Actor’s story of working with Darth Vader actor Dave Prowse
A former actor from Ely has shared his memories of the time he worked with Darth Vader actor Dave Prowse, who died at the weekend.
Given that I’d decided to be an actor when I was four it was peculiar that I shunned publicity.
The Tree evening at RADA was a far more stately affair than it is now as it goes through its all-singing, all-dancing stage.
Then we were given a slot – mine was the last of the day – and asked to prepare a piece of our choice to perform in Room 9 in front of half a dozen directors and tutors.
I suppose the Tree evening is the nearest we would get to being marked. My seven-term course would end with a diploma: something that said you were an actor because you’d paid your fees and could therefore be rated and assessed as you headed off into rep or wherever.
I chose Aston’s speech from The Caretaker, the one that had got me into the place to start with, some two and a half years ago.
It’s a piece of raw power and I peppered my professional career with it as it was also ageless and relatively actor-proof.
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Three minutes or thereabouts. I knew it was good and I knew I’d done it well. Since there would be no applause and because it was late in the day and getting dark I sloped out of the room pretending not to be there.
Michael McCallion would, as the result of the evening, say: ‘You’re a bloody good actor. Bloody awkward one though.’
Hugh Crutwell’s verdict was more damning: ‘You went off with your tail between your legs!’ They were both right: I was bloody awkward.
The reason this has all come to light on a grey Sunday morning in late November is the announced death of Dave Prowse.
While living in Westmoreland Street in the heart of London’s West End I was no more than two hundred yards from Paddington Street. That was where Dave had his gym.
Next to the fish shop – too pricey for me – was an inconsequential brown door that led into a marbled hall.
On the left was a sweaty sign pointing to Dave’s space, replete with boxing ring and dangerous wall bars.
Right was a multi-purpose hall used for everything from wedding receptions to drama rehearsals.
Right now the floors smelled only of a caustically irritant bleach but in the early summer of 1980 it was where we worked on the bones of the Rainbow Theatre version of the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
We weren’t very good at it, none of us. Some two weeks in someone recalled the old story about the aged and highly respected actor who found themselves in a largely improvised piece whose rehearsals were going nowhere.
‘Come down to the front of the stage, one by one,’ said the director. ‘Frighten me!’
One by one they trotted down, gurning, whooping and scaring the nuts off the sallow figure in the front row.
Finally the elderly thesp took his time, ached his way, coughing as he walked, down the length of the green.
‘We open next week!’ he bawled.
Recasting parts of Hitch Hiker would at least ensure that those who were left had a chance of making the thing work.
But it would shout into a space that held three thousand: the producers had, for all their good and money-making intentions, merely chosen the wrong venue.
Ironically the show’s premier theatrical iteration was at the ICA in the Mall, the audience hovering on a giant gasbag as they were sedately shunted around the scenes.
It meant only that a few dozen could actually get in. Simon Jones, the first Arthur Dent to have his house mown down by a yellow bulldozer, wasn’t able to get a ticket.
Thinking he’d be able to amble in – who’d heard of Hitch Hiker, for goodness sake – he was stopped at the door by an unforgiving bouncer.
‘But I’m Arthur Dent!’ said Simon.
‘Yeah and I’m the Queen of Sheba,’ said the bouncer.
The happiest part of the Rainbow debacle for me was my introduction to the slim-hipped props and mechanical kid Kevin Davies.
Even then Kevin was a mega-fan and the doggedness of his enthusiasm was quite literally something that held the attention long enough to watch as the show’s pillars started to crumble around us and we were reduced to dust.
Kevin – on my side all the way along – would try and tease the truth out of Douglas. He wanted me to play Marvin on the telly almost as much as I did, or at least that was the impression I got. ‘It’ll be Stephen then?’ he asked.
Douglas was sanguine but laconic, giving nothing away about his televisual relationships with those at the Beeb who counted in these things: exec producer John Lloyd, director John Davies (yes, yes, he played Oliver Twist in the black and white movie, all eyes and blond yearning, and director Alan JW Bell.
Alan would go on to direct some three hundred episodes of Last of the Summer Wine, in much the same way as he directed Hitch Hiker. ‘It hasn’t been decided,’ he said. He wouldn’t be drawn.
I’d auditioned in good and untroubled faith, fully understanding that that Marvin was a single entity, non-divisible into body and voice. I’d played him now in dozens of stage performances and would do so again in 1981.
I knew I wasn’t going to get as far as the cigar when Alan said, ‘Could you do the voice more like you did at Theatr Clwyd?’
I was naïve. I didn’t understand that I had the chance, at that moment, to change everything and to do as I was told.
Stupidly, to Alan and John and John, I said, ‘I thought I had done.’
But I was also lucky. When my agent Frances called me to say they’d offered me the job – body only – I thought seriously about the muting of one of my favourite characters.
Within seconds though I’d also realised that Stephen Moore was almost certainly one of the best things ever to have happened to Hitch Hiker and accepted the job gladly.
Episode 5. We’re in the Acton rehearsal rooms. Dave is there to be the Bodyguard to Hotblack Desiato, the rock superstar due to play at the Restaurant at the Universe. Dave is just a bloke, a very big bloke, charming and quiet, like most of that company.
On one of the sofas he’s taken up all three seats of a two-seater sofa. I’d like to chat to him so I head over and get through the pleasantries to find space for the question I wanted to ask.
He and I were in the same position. He’d played Darth Vader, I was playing Marvin. He hadn’t done the voice, neither had I.
‘Why didn’t they use your voice then?’ I asked.
‘Oi’ve no idear!’ he replied.
And I believe he was genuinely surprised that he didn’t do the voice, as was I. Kevin suggests further that the show’s lack of diversity gave no headway to people of colour and that James Earl Jones was for every reason a great choice. The rest is history.
Waterstones 2001 and the release of Dave’s autobiography. I’ve invited him to sign some copies at the shop. Even by then he was smaller, honed down by mobility issues, and I ached as I saw him negotiate a small step to his chauffeured car.
There was nothing he wouldn’t do, no scrap of paper he wouldn’t sign, no selfie he wouldn’t pose for. I’ll always treasure my own snap of him and Garth, four if he was a day.
Darth and Garth overlooked by the dark lord himself. I often wonder what Garth looks like now, what are his own memories of that Saturday afternoon in late November 2011.
Dave was quite simply amazing value, a joy to be with, the delightful gentleman I’d met thirty years earlier, who filled a room with pleasure.
He’ll always be modest, genial and friendly. I’ll miss him