October 29, 2006

A Brief Encounter With Trevor Howard

Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in David Lean's classic,
Brief Encounter (1945)

When I was 16 years old, my agent called and offered me a couple of days work on the television drama, Miss Marple. By this point, I had started having an aversion to appearing in period dramas set in the early half of the 20th. Century, because it always entailed having to have a short, back and sides haircut, which was particularly unwelcome for a teenage boy trying to be current in the 1980s! I did once have an outburst with a make-up artist on the period production, The House Of Elliot, when she seemed to be going out of her way to lose me street cred.

Apart from the loss of hair, which has since naturally occurred, it was fun to work on these productions. To dress as our relatives of the past once did, and to walk about sets designed to invoke days long gone, always offered many interesting insights.

The episode of Miss Marple that I appeared in, was being guest starred by the fine British actress, Helen Cherry. I had no idea who her husband was, until someone on the catering bus pointed out a shuffling, stooping old man, wearing the sort of hat that fishing hobbyists like. He looked battered by years of drinking and bad health.

Someone announced that it was Trevor Howard, which was met with some scorns of doubt. Could this man be the great character actor, who had starred in such films as Brief Encounter, The Third Man, Charge Of The Light Brigade, Mutiny On The Bounty, Ryan's Daughter and The Battle Of Britain? Indeed, it was.

Trevor Howard belongs in the highest echelons of British cinema. He stands shoulder to shoulder with such great luminaries as Lawrence Olivier, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, John Mills and Ralph Richardson. However, seeing this frail old man was startling. It was difficult to imagine that he was the same dapper star that had appeared in so many classics, with a fiery reputation for creating turmoil on set.

I feel ashamed to admit this now, but in my youth I collected autographs. For a child, who had many opportunities to meet the famous, it was fun to collect those silly pieces of paper with ink scrawled upon them. In hindsight, it is a very odd thing to collect. However, this was an excuse for me to approach Howard, who was sitting in his small car, seeming to be staring out at nothing. I felt some trepidation, because he was infamous for being extremely difficult.

I approached his car, dressed in my 50's costume, and tapped on the side window. He opened the door and looked at me. I asked him very politely if he would be kind enough to sign the piece of paper I had in my hand. He didn't say anything, but graciously he wrote his name and passed the paper back to me. I thanked him, and that was where our brief encounter ended.

Sadly, Trevor Howard died shortly afterwards in 1988. His wife, Helen Cherry, followed him in 2001.

For a biography visit Turner's Films.

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