Appearing in the Edinburgh Lyceum’s production of Three Sisters, actor John Betts
talks to Sarah Hemming. Chekhov is not the first place you might expect to find John Bett. In his wide-ranging career so far he has mostly ploughed a comic furrow. and one has the impression he himself is almost surprised to find himself playing Vershinin in the Russian master‘s Three Sisters. But the part, an incorrigible, philosophical romantic of less than tender years has grown on him with rehearsal. ‘I suppose, like everybody else. I approached Chekhov with some trepidation. I didn‘t actually like the play very much when I accepted the part. But I‘ve grown to love it. It‘s such a marvellous piece ofwork — the sub-text behind it is so brilliant. And so much of the drama in a way takes place off stage — like Shakespeare.‘ Betts’ last part at the Lyceum was in fact in Shakespeare. playing Banquo in their recent production of Macbeth.He has been in and out of the company over the last few months, having been coaxed back to the stage, after a long break doing television and film, with the offer of the part ofthe ‘Maniac‘ in Dario Fo‘s Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
Bett‘s stage career took off during the heady 19705. that period in Scottish theatre when a sudden burst ofenergy and optimism. together with an enormous coincidence of rising new talent. made anything look possible. He was involved in the idiosyncratic Great Northern Welly Boot Show. alongside emerging notables such as Bill Paterson. Billy Connolly. Tom McGrath. Lesley Mackie and Alex Norton (the show designed by John Byrne and directed by Tony Palmer), and moved on to appear in 7:84 Scotland‘s remarkable first tour. The Cheviot. the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. ‘It was fantastic. I thought some of those Highland tours were going to
take us into orbit. The feeling of taking people‘s history to them was marvellous. particularly in view of the political situation. John (McGrath) was constantly changing it and rewriting it as things developed in the oil field.‘
He went on to take part in several 7:84 shows and even had one written for him — in less than conventional circumstances. ‘l‘d broken my jaw and had to come out of Little Red Hen. There I was. wired up. and John McGrath was in Amsterdam. Then the phone went one day. and it wasJohn saying. “How would you like to do a play in Amsterdam?“. I said. “I‘m wired up. John.“ and he said. “I‘m writing about a wired up job.“ So I said. “Alright, when would you like me to come over?“ and John said, “Today.” I said. “Alright. when do we open?“ and he said. “Tuesday.” I said. “Two weeks Tuesday? Three weeks Tuesday?“ And he said.“No. Tuesday.“ ‘
That was Thursday. He flew out and as McGrath wrote the play. Bett typed it up and learned it. It was finished Sunday night. rehearsed on Monday and Tuesday, and opened Tuesday night. ‘lt was a fantastic piece.‘
Called Oranges and Lemons. it concerns a capitalist interior designer. whose romantic. woolly-liberal girlfriend has pushed him out of the window. and is set in the hospital where she comes to visit him. ‘In the end he destroys her by telling her the world won‘t get any better. What‘s interesting about it is that. unlike many ofJohn‘s plays. the unspoken character is the socialist.‘
Bett was also one of the trio who first performed John Byrne‘s witty spoof Writers (.‘rarnp. a sell-out success at the 1977 Edinburgh Festival. He looks back on that era now with affection and bemusement. "l‘he mid-seventies was a very exciting time. We had a great belief that things were going to happen in Scottish theatre — which they did. I don‘t know what happened though. All that energy — I don‘t know where it went. But I think there are signs now of a renewal.‘
Many ofthe seventies‘ creative energies ended up in London. Bett‘s decision to stay in Scotland was a conscious one. He did move onto the screen however. With what seems to be a talent forgetting involved in the beginnings ofthings. he appeared in Gregory's Girl. Bill Forsyth‘s wave-making comedy. ‘I knew it was good when we were making it. but I was still quite surprised at the reception it got. At the time. even to get a Scottish film done was a great thing.‘
Bett also appeared in Britannia Hospital. directed by Lindsay Anderson — ‘I loved him. He likes
actors very much.‘ — and Tess by Polanski. a rather different experience. ‘That was very much the director as autocrat, and a perfectionist technically. He‘ll do thirty-five takes to get it right. Admirable ifyou have the time and money.‘
Soon he can be seen in a new Channel 4 sit-com. Rude Health (a satire ofthe medical profession written by a wisely pseudonymed doctor and dentist). in which he plays the alternative medecine
doctor alongside John Wells. ‘A very
witty man. . .Quite different from Denis Thatcher really.‘ He has also recently acquired another profession. opening a bookshop in Cupar. his parents‘ home town. ‘There was no bookshop there and l was always complaining. My mother said. “Why don‘t you open a bookshop yourself. then?“ And I thought. why not? Because I‘m very lazy — it was partly providing myself with a reason for getting up in the morning.‘
Chekhov 's Three Sisters runs front Fri 20 Feb at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh. Rude Health begins on Channel 4 from Mon 16 Mar.
On a VlSlt to Britain, Richard Boyle, the real American photo- journalist on whom the film Salvador IS based, talked to Phil Caveney about what really happened.
The stocky little man sitting opposite me would certainly not stand out in a crowd and doesn‘t remotely resemble actor James Woods. who has just played him in the hard-hitting movie. Salvador. yet this is Richard Boyle. an American photo-journalist who. at various times during his career, has been shot at. wounded. tear-gassed and beaten up.
What. I ask him. did he think of James Woods‘ Oscar-nominated portrayal ofhim'.’ ‘Well, to be honest, Martin Sheen was my first choice. Jimmy did a good job. but publicity-wise he wanted all the attention to himself. In fact. he said that if I showed up at the movie‘s premiere. he‘d just walk offthe promotional tour. So the film was hardly publicised at all in the States. which may account for its poor reception there. Jimmy did a couple ofchat shows and all he could talk about was how much he hated Mexico and how he had diarrhoea all the time. We were originally going to film on location in Salvador. using
the army as extras. We gave them a dummy script in which they were ‘the good guys‘. But then our liaison man Colonel Cienfuegos was assassinated. After that it was discovered that our screenplay was a phoney. My own life was in danger. I had to go into hiding and then ﬂee the country. 'I‘hat's why we ended up doing it in Mexico.‘
It‘s hardly surprising that a film like Salvador. with its unﬂinching portrayal ol‘C‘IA involvement in Latin America should not be welcomed with open arms by the Reagan administration. "There were definite attempts to block the film and I knew that my own screenwriting Oscar nomination (with director Oliver Stone) was heavily opposed. The White House even issues a stagemcnt saying that the film contributed to the drug culture in America! ()fcourse. the success of Oliver‘s Vietnam movie Platoon has ensured Salvador a re-release. We‘ll see how it does. this time around.‘
I ask Boyle what special qualities a photo-journalist requires. ‘An ability to duck.‘ he quips. ‘When somebody is holding a gun on you the first rule is not to get down on the ground. It‘s a psychological thing. You just keep talking. saying you‘re a friend ofsome general or whatever comes into your mind. If you get down on the ground. they‘ll shoot you in the head. I‘ve seen it happen many times.‘
And all this forSlS a picture‘.’ Is this man mad or is it simply that danger produces its own kind of buzz? "I'here‘s an adrenalin rush. sure. But you‘ve got to know how far you can push it. Let me tell you the four rules of photo-journalism. ()ne: you take the picture. 'I‘wo: you live to take the picture. Three: you smuggle the film out somehow. Four: you get the picture published. (ienerally. that‘s the hardest bit.‘
Salvador continues until Sat 21 Feb at Edinburgh Film/rouse.
The List 20 Feb — 5 March 1