Old hands still on song 0
The cast of golden oldies playing retired singers in Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet will have cinema audiences demanding an encore
At the end of a winding driveway, perched on a hill overlooking the Thames Valley, sits Hedsor House, a beautiful Georgian mansion. The Buckinghamshire retreat once hosted visitors such as George III and Queen Victoria, but at the tail end of 2011, it has been taken over by theatrical royalty.
The house is the set for Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut Quartet, for which it has been transformed into Beecham House, a home for ageing musicians. Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly play headline opera stars reunited in retirement. Then their lives are made more complicated by the arrival of an old collaborator, played by Maggie Smith, whose subsequent career as a star soloist had torn the group apart.
Hoffman has gathered an extraordinary ensemble to bring Ronald Harwood’s screenplay — adapted from his play — to the cinema. Over the course of the shoot, I meet them all. In the hallways I pass Michael Gambon, the Wagner soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones and Andrew Sachs. David Ryall and Trevor Peacock swap anecdotes with world-class musicians whose careers span multiple decades. At 31, Sheridan Smith is the baby of the group, feeling nervously unworthy of such illustrious company, though her exceptional work in the theatre and on television has more than earned her a place among them.
Despite the advancing years of many of the cast, retirement is not on the cards for anyone here. And it doesn’t seem to suit their characters, either — they spend much of the film organising a gala concert at which they can sate their urge to perform. Hoffman read the script on a plane and was in tears by the end. “It somehow had to do with the need of these characters to live every minute,” he says, “but you don’t have the goods you had when you were in your prime. That got me.”
It got Maggie Smith, too, who had seen Quartet as a play and had long been in the loop for the big-screen version, brought to fruition by Finola Dwyer, producer of An Education. “Because [the residents] are all musicians, they’ve got this great desire to continue,” Smith says. “But they’re struggling to do what they did years and years ago.”
Connolly empathises with the residents of Beecham House and their love for life: “Don’t die before you die,” is his philosophy. “Stay alive until the last second. Stay interested, stay in it. Don’t let them feed you — feed yourself. And don’t pee your trousers.” He’s the youngest of the lead quartet, but he embodies the film’s spirit. “The people in the home have great life about them. My character brings them all together and gets them going.”
All the actors are aware of the added pressure singers face: that their voices risk deteriorating with age. “We moan and complain about acting,” Smith says, “but to be that reliant on an instrument… They must spend every waking moment wondering where it’s at. It must be such a shame. I suppose it’s why they’re so temperamental.” Courtenay agrees: “Actors are fortunate, in that their bodies don’t let them down quite so soon. As long as you can remember your lines, you’re fine. I’m 75, and it’s lovely that one can still want to work and find interesting work.”
Hoffman drew tremendous inspiration from the documentary that inspired Harwood’s play, Tosca’s Kiss, which followed the residents of Verdi’s Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, an Italian retirement home for performers. “Their bodies are giving in to nature,” Hoffman recalls. “But, even though the voice doesn’t have the notes it possessed at one point, there’s this refusal to stop. Singing is like breathing to them.”
Shot in 1984, Tosca’s Kiss is an extraordinary profile of some of La Scala’s finest performers. They often burst into song — when they can remember the words — simply for the joy of it. “The characters have such dignity and life,” Collins says. “You see these people shuffling around in their slippers, and occasionally a leg will go out in time to the music.” Her favourite is Sara Scuderi, who died three years after the film was made: “She was old, but she still had this amazing voice.”
In this film, the quartet’s pièce de résistance is from Rigoletto, and for a while there was a suggestion that the cast might record their own version for the soundtrack. With Hoffman’s encouragement, Smith, Courtenay, Collins and Connolly took lessons with the vocal coach Paul Farrington. It was a challenge. “I don’t know how opera singers do it,” Smith says incredulously. “I’ve never been in musicals, really, but I’ve always thought they’d be wonderful to do, because you get a huge adrenaline rush from the music. When you’ve got Verdi banging away, it’s pretty good. The music fills you with huge emotion.”
“Music has always meant a great deal to me,” Courtenay says. “I’ve enjoyed the singing. When we put it all together for the first time, we were wonderfully affected, because this is a wonderful piece of music.”
In the finished film, we’re left with only the suggestion of the quartet’s performance, but none among the cast would argue that the singing lessons were a waste. “Paul has taught us to find something in our voice that we’re not totally ashamed of,” Collins says. “I didn’t know a lot about opera when I came to this, but I’ve always loved listening to it.”
Given how long they’ve known one another, it’s surprising to learn that Quartet is the first time Smith and Courtenay, whose characters’ love affair is at the heart of the film, have ever worked together. “We very nearly did, but we didn’t,” Smith recalls. “It’s very rare that you get an even faintly romantic story for elderly people, so it’s been good to do it.”
“Acting with Maggie is easy,” Courtenay adds. “I often think, when you’re acting with talented people, they do the acting for you. I’m not being flippant — you rely on whom you’re acting with.”
Connolly has a different take. He feels the pressure of his heavyweight co-stars. “It’s like acting with Elvis,” he laughs. “But it’s been great to be in this house. We’re not travelling to different places every day, so we’ve got to know each other well. The feel of great fame has softened a little.”
For the entire quartet, it has helped to have someone with Hoffman’s front-of-camera experience at the helm. “He’s inspirational, compassionate and filled with a great generosity of spirit,” Collins says. “I’ve learnt more from him on this film than I have the rest of my working life.” “We all love him,” Courtenay says. “I know Maggie does, because she says so, and Maggie doesn’t love everybody. He’s a master of film acting, taking it down and making it real.”
“Actors direct themselves,” Hoffman says. “They need to — they have a shorthand that non-actors don’t have.” With film acting, he says, the added challenge is that it’s the director in the cutting room once the shoot is over. “I always contend that if there’s a bad performance on screen, blame the director, because he’s responsible for choosing those takes. Directing Quartet, I was able to implement what I’ve learnt as an actor over nearly half a century.”
Yet there was plenty more to learn. “What I didn’t realise was how much directors act. You show up for work in the morning, and the director’s always cheerful — but there’s always some disaster to solve. That’s constant, every single day. The ship doesn’t sail according to plan. You just have to adjust to it.”
I see the finished version of the film nearly a year later, at the San Sebastian festival. This British story, delivered by an American director, has its Spanish audience rapt. Hoffman’s idiosyncratic touch is sealed with the end credits, which keep the audience in their seats: images of the actors and musicians of the film in their younger days flood the screen.
“The movie is really a homage to the people in it,” Hoffman says. “A lot of those actors and musicians still have their chops and can’t get a job. It’s cultural — we cast people aside at a certain point, and it doesn’t have anything to do with excellence. They should be celebrated.”
I wondered whether Smith had been sufficiently inspired by the film to fulfil that desire to do a full-blown musical. She gave me one of her famous withering looks. “Listen, I’m ready to check in to a Beecham House, if there is one,” she laughed. “I’m certainly not ready to do a musical.”