Second world war tale of touching friendship

FOR millions Goodnight Mister Tom will always be John Thaw in the acclaimed TV adaptation of the classic tale of an unlikely wartime friendship.

But now it can be enjoyed on stage in a new Chichester Festival Theatre production, adapted by Chichester’s David Wood and starring Oliver Ford Davies.

Oliver, who will be instantly recognisable as Sio Bibble from the three Star Wars prequels, knew Thaw well.

“I had not only done five years of Kavanagh QC with him, but I did a season with him at Stratford and I also did a play with him at the National,” recalls Oliver

“I’d worked a lot with John and I remember seeing Goodnight Mr Tom and being terribly pleased for him because he was so good in the part. I remember complimenting him on his accent.

“I think the first thing you’d have to say is that John was such a good actor and not recognised enough as such because he became so bound up with The Sweeney and Morse and Kavanagh - though he did break out occasionally. I remember he played Bomber Harris in something.

“I first saw him on stage in 1965 when he was 24, but he already looked 34. I remember saying to him that he was a very good stage actor. He said ‘I don’t know about that’, but what suited him so well was that he was very good at playing morose. Part of the attraction of Morse was that he was a very difficult man to get to know, he wouldn’t reveal his first name, he liked to listen to music alone… and some of that is not a million miles away from

Tom Oakley in Goodnight Mister Tom (CFT, Feburary 2-5).

Sad and troubled, young William Beech is evacuated to the idyllic English countryside as Britain stands on the brink of World War Two and is billeted with the curmudgeonly recluse Tom Oakley.

But Tom and Will build a remarkable friendship, an unlikely bond which transforms them both, only to have their newfound happiness shattered when Will is summoned back to London by his mother.

“The book is 30 years old, and it is strange re-reading it. It was Michelle Magorian’s first book. She was an actress and she wrote this book almost as if she didn’t know the rules for writing children’s books. At the one end, it was somewhat formulaic and verged on the sentimental, but at the opposite extreme, it has got some extremely difficult things in it, the mother’s abuse and her suicide - very difficult things for eight-year-olds to read.

“But the centre of it all is this central thread of two people who have closed themselves off. There is Mr Tom whose wife died 40 years ago and who has, he says, ever since kept himself to himself, and there is this young boy that has suffered abuse and who is clearly bullied and ill-regarded. They are both very abused human beings, but by being forced together against their will, they both blossom.”

The piece has been done before on the stage, but as a musical which didn’t do very well.

“David has wanted to adapt the book for years but had never managed to get the rights until about three years ago. I have known David since university. I was at university spanning two generations. He was a bit younger than me, but I knew him - though we have never worked together.”

The university was Oxford where Oliver went on to complete a doctorate on the wealth and political influence of the greater aristocracy, 1688-1714, after which he gained a job as a history lecturer at Edinburgh University.

“I quite quickly realised that it was not what I wanted to do with my life, though. I knew very well that I could have stayed there for the next 40 years, and I know people who did that and have now retired, but for me it was not enough.

“From the age of 11, I wanted to be an actor. I had a certain talent for it, and when I was in Edinburgh I was working with a very good amateur group.

“But I realised that it was not going to do as a hobby. There are a lot of very talented actors working in amateur theatre and that’s fine, but for an amateur company you probably have a run of just ten performances.

“Really it is not until you have done ten performances that you know what you are doing.

“You get on top of it and then as an amateur, you have to stop. I wanted more than that!”