The fleeting nature of fame was brought home to me the other week by a young drama school graduate who interrupted our conversation to ask ‘Richard Attenborough? Sorry, never heard of him. Is he a relation of David?’
Having been an actor for many years myself it’s now difficult to recall either the callow teenager who stepped through the doors of RADA back in 1976 to commence his training, or to imagine the time, hopefully still some years ahead, when the joints are creakier, the memory less certain and the flame of ambition burning with less intensity than now. Yet I’ve had the chance in recent weeks to simultaneously reconnect with both ends of the actors’ career trajectory, as I’m currently serving on both the audition panel at my old alma mata (where Sir Richard started his own career) and on the House Committee at Denville Hall, the actor’s retirement home in leafy Ruislip, where the great man spent his final days.
Four decades on, much about the business is still the same as when I faced the audition panel, delivering my two contrasting speeches and hoping I’d be given the chance to show the world what I could do. But one thing has most certainly changed for the better in the intervening years - namely, the degree of pastoral care available to those in the industry. Nowadays RADA and other leading drama schools offer a whole range of personal and financial assistance for those students who may be struggling to cope, either spiritually or financially, during their training; while for those already up and running there are similar levels of advice and support available, if only you know where to look.
Organisations such as the Actors’ Benevolent Fund do splendid and essential work in helping those who may have fallen on hard times, while the Actors’ Children’s Trust (ACT) offers specific aid and assistance for the children of those in the profession who are struggling to make ends meet.
And then there’s the Theatre Helpline, a 24-hour service funded by UK Theatre and SOLT which provides confidential support and advice to actors of all ages on a whole range of issues which they would once have been expected to deal with unaided – bullying and harassment, debt and financial issues, and even help with care and retirement decisions. Equity, too, has made huge efforts to provide support for members in personal or professional difficulty. Help and counselling is just a phone call or an email away.
Which brings me to Denville Hall. A retirement home specially suited for performers who have spent a lifetime in show business – indeed who may still be actively working - it provides its residents with a safe and secure environment, as well as a chance to share their final years with like-minded individuals. It’s a remarkable institution and I’m proud to be part of it.
Consequently a career in the theatre is now less lonely and unforgiving than it once was when I started. It may still not be a career for the faint-hearted or thin-skinned, but to those youngsters auditioning for a place at a drama school this summer, I can at least assure them that whatever the future holds, they won’t have to face it alone.
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