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Robert Gillespie – Are You Going to do That Little Jump? review

Outstanding new autobiography of much-loved actor which is full of insights on Twentieth Century Theatre.

Robert Gillespie

Are You Going to do That Little Jump? is the autobiography of Robert Gillespie – but this is no ordinary actor’s reminiscences. It isn’t a kiss and tell (though there are revelations about some of the biggest names in British showbiz) nor is it a straightforward account of every play, film and TV series Gillespie has ever appeared in – and that’s a substantial list. Rather, this book is a personal memoir of an actor’s life and trade, and how he relates it to the world around him.

You may have caught Gillespie more recently as a cruel Catholic priest in Jimmy McGovern’s Broken, or as the laid-back, mystical cab driver in Woody Harrelson’s movie Lost in London. Perhaps you remember him for the 1980s’ sitcom Keep it in the Family or for his many roles in the best-loved British sitcoms of the 60s and 70s or for his appearances in cult TV shows such as The Avengers and Survivors? Gillespie is a distinctive yet chameleonic actor who plays small-time crooks as convincingly as affable children’s cartoonists, and who has also enjoyed a second career as a director.

It’s perhaps that insight of also working on the other side of the proscenium arch that hones Gillespie’s rounded view of stage craft. The book frequently addresses young actors, and the author’s anecdotes reinforce how theatre has changed for the better since the time when he was starting out. Those considering embarking on the profession will find the book not only a real eye-opener, but a useful guide to navigating the notoriously perilous industry from one who has been consistently working in it since the 1950s.

Robert Gillepsie

Credit: Jane Nightwork Productions. The author in his most familiar role as Dudley Rush in Keep It In The Family.

The book is written with great delicacy of touch and humour. We enjoyed the pithy descriptions assigned to people. Michael Hordern is described in this way: “He had a face like a very candid Roman sculpture of a troublesome philosopher.” Sacred cows are, if not ritually slaughtered, then at least put out to pasture, but it’s impossible not to laugh out loud whilst Gillespie dismantles theatre’s demi-gods with ruthless reasonableness.

Thus, if the name Joan Littlewood makes you wobble with admiration, this book will challenge your perceptions. Gillespie’s memories of working with the legendary left-wing firebrand director are as funny as they are perceptive. Though he does acknowledge the single greatest contribution Littlewood made to modern theatre, but it might not be what you think it is…

Gillespie’s reminiscences of his training at RADA under the leadership of Sir Kenneth Barnes form another remarkable chapter. He’s the first to admit that times have changed for the best, but he sees no reason to don rose-tinted spectacles when assessing his own drama school experience.

Robert Gillespie

Credit: Jane Nightwork Productions. Working with Richard Burton at the Old Vic.

If showbiz tales are more your thing than a redressing the balance of accepted theatre history, then there’s no shortage of those either. What was it like working at the Old Vic when Richard Burton and Claire Bloom headed the company? Why was Burton late for rehearsal one day, and why did he upend a table on a miserable tour of Hamlet at Elsinore Castle? Well, you’ll find out. There’s also an account of Gillespie’s time working with the delightfully crazy Spike Milligan in a production of Treasure Island, and Michael Caine pops up in an early TV role to name just a few more major players to grace these pages.

Gillespie’s focus though, is giving scrutiny and honest appraisal to the theatre he cut his acting teeth in and the screen career he went on to enjoy, within the prism of the times he’s lived through. One section that caught our attention is about a BBC Playhouse episode called Mary’s Wife, made in 1980, in which Gillespie played a transvestite, and was filmed, dressed in women’s clothing, walking down Bond Street, clocking the reactions of the public. The remarkably prescient drama prompted reviews suggesting they were corrupting the nation. “Just the idea of journalists indulging in a moral panic is amusing,” Gillespie wryly observes.

As well as having enjoyed a remarkable career, Gillespie’s personal details are no less fascinating. Born in Lille at the wrong time, just as the Nazis were on the rise in Germany, the early chapters comprise his family’s flight out of occupied France to the relative safety of England. A mother’s suitcase of fur coats left for safe-keeping at a harbour and never returned for is a stark and powerful image of a family – one of millions, deracinated by war. Similarly, the book contains some beautiful digressions into personal reminiscences. A story about shooting a commercial for Qualcast lawnmowers turns into an adventure in South Africa that reads like a travel book as Gillespie drives himself through the country, meeting various peoples along the way.

Robert Gillespie

Credit: Jane Nightwork Productions. The author researching his memoirs.

Are You Going to do That Little Jump? is written with great wit and intelligence. Crucially, Gillespie records not only that he worked with legendary directors, but he also sketches an idea of their working methods. From Joan Littlewood to George Devine, from Michael Benthall to Douglas Seale, theatre heavyweights are captured with skilfully swift detail, picking out the nuances of what made them special (or not so special…) The book is an invaluable analysis into the career of a jobbing actor at a time when 20th century theatre was changing. A revered period is brought to life by somebody who was there, whose finely-developed ability to sniff out exaggerated greatness and blaspheme where necessary makes this a truly original title that contrarians and free-thinkers will relish.

The conversational tone of Are You Going to do That Little Jump? gives the reader the impression of a stimulating conversation with a raconteur who knows all the most interesting names, places, plays and faces. The book will not only give young actors starting out a useful window into life as an actor by one who has never been short of work, but a warm glow about the current state of British theatre and the noble profession they are entering from one who refuses to look back with misty-eyed sentimentalism. If you love theatre, if actors enthral you, if you adore inside stories, then Are You Going to do That Little Jump? is a must-read. What’s more, the tantalising ending, as Gillespie reaches the start of his distinguished longevity in sit-com, leaves the reader wanting more. Surely there’ll be a second volume? There must be many more tales left to tell.

Publisher: Jane Nightwork Productions Release Date: 5th October 2017

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