Northern Soul’s Rich Jevons talks to actor Michael Brandon (known to many as Dempsey from TV’s Dempsey and Makepeace) about his career and current role of Alfieri in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, set in Brandon’s birthplace, Brooklyn.
Michael Brandon’s first important theatrical experience was attending the hippy flesh fest Hair before it was toned down and turned into a Broadway musical.
“Hair was a changer,” says Brandon. “It was one of those moments in history when something happened and changed the whole idea of theatre. It was nudity on stage at the time of flower children. It was a great crowd at that time and we had that kind of energy.” But Brandon didn’t go as far as baring all himself. “There was free love but to run naked in front of strangers was something I felt I wasn’t quite ready to do…But it was something special, it was an amazing event.”
Brandon has come a long way since Hair. As an actor who works across a number of disciplines, and with recent roles in Doctor Who and Episodes, he’s forged a successful career across stage and screen. But of all his roles on the stage, one of the most (in)famous was playing the lead in the smash hit, Jerry Springer: The Opera.
“It was a whole new way of theatre-going. I met [the writers] Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee and they never really expected it to go anywhere but above a pub. It was really originally a five-minute skit which then went to Edinburgh where it became a one-acter. But Nic Hytner saw it from the National and felt he would launch his reign there if they could turn it into a two-act musical.
“So it became a two-act opera because Richard saw it as argument and disagreement and so as opera in conflict. But instead of it being in German or Italian I would sing in English: [belts out] ‘I’ve been fucking someone else!’ I thought either it would be something great or going to go down in buckets of flame. But it’s not going to go quietly into the night.
“Of course, it became a huge success and won every award that year and I was nominated for an Olivier as Best Actor. It was great because I like Jerry Springer and I’ve got to know him since and really like him more. And playing the National itself was really a great experience. Stewart is more of a comedian so it was kind of like Hair being a ballet. It was greatly odd.”
Brandon became a household name thanks to Dempsey and Makepeace, a hugely popular ITV crime drama which, at its peak in the mid-1980s, attracted more than 20 million viewers in the UK and was shown in more than 70 countries.
“That was another great experience. When I came over to do the first ten episodes I enjoyed the fact that I was going to another country, I was coming over to work and have an experience with a different style of filming. But I never expected that I would be here 30 years later – 25 years married to my co-star [Glynis Barber] and I’m British now! There’s a line in A View from the Bridge – ‘Who can ever know what will be discovered?’ and that line really rings true.”
And it is in the touring production of Arthur Miller’s seminal American drama that Brandon plays Alfieri, a narrator and voice of authority in the piece. “Miller is like an American Shakespeare, he’s a man who captures with his poetry the hard life of the longshoreman and the tragedy of Eddie Carbone. But Alfieri is the voice of Miller, he’s the view from the bridge and speaks Miller’s words like a Greek chorus to the audience. Then I turn around and appear as a lawyer in the play too.”
What is it like treading the boards compared to being on screen? “Every night is a treat and a new experience – these words come out and affect people. He is a storyteller and it deepens in drama and darkness with each [narrative speech] that goes on. For example, Eddie Carbone never expected to have a destiny – this was life. Life was this: a man works, he raises a family and dies. Now there was a future. There is a lot of humour in it was well. One of the biggest laughs in the play is in the opening of the second act which I quite enjoy because I felt I invented it. It’s a continual exploration.”
As for Miller’s themes of homophobia and sexual repression which today are regarded as very much ahead of their time, Brandon has this to say: “Nothing was what it is now. Eddie assumed that Rodolpho was homosexual but it wasn’t based on anything other than circumstantial things – the colour of his hair and the high pitch of his voice. But Rodolpho was in love with Catherine and the thing was that Eddie’s emotional buttons were pushed because he wanted to protect and contain her for himself.
“Rodolpho didn’t love her impurely, there was nothing sinister in that. Back in the 50s we didn’t know much about paedophilia, it wasn’t like today. So Miller was exploring a dark area. Now she was becoming a woman and the conflict within Eddie was accepting her being a woman and yet trying to keep her as a child. But as Alfieri says, he allowed himself to be wholly known. He revealed himself to me and so I respected him.”
For this show Brandon is working with prolific theatre director Stephen Unwin.
“I worked with his brother Paul in Miss Marple and it was great to work with Steve. It was absolutely effortless, he’s very graceful, nurturing, and allowing, and he said wonderful things to me – it makes you blush! He was just so happy with the way I was bringing Alfieri out – he said: ‘There we have our Alfieri.’ Sometimes an actor is born to play a role.”
And Brandon’s Brooklyn background has certainly seen him fit his part perfectly. “It is a powerful drama that is about a slice of life. When you cross the Brooklyn Bridge you go from high society to the docks. As Miller says, this is the ‘gullet’ of New York. It was hard in those days. People came in and fought to get a job off-loading and up-loading on the waterfront.
“The sound of the horn from the ship has got its own life to it. It’s like a moaning from the sea. The story is a family dealing with feelings that are hard to reveal. The discussion of immigration is very relevant to today. The immigrants sneak over and hide because they need work and money. And there are conflicts that arise with different customs. It’s no different today – you have to take the law of the land. But the immigrants want to hold on to their traditions.”
So what would Brandon like an audience member to take away with them after the show? “Hopefully a great evening of entertainment, a story that was profound, and something that is worth discussing over the rest of the evening and part of the next day because it has power and is beautifully written. It still works”
By Rich Jevons
A View from the Bridge is at Bradford’s Alhambra Theatre until April 4, 2015. For more information click here