Evening Standard, 9/24/65
There's Something Odd About Robin Hood
by Gerard Garett
He is tall, thin and sports a smile that beams a welcome and spells mischief. His name is James Booth, the man who sprang to fame in the musical Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be six years ago and looked like being marked down for ever as a theatrical all-purpose spiv.
Mr. Booth bloomed in the company of his friends Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Albert Finney. He is an honourable founder member of the acting school who would rather be seen with a noose round their necks than a tie.
Being a spiv and a professional cockney (he was actually raised in Yorkshire) has been a bit of a burden to Mr. Booth whose acting capacity in other fields is well recognized by the critics but less appreciated by producers.
He was nurtured at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and has won recognition in the Shakespeare theatre at Stratford-on-Avon. But the big meaty non-spiv part he needs has eluded him, until now.
This week he began rehearsals as Robin Hood in Lionel Bart's latest pop cycle Twang and although the Robin Hood in this musical version is something of a wide-boy he is distinctly well-bred.
"This show is just great," said Mr. Booth with an unexpected ebullience considering that he had just finished the first 10 hours rehearsal under producer Joan Littlewood, a kind of Mother Courage of the theatre who believes in extracting the last drop of drama from her players.
"It's going to be sumptuous. And costing a lot of money. United Artists the film people have put up L120,000 and I have eight changes of costume and the costumes cost L100 a time.
"Oliver Mensel is doing the sets and the costumes." He added with a wicked grin. "What a combination. Joan Littlewood and Oliver Mensel."
This Robin Hood, he explained, is not quite the wide-open sturdy stuff beloved by traditionalists. "Robin Hood has Prince John holed up in his castle as if he were an American in Vietnam surrounded by guerillas," he added pleasantly. He likes goading Americans about Vietnam. Not, of course, that Robin Hood can really be described as any sort of freedom fighter.
"He says he is fighting for freedom, truth and charity and also he knows where he can get 18s. 7 d. a pound for venison if he wins," explains Mr. Booth.
He takes the part with gratitude although he turned down two potentially more profitable jobs to fit it in. Both were in films. One was Alfie (which went to Michael Caine) and one was Willie Garvin in Modesty Blaise (which went to Terence Stamp).
Alfie he turned down with ease. "Just being a spiv all over again,": he said. "Sparrows Can't Sing in color."
He almost signed up for Modesty Blaise. "I was sitting in the White Elephant, plastered up to my eyeballs, taking the mickey out of some Americans about Vietnam," he said, mildly, "when the man John Bryan said he would like me to play Robin Hood. I said I couldn't; I was making a film. He offered me a L5,000 advance and that helped me to make up my mind."
He explained that he hadn't really a good head for business, just learned that sort of thinking from Richard Harris around the time he used to kip down on Richard Harris's floor. Mr. Harris , of course, used to sleep on the floor himself until a timely burst of affluence enabled him to acquire a bed.
That was in the rough and tumble apprentice days before things (or fings) looked up. The same sort of lusty living still goes on, but time has tempered the tempo.
"I was 26 then and thought I was the best actor in the world. I wanted to be tough and untamed and force people to notice me. I was insecure, actors are insecure people. But now I am 33 and things are different. I still look upon myself as the greatest actor in the world, but also as a failure.
"I think if I am the greatest actor in the world why does Warren Beatty get paid four times as much? Then I tell myself, well, he's an American. I wonder why Michael Caine is doing so well and then I tell myself he's got Harry Saltzman behind him.
"I think I'm a failure, but I am not a failure to other people. I remember once asking the head waiter in a night club how much he earned and he said $100 a week and I was horrified. I thought it was criminal that one man should get so much with all the hunger in the world. Now I realize I couldn't live on less.
He has just bought a manor house in Burnham Beeches, Bucks, for L23,000. "I've got a wife and two and a half children," he said, a little ashamed of the extravagance. "I've got to give them some sort of right scene."
It certain looked as if another good hellraiser had slipped down the rosy path of respectability.
But he added, "It's a lot of money for a house, I know, but what do you do with the money? If things get tough I know I can always sell the place and buy a boozer."
He gave a good belly laugh and one knew that things weren't so bad after all.