It’s forty-seven years since Tony Tanner last appeared on an Edinburgh stage. Then, the Festival Fringe was in its early 1960s infancy, and Tanner’s performance in Fringe Faces, a late-night dance revue devised by himself, saw him described in one newspaper as ‘the most sinister of clowns.’ Almost half a century on, Tanner returns to Edinburgh from his Los Angeles home to play dance legend Sergei Diaghilev in his own one-man play, Charlatan. For someone who was smitten with Diaghilev from an early age, it’s a piece of fantasy wish fulfillment come true.
“I was twelve years old,” Tanner remembers of growing up in Middlesex. “I’d started tap-dancing when I was ten, and I read a book, which was an account of the moment when Diaghilev changed dance forever after he brought his Ballets Russe company to Paris in 1909. Diaghilev’s work was everything the Paris scene wasn’t, and which had come to a standstill. Diaghilev was exotic, free, sexy and violent. His show knocked Paris for six, and changed living art forever.
“After that, Diaghilev brought people into the ballet like Picasso, who’d previously had nothing to do with it. He found Stravinsky, who at the time was a struggling young composer, and put him at the forefront of things. All of that captured my twelve year old’s imagination, and I was desperate to be a part of it.”
Tanner’s mother enrolled him in dance school, and the path was set for a career that would eventually see him on Broadway, stepping into Tommy Steele’s shoes in smash hit musical Half A Sixpence. Before all that, there were five years in rep, an appearance as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream opposite Benny Hill’s Bottom and work on early material by Harold Pinter.
Of Hill, Tanner observes that “He was a very weird fella. Not in an unpleasant way, but he was one of the most concealed people I’ve ever met. It didn’t matter what happened, he just kept smiling all the time. He was like a little Buddha.”
As for Pinter, “I was in the first absurdist revue that got anywhere on Shaftesbury Avenue,” Tanner remembers. “It was called One To Another. Pinteer had The Birthday Party on at the Lyric, and Harold Hobson was the only one who’d got it. Pinter wrote two sketches for the revue, The Black and White, with Beryl Reid, and Trouble In The Works, with Patrick Whymark and myself.”
Tanner later played opposite Pinter himself alongside Patrick Magee in an out of town run of The Birthday Party. Shortly afterwards, however, Pinter’s play The Caretaker broke through, and he was off.
Tanner also made an appearance in long lost swinging London flick, The Pleasure Girls, with Francesca Annis.
“I was going through one of my bi-sexual phases, then,” Tanner says in cut-glass tones only slightly mellowed by a transatlantic lilt. “Francesca was adorable, a lovely lady. She was just about to do Macbeth with Roman Polanski.”
One scene in The Pleasure Girls saw Tanner filming a then taboo attempted kiss between two men that had everyone on set attempting to see what happened next.
It was another film appearance in Stop The World – I Want To Get Off, which Tanner had also appeared in the west end production of, that opened up the door to America. After Half A Sixpence, Tanner appeared in No Sex Please, We’re British opposite Maureen O’Sullivan, and later in Sherlock Holmes with the RSC.
Tanner performed a nightclub act at the Playboy Club, and later turned to directing. He received Tony nominations for his productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and A Taste of Honey, both very English plays.
Charlatan was born after a still Diaghilev obsessed Tanner went back stage after veteran American actress Pat Carroll performed solo in Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein by playwright Marty Martin. Tanner asked Carroll if she thought Martin would write him a play about the Russian maestro, to which Carroll replied that he’d already done so, and it stank. Tanner went home and started writing himself instead.
“It came very easy,” Tanner says, “because I already knew so much about Diaghilev. The truth is, I say a lot of things as Diaghilev that I want to say myself. The facts are all there, but there’s so much conjecture there as well that it gives me lee-way to say what I want to say. I don’t want to direct anyone else’s work anymore. It’s unstintingly satisfying being able to stand up and spout my own words.”
With little intention of giving up until he drops, the seventy-eight year old looks set to be spouting them awhile yet.
“The fire may die down,” he says, “but it’s still smouldering. I still have the physical energy, and as long as I’m on this planet, the important thing is to communicate, and to be in touch with people. That’s what Diaghilev knew was important, and I think I understand that as well.”
Charlatan, Assembly Hall until August 29th, 5.30pm
The Herald, August 6th 2010