I was watching an old, black and white film on the telly the other night, when it occurred to me how much more sheer skill and talent the actors of today display, than their ancestors did, in the films of the forties and fifties.
For a start, in English movies in particular, there were the false accents used by everyone, of which there appeared to be only three. The lead actors all spoke in the plumiest of posh English, whether they were supposed to be schoolteachers, lords or ladies, housewives or sea captains. The supporting actors, usually playing working class parts, all spoke either “North Country”, as though they had been hired from the cast of Coronation Street, or with East London accents. And the scripts didn’t even allow them to say words that might have been used in ordinary chat, whatever the accent. It was all terribly brittle and false sounding, with clipped sentences and little emotional inflection.
They seemed to be totally unaware of that mystery of the human race, ‘body language’ too. They’d stand in uncomfortable poses, performing grand gestures that said little or nothing to the watching audience and bore little relationship to the words being spoken. Even the so called great actors of the day, people such as Laurence Olivier, Bette Davies, Basil Rathbone or Kenneth More appear over dramatic by today’s standards; they were simply working within the traditions and rules of the time. You just weren’t allowed to forget that they were actors – to a certain extent, it would seem that was more important than the actual content of the work they were producing!
I love watching those old films, despite the apparent criticisms I’ve made above, and despite the fact that most of them were made in black and white. The scripts, despite their tendency towards un-natural speech and gestures, still possessed great depth in most cases, and the black and white film tended to assist in focusing attention on what was going on, rather than the distraction of colour, which was considered to be wonderful for musicals, but was unnecessary for drama. I think the very quaintness of those fifty and sixty year old films have a charm and an attraction about them too, especially to we ‘oldies’, who remember seeing them all, the first time round!
But, as I said at the beginning of this article, the average actor of today demonstrates such a high level of skill and talent, compared to those far off days that the two can hardly be compared. In the old films, the feeling is distinctly one of being on the outside looking in at what is going on, but in modern film or television, everything is so natural, so real, that you are soon drawn right into the story with the actors you’re watching. You almost become part of the story yourself. I am positive that this is because the actors are so natural in there acting, they have learnt the tiny gestures and facial expressions that we all use in real life, but which can easily be forgotten by actors of lesser quality.
I’m particularly fond of the English shows, such as Times Gone By, Midsummer Murders, The Last of the Summer Wine and many others for these reasons. The characters are so real, it’s hard to imagine them being any different in ordinary life, simply because they do demonstrate an intimate knowledge of how we subconsciously act ourselves! To them, acting is a job, just like any other and I’m sure they like to go home at the end of a hard day at the studio and relax, just like the rest of us.
Finally, I’m very impressed at the sheer memory capacity of these people, who seem to be able to learn a whole new script virtually every week, whereas the pre-television actor had something like a year to learn the lines of just one film or play. In the days of vaudeville, a comedian could develop his routine and literally use exactly the same script for the rest of his working life, as he travelled from theatre to theatre, whereas a modern television comedian needs a completely new set of gags every week!
The good actors and comedians of today are, without a doubt very impressive, and have come a very long way from the theatre of the forties!
Do you enjoy films and television today more than you did when you were growing up? What do you think has helped actors to become better today?