Essential Images: The Sparrow

Essential Images is a regular feature on the Official Alan Ayckbourn Blog in which the playwright’s Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, chooses a significant image from the Ayckbourn Archive relating to the plays.

This week, the image relates to his eighth play, The Sparrow, which opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 13 July 1966 and has, subsequently, never been performed again.

Essential Images: The Sparrow by Simon Murgatroyd

There’s not a huge amount of choice when it comes to images for The Sparrow. It has been produced just once for a three week rep run and then has never been performed again. Within the Ayckbourn Archive, there are just six publicity images taken during a performance of the play.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something of interest as – certainly from an Archivist’s perspective – there’s always something which catches the eye or is of note. And The Sparrow, whilst barely known within the Ayckbourn Canon, does have a couple of very interesting points.

Pamela Craig & John Nettles in The Sparrow (© Haydonning Ltd)

All the images we have of The Sparrow are, as mentioned, taken from the audience by the theatre’s general manager of the time, Ken Boden. Heaven knows what the people sitting next to him made of someone snapping away on a camera.

This particular image is notable as it is the only clear image of John Nettles making his professional stage debut in 1967. John subsequently went onto a phenomenally successful career on stage and screen poking with the RSC and the National Theatre, but perhaps most famously known for his leading roles in popular TV shows such such as Bergarac and Misdomer Murders.

Alan – who was primarily employed as a radio producer for the BBC at the time – had met John in Leeds and had employed him in several of his radio productions before inviting him to join The Library Theatre in 1967 where he appeared in all four of the season’s productions: The Sparrow, Eden End by J.B. Priestley, Hop, Step and Jump by Alan Plater and Romeo and Jeanette by Anouilh.

So this is the only clear picture we have of a major acting talent taking his first steps on the boards in an Ayckbourn world premiere. Definitely an essential image!

But whilst we’re looking at The Sparrow, it’s also worth looking at a second photograph for another significant actor. Alongside John and Pam, the production featured Heather Stoney and an actor rapidly on the rise called Robert Powell.

Pamela Craig, Heather Stoney & Robert Powell in The Sparrow (© Haydonning Ltd)

This image features Robert Powell, who played a rather slick and vengeful character named Tony (you can see Pamela Craig’s character wearing his bath-robe in the top picture with his name embroidered on the back).

Robert, who Alan had also worked with at the BBC, also appeared in all four of the summer’s productions and was shortly about to find fame when, in 1970, he was cast in the hit BBC show, Doomwatch. He would also go on to a hugely successful career on stage and screen – although the highpoint of his career, still widely watched today, was his role in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV epic Jesus of Nazareth. It is estimated far in excess of 100 million people around the world watched him in the eponymous role during its initial global broadcasts.

Which all goes to show that even when there isn’t much in the Ayckbourn Archive about a particular play or production, there’s still something of historical note.

As for the play itself, The Sparrow was well-received in Scarborough by audiences and had a very successful run. It was optioned by the West End producer Peter Bridge and looked set to be Alan’s second major foray into the West End after Relatively Speaking. Unfortunately, Bridge wanted a play of similar calibre and feel to Relatively Speaking – which The Sparrow was definitely not. Plans to produce it were dropped on the pretext it was too similar to Ann Jellico’s play The Knack (it really wasn’t similar!) and, as a result, the play was never seen again. Alan’s next play How The Other Half Loves was much more to Bridge’s liking and tastes and went onto huge success.

Sadly, The Sparrow got lost amongst all this and was withdrawn from production during the 1980s, never too be performed again. You can find out more about the play in The Sparrow section of Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website by clicking here.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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