Peter Anderson chats to Brian Blessed, director of Towards Zero at the Mill At Sonning about meeting Agatha Christie and more…
‘A murder is the culmination of a lot of different circumstances all converging at a given time, at a given point. It’s Zero Hour.” So says Superintendent Battle in Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero.
The play begins with the shipping forecast, but the weather does not suddenly happen – it is the result of many influences and other events, in the same way murder does not just happen. Towards Zero is the current play at the Mill at Sonning, and the team are pleased that Brian Blessed, is once again directing one of Christie’s plays.
The “Queen of Crime” wrote it in 1944, when Agatha was married to Max Mallowan and living at Winterbrook, near Cholsey. But it was just over a decade later when a young Brian Blessed met Agatha Christie.
He was just starting his first job at Nottingham Playhouse where they ran a fortnightly repertory company under the artistic director Val May (who was later the artistic director of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre at Guildford) for the princely sum of £4-19-6 per week.
Agatha Christie was putting on Spiders Web at the Theatre Royal and came to the Playhouse for a look around. In those days the Stage Door opened on to the street.
Agatha and Brian often met up during the following three weeks. She helped him source some props he needed and told him some of her wishes about how her plays should be staged. Some of these, all these years later, Brian has remembered and used at The Mill, including the suit of armour that came to life. Towards Zero was Agatha’s favourite play, he recalls, and that of her good friend Robert Graves, the author of I Claudius.
Sometimes, either before or after their meetings, she was not going back to the theatre but to the police station to see if there had been any interesting murders! She described her meetings with him as relaxing which, for a lady who said that sometimes her head felt like a house where a light was on in at least one room 24 hours a day, must have been a blessing. Sadly, for Brian, her one gift to him apart from the advice a small radio covered in red velvet was taken from his bedsit.
As to what the audience can expect at the Mill, period music and the perpetual ticking of many different clocks as we head to the zero hour. Agatha was not Bran’s only source of advice, for Superintendent Battle, he went back to one of his early television roles – PC “Fancy” Smith on Z Cars.