Others will write, I hope, about Stanley Lebor with personal affection and detailed knowledge. Having not known him, I can’t. But his death last November, only recently announced by Equity Magazine, deserves reflection.
Though he appeared in Gandhi, Flash Gordon, Jason King, The Naked Civil Servant, Department S, The Tomorrow People, Secret Army, Shoestring and Grange Hill, I only know (well enough to discuss) two of his performances: Don in Ready When You Are, Mr McGill (the original version, not the remake) and Howard in Ever Decreasing Circles.
Both are characterised by steadiness.
Jack Rosenthal’s Ready When You Are, Mr McGill was broadcast in January 1976. Lebor is half a double-act, numbering Phil and Don, the director and cameraman of a TV play. (Phil and Don are assumably an Everly Brothers reference: Rosenthal was keen on nested wit. Ditto Esmonde and Larbey: Tom and Jerry in The Good Life, most obviously.)
Rosenthal called his satire ‘perfectly acted’ and ‘beautifully directed,’ and with good cause: it is. As a jumping-off point, a play by a TV playwright about the making of a TV play is a hostage to fortune: writers seldom set off their writing-about-writing distress flare more than once per career. It’s a Get Out Of Jail Free Card.
But that would seem to demean the film, which is, happily, a tremendous, sensitive piece: it’s David versus Goliath – the director (as martinet) of a play versus the little man, the extra (or, as they’re now known, ‘S.A.’ – Supporting Artist) with one line. Mr McGill’s single speech is, ‘I’ve never seen the young lady in my life before. And I’ve lived here fifty years.’ Two sentences, but one line. Of course, he fucks it up. This is a comedy, after all.
Don, played by Lebor, is the getting-on-with-it cameraman. He went to see Murder On The Orient Express the night before the action takes place. Asked if it was any good by the sound man, Don’s fourteen-word review, as a professional film-maker, is, ‘Some bloody comedian nicked my fishing rod out of the boot of my car’. Later pressed, again, on whether it was any good by Phil, the director, the reply comes
DON: Cost me over thirty quid, that fishing tackle.
PHIL: You can claim.
DON: Oh, I’ll claim.
(Which appears to be the end of the conversation, possibly the end of life.)
Quite by coincidence, this is very much in the key of Esmonde and Larbey. Especially the stage direction.
Don is an ever-present but almost wordless presence in the film. Most of Lebor’s lines read like the straight man in a comedy routine: ‘Yep,’ ‘Hang on,’ ‘Not a lot,’ ‘Yep,’ ‘Phil!’ ‘Hair in the gate’. Occasionally, he’s gifted a moment of quotability.
DON: There’s a foreign body on Bernard’s knee.
Lebor’s job on Mr McGill was to quietly do his job playing a man quietly doing his job. Not much to say, but an ever-presence. And he did it to studied perfection. Perhaps this is the key to the man.
In Ever Decreasing Circles, Lebor was cast rather against type. Howard Hughes (echoes of Phil and Don: Howard Hughes is one of two characters in the sitcom named after a famous individual, along with Tommy Cooper) is another ever-presence – but instead of being stiff and workmanlike, Howard is sensitive, naïve, happy, and of simple tastes. He and his wife, Hilda, are not so much a couple as two halves. To play a character is difficult: to play half an enshackled character requires technical refinement and an ear for harmony, which requires both actors to sing in tune, while listening assiduously.
As The Good Life saw Tom and Barbara paired (via an affectionate antagonism) with Jerry and Margo, so Ever Decreasing Circles paired Martin and Ann with Howard and Hilda. The antagonist in Ever Decreasing Circles was Paul; in The Good Life, it was what might be characterised as consumerism or modern life or the 1970s or The Way The World Is. Jerry and Margo Leadbetter were never The Enemy: likewise, nor Howard and Hilda Hughes. Thus Paul Eddington, Penelope Keith, Stanley Lebor and Geraldine Newman had warm shoes into which to step.
All four actors did this with delicious aplomb.
Eddington and Keith have been examined at length, and found to pass with distinction, but Lebor and Newman have been less pondered. Pity, really, because it is such a memorable partnership.
Howard proposed to Hilda in an ice-cream van. Since her acceptance, they have become each other.
HILDA: Here she comes. Here comes Mrs Teapot.
HOWARD: Followed by Mr Assorted Biscuits.
And, though they remain childless (a peculiarity not uncommon to sitcom, nor are they alone here), they still operate as an almost blithely happy squab-free unit.
HOWARD: Come on, Hilda. We'll miss The Shipping Forecast.
I’ll put 50p and a kidney on nobody ever having looked forward to The Shipping Forecast. It’s not a soothing national mumble: it’s a tedious list, like the phone book (if that still exists) or the football results (if they still exist): a secular Lord’s Prayer (if that still exists) – an inconsequential litany. Words. Just words. Yet Howard and Hilda love it (and here Esmonde and Larbey have it right) because it’s timetabled: it’s a routine. Not only is it a routine, it contains regularity itself. ‘We’ll miss Bells On Sunday’ or ‘We’ll miss the Ten O’Clock News’ would have done. But the news isn’t a photocopy of itself, and Bells On Sunday features a different peal each week. The Shipping Forecast routines the same roll-call every time: Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea…
Howard and Hilda are creatures of habit. You know – you just know – that spring cleaning, blackberry-picking and Stir-Up Sunday are dates not only firmly in their calendar, but discussed, agreed and concreted into their calendar. They plan ahead. Decades ahead.
HOWARD: We've booked ourselves into a retirement home.
HOWARD: Yes. The fifteenth of August in the year two thousand and twenty-four.
HILDA: That'll be two days after our diamond wedding anniversary. We thought we'd have that at home and then go in on the Saturday.
‘The Saturday.’ As if it were three weeks hence, not (as in this case) forty years hence.
Stanley Lebor brought two wonderful qualities to the rôle of Howard: firstly, an air of delight. Was Lebor delighted to be Howard, or was Howard delighted to be Howard? To the latter, I’d say a big, fat yes. To the former, I’d say another yes. Secondly to the rôle Lebor brought something of a treat: a steadfast soppiness. That’s not an easy blend. Being steadfast and soppy is a tightrope act that could see the actor plunging career-first into syrupiness, clunkiness or, worst of all, a credibility chasm. Lebor didn’t. He walked that line, as practised as Philippe Petit, with an easy flair that required no cadenzas: he simply arrived at Howard and stayed firmly at Howard. It’s a masterful bit of work.
If you want Howard’s episode in the sun, watch the fifth episode of the second series, in which he enters (and wins) the snooker tournament. It’s the episode in which Lebor casts off his Howard Wayne outfit and becomes BatHoward. By not being himself, he asserts his Howardness. If you want his scene in the sun, seek out his sharing a bed with Martin (in the eighth episode of the second series – the Christmas special).
At the climax of Ready When You Are, Mr McGill, Joe the extra makes a total splup of his line, repeatedly, and under pressure. It gets worse the more he re-takes it. The director rounds on him, saying
PHIL: (Quietly, almost regretfully) Real life is how well you pretend, isn’t it, sir? You. Me. Everybody in the world.
(A pause. JOE’s mind shuts off. The thought’s too painful to dwell on.)
PHIL: (Gently) We’ll perhaps try and find the decent bits from what you did.
Stanley Lebor did a lot of decent bits.