The Life And Death Of An Obscure Irish Actor

Born in Dublin, one hundred years ago today, Bertram Joyce – Ireland’s answer to Donald Sinden – was from an early age, obsessed with Hamlet. Planning a career in the legal profession, his life changed forever at age 19, when his father was found mysteriously murdered in the back garden of their home in Denmark Street and his mother Gertie, set up home with his Uncle Claude.

Unable to confront his uncle about the suspicious circumstances of his father’s death and the subsequent domestic arrangement with his mother, Bertram rashly decided to become an actor and cooked up a bizarre plan. He would spend his inheritance money putting on productions of Shakespeare’s classic play in towns and villages all over Ireland and performing the lead role himself. He would then invite his mother and uncle to the performances and whilst on stage or standing in the wings would gauge their reaction. They would invariably leave just after “the play within the play” scene, not because they were feeling guilt-ridden and uncomfortable but because the productions were usually so appallingly bad. As the famed theatre critic Aubrey Davenport noted pithily after one woeful show in Portlaoise,  “To be elsewhere, or not to be elsewhere – That is the question!”

Reacting badly to persistent dismal reviews and feeling his ingenious strategy to expose his uncle was proving unsuccessful, Bertram decided to cut all ties with his family in 1935 and move to London to perfect his craft. For a young thespian to acquire the necessary skills and experience in those days it was best to join a repertory company.  Bertram did just that, coming under the wing of the legendary and flamboyant actor-manager Montague Keeble.

Renowned for conducting rehearsals in his silk pyjamas, Montague instilled in the young actor a complete lack of technique and an over-reliance on rouge. In mid-1936, Montague gave the young Irish tragedian a qualified vote of confidence by making him his dresser’s dresser. Every evening before the performance, Bertram had to painstakingly dress Montague’s dresser, Bunty de Marney, before Bunty went to work dressing Montague. After six months of this tedium Bertram confronted Montague and told him he wanted to act. Impressed by the young Irishman’s gumption, Montague promoted Bertram a step closer to the stage. He was made the understudy’s understudy.

Bertram waited patiently for his English debut. And waited. And waited. One night during a production of King Lear, Montague, playing the lead, came down with appendicitis, and his understudy, a young Peter Finch, replaced him. When Peter Finch broke his arm, with Montague still convalescing in hospital, Bertram at last sensed his chance, but at that very moment he was called home to Ireland for his mother’s funeral. She had inexplicably drunk from a cup of wine with poison pellets in it.

He returned to England in a restless and depressed state. With health fully restored to Montague and Peter Finch, Bertram became increasingly worried that he would never get the chance to act if he remained in Montague’s troupe.

He sought employment elsewhere and eventually became a jobbing actor. After many years doing the rounds, playing in small theatres and staying in damp boarding houses, he became quite established in theatrical circles as “Bertram Joyce – The Actor with the Bellowing Voice”.

Sir Anthony Quayle who was just starting off on a successful career, recalled years later, “Bertram, the darling boy, was such a bad actor that anytime he‘d make an entrance the audience would either fall asleep and snore or chat amongst themselves. I think he was playing Malvolio during a matinee in Torquay opposite a radiant Peggy Ashcroft, when he made his entrance and everybody just picked up their newspapers and started to read. To attract the audiences’ attention he started shouting his lines. And that’s when Bertram Joyce-The Actor with the Bellowing Voice, was born.”

When Bertram was in his full braying form, he began sounding remarkably like Winston Churchill. And throughout the Second World War he was part of a group of actors that staged shows in the London Underground during air raids. For those members of the public who stayed for the shows, his bombastic staccato delivery caused much comment and unintentional laughter. Others would already be on their journey home, happier to leave the performance and face the uncertainty of the blitz.

However, British Intelligence decided to utilise him to impersonate Churchill for radio broadcasts as a decoy to fool the Germans. “Operation Ham” proved remarkably successful. After the war, the Rank Organisation wanted to make a movie on the subject. Bertram was asked to read for the main role and play himself. Sadly, he failed the audition. To add insult to injury, Peter Finch got the role.

By the early 1950’s Bertram’s style of camp histrionics and unbearable overacting seemed quite dated. He found it difficult to find the right parts and drifted into long periods of “resting”. To alleviate his boredom he started to write. He had become a big fan of some American writers including Tennessee Williams, and in the summer of 1952 attempted to write a play, which in retrospect was heavily derivative of A Streetcar Named Desire. Once completed, the manuscript of A Tram Called Lust was sent to renegade theatre director Nigel MacBeth. Nigel loved the play and insisted on directing it and putting Bertram in the leading role. It was the beginning of a long and pointless collaboration.

Every production Nigel MacBeth was ever involved in ended in disaster.  Suspicious theatrical folk maintain that this is because his name was MacBeth, and as he demanded to be called “Mr. MacBeth” during rehearsals, this broke the timeworn theatrical taboo about uttering that particular word in a theatre. Others meanwhile claim it was because Nigel was a completely talentless oaf. Whatever the reason, the production of Tram, as it became known, was the absolute nadir of Bertram’s career. His attempts at a Louisiana accent were much derided.

Aubrey Davenport, the venerable theatre critic who had slated Bertram during his formative years in Ireland and who subsequently ended up working for The London Times wrote in his review, “Why does this man act? He doesn’t have presence – he has absence.”

Bertram Joyce returned to Ireland in the late 1970’s. He moved back into his family home where his elderly Uncle Claude resided. Still incapable of bringing up the family’s past with his uncle he took to renting out videocassettes of Hamlet and screening them nightly. This caused much tension between them and was attributed to the knife fight in their living-room that led to both their deaths in 1983.

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