The Genesis of QUARTET
Ronald Harwood debuted QUARTET as a play in 1999. Presented by Michael Codron at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, prior to a West End run at the Albery Theatre, QUARTET's stage cast included Alec McCowen as Reggie, Donald Sinden as Wilf, Stephanie Cole as Cissy and Angela Thorne as Jean. Its touching themes of art illuminating life, the stresses and strains of getting old and the passions of the world of music struck a chord with audiences and with Harwood's longtime friend, the actor Tom Courtenay.
Remembers Harwood: "He phoned me about five or six years ago and said we should make a film of QUARTET, and that he'd love to play Reggie."
"I remember being very touched by the play," says Courtenay, who plays Reggie Paget in the film version. "Ronnie was very excited at the idea of doing a screenplay. It's taken a few years for it to see the light of day."
Harwood's inspiration came from a documentary, TOSCA'S KISS, released in 1984. In the film, Swiss director Daniel Schmid introduced audiences to the residents of Milan's Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, established by the composer Guiseppe Verdi in 1896. It was one of Verdi's proudest achievements, a house to shelter "elderly singers who have not been favoured by fortune, or who, when they were young, did not have the virtue of saving their money. Poor and dear companions of my life!"
Maggie Smith had seen QUARTET as a play, but it was Hoffman who sent her TOSCA'S KISS when he came on board the project. "It was what gave him the desire to do it," she explains, "and because I'd seen the play, the amalgamation of the two was really what I wanted to do too."
Having adapted his story into a screenplay, with a view that it could star Courtenay and Albert Finney - who had worked together on Harwood's THE DRESSER - as well as Maggie Smith, Harwood brought the script to Mark Shivas (former head of BBC Films) at Headline Pictures. Shivas took the project on and sadly passed away soon after, in 2008.
The following year, as the BBC Films production AN EDUCATION was nearing completion, the company brought the script for QUARTET to that film's producer Finola Dwyer. In the meantime, Dustin Hoffman had made LAST CHANCE HARVEY with Dwyer's frequent director of photography, John de Borman, and the pair had struck up a friendship.
"We got on terribly well," says de Borman. "I was constantly telling him during filming, 'you've done so many quintessential films as an actor; you must start directing.'"
Hoffman remembers calling de Borman over the holidays to wish him a happy New Year. "I said, 'Oh by the way, if you come across a script, I would love to direct, and I'd love to do it here because I love London and we have a house here.'"
De Borman passed the message onto Dwyer, who was struck by the notion of Hoffman tackling Harwood's script. "I was looking for somebody who could really lift the material," she explains, "and get what I saw in it whilst bringing something fresh, too. At that point Dustin was 72, and in his 'last act of life' like the characters in QUARTET. The film is such an 'actors' piece', it felt like like it could be the perfect fit for him and really resonate, which it did."
"I read the script on a plane," remembers Hoffman, "and just as I finished it my wife looked over to me, saw me in tears, and asked me why I was I crying. I just said, 'you have to read this.' I never cry; I'm quite a severe critic!"
De Borman affects a convincing Dustin Hoffman voice to relate his reaction to the script, "He phoned me up immediately and said, 'I gotta do this John! Who do I talk to?'"
Hoffman says he responded to the project's broader themes and its optimism about old age.
"Someone once said, 'old age ain't no fun'," he remembers. "As your body gets older, you become more vulnerable, but I've always believed that your soul can expand. I'm nearly 75, and I think three things can happen if you're lucky enough to survive this long: you grow, you regress or you stay the same, which I think is the same as regressing. But it is possible to grow."
"He is so reflected in the film itself," thinks de Borman. "Here's a man who was the most well-known and the best actor of his generation, and he's very human. He has a huge sense of humour and he's life enforcing. And those are all of the elements of this film. It reflects Dustin completely. This could only have been done as it is now with Dustin."
Hoffman describes QUARTET as being, about people in their "third act" who still have so much to give. Agrees Maggie Smith: "Because they're all musicians, they've got this great desire to continue, and indeed they do. They're still struggling to do what they did years and years ago."
For Billy Connolly, acting your age is overrated. "I'm not young by any stretch of the imagination, but I've got life," he insists. "I refuse to accept the number and I don't act my age. I've always felt that acting your age is as sensible as acting your street number; there's no sense in it at all."
It's an embodiment of the philosophy at the heart of QUARTET; for the residents of Beecham House, age is an inconvenience, but with determination it's no disability. Says Pauline Collins: "Underneath their grey hair and the staggering old feet and boring conversation, there's a young
Michael Gambon thinks there's something about performers - and performance - that keeps them going well past traditional retirement age. "If you hold an ordinary job, when you're 65 you get the bullet," he explains. "If you're an actor and a singer, you can carry on until you drop. Someone will employ you. I hope they will, anyway!"
"Musicians don't retire until they really have to," remarks Jack Honeyborne, a noted jazz pianist who joins the ensemble cast of characters at Beecham House. "Some have died on stage. What are you going to do? Sit at home and watch TV?"
Adds Dame Gwyneth Jones: "For me, life without music or song is not worth living. It's a privilege to have a life that is full of music and love, and that you can share this joy of music with your public."
Jones thinks the benefit is felt not just by the musicians and performers themselves, but by those who enjoy their work. "I get so many letters from people who are ill or who have maybe had a lot of suffering in their lives," she says. "Music gives them something to live for. Without music, life is worthless."
Dustin Hoffman's musical ambitions began before he began to study acting. He took piano lessons from the age of five, and aspired to be a jazz pianist. It wasn't until later, after he had switched to acting, that he was first exposed to opera. "I started studying acting in New York back in '58," he explains, "and I met this guy - an unemployed actor like myself - by the name of Robert Duvall. One of his brothers was an opera singer, and we all became roommates, so I got to know
opera singers a little bit."
But, he confesses, it wasn't until later that he became attuned to opera. "I remember going to an opera and knowing nothing about it. It was CARMEN, with Jessye Norman, and I remember I had good seats because it was after I'd done THE GRADUATE. I was sitting there watching her do an aria and I was not aware I'd been crying for about a minute. I don't know if that had ever happened before, where it was a delayed reaction. I didn't know what she was singing, but she was doing something that was off the ground; something that was super human."
Jones hopes QUARTET will introduce audiences unfamiliar with the world of opera to an art form that is a lot more accessible than many believe. "People often think it's out of their reach or it's boring," she says, "but this music is really something wonderful and fun and they could enjoy it if they came. Maybe, after the film, they'll want to know a bit more, and come to the opera."
For Maggie Smith, opera has always been a part of her life. "My husband used to have it on permanently," she reflects. "I'm very familiar with all that and it's been great. I've never been in musicals, really. I've been in revue, but I've always thought musicals would be wonderful to do, because you get a huge adrenalin rush from all of that. You've got Verdi banging away there; it's pretty good. It fills you up with huge emotion."
Still, Smith confesses, she feels the time has passed for her to try her hand at the genre. "Listen, I'm ready to check into a Beecham House if there is one," she laughs. "I'm not ready to do a musical!"
Smith has tremendous respect for the struggles faced by opera singers as they age and their voices diminish. "It was interesting to find out how they care for their voice," she says. "If you're performing, to be that reliant on that instrument, I think you must spend every waking moment wondering where it's at. As actors, you do worry about it, but not to the extent that you couldn't function. They sing at such a level, and it's fantastic."
Agrees Courtenay: "Actors are fortunate in that their bodies don't let them down quite so soon. I'm 74 and it's lovely that I can still find interesting work, and want to work. But with opera singers it's like athletes; they know most about it just as their bodies are letting them down."
"There is some sadness to that in the film," remarks Andrew Sachs. "It's not just comedy; there's some very touching stuff."
"That's how I think life is," says Harwood. "It's unbearably funny and unbearably sad. That's what I've tried to capture in the piece."
"Ultimately it's about facing up to the fact that sometimes you're not who you thought you were," says Connolly. "These were the opera singer equivalent of players for Barcelona and Real Madrid - and they're still good, but in a retired sense."
Hoffman believes the heart of the film rests in its humour, and its spirit. "Billy Wilder said, 'if you're going to tell the truth to an audience, you'd better be funny,'" he shares. "I wrote that quote on my script, and I looked at it every single day. We cast a trumpet player called Ronnie Hughes, who is in his 80s, and when you see him blowing that thing it's stunning. He told me he doesn't get work that often. Nobody calls him. But that gift, that talent, and that spirit does not go anywhere."
"I think people will take away an idea that there may be life after a certain age," reflects Smith. "It's not a time to totally despair."
Adds Harwood: "It's about surviving, and surviving with dignity. Old age can demean people, and I hope in this film it doesn't."
"You've got no choice but to grow old," says Michael Gambon. "But as long as people keep employing me, I won't stop. If I weren't acting, I'd get a job at a supermarket! I couldn't stand being in a retirement home. If you're in an old folks home and you've got the fitness you'd better start behaving badly."
Connolly summarises the film's message: "Don't die until you die. Stay interested until the very last second. I'd like to think I'll be like that. Stay interested; stay in it. Don't let them feed you; feed yourself. And don't pee your trousers."
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