Dame Harriet Walter

Drama Queen

16th November 2012

Across the UK, amateur theatre is alive and flourishing like never before, with more than 2,500 theatre groups putting on nearly 30,000 productions a year, attracting eight million people and generating some £40million in box office income.

Now the curtains have drawn back on a new TV talent show: Nation’s Best Am Dram, which started earlier this week on Sky Arts HD, showcases the cream of amateur dramatic societies. The six-part series follows eight groups as they battle it out to be crowned Britain’s best by judges actress Miriam Margolyes, producer Bill Kenwright and theatre critic Quentin Letts. The winners will take to the West End stage.

Along the way, the groups are mentored by a glittering cast of actors. Pam Francis spoke to Dame Harriet Walter about her role in the show – and the day she forgot her lines at the National Theatre…

Renowned Shakespearean actress Dame Harriet Walter reveals that she had to think twice when she was asked to mentor the Glasgow theatre group who made it through to the final eight in TV’s new talent show.

“The request to work with The Strathclyde Theatre group came out of the blue. And at first I was very wary, because I think you can make a fool of yourself on those programmes. The best bits are always where you go wrong!” she laughs.

She admits, too, that she had also experienced a huge divide between amateur actors and professionals.

“From them it was a case of, ‘oh so you think you can do it better, do you? Whereas I can act, and I’m a policeman or a teacher,’ or whatever their job is… But then I turned it around, and thought, actually that is the very reason I should do it, to try and see what we have got in common. And that’s how it turned out.

When Sky Arts launched their contest to find the UK’s best amateur dramatic company, thousands applied. Twenty were short-listed, and eight made it through to the mentoring stage.

“I had a particularly lovely group,” Dame Harriet says, “made up from people of all walks of life from quite menial jobs to white collar works. Quite a cross section and we got on so well I am now the patron of their group.”

Other mentors include Martin Shaw, Richard Wilson, Jill Halfpenny and Julie Graham, each with their own organisation to coach through a Chekhov play.

The fact that ‘am dram’ is more popular than ever does not come as a surprise to Harriet. “Probably it’s because we are losing a sense of community. Office and factory life are more automated, so our work places aren’t perhaps as convivial, and perhaps there is less self-expression allowed in other aspects of life, which there used to be in the village street or the pub.”

Two of the judges: Miriam Margolyes & Bill Kenwright

Despite today’s celebrity culture, and the idea that everyone wants to be in the public eye, Harriet puts forward another view. “…there are an awful lot of talented people out there who are quite happy to be famous in their community. The idea of getting international fame can be a heartbreaker. Whereas you can be the best actor in your village and be very respected and happy.”

It sounds as though there’s a quiet admiration, here. “Actors who do am dram are very committed. They don’t want the life of an actor, but they love acting. Some of them might like the idea of going professional. But in a way, they have the best of both worlds. They have the security of a job, and they have their families and life style around them. Because, the downside of being a professional actor is that it’s very hard to commit to other aspects of life.”

Harriet’s position as mentor, she reflects, was not to direct but to encourage, and to inspire. “I was quite a soft cop really,” she says, with a casual reference to her role as a tough cookie detective on ITV1’s police drama Law and Order. “My group was very bright, and very receptive to my suggestions. I’d sometimes stimulate them to improvise something, or explore some aspect of a scene which could be improved. Sometimes there is some physical thing you can do on stage, like brush someone’s shoulder, which draws the eye of the audience in a way that a film camera will do in a close-up of a certain moment. All of them did very well and they were a good strong group.”

Harriet’s own experience with amateur dramatics wasn’t quite as successful. As a 50s child growing up in London, she wanted a bit of escapism. “Life was humdrum. They’d had the war, and they wanted to have a very calm, peaceful, regular, ordered, rather dull life. But as a kid, you wanted a bit of cowboys and Indians and shootouts in the O.K. Corral. We were freer in those days to go off on our own. Leap on and off buses, climb walls and muck about with other kids in the back yard.”

It was then that her ambitions were first nurtured. “I was just play-acting with other children, and realised I could do this thing called acting which seemed to make sense.”

At 18 she auditioned for one well-known amateur group, The Questors in Ealing, and was turned down.

“I was rather shy and awkward and didn’t present myself very well. I also had the disadvantage of being a London girl so the standard would have been quite high… but as I got more confidence, I carried on bashing at walls until I finally got into LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art).”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Whether or not, Harriet’s group makes it through to the final, she’s not saying. But she does let slip that en route The Strathclyde Theatre Group had their own mini drama. “The first day I went up to Glasgow was to work with them on The Cherry Orchard. I thought they had a very strong actress in there. But when I went to see them at the next stage, it was a completely different actress!”

Harriet discovered that the TV show had eliminated the original actress who had unwittingly broken one of the rules by doing a small paid job as a performer.
“She wasn’t trying to cheat; she either forget she’d done the job or didn’t understand the rules. She was replaced by a brilliant actress who was too young for the role, but did a brilliant job.”

At least in Dame Harriet’s group, they all remembered their words. Viewers’ hearts will go out to the actor in another company, who dried up on stage.
The Shakespearean actress admits that she experienced the same moment of terror, on stage at the National Theatre two years ago.

“Yes it’s happened to me. I don’t want to jinx myself, but it feels like you’re standing up there naked on top of a mountain. It might only be a few seconds, but you have no way of knowing that the words are going to come back to you. Six seconds can feel like 20 minutes.” It’s the worst of moments for an actor.

“You absolutely panic, and the other actors know you have gone, so they are rushing to think what can they say next to fill the gap. It’s usually better to let the actor who is lost find their own way out, because you can muddle them even more if you throw something in.”

In addition to those heart-in-mouth moments, Dame Harriet feels that Nation's Best Am Dram will give viewers a different take on theatre.

“One of my group said, we don’t like the fact that theatre is considered snooty and elite. If you’re an actor you want everyone to come and watch you. After this, when people watch a piece of theatre, hopefully they will understand what is going on, and appreciate the actors even more.”

Nation's Best Am Dram airs on Sky Arts HD on Wednesdays at 9pm

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