as big a culture snob as I was. He and his mother and father lived in a council house nearby. They were Roman Catholics. Tom played the upright piano in the front room and tried his best to accompany me. I even attempted "Boris".

I don't know how long I would have been satisfied with that sort of life but, when Dad got back, everything was different. I began to realise that unless I did something drastic very soon, I would be settled in Urmston buying and selling junk in Dad's cockeyed business. His stay in Athens had not changed him as far as my future was concerned. In a short time, he had me fully employed in all his affairs. Acting loomed larger and larger as an escape route. I never doubted my future: all I had to do was plan my getaway, which turned out to be very easy because of my mother's wholehearted support.

Mother's help in getaway

She had always been very ambitious for me and was quite carried away at the idea of my becoming a famous actor like Henry Irving, one of the few actors she had ever heard of. She pictured my future career through my eyes and supported me without question. Dad must have been very easy to deceive as he imagined I was completely dependent on him. He didn't count on my mother's being able to put by enough housekeeping to give me the wisp of support I needed to set forth.

Prior to drama school

Dad's assistant, selling cuttlefish, olive oil, painters' dustsheets, hessians, textiles, everything that took Dad's fancy at the damaged goods sales he haunted every few weeks and could see a profit to be turned from. One time he got a bargain of four cheap barge loads of coal. The demurrage of eighty pounds sterling a day ran away with the profit but he took the gamble because he thought he knew where he could sell it within a couple of days. And he did.

Dad's start in junk

It all started many years before when he visited the captains of Greek steamers in the Manchester Ship Canal Docks. While still chef of his own restaurant opposite No. 8 Dock, he began buying worn hawsers and shortly had a firm contract to take ten tons every three months for which he had a guaranteed order from the papermakers. In short,"money for old rope". At the same time he didn't miss the chance of becoming a bit of a ship's chandler and so developed into Nicholas Coulouris, General Merchants. Then the war came and in a short time goods of all kinds were sinking to the bottom of the sea. Dad became one of the biggest buyers at the Liverpool auctions of salvaged goods while my mother took over the running of the restaurant. Dad was very successful despite buying indiscriminately. World-wide shortages of goods ensured his automatic profits. Sometimes while the sale was still on a buyer would offer him a profit before he'd even handled the goods and he'd come home with a smile on his face and a thousand pounds sterling in his pocket for no greater effort than a day's outing to Liverpool. He became convinced he was a business genius and like all Greeks in similar circumstances he was constantly contrasting his poverty-stricken existence in the mountain village he'd run away from with his flourishing, rich life in England.

I admire much more his achievement in progressing from Greek-speaking dock labourer to head chef of the Palatine and Lane Ends Hotel in Blackpool with a mastery of written and spoken English. I wish I'd talked to him about how he did it. Instead I was only sceptical of his business judgement.

The War

I was eleven years old when war broke out. I didn't quite know what it all meant but I tried to take it all in. I got out my collection of cig cards and, sitting in the cab of our little old Dutch cleanser van with the top cut off one afternoon with a friend, I began to add up the number of soldiers in each country: so many million for the French, so many for the Russians, so many for the English. We were soon convinced that we had so many more soldiers on our side that the Germans didn't stand a chance.

It was a very strange war. It was as if someone had built a huge iron sheet at the end of the country behind which the war was taking place almost unnoticed. Through chinks in the iron, flames could be seen and odd noises heard. Otherwise, life went on as it had always done.

Second Invasion of England - August 1949

It was cocktail hour in our huge decaying mansion in Connecticut. I sat in the pantry with Louise and said, "It doesn't look as though Tony Quayle is going to send for me for the next season at Stratford. I've almost decided to make a break, leave this country and go back to England. How do you feel about it?" As usual, Louise was perfectly willing to do anything I wanted to do. So our fate was sealed. It only remained to book our passages and pack.

Katharine Hepburn - August 1930

I was engaged for a season at the Stockbridge Theatre to play small parts and to teach students good speech. I heard a high-pitched voice saying, "I've driven all the way from Hartford with this golf tee between my teeth!" "Ah! This must be one of my students," I thought. Not at all. She was a tall, skinny beauty and was to have the room next to Louise and me in an old revolutionary farmhouse, now a superior boarding house. It was Katharine Hepburn's first acting job.

In those days the intolerable summer heat closed even the big hits in New York. The summer theatres of the countryside of New England vied with each other to engage star actors. Stockbridge was one of the most famous and we were very lucky to be there. After the show, we would all go to our boarding house, have drinks and tell stories in an atmosphere of relaxed cameraderie which I found most enjoyable.

In these circumstances, I was bound to get to know Hepburn quite well. First of all she infuriated us by coming home late and squawking out Racine and Corneille in French in her bedroom for an hour. Every weekend, Mr Smith drove up from Hartford, promptly to be sent off to the village drugstore for ice cream. Katharine meanwhile got ready for her bath. She ate the ice cream and then Mr Smith's next service was to wash her hair. We never found out if he performed any other marital services.

Hepburn was one of the first women to wear jeans so she was able decently to rest one shin against the table edge and reach over her knee to pluck the food off her plate. Such informality at table quite shocked the middle-aged couple, Geoffrey Carr and June Walker. Her acting was also disapproved of till she made a hit in her second small part in a Spanish play called "A Romantic Young Lady". She came on looking sbsolutely marvellous.

My attitude was unfairly critical. I behaved as if I knew more about acting than anybody else. I must have made some kind of sense. I got away with it. I attacked successful actors but I always said why. People who rave most never give any reason for their enthusiasm. Some nights after the show I would get talking to Hepburn. When I said, "You could be a fine actress if you work," she thought she'd answered me by saying, "I'll never come back to this theatre unless there's a star on my dressing room door!" Some nights I sent her squealing to her room by turning off the lights, hunching up my shoulders and holding a red electric torch under my hideously distorted face. When forty years later she came to see me in my dressing room in London, I was surprised that all she had to say was, "Weren't we in summer theatre together once?" instead of recalling some more detail of those days as well as the bad times in New York when she was being fired from job after job and I remained unknown and unsuccessful.

About acting

To hell with all that. To hell with Hepburn's negligible talent. I want to talk about acting and its possibilities. This is my last chance to do so. I have found out some of the truth about the nature of acting and now it's too late to put into practical use as I lie here half paralysed by Parkinson's disease. But I may be able to convey something of what I've discovered so here goes.

It needs a big effort to climb out of the pit of abysmal, superficial stupidity that modern commercialism has created for the actor. It has turned him into a parrot, mouthing the same words every night mechanically. He has to turn himself back into a man who, when he goes on the stage and faces the other actors, he must make his mind a blank and not know what he is going to do or say. Then, if the other actor does the same, the atmosphere becomes unbearably electric. This happened when Bergner played the scene with her husband's mistress. You felt that you were present at the beginning of a terrifying, intimate family row and you had no right to be there. A similar atmosphere is present in all great performances. When Chaliapin crashes the furniture around and sees the ghost in Boris and when Lee Cobb, with the help of Tchechov, showed the complete disintegration of an old man in heart-breaking terms I was all the more struck because I had heard the same piece done a few weeks before by an English ham who roled out all the Academy-learned tricks and succeeded only in making me feel what a lousy dramatist Tchechov was. To my shame be it said that I only glimpsed the real possibilities of acting with the help of an actor who turned out to be good but not first rate so that when I went on as the villain in "Watch on the Rhine" after turning out a lousy, stiff performance I began to think about the part. In the play I am a fascist, he is a communist. Therefore the bastard thinks he's superior to me. I deny this. I know that I'm his superior. I like Beethoven and Bach. He's probably never heard of them. I take as big risks as he in my work,so finally, knowing all this I am able to say exactly in the right, wounding intonation, "You're hands are shaking, Herr Muller." I almost whisper it, meaning, "Why are you're hands shaking and mine not, if you are such a goddam hero?" The point I am trying to make is that only by working on a part to create this electric atmosphere is acting worth doing instead of spending one's lifetime listening a la Gielgud to the sound of your own voice. Some wiseacre said, "More good actors have been ruined by having beautiful voices than by any amount of whisky!"

I have only to think of Orson Welles and Gielgud to see how true this is.

Another great cause of mediocre acting becoming ridiculously overpraised is that the critics no longer perform the function. In the olden days a critic had seen every performance of a Shakespeare play several times, so that when one reads The Guardian notice of Sir Frank Benson's Richard III and Richard II, one gets an essay showing the play was psychologically hundreds of years ahead of its time and the performance is assessed in these terms. Nowadays the critics yap ecstatically about Olivier or Gielgud.

This should be left for the audience to do. The critics' function is to see the utmost possibilities inthe part and to assess it on that basis, not to accept but to demand. The other day, I was listening to records of Julius Caesar in the modern dress version of Orson Welles. It was acceptable. My voice sounded good. My diction was clear. My delivery of the verse was correct. And yet I miss almost everything in the part - the hypocrisy of the big speech, with its slow build-up in the crowd of hatred for Caesar's killers. So it is with most acclaimed performances.

America 1929

In October 1929, I landed in New York. Louise met me and I yelled at a passing taxi,"Are you engaged?" The cabbie's reply, "No, Buddy, I'm married already!" was, I found out, a typical piece of New York repartee. We took a cab to the "Y" on 23rd Street, left my trunk and went on and had supper.

Times were bad. The American Actors' Association had just passed a new rule against English actors. They had to remain idle for six months at the end of any play they were in whether it ran for one day or any longer period. So, instead of a long tour with the Stratford Company, I was likely to be unemployed. I had realised this and began to write dozens of letters to all the semi-amateur, uncommercial theatres. As it happened a well-known company in Boston was trying to form a non-Equity company. They asked me to go up to Boston and offered me a job. I tried to avoid deciding immediately. I wasn't quite sure of the standing of the company. I wrote to Equity asking their advice. Several days later I was told that there was a letter for me at the Equity office. Equity decided to make me a member free of all restrictions in return for my turning down the Boston job. Now I began to besiege all the people doing plays in New York. In a shabby little office I saw an Englishman who talked of a new production of a play called, "The Novice and the Duke". When I said, "It sounds like "Measure for Measure", he said, "You've guessed our secret." After reading my notices in 'The Hairy Ape', he said he thought I would be right for the part of Angelo. He took me to see his wife Olga Katzin, a rather forbidding-looking intellectual who wrote satiric verses for the 'New Statesman' under her pen name of Sagittarius. She was to direct the play; I began to rehearse with her.

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Compiled by George Coulouris jr, December 2000, corrected September 2002