Princely, enchanting, vehement, courtly, diffident, stubborn, courageous, wry, unbiddable, poetic…We weave a chaplet of adjectives for his brow, to honour him; also, to try and contain him. But Alan is – was, remains – uncontainable.
To start with simple things. He was the man with the neatest toolshed I ever saw. He loved buying Christmas crackers and wearing silly paper hats. He poured the most potent gin-and-tonics in Christendom. He was a gentle, generous host, who never told a story to his own advantage, but was well capable of roaring with the best of them as the evening wore on; and then, having drunk you off to bed, he would sit up until the end of the dishwasher cycle, because he knew for a fact that dishwasher explosions were a high cause of mortality in north London, the Cotswolds, and the Outer Hebrides.
It is on Barra that I shall always remember him best. The island he first went to in wartime, at the age of five or six, packed off by himself with a label round his neck reading ‘For Compton Mackenzie, Isle of Barra’. The ferry crossing took sixteen hours on a good day. When he got there, the Mackenzie household contained no children for him to play with, so he would often be entrusted to local fishermen, who would take him out with them, drop him for the day on an uninhabited island, and pick him up at their work’s end. He went to Barra half a dozen times as a boy, and returned there for each summer of his last eighteen years, to the same house, now made beautiful by Sally.
He seemed, in that magical local air, to be at his most relaxed, most at home. Watching the tides come in and out, waiting for the daily plane to land on the vast cockle beach on their doorstep; going to his toolshed, and laying out on the draining board all the necessary equipment – hammer, screwdriver, pliers, spanners – for the complex DIY job of opening a local lobster. On Barra, Alan’s voice changed and softened, and he would often sound like an islander, especially when speaking to other islanders. It was, I am sure, instinctual, part of his instinctive courtesy.
Alan’s diffidence. Richard Eyre once found himself a few places behind Alan in the queue at the butcher’s in Cirencester. When the butcher called out, ‘Yes?’ there was a long Alan-ish pause, and finally he said, ‘Erm, I’d like… some… meat.’
Alan’s wryness. Robert Lloyd, who played Puck to Alan’s Oberon in the Brook Dream, remembers being scrunched up against him in the Dirty Duck after Alan had played Hamlet. He found himself incautiously asking that old question about whether Hamlet was merely pretending to be mad, or had perhaps tipped over into real lunacy. Alan’s reply consisted of four words: ‘Well, on some nights…’
Alan’s courage. His last years, as we know, were shadowed by illness, when his diabetes caught up with him and he had a leg amputated at the knee. In his youth, he had been fiercely athletic – he skiied, he fenced, he rode – and his skiing can still be evidenced in late-night television reruns of The Heroes of Telemark. Terry Hands had called him ‘one of the great movers’. Now he was no longer such a mover. He was not just stoic and uncomplaining; he was, I think, entirely lacking in self-pity. His physical, mental and moral strengths were astonishing. But then he had been the Coriolanus of our age, and he knew the text; he knew how extremity is the trier of spirits.
And then he returned to the stage, as Tiresias at the National. I remember going with Sally, and being alarmed at my first sight of the set, which was all slopes, like an upturned soup-bowl. How would a man with a prosthetic leg handle that, I wondered. Then Alan came on, and was almost immediately required to hurl himself on to a table whose top was at a vertiginous angle, roll around on it, fulminating away, then throw himself off it, all the while pretending to be blind. And then do it all over again. Afterwards I made some mild remark to Sally about the incalculable sadism of the director. ‘Oh no,’ she replied, ‘Alan did all his moves himself.’
He continued; he would not be beaten. Alan’s stubbornness had its comic side. The last interview he gave, when doing Beckett monologues for the Spitalfields Festival, was to Mark Lawson for Front Row. Somehow, Alan had convinced himself – and could not be unconvinced – that his interlocutor was Dominic Lawson, son of Nigel Lawson. Alan was not a Tory; but he did the interview out of loyalty and professionalism. When he got home, he was still puzzled by it all. ‘That Lawson,’ he reported, ‘was rather a nice fellow. A lot taller than I’d expected, and not a bit right-wing’.
After Alan’s death, an email came in from a man who had met him only once, and that more than 40 years previously. He was an American woodcarver who had gone to a performance of Wild Oats in London, and afterwards run into him in a pub. ‘I remember his intelligence,’ he wrote, ‘and his glittering conversation, and – I don’t know what to call it – his menschlich humanity.’ And then he added this – which allows the last phrase to go to Alan: ‘I remember him remarking to us that learning a Shakespeare part was like…standing under a waterfall.’