Happy memories of an Eastbourne boy's days in Bexhill rep

Clive Francis comes full circle with The Circle by Somerset Maugham at Chichester Festival Theatre.
Clive Francis in The Circle, photo by Ellie KurttzClive Francis in The Circle, photo by Ellie Kurttz
Clive Francis in The Circle, photo by Ellie Kurttz

He was in the play at the Festival Theatre back in 1976 in a cast including Googie Withers, John McCallum and Martin Jarvis. Now, moving through the generations, Clive is back in a new production – alongside Jane Asher and Nicholas Le Prevost – from Tuesday, January 30-Saturday, February 3.

Clive is thrilled to be back at a venue which remains deeply special to him, full of fond memories of the day he came across from Eastbourne, where he grew up, as a 14-year-old to see the landmark Uncle Vanya production in the CFT’s very first season back in 1962.

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“It was an evening out from Eastbourne. And I was so fortunate because somebody dropped out and somebody said ‘I don't suppose Clive will want to go and see Uncle Vanya in Chichester?’ And I said of course I did and I am so glad that I did. It was a new theatre. It was a new type of theatre. It was just so exciting. We were so used to the proscenium arch and the curtain going up and there it was, this bare stage – and to see Laurence Olivier was just so exciting.”

Clive started out in rep in Bexhill: “I was a penguin! I left school at 15 and I was too young to go to RADA. I left school in about 1964. My father was an actor and he said to me ‘I will do one thing for you if you really want to go into this crazy world’ and that was that he introduced me to the guy that ran the local rep. And he said ‘After that you are on your own and you will have to make your own way.’ So I started in weekly rep and it was the hardest inauguration into the theatre that you can imagine. I used to run between Bexhill and Eastbourne all the time before I went to RADA and then I would come back in the holidays. Then it got to the point where they started to say that I could play a part. I was in The Secret Tent by Arthur Brough. I played the village idiot!”

A decade later, Clive was in The Circle in Chichester: “My first season there was just extraordinary. I had Googie and John in the one play and I was with Rex Harrison in another play, Monsieur Perrichon's Travels which was not a very good play and it was not well received and rightly so but Rex was a tour de force and we got on like a house on fire. A helicopter would arrive on occasion on a Saturday night and whisk Rex off down to the south of France. It was an extraordinary crazy world that he lived in that none of us could understand!”

Clive is delighted to return to The Circle now: “It happens very rarely. There is a Simon Gray play or two where I have played nearly every part over the years but to go from the young lad to playing the older character is actually a one-off for me. And it's a delightful play. And I'm so pleased that it's been so well received. It was quite risque in its time, a married woman leaving her husband but people commented on the wit, the wit of Coward, the wit of Rattigan and even a little bit of the wit of Wilde.”

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Somerset Maugham plays aren’t seen so very much these days: “I suppose it is fashion but this one has survived wonderfully over the years and it has wonderful leading roles for elderly people, if i can put it politely!”