At a recent meeting in London to discuss our new musical about Richard Burton
From the left Guy Masterson, Michel Bogdanov , Mal Pope
Sometimes it’s only looking back that you realise how important certain days or events or people have been in shaping your life. I always think of Peter ‘Bongo’ Williams, the teacher who encouraged me to play and sing my own songs in Brynhyfryd junior school. The moment Mike Nicholson, one of my big brother’s friends said I ought to send a tape of my songs to John Peel on Radio 1 or the day that John Peel’s producer sent me a letter asking my dad to make contact with a view to me doing a session for their late night radio show.
Another one of those days and one of those people was the day back in 2003 I first spoke to Michael Bogdanov, the legendary Olivier Award winning theatre director. Prior to that call I had had a brief conversation with Gary Iles who at that time was the manager of the Grand Theatre. For a little while I had been thinking about writing a musical about the 1904 Welsh Revival and the Centenary in 2004 seemed to be the perfect peg. At that time Michael was in talks with the Grand about a number of projects, most of them Shakespearian. Directing Shakespeare was how Michael had made gained his reputation in London and then across the world as well. He had an ability to make Shakespeare feel contemporary. Gary thought I ought to send my synopsis to Michael to see what he thought.
Shakespeare might have given him his reputation but it was another play completely that gave him a name. As the director of the play ‘The Romans in Britain’ he had found himself falling foul of Mrs Mary Whitehouse. The play featured plenty of bad language and violence but it was the suggestion of a sexual act on stage that drew the wrath of Mrs Whitehouse down upon Michael’s head. The establishment was trying it’s best to keep a lid on the 1970’s permissive society and this case came to symbolise the clash between the old and new.
Left Mary Whitehouse, Right The Romans in Britain
Michael was well aware that he was playing with fire. His boss at the National Theatre, Sir Peter Hall, tried to persuade Michael to move the scene further up stage, to turn the lights down, to think again. I’m sure Michael would have thought again but when his mind was made up there was no way to move ‘Bogo’ as we affectionately called him.
For 3 days Michael found himself in the dock at the Old Bailey. The pictures of him smiling in the newspapers at the time show him looking calm and confident but that was all an act. Years later when he would tell the story in private he would share his real worries. He had lots of poison pen letters form anonymous sources, his kids were targeted in school for unwanted attention and of course if found guilty he would have gone to jail. After 3 days the case was dropped and Michael found himself a media star for all the wrong reasons.
I knew all of this when I called him that day. I also knew he had an awesome, terrifying reputation of not suffering fools gladly. He told me he had read the script. I explained that the centenary was 2004 and I hope to use that celebration to bring in an audience. All I heard him say was it wasn’t possible. The one thing you get used to as an artist is rejection. It doesn’t get any easier and the pain isn’t any less keen but you get used to it. I had already hung up the phone in my mind when to my surprise he said how about spring 2005.
For the past 12 years I have worked with, argued with, fought with, laughed with one of the most creative and enthusiastic people I have ever met. That first musical ‘Amazing Grace’ toured twice and I remember when we stood on the stage at the Wales Millennium Centre at the end of a sold out run our feeling of satisfaction at having put a Welsh story, with a Welsh cast on a massive stage and sold out completely for a week. I think for all of his trophies and awards that moment encapsulated everything he had wanted to do when he returned to Wales.
Working together in rehearsal on the musical Contender – The Tommy Farr Story
That was the work, the other thing about Bogo was the stories. He had worked with everyone. When we recently met at The Hyst to talk about a new musical project I explained that very soon we would be installing TV cameras to produce our own TV shows. I asked if he would like to have his own interview series and if so who would he like to chat to. He thought for a minute about who he could invite down to Swansea. ‘Well, there’s Ian, and there’s Patrick.’ That was Sir Ian McKellen who he had working with for years at the National and Sir Patrick Stewart who apparently had used to babysit Michael’s kids when he was a new struggling actor. ‘I’m sure Helen would come if she was free’. Dame Helen Mirren had been the first to hold one of Michael’s children in hospital after being born.
National Theatre Team 1984. MB third from the left, centre Sir Peter Hall extreme right Sir Ian McKellen
When he told these stories he wasn’t bragging, he was just telling us funny things that had happened to him throughout his career. He had been at the centre of the theatrical world and these were his mates growing up in that world.
The Dylathon – Sir Ian McKellan and Nicholas Parsons in Wales to perform for Michael
I had been speaking to Michael a lot over the past few months. We had just started work on a new musical about Richard Burton. 3 weeks ago we had gone to London to meet with Burton’s nephew, Guy Masterson, an Olivier award winner in his own right who was going to write the book. As always we laughed all day and Michael told stories. After all these years and stories he was still able to surprise me. Over a coffee in a cafe on Shaftsbury Avenue he told me about the time Whoopi Goldberg had attended one of his workshops America, how he had brought her over to perform a show in London and how she would still take his calls.
The Launch of the Dylathon with members of the Wales Theatre Company
From the left, Sian Phillips, Sir Ian McKellen, Katherine Jenkins, Jeff Townes
The last email I had from Michael said he was off for a 3 week working holiday on the island of Paros. He was looking forward to spending some time with one of his children and their family there. He promised that as soon as he was back he would ‘knuckle down’ to working on our new show.
Watching a show form the wings
When someone is as full of life as Michael Bogdanov was it is easy to assume they will live forever. When I got a call last Monday saying that sadly Michael had passed away it seemed almost impossible. Then I thought about his last evening. I bet he had been the life and soul of that family gathering. I expect he had enjoyed a number of glasses of red wine and told stories and laughed and laughed. If he could have written his exit I’m sure he wouldn’t have changed a thing. For us who mourn him it maybe makes the sadness just a little easier to bear knowing that he died as he lived surrounded by family and friends living life to the full.
Michael Bogdanov as I will remember him