Toby Stephens on Peter Hall: 'He was always charming – and a workaholic'
Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has died aged 86. For Toby Stephens, who starred in six of his productions, the director's loyalty and work ethic were awe-inspiring
I didn’t know Peter when I was growing up – he knew my parents [Sir Robert Stephens and Dame Maggie Smith], but they didn’t really drag us around to endless glitzy parties. The only time I met him in my childhood was with Dave Allen and his wife Judith. I was very close to their children, so they would invite us around to their house in Oxfordshire. Peter came there once or twice, but I was quite young and I didn’t really understand who he was at the time.
Later, however, he meant an enormous amount to me. He was the person who gave me my first job, and obviously those people have a special part to play in your career – they’re the one who pulled the trigger, as it were. In fact, he gave me my first two jobs: The Camomile Lawn [Channel 4, 1992], and then my first professional play, which was a production of Tartuffe in the West End.
Before he cast me in The Camomile Lawn, he took me to lunch with him at Pinewood Studios. He was lovely like that; he was very old-school, so he liked to take you out before asking you to do a play. He was so urbane. As a young actor, I remember thinking, “This is extraordinary - for my first job, to be having a meal with this man who is such an enormous figure in British theatre.” Sitting there with him, one-on-one, I was tongue-tied.
I’ll always remember how generous and sweet he was. He wasn’t patronising. He was incredibly kind to me – it’s why I was always extremely fond of him. I’d always do whatever he wanted me to do. He’d ring you up, and even if you weren’t sure about the play, you’d go, “It’s Peter! I’ll do it.” He was always so persuasive and charming.
He was loyal to me throughout my career, throughout his life. He used me five or six times, and I loved working with him. And Peter was always working! He was a total workaholic. Anybody who was close to him would recognise that. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would want to kick back and lie on the beach, or “hang out” at all. If he wasn’t working, he was formulating what he was going to be doing next. Not working, for Peter, was a nightmare. He said to me once, “My biggest fear is not being able to do this - not being able to work.”
He was always planning what he would be doing four or five productions down the line. At his height, he was doing operas at the same time as everything else - he was incredibly industrious, and very driven in that way.
The last time I saw him was at lunch with a mutual friend of ours, perhaps five or six years ago. I could tell he wasn’t at his best, and it was quite distressing. Because he had this hunger for work, and his need to be constantly doing new things, and he could see this wouldn’t be going on for much longer. But when he told me about the play he was doing at the time, Twelfth Night, he was incredible. Even then, he was still cracking the whip!