Back in 1959 Paul Robeson couldn’t get a hotel room in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was starring as Othello at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, the management of which had, for some strange reason, not bothered to find him any accommodation, and they had plenty of their own to spare.
That didn’t bother Robeson too much, he’d experienced worse than that in his time, in fact he’d experienced much better than that too, especially in South Wales where, in 1940, he made the film, ‘The Proud Valley’, where just about everyone he met offered him a room in their home.
Here was one of America’s biggest stars about to play one of Shakespeare’s greatest, and most vulnerable, characters, and in the town where the playwright was born, and he didn’t have anywhere to sleep, and he could have afforded any hotel room in the town, in fact he could have afforded to buy most of the hotels in the town. When he heard of Robeson’s plight, fellow Shakespearean actor, Andrew Faulds, and his wife, Bunty, invited Robeson to live with them in their house in Shottery, not far from Ann Hathaway’s Cottage, where Robeson persuaded Andrew to join the Labour Party and become an MP.
Robeson was my mother’s favourite actor and singer, with the aforementioned film, ‘The Proud Valley’ a small piece of artistic perfection which the years cannot diminish. I was brought-up on that film, and on its subtle message of the futility and dangers of racialism and hatred, and its less subtle message of the need to work, sing, and win a war together; and that the ordinary man and woman in the street can make a difference.
It was Robeson’s favourite film too (it was also the last one he made in Britain), and is set in the coal mining valleys of South Wales, which was a district Robeson had come to know well in the preceding years when he’d vociferously supported the miners in their endless struggle for better working conditions. Robeson is still hugely revered in that part of the world.
‘The Proud Valley’ was directed for Ealing by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s great grandson, Penrose Tennyson ( he was killed in action a year after making the film), and written for Robeson by Herbert Marshall and his wife, Alfredda Brilliant. It is a film that observes superbly the reactions of the Welsh mining community to a newcomer who also just happens to be black, which elicits this response from one character who is trying to break the racial ice:
” Well, we’re all black down that bloody mine.”
So, in the spring of 1959, with Robeson playing Shakespeare’s famous Moor to packed houses at Stratford I found myself, with the rest of the kids from Wellesbourne Primary School, waiting on Platform One of Leamington Spa Station for the London train, and what promised to be a great day out at the London Planetarium, Madam Tussauds, the Zoo, and Windsor Castle.
I suppose we’d been waiting for about ten minutes when the old steam train from Stratford came chugging in, which caused us, naturally, to turn our attention upon its arrival. I recall it now as a very cinematic moment indeed, and rather reminiscent of ‘Brief Encounter’, but instead of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson stepping out of the smoke and steam, out stepped Paul Robeson.
Obviously he was heading for London too, but instead of going to the waiting room he came toward me. Robeson was a big man (no wonder he was called David Goliath in ‘The Proud Valley’), and on that rather cold spring morning he was wearing a black overcoat with an astrakan collar. And not only did he come toward me but he knelt down in front of me and took both of my hands in his, and said:
” My name is Paul. What is your name, young man?”
” I shall always remember you, Stephen.”
With that he stood up and walked to the far end of the platform where he waited for the London train, alone.
I can still feel my hands in his, and there hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t thought about that brief encounter and the lovely, brave man that was Paul Robeson.