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Interview: Philip Bretherton Talks TONY'S LAST TAPE at the Omnibus Theatre

Interview: Philip Bretherton Talks TONY'S LAST TAPE at the Omnibus Theatre
Philip Bretherton as Tony Benn

Based on the diaries of one of Britain's most respected, divisive and celebrated politicians, Philip Bretherton's acclaimed performance as Tony Benn reveals the struggle of a man who - having found himself no longer 'the most dangerous man in Britain' but something of a national treasure - realises that it is time to gracefully withdraw from the fight. If only it was that easy.

Tony's Last Tape is playing at the Omnibus Theatre next month.

What attracted you to playing the role of Tony Benn?

It came out of the blue really.

Nottingham Playhouse was putting together some one-person shows on political themes (just three performances each). Director Giles Croft came up with the whimsical idea that there's Krapp's Last Tape... so what if Tony Benn (who recorded his diary every day) made a last tape and what would that be? During one sleepless night, he comes downstairs and decides to make that last tape.

When I was told about it, I said that I don't look like him and I'm 25 years too young - but they said that they needed someone with the energy and memory to do it, because they only had a couple of weeks to pull it together. They put it out to others closer in age, but they weren't prepared to meet the timescale.

My first thought was that it may be a bit too much to take on, but my partner said that if I didn't do it, I would never forgive myself. I'd not done a one-man show before, but I felt that if the director believes that I can do it, I've got to grasp it with both hands and just dive in.

Once you start doing it, two weeks is plenty of time to prepare, because it's only you. Instead being told to take the day off because we're doing a scene you're not in, you're in all of it! The director doesn't tell you what to rehearse - he asks you what would be the most useful thing to do.

Every hour God sends, you're learning it, going through it - so the two weeks was adequate. It was still a nerve-wracking experience, because it's an hour and a quarter of solid talking, but I'm glad I took the challenge on.

He's a remarkable guy - the more I read about him, the more I thought that I'd be proud to do it. We all have our prejudices about him - coming from the dreadful media he suffered from in the 70s and 80s, before he became a national treasure. It's amazing how much of that is still in the back of your mind.

But this is a look at him in the round - as a father, as a husband, as a friend, as a man, as well as a politician.

What are the issues involved in portraying a real person? Was Tony Benn still alive when the show was first performed?

No. We started in 2015, so he'd been dead a couple of years.

When you do something like this, you enter a contract with the audience. They don't expect Tony Benn himself - so you say "This is me". You also commit to getting as close as you can to portraying his idiosyncratic vocal style, with its slight lisp. I give some impression of that. But the audience has to suspend their disbelief and buy into the "fact" that they're listening to Tony Benn.

What about permissions or contributions from Tony Benn's editor or family etc. - any contacts?

Not as far as I know. But they are aware of the show.

What we couldn't do was quote absolutely from the diaries as written. We could quote things he said that are in the public domain (anything said in speeches or interviews we could use), but the diaries are copyrighted. We had to adapt certain things so there was no direct lifting from the diaries themselves.

Everything that's said in the show, he actually said - there may be some linking things - but most of the stuff is directly pulled from the diaries themselves and adapted. We haven't interpolated anything.

[Having read the nine volumes of his diaries and seen the show myself in 2015 (reviewed here), there's no sense of artifice - what you see is the man who appears in the diaries.]

How did you approach "the voice" and the baggage that comes with "Tony Benn"?

We're fortunate because he's not a grey politician. Some voices are difficult to capture - Cameron, for example - because they're indistinct. But Benn, much to his credit, never changed his voice from its old-fashioned, patrician, Westminster School-educated, upper-middle-class accent, rooted in his upbringing in the 30s and 40s.

Whether speaking to the motorcycle manufacturing collective in Meriden, the Govan shipbuilders or at the Durham Miners Gala, he spoke as he spoke. He never talked down to anybody.

The way that he pitched his voice when making a speech was very particular to him - so there were certain hooks I could hang it on. If I did sound like the Benn we know, it would lull the audience into it because, at the same time they're thinking, "He's got that right", they can be thinking, "But that's nothing like him". There's a happy medium to be struck.

If the writing captures the rhythm of his speech, then it kind of does the job itself. It's a mix of what the actor brings to it and the way the writing works.

What are the challenges of acting in a one-person show?

You've nobody else to rely on! We consoled ourselves by saying that he had an untidy desk and if I got lost, we could have bits of script hidden amongst the papers or in the filing cabinet drawers. I never had to do that, but it was nice to have it as a possibility.

We took the show on the road and you're taking yourself out to dinner! You're saying "How do you think it went?" and replying, "Well, I thought it was all right". You're talking to yourself!

I did travel with a technician and we'd talk about the show a bit - but actually we'd talk about anything else really, because we'd had enough of it by then.

When you're constructing a monologue, are some of the great performances of the past (for example Patricia Routledge in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads) in your mind, or are you just thinking about the script and yourself?

You're always trying to pace it to keep the interest going, linking one section into the next. There are always islands - a poignant bit here, a joke there - and, like a piece of music, you change the mood and rhythm to see what works with an audience. Every audience is different, which is the delight of doing it night after night.

What kind of audiences do you get? Although Tony Benn's ideas are coming to the fore these days, as a figure, he is receding into the past.

We haven't done it since the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn, so it'll be interesting to see what happens. Theatre audiences tend to be older, but it's an audience that tends to be replaced - it always turns out.

Maybe theatre is something that people come to later in life. Although we have to get younger people from all backgrounds interested in theatre, we shouldn't dismiss the people who do go to theatre in pursuit of those who don't.

Tony Benn was a lifelong opponent of the various manifestations of the European Union, so, post-referendum, has there been any rewrites, changes in tone etc.?

I'm going to be talking to the director in the next couple of weeks. We are aware of that and we're mining the diaries to try and find stuff that may be reflective of it.

It's a difficult area to go into because we can't know how he would have reacted to Brexit and, because we can't use anything that isn't in the diaries, we can't speculate on what he might have thought.

He was very pro-European after the War, because the nations had to work together. But, as he realised how undemocratic and corporate-friendly the EEC (and, later, the EU) was becoming, he turned against it.

His reasons were those cited by Brexiters - lack of sovereignty, unelected officials deciding on what happens. He also worried that if the EU did not democratise itself, we would see a resurgence of the Right - and that's what's happened.

In that Brexit has turned into a right-wing Brexit for right-wing people to make right-wingers rich, I don't know whether he would have stood by his views, as he would find himself with some very unpleasant bedfellows indeed. With Trump in America and the rise of right-wing parties in Italy, Hungary and Poland, whether he'd be saying that we're better off together fighting this resurgence inside the EU rather than outside - well, that's only my speculation.

When he was a technocrat, he believed that we needed to be in a bigger club to share technological developments across nations.

What was the audience reaction when you took the show on tour?

Very good.

It doesn't spoon-feed you, this show; it assumes a certain knowledge about him. I thought some references might be a bit obscure. We don't mention Concorde - we go straight into him hearing a plane overhead and going into a reminiscence about it and the flak he got for the additional "e" in the name. I knew what he was talking about, but I wasn't sure others would - but it didn't seem to be a problem.

Audiences found it funny and touching, with certain aspects that bring out his quirky sentimentality - not something that you associate with the swivel-eyed madman as portrayed in the right-wing press.

He deeply loved his family, deeply loved his wife and had an abiding passion for deeply sentimental British films - his favourite was The Railway Children! Whenever he cried - he would always cry at the Durham Miners Gala - his family would refer to it as a "Railway Children moment".

When you think of his work ethic, the sheer effort he put into mastering his brief - you look at politicians now, and they seem minnows in comparison. Not half of them have done nearly as much work as he put into doing things. When he became Postmaster General, he really got stuck into knowing everything there was to know about that job.

I read recently that between April 1972 and March 1973, he wrote 5,011 letters! This at a time when you actually wrote letters, by hand. One year he delivered 233 speeches at 233 separate meetings. The guy was extraordinary! It came from the radical tradition he was brought up in.

He always thought of his work as a two-way process - he used to say of his constituents in Bristol that "I didn't radicalise them: they radicalised me." He saw government as an educative thing, about teaching and giving meaning to life. He saw his role as one of finding out what constituents wanted - informed by them and informing them in return. A lifetime's work.

Tony's Last Tape is at the Clapham Omnibus Theatre 2-20 April

Watch a trailer below!

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