Chapter One: December Chapter One DECEMBER 1982
Newly arrived in London, I was waitering at Tuttons brasserie in Covent Garden, and had just secured an acting agent, who suggested getting accent coaching to help me play Northern Irish, as there were so many dramas being made about the Troubles and “you’re dark-haired and blue-eyed, so you could go up for Irish roles.”
A pal told me about the Actors Centre, where you could take classes at an affordable price, so I signed up for Joan Washington’s accent course. Boiler-suited, Kicker-booted, and sporting a Laurie Anderson spiked haircut, she was a charismatic and formidable presence, with a rich, deep voice that contrasted with her petite figure. At the end of the first session, I asked if she would consider teaching me privately.
“To iron out my colonial accent.”
“I don’t really have the time, as I’m coaching at various theatres and at RADA.”
“Please. I’m begging you!” That made her laugh. “Please?”
She gave me the once-over, sighed, and replied: “Okay.”
“Thank you! What do you charge?”
“£20 per hour.”
“But I can only afford £12…”
She fixed me with her big monkey eyes and said, “All right—but you’ll have to repay me, if you ever make it.”
I was renting a bedsit in Blenheim Crescent, a few blocks down from where it intersects with Portobello Road, in Notting Hill Gate, for £30 per week, which puts the price of her lesson into (my) financial perspective. Plus the cost of taking the tube all the way to Richmond, then a twenty-minute walk to her house, situated behind the ice rink in East Twickenham. Trying to work out how many sessions I’d need and what to budget accordingly. Anticipating months of classes to sound acceptable to the natives.
“So how long do you reckon it’ll take to sort me out?”
“No more than a couple of sessions.”
I was astonished. Her innate gift, as has been reiterated by everyone lucky enough to have been taught by her, is the confidence she instilled with her belief that you can crack it. Which inspired this pupil to believe he could do it. And all for the princely sum of £24!
“You just have one sound that you need to be aware of—when you say ‘basin’ or ‘council’ or ‘pencil,’ you overcompensate and say ‘bay-SIN,’ ‘coun-CIL,’ and ‘pen-CIL.’ Instead, say ‘pen-SULL’ rhyming with ‘pull’ and throw it away.”
Even after almost four decades together, the teacher in her never missed the opportunity to correct this defect in my speech. Occasionally, when we were mid-argument, she’d go Henry Higgins on me, with an accent correction, simultaneously increasing my fury and trip-switching us into hilarity.
While I was grateful that she didn’t think I needed endless coaching, I was also frustrated that after only two sessions I no longer had a legitimate reason to see her again. She was also a few years older than me, married-but-separated, with a young son, and with a string of prestigious productions and a movie to her credit.
I was an out-of-work actor from the southern hemisphere, from nowhere, earning a subsistence wage as a waiter, schlepping home after midnight, listening to “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” on my prized Walkman. Not exactly a “catch” of any kind—and pipe-cleaner thin. Joan on the other hand was already a legend in her field. Such was the success of Richard Eyre’s landmark National Theatre production of Guys and Dolls in 1982, and Joan’s accent coaching, that Barbra Streisand enquired, “Who are these American actors I’ve never heard of?” Which resulted in Joan being interviewed to coach Mitteleuropean accents for Streisand’s directorial debut movie, Yentl. As I’ve been a Streisand fanatic for half a century, the details she recalled of their first meeting have been imprinted, like a talisman, on my memory ever since.
She’d never coached on a film before and had been summoned to Lee International Studios in Wembley, where she met producer Larry “DeWaay We Were” as he was nicknamed (the double “a” in his surname isn’t a spelling mistake) and casting director Cis Corman, who’d known Streisand since she was a teenager. Told that she was wearing a colour that Barbra liked, before going in to meet her—“That’s a good sign.”
Joan found Streisand surprisingly petite compared to her screen persona, softly spoken, and fast.
“Can you do some accents for me?”
“I’m a trained phonetician and don’t really work that way. Any more than I’d ask you to sing me a medley of your greatest hits.”
“I understand. This is my Princess Margaret. What d’you think?”
“Not very good—it’s an impression rather than the real thing and you couldn’t sustain a whole performance doing that. Needs to be as accurate and authentic as possible.”
“You’re very direct. I like that. So am I. How many movies have you done?”
“Then this will be your first, and it’s my first time directing.”
It’s only when she left the room that her knees buckled with the impact of securing this prestigious job. Joan has never been starstruck in the way that I continue to be, but reluctantly admitted that she was really chuffed, as a Scottish girl from Aberdeen, to be coaching Yiddish accents on Yentl. An endorsement from on high that defied all those naysayers and male theatre directors who once dismissed accent coaching as “irrelevant” at the start of her career.
Probably a very good thing that I didn’t know any of this when we first got together, otherwise she might have run for the Highlands at the prospect of having to accommodate three people in this relationship. Herself, Barbra, and me!
She never tired of teasing me about my adolescent-adult obsession with “Babs,” and it’s a true measure of how secure our love is for each other that she wasn’t threatened by my fantasy idolatry, even after I’d commissioned a two-foot-tall sculpture of Streisand’s face for the garden.
“I get it. She’s unique and beautiful and extraordinary, but you’re mine! And besides, she’s married to James Brolin.” For someone as territorial and jealous of any “comers” as Joan was, I count myself lucky that she never banished Barbra from our life together.
In January 1983, Joan unexpectedly contacted me, leaving a message on my answering machine, asking if I’d record a script that she was coaching for the RSC, which required a Siswati speaker—“and as you’re the only person I’ve ever met who can speak the language, come over and I’ll cook you dinner.”
Didn’t wait tables on a Monday night, so I suggested coming over then. Very excited, and it was snowing, which for a boy from Swaziland, is, was, and always will be a magical phenomenon. Bought a bunch of tulips, wondering if this might be inappropriate/patronising/non-her and held them behind my back when I rang the doorbell, keeping them hidden until I was inside.
“Your hand all right?”
“Yes, why d’you ask?”
“You’ve held it behind your back for the past five minutes.”
Blushed and offered up the tulips, which thankfully turned out to be more than acceptable. Fired off lots of questions which she answered unreservedly and, in turn, asked me as many, mirroring my curiosity, which culminated in her casually asking, “Are you in a relationship?” while taking a casserole out of the oven.
“Not at the moment.”
She smiled again.
“Let’s eat first, then do the recording.”
Delicious home-made boeuf bourguignon that I put my nose to instantly.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Sorry, should have said, I like to smell everything in sight. Always have done. Ever since I can remember. Can’t understand why everyone doesn’t. You’re a brilliant cook.”
“Thank you. You have very brown, hairy arms, considering it’s the middle of winter. Have you been skiing?” I was wearing a cream cable-knit sweater, and had pulled the sleeves up while eating.
“Never skied in my life, but was born olive-skinned. Do you always ask so many questions?”
“You can talk! You’re very unusual for an Englishman, but then I suppose you’re a colonial.”
The transition from pupil and teacher into flirter and flirtee happened seamlessly. After dinner, we went into the living room, recorded the script, continued talking, and when I checked my watch it was gone midnight, so no chance of getting to the station in time.
“Would you mind if I stayed the night in your guest bedroom, as I’ve missed the last tube? My fault.”
Went upstairs and she opened the door into an icebox. “I’m sorry, but the radiator’s been turned off in here. I’ll get you an extra duvet.” This pantomime lasted all of ten minutes, before I gingerly knocked on her door and said, “I’m really sorry, but it’s arctic in there. May I join you?”
Got into bed and, just when I thought things were hunky-dory, she de-hunked me by declaring, “You’re as skinny as a stick-insect!” A passion-killing phrase if ever there was one, which every thin man will sympathise with.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2020
Joan’s birthday. We are unabashed Christmas-aholics, and the house is baubled-up, tree kissing the ceiling, and enough fairy lights to host a Tinker Bell convention. For the past week she’s mentioned feeling breathless and has to pause halfway up the stairs. Nothing more than that. Un-characteristically, for a doctor’s daughter who has resolutely resisted any and every encouragement to see a medic about anything, she suggests calling the doctor, a first in our decades together.
“Have you lost your sense of smell or taste?”
“Don’t be daft.”
Manage to get through to our local health centre immediately and given an appointment at 5 p.m. for a chest X-ray and blood test at Kingston Hospital.
Wish that I could go in with her, but restrictions in place, so wait outside. Very few people. No queue. No waiting around. Doesn’t take long and she returns feeling calm and reassured.
Oilly and Florian come over and help me cook birthday dinner. Candles lit, “Happy Birthday” sung, and presents opened. Everything as familiar and familial as can be. I once made the mistake of asking Joan whether she wanted a main combined birthday-Christmas present, to which she said, “Makes sense as they’re only three days apart.” Perhaps she thought I couldn’t afford both, back then?
Idiot, idiot, idiot!
My father’s advice to me as a teenager was: “What a woman says she wants, and what she actually wants, are two entirely different things.” Summarily dismissed by me as advice from an unevolved olde-school brontosaurus. Until I saw how disappointed Joan was! I can still feel the gigantic Jurassic imprint of putting my foot in it and never tried that ploy ever again.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 22, 2020
Alex Dunkerley, the lung coordinator at Kingston Hospital, calls to say that the X-ray has revealed a “small abnormal knot in the right lung, which is likely to be residual scar tissue from when Joan had pneumonia a couple of years ago. I’d like to book her in for a CT scan this evening.”
Distract ourselves playing Scrabble most of the afternoon, trying not to fixate on anything other than the here and now. But we know one another too well not to wonder and finally worry out loud—
“What do you think?”
“No idea. Best not to speculate and wait to see what the scan shows up.”
Instead of easing the tension, it feels that giving it air has ramped it up and made it feel real.
We walk, arm in arm, in silence to the car, through the cold evening air.
Only thing she says en route is: “Sounds like it’s something serious.” Reach across and squeeze her arm.
Again the frustration of not being able to be by her side when she’s having the scan. She reappears twenty minutes later.
“That was quick! What did it feel like?”
“Amazingly straightforward. Just had to lie very still and breathe slowly.”
Palpable relief that it’s done, radio on and we yakety-yak all the way home. As per.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2020
Counting down. Wondering how long it will take for the results of the CT scan to come through.
At 11 a.m. lung coordinator Alex calls and asks to speak to Joan. I know instantly from the tone of her voice that the news isn’t good. Too calm. Too conciliatory. Joan is still in bed when I hand her my phone.
“The CT scan has revealed a dark mass on your left lung, Joan, so we need you to go to the Marsden Hospital in Sutton for a PET scan at eight fifteen tomorrow morning.”
Joan looks at me and unequivocally says: “It’s lung cancer, isn’t it?”
Tongue-tied, I can only slowly nod in agreement. It’s the first time that either of us has dared utter that toxic “C” word.
Grandfather clock chimes on the landing outside our bedroom door. It’s been ticking in her family’s lives for more than two centuries. Yet at this moment, it feels like time has stopped for both of us.
She takes a deep breath and declares, “Promise me that you won’t share any of this with Oilly, until we’ve had confirmation from the medics. Do you promise me?”
Her assertion unites and fortifies us.
“Darling, please bring me a cup of tea and some toast with Marmite.”
Walk, lurch downstairs, utterly overwhelmed and discombobulated. Tears blurring everything. Grateful to have something to do.
Despite being cursed with misophonia (hypersensitivity to sounds like crunching, swallowing, lip smacking, slurping, and chewing, all of which provoke intense irrational anger) I’m grateful, at this moment, to hear her chomping on toast and taking gulps of tea.
Click on the TV and watch a blur of cooking/travel/interviews/pets, all the while holding hands, until she drifts into sleep.
Lying shoulder to shoulder, I look across to where this “dark mass” is hiding inside her. Waiting. Just like we are, on the outside, waiting to identify what it’s doing and how far it’s spread.
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2020
Wake at 6 a.m. and feel like I’ve spent the entire night sprinting around my own brain.
Must stay calm for Joan. Must stay calm for her, no matter what.
Drive for half an hour through deserted streets to the hospital.
Large-lettered CANCER RESEARCH CENTRE sign panics Joan. Reach for her hand. Park up, hug her, and whisper love and assurance as best I can. Walk arm in arm into the deserted reception. Eerie. As though everyone has been vacuumed away. The staff are incredibly kind, soft-spoken and gentle, which underlines the gravity of our situation. Form filling then ushered into a small room where a nurse asks her to lie down and injects a saline solution into her arm, followed by a radiation drug that will circulate through her bloodstream, taking an hour to fully absorb, during which she has to lie still and not talk.
That’s a challenge for us, as yakety-yakking is the modus operandi of our marriage. Look at one another with incredible intensity and naked tenderness. Once the initial unease of being here subsides, she asks me to hand her the book she’s brought along. Titled Just My Luck.
Irony of ironies and we both silently laugh. Walk together into a room straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Joan lies down on the elevated narrow platform. Nurse presses buttons and Joan slides backwards into the giant white Polo mint–shaped contraption. Like a Kubrickian sleep-pod.
During the ten-minute scanning process, I’m catapulted back to 1973, when my chemistry master instructed me to comment out loud on the scientific process whereby one component changed from one colour to another, declaring, “It’s an incredible shade of indigo, sir.” Prompting him to bellow, “Sit down!”
My mock O-level result was a truly mockable 16 percent.
Home. Oilly is upbeat and excited about Christmas, totally unaware of the seriousness of our situation. Yet. Which is how Joan is determined to maintain things. So much so that when we leave for our 2 p.m. appointment, she says, “I’m sure it’s going to be all right, Mum.”
Mask up and both allowed to go in to meet with lung coordinator Alex and Dr. Chinegwundoh.
“The right lung is ninety-five percent intact and it’s clear to see that the left lung has a growth all over it, which is why you’re experiencing such shortness of breath. You’re breathing with only one lung.”
Looks to me like a disintegrated cauliflower.
“It’s also spread into your clavicle lymph nodes. It could be some kind of severe infection, but is most likely to be a form of lung cancer, so I’d like to do a biopsy under local anaesthetic next week.”
We look at one another, as our whole world spins, stumbles and judders before us.
Brutal to witness Joan telling Oilly that “more tests are required, chemotherapy is likely, as I have an as yet undiagnosed form of lung cancer.”
Mother and daughter hug each other and our brave child says, “Let’s have a great Christmas together.”
It’s as if we’ve made an unspoken pact not to family-fall-apart and go about prepping food for tomorrow. Those old clichés “business as usual” and “the show must go on” apply.
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 25, 2020, CHRISTMAS DAY
Woken up twelve hours later at 10 a.m. by Oilly and Florian, who pile on to our bed with the Christmas stockings, both giving Oscar-worthy performances—bright-eyed and full of bonhomie.
Every gift given and opened, every memory shared, every carol sung and listened to, is supercharged with a poignancy so painful that it’s a titanic struggle not to go under.
The “kids” go downstairs to make breakfast. Joan takes my hands, and asks: “You will stay with me through all of this, won’t you?”
“Of course, I will!! Every step of the way. Don’t doubt me for so much as a nanosecond.”
Attempting to be “normal” in this uniquely abnormal situation exhausts us all, and we’re in bed by 9 p.m.
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 26, 2020, BOXING DAY
Post-Christmas lull and slump. Played Scrabble and the first word Joan puts down is “memorial” and, without missing a beat, quips, “I’m still here, Swaz!”
Joan’s distinctive “gravy” voice—full of rich, delicious brown notes—has begun to alter, as her breath support has halved, and sounds more like her Scottish mother, sometimes leaping into a higher octave. Her Central School of Speech and Drama–trained standard English accent is sounding more Aberdonian than I’ve ever noticed before.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 27, 2020
Joan goes to the loo mid-morning and hear her yelp and thump down. Weirdly, she has collapsed on to the step into the shower, thinking that she was sitting on the lav. Says she feels confused, but is luckily unhurt.
Oilly brings us breakfast in bed and questions Joan about how long she’s felt breathless and had a cough. It’s a completely honest and open exchange, which enables us to share everything that the doctors and scans have revealed. The parental push-me-pull-you of wanting to protect our grown-up child, by withholding detailed medical information, is subverted by her open-hearted need to know and share everything.
“We were just worried that telling you everything would be too much of a burden.”
“Not knowing everything is worse.”
When Joan asks how she has been coping, Oilly replies that she wobbles between tears and denial.
“It’s the same for us.”
Being able to talk about everything so openly is a genuine relief.
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2020, NEW YEAR’S EVE
Drove to Sandys Fishmongers in Twickenham and bought lobsters and champagne for New Year’s Eve dinner. A fragile, brutal day and emotionally charged evening, where the ghosts of all our previous thirty-six celebrations haunted our conversation. Joan is exhausted and goes to bed by 11 p.m.
Stay up with Oilly and Florian watching TV as the rest of the world whoop and firework their way into 2021, around the globe.
Where have the past four decades gone? I feel the same age as when we were first together.
In the summer of 1983 I was playing the juvenile subplot love interest opposite Judi Bowker in a production of Tartuffe, with Leonard Rossiter in the titular role, at the Churchill Theatre, in Bromley. His demeanour was permanently dialled up to splenetic, especially during my scenes with Judi, banging his prop walking stick in the wings in the misguided belief that this would provoke Ms. Bowker to increase her volume above a stage whisper. Had zero effect on her and drove him into a Rumpelstiltskin-stick-banging apoplexy, audible at the back of the stalls.
During a matinee interval, the stage manager went around the dressing rooms, asking if anyone knew “the very tanned woman wearing Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, who was fast asleep in a house seat and snoring very loudly.”
“Haven’t a clue, I’m sorry.”
“Well, someone must know her, as those seats are reserved exclusively for friends of the cast.”
You guessed correctly. After the curtain came down, said tanned woman came backstage “looking for Richard Grant” and was shown to my dressing room by the stage manager, who eyeballed and vigorously nodded that this was the snoring culprit.
“What are you doing here?”
“My flight from Tahiti landed earlier than expected, so I thought I’d surprise you!”
“You surely have!”
“You’re very good in the show.”
“Oh, did you enjoy it then? Liar—you were fast asleep and snoring loudly all the way through it!”
“Must be jet lag. But let’s face it, Swaz, it’s really boring, and I couldn’t hear a word that young woman was whispering.”
I had to sneak her out of the emergency exit and begged the stage manager not to grass me up.
Joan had been in Tahiti coaching Mel Gibson on The Bounty. We hadn’t even moved in together yet, and my career prospects were provincial to put it politely, compared to the stellar company she was keeping. But she never allowed that to come between us, even though I felt it keenly.
“I love you, Swaziboy, and that’s all that matters.”
Six months prior to this, I was still a waiter, so getting this job in Bromley felt like a major advance. The twilight year cast included Dulcie Gray, Michael Denison, Judy Geeson, Dilys Watling, and Denys Hawthorne. Whereas she’d been coaching on a big-budget movie starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, with a supporting cast featuring Liam Neeson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dexter Fletcher, Edward Fox, Bernard Hill, and Sir Laurence Olivier.
Around this time, I received a letter from Equity, the actors’ union, and was informed that a retired actor called Richard Grant had complained, after seeing his name outside the Churchill Theatre, requiring me to change mine. Called Equity in a panic and explained that I had no money, and that my name was printed on all my ten-by-eight photos already.
“Please may I speak to Mr. Grant on the phone?”
Begrudgingly given his number and he was charm itself.
“I’m a retired character actor, and my real name is Peter Grant, but I had to change it in 1929, as there was an actor with that name already.”
“Is there any possibility that you would allow me to add a middle name?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“Any chance you might consider my inserting a single capital letter in between, as I don’t have the funds to get all my printed photos redone?”
He generously agreed, and I called the stentorian-voiced Equity Bunty, who barked, “What letter, then?”
Stammered, and started with Richard A. Grant/Richard B. Grant/Richard C. Grant/Richard D. Grant—
“I haven’t got all day!”
“Richard E. Grant.”
“Right, that’s it. I’ll get it changed on the membership list.”
Some years later, I was promoting a film on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast and there was a live phone-in segment where a member of the public called in to speak to the TV guest. It was Mrs. Grant from Bromley who advised that I could drop the “E.” as her husband Peter had died six months previously.
In early 1983, when Joan was coaching on three different productions at the RSC and National Theatre and I was doing a lunch-hour play in a pub theatre on a profit share basis, which meant zero pay, she wrote me a letter, declaring that:
The world feels beautiful to me at the moment. I’ve never felt quite like this before about anyone. I can’t find the right words to tell you how I feel, because the sensations are new to me. I so love everything about it—just being in the same room with you is wonderful. You’re a very special person—I’ve always thought so, even before I fell in love with you—so open, so generous, so… EVERYTHING. I want you to be happy, to be successful, to feel complete, whatever happens between us. At the moment I want US to happen together. Read “The Good-Morrow” by John Donne—that’s how I feel about you—
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
Something metaphysical is certainly happening to me!!! I’ve never written a letter like this before. How wonderful life is. I love you, my darling. Joan X