British acting legend and former Bromley resident Michael York began his career treading the boards at the Bromley Little Theatre (BLT).
Last week he returned for the first time in decades, speaking to PATRICK GRAFTON-GREEN about his youth, career, a recent bout of ill health and the theatre’s uncertain future.
Michael York’s CV speaks for itself. Boasting the likes of Cabaret, Logan’s Run, Romeo and Juliet, The Three Musketeers, Murder on the Orient Express and Austin Powers – not to mention his theatre work – he’s enjoyed fantastic success.
Sitting on the stage at Bromley Little Theatre – a quaint community playhouse in North Street, of which York is president – he makes engaging and charming company.
Michael York chats to Patrick Grafton-Green
For the former Bromley Grammar School student this is the very arena in which he started honing his craft, as a teenager in the 1950s.
It was one of York’s teachers, who also worked at the BLT, who first encouraged him to try acting while he was in his teens.
The 72-year-old said: “Bromley Grammar School – they had a very strong drama department, school plays and other things – and it all happened under the auspices of a remarkable lady called Grace Collett-Franklin, who also worked here at the BLT.
“So all the academic things were going well and Grace engaged me to come here and do some small parts.
“A lot of that time was spent in here, rehearsing and performing plays.”
Discussing how Bromley has changed since his youth, he said: “There are these humongous buildings that have gone up, office buildings - they're new.
“I remember just by the station there were these little shops where you could buy stamps, there were second hand book shops where I got whole volumes for sixpence, things like that.
“It was a great place - it wasn't overcrowded, it had its own character.
“I lived in the library, there was the church where my sister was a bell ringer. I'm sure there was a cricket pitch nearby - quintessential England.”
Michael, pictured with Bromley Little Theatre chairman Jane Buckland
York's time at the BLT led him to join the Youth Theatre – now the National Youth Theatre – only in its second year at the time.
But it was his work with Franco Zeffirelli in the 1960s that really changed things – leading to his portrayal of Tybalt in 1968’s Romeo and Juliet.
He said: “Zeffirelli was big influence on my life. I worked with him first at the National Theatre, in the early 60s, in this production of Much Ado about Nothing with my old friend Derek Jacobi, Maggie Smith, Bob Stephens, Albert Finney, Ian McKellen and Lynn Redgrave.
“Zeffirelli was directing and he asked me a year later to go and audition for The Taming of the Screw with the Burtons - Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor - and I was the lucky one.
“Then he cast me in Romeo and Juliet and, I mean this was the king of cats, Tybalt - as one reviewer said, Tybalt enters from the crotch down – so he did a fantastic number on that.”
York has starred in many iconic films over the years, alongside some of the world’s greatest actors and directors, but says it is the smaller projects that he holds closest to his heart.
He said: “It's often the little orphans that never made it. There's a film called England Made Me from a Graham Greene novel directed by a wonderful English director called Peter Duffell.
“It was made in the old Yugoslavia on a miniscule budget but tremendous inventiveness.
“Peter Finch was in it, Michael Hordern and this is a film I love because it has so much bang for its buck."
He added: “I also was in a Billy Wilder film called Fedora.
“Billy had such trouble getting it on, although they should have been on their knees begging him to do it, and it came out and was damned with faint praise. Now I see it being referred to as this late masterpiece.”
In the last few years York has been diagnosed with a rare illness called amyloidosis – a condition that involves the abnormal production of insoluble proteins, which clump together in different parts of the body.
The disease can have fatal consequences – if it affects vital organs it can cause them to shut down – but York, who first noticed symptoms in the form of purple rings under his eyes in 2009, has successfully battled it.
He said: “I got side-lined by this mysterious illness and was mis-diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
“I was lucky to get the correct diagnosis, amyloidosis, and the thing is, I've got an extra lease of life and you don't want to waste it.
“You want to make it useful so I'm now becoming very active for amyloidosis awareness.
“It's an insidious disease, you don't know what's happening to you and usually when you find out it is too late but I've been lucky and I don't want to waste the time I've been given - if there is this extra time it's got to be for something very special.”
York is currently working on a book based on his experiences with the disease.
SAVE BROMLEY LITTLE THEATRE!
More than 50 years have passed since Michael York performed on the BLT's stage but, although Bromley has changed greatly in that time, it remains very much as it was.
Now in its 76th year, it puts on 11 full-length productions in the main playhouse every year. But its future is sadly in doubt.
With its current temporary lease running out in January, the theatre is hoping to raise funds to put in place plans for refurbishing and rebuilding – a requirement to secure another, long-term lease.
To become a BLT member or donate money to the theatre, call 07917 853621 or email firstname.lastname@example.org