An Interview with Ruth Wynn Owen by Lorie Johnson
But how did it all begin? Who gave him his earliest guidance in the craft of acting? Who recognised his talent and helped him transform it from a childhoood hobby to an adult profession?
I was given the extraordinary opportunity to speak to the very person who did just that - a wonderful woman named Ruth Wynn Owen. It was she, as his first drama teacher, who put him on the road to becoming one of Britain's finest actors.
I visited Ruth at her home in the Norfolk resort town of Wells-next-the-Sea. It is a charming village full of history - her 200-year-old cottage overlooks an open green that was once used for mandatory archery practice in Elizabeth I's time!
Ruth and I, along with friend and assistant Andrew Staines, spent a very pleasant afternoon together. Because of throat surgery, she is unable to speak aloud, but that did not stop us from having a lively conversation.
Ruth herself was an actress from the age of sixteen when she became a student at the Old Vic. While there, she understudied and became friends with the future Dame Peggy Ashcroft, one of Britain's greatest actresses. Ilness forced her to leave the stage but after she recovered, she continued to work as a drama teacher - first for Youth Clubs, then later at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
During my visit, Ruth told me a neat little story about Patrick's earliest days with her. It seems that the minimum age for joining the local Youth Club was 14 but Patrick was only 12. That didn't stop him from joining anyway, and when the truth about his age came out, they simply let him stay!
[There are a few British colloquialisms in the conversation: I have provided explanations in brackets.]
LJ: When and where did you first meet Patrick Stewart?
RWO: I met him when the Youth Drama Advisor for the West Riding of Yorkshire somehow heard that I was living in the West Riding, and came and asked me to teach at the Whit Week [Whitsunday/Pentecost Sunday-LJ] Youth Drama Course. At first I refused - as I'd never taught! - but I gave in, and there I met Patrick Stewart and Brian Blessed for the first time.
From about that time I started a class on Sunday afternoons at my home, and some of these children came and worked with me, though it meant a long journey and finding the fare!
LJ: Did he have a natural talent for acting or did that take time to develop?
RWO: Yes, he was a "natural" - with natural timing and excellent movement. One could see at once that was there.
LJ: Many people comment on how wonderful Patrick's voice is. Was that voice a natural
talent too? Was his accent as a youngster very different from what it is now?
RWO: His voice was good from the start. All the children spoke "Yorkshire", but Patrick and some others had less "Yorkshire" than others, and I could hear the difference. He always had a good voice.
LJ: He once spoke of how "ar-tic-u-la-ted" his mother's speech was because she had to
work in a noisy mill. Was that speaking style reflected in his own speech?
RWO: If it was, I never noticed it. He spoke clearly and didn't overarticulate or "hiss" the consonants.
LJ: Was Patrick outstanding among his fellow amateur actors?
RWO: No one could answer this - they were children. He was outstanding among them - and so were a few more. Acting is a gift, and he had it. So had a few more, but they did not take it up professionally. I only saw him with his contemporaries - at that time Youth Club children - and he was certainly outstanding. But there were two others who were - and plenty who were good, but not made for it, as Patrick undoubtedly was.
LJ: How did his early audiences react to him? Was he a draw?
RWO: As the audiences were only the family of each child, the "draw" was each child to his or her own family in the audience.
LJ: Did he enjoy their response to him?
RWO: I expect that he enjoyed the audience appreciation - but you must realise that I knew him as a boy, and he was not a professional. His audience was of people who normally never entered a theatre - save perhaps for the Christmas pantomime. When acting one learns to fit one's performance to the "house" - but that is done by one's technical side - not the true performance which must remain faithful to the piece of work by the director.
LJ: Was his family supportive of his acting?
RWO: I have no idea. I'm sure his mother was. I met her and I think she was a good person.
LJ: Did he seem to have a natural flair for comedy? Did he like to clown around and
cut up for laughs?
RWO: Yes, he had a flair for comedy, but he was - like the rest - doing much less larking about than they might do at school or at home because they were all "acting mad" (well, more or less - some more than others) and to put on these plays in one week their only time out of class, or lectures or rehearsals was before breakfast or after bedtime! They gave up fooling about at most times in between - as they were learning words, and dances, and songs, and concentrating their enjoyment on "theatre stuff".
LJ: What kind of person was young Patrick? has he changed a lot over the years?
RWO: No, his basic self is still the same. He always had a sort of gentle authority - not over others, but it was there. Almost what used to be called "officer class".
LJ: Was life in the Mirfield area during the 40's and 50's very restricted? Were the
people having difficulties because of the post-war rationing?
RWO: Mirefield, like most places, is a mixture. Clearly there would be coalpits, but there is also a religious community [Kirklees Priory, where Robin Hood is said to be buried-LJ], so it is not entirely a working region. Many of the people must have had a hard life, but mining was - for the times - fairly paid. A good mother meant a "well found" household - I'd say they were disciplined. I don't remember when rationing was dropped - but everywhere there were shortages. I had lengths of cloth sent me for my five children from friends in the States. Yes - clothing was "on coupons" and shoes - and most food stuffs like meat, sugar and fats. they came "off the ration" gradually - but even so - other things went on - so that sort of thing fluctuated.
LJ: Do you think the postwar restrictions influenced the flourishing of local drama
RWO: It is possible that "getting up plays" was something one could do in those still-restriced times - but there were always many drama societies and opera and musicals put on. That wasn't easy, either - even buying greasepaint was very restricted, as before the war most was made up and imported from Germany.
LJ: Were you still teaching him when he left his job at the newspaper and decided to
become a professional actor?
RWO: I wrote to the Old Vic director at Bristol (I'd been with the Old Vic myself on and off from the age of 16) and told him. And yes, he was still "with me". I went there to see his "finals" performances.
LJ: Did you believe he had the potential and ability to become an acclaimed
RWO: I don't think I even thought about anyone being the "star" you envisage. I knew he had ability - but that does not always mean they get their due recognition.
LJ: Did Patrick have a distinctive style of his own, or did he emulate the styles of
those he admired?
RWO: Patrick doesn't fit characters into a "Patrick" mould - he changes "Patrick" to fit the character. He learns from watching but he's never been a copyist.
LJ: Have you actively followed his career? Which of his roles did you find the
RWO: I was laid low with heart attacks, and after a year in bed, was unable to get around to theatres and such. So, I have not seen so much of his work. And on top of that, cancer has removed my voice and so I have not been able to be a great theatre goer. I saw his Leontes in "A Winter's Tale" as he played it for me as a boy! But I have not seen most of his work.
LJ: Have you watched him play Captain Picard in Star Trek?
RWO: Yes, I have watched Star Trek. His natural authority makes him perfect for the character, and his warmth hinges the authority. As I said earlier, he is "officer class". I won't attempt to critique the programme - I expect it is very good for its kind. I never saw the original Star Trek.
LJ: Would you have any words of advice for him now?
RWO: Probably quite a few, but I'm not qualified to judge TV. I didn't do much myself as I lost my larynx - and that was that!
LJ: Is there any role that you'd like to see Patrick play?
RWO: Yes, I'd like to see him as Richard II and Richard III, and in some Shaw plays. That takes good speech. Of course I think he should do Hamlet one day - well, one always does - and some modern work.
A petite, warm woman, Ruth very quickly made me feel at home, and was more than pleased to share not only her memories of young Patrick but also the photographs which accompany this article. She is very fond of Patrick and they have remained in touch over the years. He is now much more like family than a friend!