Jean Rogers talks to Robert Williams Cohen

Jean Rogers on the birth of the National Theatre.

Actor and activist, Jean Rogers is famed for her long-running role as Dolly Skilbeck in television soap Emmerdale, and, if not quite so widely known is certainly respected for her even longer-running work with the performers’ union Equity. She should also be noted, however, for the nature of her origin story: raised in Worthing and trained at Guildhall, she cut her teeth at a number of regional reps before returning to Sussex in 1963 to join the fledgling Chichester Festival Theatre – and from there becoming part of the National Theatre’s founding company at the Old Vic. In both cases she found herself working under the leadership of the seemingly inexhaustible Laurence Olivier.

Interview by Robert Williams Cohen.


How did you get the job at Chichester?

I was at the Belgrade in Coventry, playing Olivia in Twelfth Night, and I wrote to whoever did the casting at Chichester, and got an interview. I had three auditions to do: the first one was a general one; then one for Olivier himself …



Was that more than usually nerve-wracking?

Yeah. But It’s different, I think, when you’re actually working; it’s so difficult when you’re not working and you have a big audition and you’re trying to find that energy level … So that was good, and then the final audition was each of the directors for that Chichester season: I had to sing the first couple of lines of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, which was very strange – but it all became clear to me when I got in and I saw the plays that were planned, because one was The Workhouse Donkey, and I was being cast as a Copacabana girl.

“The Workhouse Donkey” – that was a new one by John Arden, of “Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance” fame…?

Yes. The “workhouse donkey” was the character that Frank Finlay played. It was really about corruption in the council, and because it was a Labour council and the chief police inspector was a Conservative supporter, they raided the club where Frank Finlay’s character and all the other Labour councillors hung out, and it became a big slur on the council, because there were all these girls and there was a stripper on the stage… So it was really about council and police corruption.



The Workhouse Donkey, Chichester, 1963.
Photo credit: Angus McBean Photographic Archive/Harvard University.


You were also in “Saint Joan”?

That’s the first one I was in, yes, which John Dexter directed.

You worked a couple of times with him…?

Yeah, because when I went on to join the National, he auditioned me for Hobson’s Choice, and I played Ada Figgins. But he was a strange guy, John. He was quite a controlling director; in fact, I think that’s why he had problems, because he directed Othello later, and Olivier came to the first rehearsal knowing all his lines and knowing how he was going to play it, and John didn’t like that because he wanted to create something himself, but of course he couldn’t – this was the guv’nor, so it was a bit difficult.


Hobson’s Choice, 1964.
Photo credit: The National Theatre.


John was really nice to me, but God, did he need to have a whipping-boy in the company! There was a young actor called John Rogers, and John was quite young, like a boy, really, and John Dexter wouldn’t leave him alone; he’d get very angry with him, and we’d all be sitting there … I mean, nowadays we’d have to do something, but it was a different culture then. It was almost as though a director had the idea that he would reduce you down to nothing and then build you up – that was very fashionable.

I was going to ask – and it’s useful perhaps to compare and contrast with John Dexter – what Olivier was like as a director?

He was lovely. I liked him very much. We all called him, “Sir”! But he reminded me a bit of Harry Worth – I don’t know if you…?

The comedian, yeah.

Later, at Thames Television, I was in one of the Harry Worth shows, and I used to think: “Gosh! Yes, you are Olivier. Because Olivier would walk around in a mac – a belted mac – and a felt hat and his glasses, quite unassuming… He was very approachable – not that one ever had a conversation with him, unless he had the conversation, because the sheer enormity of being near him sort of shut you up, really. But he was really quite ordinary, and I think he was a typical actor, in that he just wanted to be loved – and of course we all did love him. And I think that was one of the problems with him running the National: because you have to make decisions, and you’re sometimes going to make decisions that people don’t like, and I don’t think he enjoyed that. But as a director, yeah, he was very patient.

Was he very focused? Because obviously he had a huge amount of other stuff on his plate. I mean, I’m assuming that, when he started running the National he was still running Chichester as well, at least to start with…?

Oh yes; because, when I joined the National – I was at Chichester in the June of ’63, and then joined the National Theatre in the September… that’s right, because we did St Joan, which we’d done at Chichester, and he also put on Uncle Vanya; so he opened the National – apart from Hamlet, which we opened at the end of October – with plays which had been at Chichester. And then when we came into ’64, about March time, he was beginning to work out what plays they would do at Chichester, which tended to start in May… So the company then divided in two: some stayed on at the Old Vic to do The Recruiting Officer, and I and some other actors started rehearsing The Dutch Courtesan for Chichester …

“The Dutch Courtesan” – that was a little-known John Marston play?

Right, yes. Tynan – Kenneth Tynan, the big critic, he rediscovered it; he came across this obscure Jacobean drama and persuaded Olivier to do it. And the consensus amongst the company was that he shouldn’t have bothered.

Tynan was the National’s literary manager, wasn’t he? Were you very conscious of his presence around the place?

Not really, no. At the time there was a lot of talk about why did he have this hold over Olivier? But critics can be very powerful – and if you’re a big star like Olivier, you perhaps get a bit nervous, especially if you’re going into a new venture.

I think he quite openly said that he’d rather have him on the inside, and thus sort of neutralize him.

That’s right – because he could destroy people.

What was Bill Gaskill like as a director on “The Dutch Courtesan”?

He never told you what he wanted. He was for ever doing improvisations – but then he’d never tell you what to keep from the improvisation. He was very strange. I remember John Stride was unhappy, and he decided, on the opening night, to just swash-buckle his way through it, because it needed that kind of style, instead of it being: “Oh! Let’s improvise this and see if we can find what this bit needs.” Just get on with it!


You weren’t in Olivier’s “Uncle Vanya”, but did you see it?

Oh yes! Not the first time: the first season at Chichester, in ’62, I was in Coventry, so I didn’t see the first Uncle Vanya. When I joined for the second season, I saw it three times. And then of course it went to the National as well, so I saw it with a Proscenium arch, which was really interesting. I loved it at Chichester – I loved the way it used the thrust stage, and all the dappled leaves, the lighting was really lovely – but it was interesting to see it in a Proscenium arch, which of course it was originally written for.

When you started at Chichester, was it already known that Olivier was going to be running the National?

I don’t think I realized till I got there, no. When you’re in a company, your whole focus is on what you’re doing.

Did you have to audition for his production of “Hamlet”?

No. My agent said to me, “Oh, Jean, they’ve asked if you’d be interested in being part of the new National Theatre”, and I said “Ooh, yes, of course”. And it didn’t happen to everyone; only about half the company were asked, including my friend Louise Purnell. Also, obviously, Olivier brought in some other particular actors, people like Maggie Smith, she wasn’t at Chichester… whereas Rosemary Harris, she was at Chichester and she went on to play Ophelia in Hamlet.

It was a huge cast. I’ve got a copy of the programme; I think I counted 56 actors, plus musicians.

Gosh! Yes. It was really exciting. Peter O’Toole! I mean, when you began to find out what was going on – to suddenly know that Lawrence of Arabia was going to be in the first show with us was, well, it was mind-blowing, really. But I felt so sorry for him, when we started rehearsals, because the Old Vic was under reconstruction; it was the first home of the National, before a proper building was built, and Olivier had decided to have the two boxes removed, so those came out, and there were various things going on around the building to improve it…

What? He literally took the boxes out?

Yes. I think they’re back in now. They came out to make a wider stage, and they built out over the orchestra pit – things like that – so there was a hell of a lot of building going on. Also, there was to be a Sean Kenny set, which is another story in itself; it was huge and very mechanical. So, in rehearsals, you could see Peter O’Toole trying to concentrate with all this going on. And also, I think it was somewhat intimidating for him because he was being directed by a well-known Hamlet, and also, playing the king was Michael Redgrave, who’d also been a well-known Hamlet… And I do remember that when it eventually went on, he didn’t get as good crits as one might have hoped, and I just think he was terribly unhappy. I mean, he was very approachable; he was a nice man, but… And I remember, the week before we opened, we had the morning off because Olivier decided that he’d just go through all the soliloquies with Peter, and I crept into the back of the circle to watch what was going on. Peter O’Toole came down to the front of the apron stage, and Olivier was in the front row of the stalls just listening, and he went through all those soliloquies, and it was wonderful, it was beautiful; but of course when we did it we were in this huge Sean Kenny set. The opening of the play, you remember there’s that kind of talk on the battlements…?




Frank Finlay and Peter O’Toole in Hamlet, 1963.
Photo credit: The National Theatre.


The soldiers and Horatio…

That’s right; before you go into the court… And there was this huuuuge edifice, so that, sitting in the audience, you saw the battlements soaring up before you; and then when the scene finished this revolve started to go round, the musicians climbed up the stairs, and then by the time they got there to do their ‘da-da, da-da, da-da’ and the king enters, it had revealed the whole of the area of the court; and from the bowels those of us playing the courtiers came up the stairs just as the whole court area was revealed, and then down would come the king.

Well, I can remember a matinee when we got our cue down below, and we go up, and all we could see is this edifice, because the workings had stopped, so there were a load of stagehands underneath trying to turn it manually; so we could only just about get onto the stage, and when we did we could see some of the actors almost trying to push it round themselves. Nearly every performance we had something going wrong mechanically, so for Peter it was a really unhappy time. Such a shame. Disappointing for him.

You were also in “Andorra”, by Max Frisch, with Tom Courtenay, and that was directed by Lindsay Anderson. How was he to work with as a director?

I can’t say that I particularly warmed to him. I don’t think he was interested in more than the main people, really. John Dexter wasn’t like that; I was only a court lady in St Joan, but he really took me under his wing. When we took St Joan up to Edinburgh prior to starting the National, he would say, “Come on, Jean, we’re going to go and see Exit the King with Alec Guinness”, or “We’re going to go and see this opera…” I think it was because he knew I worked; he knew that I would listen to him and I would try and do what he wanted…

Lindsay Anderson… I mean, it was a fairly good show… What I remember most about it was that the main scene is in the village square, when the Jew Detector comes, and his job is to work out which of the villagers is a Jew and then they’ll be carted off. So in this main scene, the whole of the village had to walk barefoot across the town square with a veil – they covered their face, because he could tell by the way they walked whether they were Jewish. Anyway, we rehearsed for about five weeks, as we did for each of the productions – a long old rehearsal period – and then we had a good week or so of dress rehearsals and press nights and all that sort of thing.

Well, the first dress rehearsal for Andorra, the stage was there, and it was interlocking plastic pieces – say hand-size – that interlocked to be like cobbles; which looked great from the front. But we had to walk across that with something over our heads, so we couldn’t see properly, and it was really awkward to walk on – it was a nightmare, in fact. And it had cost two thousand pounds, we were told – that’s two thousand then, which was a fortune – but it was scrapped; and they did what they normally do, which is to paint the stage, and it looked as though it was a cobbled square. Again, an example of how there was all this government money for the new National Theatre, and a lot of it went into the designs of the productions, and they got carried away.  

It’s been said, by among others Michael Blakemore in his book “Stage Blood” – I don’t know if you’ve read it…? 

No, I haven’t.

It’s about his time at the National; he spanned the two regimes of Olivier and Peter Hall. He said there was a company spirit under Olivier which was later squandered by Peter Hall, who started bringing in star players and paying them ten times what the lowest people got; according to Blakemore, under Olivier the top players would earn only three times more than what the lowest ranks received.

Olivier really valued being part of a company, I think. I do remember, some time around The Master Builder, there was a bit of a thing with one of the young actors, Richard Hampton. He was like me, you know – we were the odds and sods and we might get a small part of whatever – and I think Richard had been given this bigger part in The Master Builder; and obviously Olivier and the company manager had decided who would be a possibility and then they brought a director in – but sometimes a director would come in and feel that they weren’t really getting their own way, as it were. And I remember there was a meeting that we had – we were all upstairs, there was a big rehearsal room upstairs where we used to have classes.

Where was this – the Old Vic?

Yes, right on the top floor. And that was another lovely thing he did: there were regular classes you could go to. There was this guy called Yat who did movement, and we thought he was very strange, but we loved his classes. And there were mime classes, all sorts of things. But anyway, we were all together in the studio, and what I remember from that meeting, very clearly, is Olivier saying, “I’m sorry there’s been problems. My feeling about a company is that we’re all there, and sometimes you get given a part where it doesn’t work out for you, and next time it does – but we’re a company”, so it was very much like being part of weekly rep or fortnightly rep – that was the ethos he liked. He said, “we’re a company”. And I think, some people coming in – directors and so on – in this case Peter Wood – wanted control, so instead of saying, “This is the company, so here are the people to cast from”, he wanted to bring in somebody else, and he ended up not using Richard, and Olivier didn’t think that was fair. And I think what happened was that when it changed over to Hall, the next idea was to let people, you know, as long as… Because Peter had a reputation anyway, didn’t he, for coming in at dress rehearsal time and changing it all and then putting his name on it. I know people didn’t like Peter Hall as much as Olivier.

But you weren’t there by then?

No, no. I was only there for that first year – but I’d married one of the electricians there, so, though I wasn’t in the company by the time they did Othello, obviously I saw it, I saw all the productions.


The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Chichester Festival Theatre, 1964.
Photo courtesy of Jean Rogers.


You were in “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” at Chichester…?

 Yes, I took over, at a weekend’s notice. That was the third season – my second season – and it was towards the end of the run, and Jeanette Landis was playing Oello, the wife of Atahuallpa. And what Oello did was that she dressed Atahuallpa – she didn’t have any lines, but she dressed him, and led the dance of the warriors, and also the singing in a scene where the women were collecting the corn.

Anyway, Jeanette was offered the opportunity to do Mother Courage in Leicester, but the rehearsals coincided with the last twelve Royal Hunt performances. So, I had this weekend where Jeanette taught me the singing and taught me the dance – which everyone else had spent six weeks learning – and I had to lead everybody onto the stage; and all round the back of the theatre, right up the top, were the musicians – lots of little bells, Aztec music – so there was all this piping and bells and things, and I had to pick out the moment where I came up from the bowels of Chichester onto the stage with all these people… So, I learned that, and then on the Monday I had a rehearsal in the afternoon – with the understudies, not with Robert Stephens, who was playing Atahuallpa – and then I went on that evening. So there was a lot of consternation in the place as to how I would do it. I remember Fay Compton saying to me – standing there with a cigarette – “Very good, dear – very good, very strong!”, which was nice. So I did it, for the last 12 performances. Very exciting, I enjoyed being in the show.


Chichester Festival Theatre.


But you didn’t go to the Old Vic with it later?

No, I’d left the National by then. It was partly to do with the guy who was the General Manager – I won’t tell you his name – but he’d been very… there’d been a party where he was a bit sort of… around me, and I wouldn’t have anything to do with him. I realize now, looking back in the light of all my years since of gender equality activism …

You were VP of Equity, weren’t you, at one time?

Right, from 2004 to 2014. I’m still on the Council. And I’m sure, looking back, that my refusal to cosy up to this man was a factor in the failure of my agent to get me a pay rise when the Royal Hunt thing happened. Remember, I had to take over at a weekend’s notice, yet when we asked for a slight rise this General Manager wouldn’t budge – “We could get a drama school leaver to do the job,” he said. I think they’d refused to release Jeanette, but it was August and she continued to press so she could rehearse Mother Courage and open in September. So I gave in for her sake. But I know I felt at the time that the argy-bargy and the tone coming back was unnecessarily unpleasant – it left a nasty taste – so after that I said: “I don’t want to go back”.

Interesting that you, rather than the perpetrator of the inappropriate behaviour, were the one who ended up leaving.

Well, yes. But I had a number of unpleasant sexual harassments during that time, which you kind of accepted was best to try and ignore and walk away. Actors often called you “frigid” if you repelled their advances – it was a very fashionable attitude at that time of the so-called swinging Sixties!

What’s interesting is that John Carnegie, who’s in the process of rationalising all the NT archives, he said to me recently, “I think you ought to know that you were up to possibly play Sorrel in Hay Fever the following season”. Louise did it, in the end – my flatmate, Louise Purnell. Noel Coward ended up directing it. He expected everyone to turn up knowing their words at the first rehearsal; I don’t know that I could cope with that. I can’t learn words unless I know where we’re going and I understand the backstory, and the moves – the moves help me remember.

But this is the other thing that I found really interesting being part of the National: watching Olivier perform and watching Michael Redgrave. Totally different actors. Olivier – very technical. In Uncle Vanya there was a scene where he, as Astrov, the doctor, he comes into the room and Joan Plowright is there, and he walks up to the window – they’re chatting and everything – and as he was talking, he ran his finger along the back of the windowsill and then perched on the edge of it; every time he did that speech he did that – you know, “I’m talking about so-and-so, but I really need to – I wonder if it’s clean?” – and technically that was perfect. I saw the play four times, and he did it each time.

Now, Redgrave, he played Hobson [in Hobson’s Choice], and he got some bad write-ups, and I think it was because when it came to the actual dress rehearsal, he had this big red beard – but in rehearsals he didn’t, it was just him. I was lucky, actually, because I was understudying Alice, and when we first came to block, I blocked my main role of Ada Figgins, but then John Dexter said to me and Jeanette, who was understudying Vicky Hobson, “I want you to block this other scene” – it was really for Michael Redgrave, to help him do the blocking, because the two actresses who were going to play it, they were rehearsing something for Chichester and so they weren’t around at the time. And so we blocked it, we played it with him, and Redgrave was really into it, and didn’t treat us any different as if we weren’t going to play the parts. I remember the rehearsal room door flying open, and there was Joan Plowright, and she said [affects Plowrightesque accent], “John, when are we going to get to my scenes, with Willie Mossop?” And he said, “I’m sorry, we’ve just been really working on this, we’ll be with you soon, Joan”. And she looked at us and said, “But these are the understudies!” She was really pee’d off with us. But Redgrave was marvellous; he just enjoyed the rehearsal experience. He was wonderful in rehearsals – but in performance, as I say, he kind of disappeared under the beard.

You were talking about the difference as actors between him and Olivier; of course in “Vanya” they were both on stage together.

What you felt with them – this is how I reasoned it, watching them – was that Redgrave could suddenly bring a performance above what it had ever been, and you might be there on a night when it was just pure genius, and other times, according to what was going on… Whereas with Olivier, you felt it would always be consistent; he would always play it that way – you either liked it or you didn’t, but it was there, because it was technically perfect underneath it all. But it meant that someone like Redgrave, you could just be blown away by the quality of what he did that particular night – and that would be just for you.

So what did you do after the National?

Gosh, I’m trying to think. I had my son in ’67… I did some plays at Westcliff – a couple of musicals: Perchance to Dream and another Ivor Novello musical… I was in Crossroads for three months. And I did Harry Worth, and a couple of other telly shows for Thames Television.

You were for many years in “Emmerdale Farm” – or “Emmerdale”, as it became…

When I joined it was still Emmerdale Farm, and then halfway through my time – I was there 11 years – the BBC started EastEnders, and in response Yorkshire TV dropped the “Farm” and it became a bit more racy.

You took over the role of Dolly Skilbeck …

From Kathryn Barker, yes. She played the part for three years, then the character went off to recuperate after a stillbirth, I think it was, and then when she came back she wasn’t quite herself – it was me!

You literally stepped into her shoes.

Well, yes. She had smaller feet than me: I have size 5, she had size 4 – and they said to me, you can have a new wardrobe, and I said, “I can’t come out of hospital and I’ve got a completely new wardrobe, this is ridiculous – no, no, I want to make the transition as natural and real as possible. Wrong! Because that budget was for when I came in, and so for the rest of my 11 years I used to fight to get a new pair of boots or whatever, because there was no special budget for it.

I was interested to read – there’s someone very nerdy on the Internet who’s put a lot of information up there – that some people suggested you should learn the mannerisms of the previous actress …

Well, actually, her mannerisms were very familiar to me; I could’ve easily done the mannerisms, but what I reasoned was, say I’d taken over the part of Ophelia in Hamlet, I wouldn’t do it like Rosemary Harris would do it. But that’s why Shakespeare’s so interesting, because everyone finds something new in it; because we’re all unique, and we find something new in it.

You were on “Emmerdale” for 11 years. What was it like when you left? Was it a bereavement or a relief – or both?

I liked Dolly – I liked her very much; and it was interesting to have that opportunity to grow with the character – that I liked – but I always felt there were other things I wanted to do. So, part of me was relieved in some ways – but then, of course, you’re thrown onto the market again, aren’t you – and I was hitting 50 by that point; not good for women in this profession. But there we are. I’ve had an opportunity, which a lot of people never get, so… I mean, it’s transitory, isn’t it? You can’t take it too seriously; you just have to be grateful that you’re in a profession you like.

Yes, and if people see you do a thing and it makes a difference…

Oh, I think it does, though, don’t you? And of course theatre often more than anything, because it’s for you that night, the experience.


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