Being a Boy with a Pleasing Manner but a Positively Startling Lack of Brain, I left school at fourteen and, after four years training in accountancy and surveying, served seven years in the army, passing the time as a Drill and Weapons Training Instructor, Shorthand Writer to the Director of Military Operations at the War Office in London and Personal Assistant to the General Officer Commanding the Royal West African Frontier Force in Nigeria; followed by a further period in the Territorial branch of the Special Air Service; I then spent five years in industry and commerce as Personal Assistant to the Chief Executive Officers of Canadian Pacific and Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds, the giant iron and steel company.
On my 29th birthday, 25th October, 1962, I saw my first play, Look Back in Anger, starring Derek Jacobi, at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. I decided to become an actor and, unlike John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter, haven't looked back. Three years later I graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and since then have been fortunate to play leading roles in over two hundred productions in the West End of London, provincial repertory theatres throughout the United Kingdom, America, Holland, the Caribbean and Bermuda. During these magical years I have sat on the throne of England as Henry V; worn the laurel crown of the Roman Empire as Mark Antony; wielded the mighty pen as Sir Edward Marsh, Private Secretary to Winston Churchill; carved marble monuments as Henry Moore; assisted the great John Ford in Young Indiana Jones; given the world E=Mc2 as Albert Einstein; and chewed the apple as Sir Isaac Newton in Star Trek: Voyager. Prior to arriving in America in 1986, I appeared in over forty television plays and series in Europe, including The Great Escape with Christopher Reeve and Ian McShane, Yes, Minister with Nigel Hawthorne, written by Jonathan Lynn, Jennie with Lee Remick and Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren. Having served as a Sergeant in the British Army, as an actor I was privileged to portray General Montgomery in War and Remembrance, A Man Called Sarge and The Dirty Dozen. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on ...”
My first film appearance was the starring role in Compromise, which won the coveted Gold Medal at the 1969 International Student Film Festival. Behind the camera was a golden talent of the future, Tony Scott. Other unmemorable film appearances include The Stud, Confessions of a Window Cleaner, Minder on the Orient Express, The Rainbow Thief, A Man Called Sarge and Scandalous. When Sir John Gielgud was asked why he had agreed to appear in Scandalous he replied, “Dear boy, I have a house in the country, and it is very expensive to run.” My house is in London! I can be seen briefly as Leslie Brough in Alexander Payne’s Sideways and more recently as Bernie in Michael Schroeder’s The Man in the Chair with Christopher Plummer and Robert Wagner.
I have often portrayed a Ship's Bosun, an Hyena, a Restaurateur and Galileo's research assistant, as well as the handsome prince, a murderer and frequently a lover. I’ve distinguished myself as the Butler to many households — all alike in dignity — the Dean of the American University in Cairo, the Minister of Transport in the Conservative Government, Police Officers, Doctors, Journalists, Psychiatrists, Paleontologists, Art Gallery Owners, Pirate Captains, Lawyers, Judges, Professors, Auctioneers, Hotel Managers — even a Grandfather — and the Devil!
What a lot of fun it is to be an actor.
I was introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh at the comparatively early age of 36 during the 1969/1970 Exhibition of the works of Ernest Shepard at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. My award-winning one-man stage show, Bother! The Brain of Pooh, selections from The Complete Works of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, produced by my beautiful wife, Diane, received its premiere at the Cambridge University Theatre on October 14th, 1976, the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Winnie-the-Pooh. The show has since been performed more than 300 times at nearly 100 major European theatres, festivals and universities, as well as the Palace of Westminster, London.
At the invitation of Anna Strasberg of the Actors Studio, Bother! received its American premier in 1968 at the Lee Strasberg Theater in Hollywood, where it was honoured with the Drama-Logue Award and the L.A. Theater Award. It has since been presented at the Coronet and Tamarind Theaters in Los Angeles, Every Picture Tells a Story, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival; the Los Angeles Public Library; CALTECH; the University of California San Diego; The Famous Door Theater, Chicago; Harper College, Illinois, Brigham Young University, Utah, the Asolo Conservatory of Florida State University, Sarasota, Nextstage Theatre, Sun Valley, Idaho, the American Stage Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida and the Miniature Theatre, Chester, Massachusetts. In celebration of Pooh’s seventieth birthday, and to honour the life of Christopher Robin Milne, who died on April 20th 1996, I read The Complete Works of Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne at Every Picture Tells a Story, commencing at 12 noon on Sunday, 27th October and completed the canon of twenty stories and seventy-nine poems at 12.50 a.m. on the Monday.
The eighteen part radio series of The Complete Works of Winnie-the-Pooh, produced by Christopher Toyne, was first broadcast by KCRW Santa Monica and since aired by many public radio stations across America and was honoured with the Public Broadcasting Silver Award. The subsequent audio recordings have been awarded three Ohio State Achievement of Merit Awards and two Parents’ Choice Classic and Gold Awards. The Classic Audio Collection of The Complete Works in CD and cassettes are available through my web site www.PoohCorner.com and by telephoning 1 800 824 POOH.
“And I know it seems easy,” said Piglet, “but it isn’t everyone who can do it.”
My other one-man show, Speak of the Devil, A Portrait of the Devil in Literature from Revelations to Bulgakov, compiled by the late Yvonne Mitchell, received its English premiere at the Oxford Playhouse Theater and was premiered in America by Jody Kiel at the Tamarind Theater, Hollywood, in 1993.
Since my arrival in America, I have been a guest star in numerous television productions, including Alias • Star Trek: Voyager • Diagnosis Murder • Seinfeld • Friends • Felicity • The Wayans Brothers • Family Matters • Santa Barbara • Murder, She Wrote • Murphy Brown • Melrose Place • Knot's Landing • Dark Justice • Prime Suspect • Young Indiana Jones • Brisco County, Jr. • The George Carlin Show • Acapulco H.E.A.T. • California Dreams • Saved by the Bell and and Step by Step.
What’s next? “You never can tell” says Pooh!
Diane and I spend our leisure time growing roses and wild flowers, surrounded by oaks, walnut and pepper trees, and are visited daily by hawks, humming birds, hooded orioles, the great horned toad, coyotes and rabbits— and rattle snakes. We could do without the snakes, though. We planted sixteen rose bushes, but an unwelcome rodent, the gobbling gopher, has succeeded in destroying two of them. Simon, a rather beautiful cat, now more appropriately rechristened Tigger, took up residence with us two years ago and has been very busy ridding the neighbouring countryside of its various predators.
Peter Dennis died in Shadow Hills, Los Angeles on April 18th, 2009.
On a cold January afternoon in 1970, Angela Westmacott took me to the Ernest Howard Shepard Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Mr. Shepard had bequeathed some 300 of his sketches and drawings for Winnie-the-Pooh, Now We Are Six, The House at Pooh Corner and The Christopher Robin Verses to the Museum in 1969.
This was my first introduction to Pooh and his friends, as I had never had any toys or bears as a child. My first ever bear, Marchbear I, was given to me by Lynda Marchal on Christmas morning, 1966.
I fell in love with Shepard’s drawings; Angela lent me her well-read and tattered copies of her Pooh books. I kept them for some three years, and every now and again would be asked by friends to read selections from the stories and verses after dinner. Diane and I had met in 1973, and after she moved into my flat at 538 Kings Road, Chelsea, she ‘rescued’ her three bears, Brumas, Ivy and Whistles from the suitcase where they had been held captive for about twenty years. They met Marchbear, and have remained close friends ever since.
In 1976, I was playing Falkland in a production of The Rivals by Sheridan at the Arts Theatre, in my first production for the Cambridge Theatre Company. On the morning of 14th October, Michael Dale, the Publicity Manager of the Company, told me that it was Pooh’s fiftieth birthday and suggested that I should celebrate the occasion by reading some of Milne’s stories and poems that night at the A.D.C. Theatre, after the performance of Robert Lang’s production of Sheridan’s The Rivals. Our curtain came down at 10.45 p.m., so Michael suggested that my reading could start at 11.15 p.m. at the A.D.C. I agreed, but was doubtful that we would get an audience as such short notice — Michael said he would circulate a flyer to the various Cambridge colleges, some of whom had Pooh societies and “You never can tell!” says Pooh. At 11.00 p.m. Diane and I walked through the dark streets of Cambridge. We carried with us the four Pooh books by A. A. Milne and Marchbear. We were put in a dressing room, which had just been vacated by the Cambridge Footlights Company. The room was cluttered with costumes and make-up and a smell usually associated with a urinal. We cleared a small corner of the room and sprayed some air cleaner that was labeled as having the scent of an English garden! It didn’t, but it was better than the urinal. Diane went front of house. I sat nervously in the dressing room, not knowing what to do when the curtain rose. The stage manager called me on to the stage. I could hear voices from the auditorium, but could not find a ‘peephole’ in the curtain to see how many people were there. Just before the stage manager opened the curtains, I put my right hand through the centre opening, holding Marchbear aloft. A single voice began to sing “Happy Birthday” — I recognised Diane’s voice. By the time she reached the second line, a number of other voices joined in. By the third line, the curtain had risen and the packed house of some 300 people were singing. I started reading and didn’t stop until 1.15 a.m. It was a magical time. Marchbear sat on a small chrome metal chair on the table to witness the show — he has not missed a show since. The following day, Michael asked if I would continue the readings for another four nights. I did, and each night, the theatre was full.
For the next six years, I tried repeatedly to get permission to read Pooh in theatres, but each attempt failed. I went through a variety of channels, including negotiations with the then lessee of the Savile Theatre, where the musical Winnie-the-Pooh, starring an overweight Christopher Biggins as Pooh had been produced. I sought advice from Richard Shulman, the previous co- owner with Basil Clavering of the Cameo Royal chain of cinemas and in the early 1980s, the General Manager of the Shaftesbury Theatre. (I had last seen Richard with his lover, Basil, on the night of the Coronation! They invited me to stay the night in their flat and gave me the elegant spare bedroom with king size bed and a pair of carved lions at the foot! I received a number of short and dismissive letters from Curtis Brown, the company who handled the rights for the Pooh Trustees, all informing me that permission would not be granted. One morning, tired of receiving these refusals, I read the names of the Directors listed at the bottom of their headed paper in the hope that I might know someone. The name ‘Diana Baring’ leapt from the page. James Pope Hennessy’s agent, Diana Crawfurd, had married a banker. There are only so many banking families, Rothschild, Coutts and Baring came to mind. I wonder. I rang Curtis Brown’s phone number, then Park 1011 and asked for Diana Crawfurd. “Just one moment, please” said the receptionist. A moment later, she returned and said “Who is speaking?”. “Peter Dennis” I answered. Second later, a very cheery voice said “Hullo, Peter. How are you?”. I quickly explained the reason for my call. Two days later, Diana rang back to say that non-exclusive permission had been granted for me to perform Bother! publicly.
During the past twenty-four years, the show has travelled extensively, always in the company of Diane and Marchbear. With Pooh and his friends, we have dined and wined with royalty and nobility and commoners. We entertained the Speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard ‘Jack’ Weatherill with his wife, Lyn, together with several Members of the Government and Opposition in the Palace of Westminster and also helped the Marquess of Bath and his family welcome over 60,000 bears and their owners to the first ever International Teddy Bear Rally at their stately country seat, Longleat in Wiltshire.
In 1979 we had the great honour of meeting Christopher Robin Milne at the Ashdown Forest in Sussex and again in 1981 at the Mappin Terrace of London Zoo, where Christopher unveiled Lorne McKean’s life-size bronze statue of Winnie. Soon afterwards, we were invited for the first of many visits with Christopher, his wife, Lesley, and their daughter Clare to their home, Embridge Forge, a former 17th century forge, in the hollow of a hill in Devon.
We had the pleasure of meeting the ‘real’ Pooh bear, who had flown by Concorde from New York in the arms of his American friend, Nancy Winters. For security reasons, the priceless bear was being held captive — it seems to be a habit for bears to be locked up — in the vast nineteenth century safe of the Savoy Hotel in London from whence was delighted to escape for a few minutes into the fresh air of the Strand. Unfortunately the photograph of us standing outside the Savoy holding Pooh did not come out well!
Marchbear has shared many adventures in our lives during the past twenty six years. He was introduced to opera at Glyndebourne for a performance of Fidelio by Beethoven, conducted by Bernard Haitink. He has visited Scotland on a number of occasions, where, with the guidance of Archie Stirling’s gillie, he helped me and Diane catch our first salmon and later accompanied us to the University to hear Peter Katin at the piano — I had heard the soloist play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 in B Flat Minor at my first ever concert at the Royal Albert Hall on March 5th, 1952, the last night of my first honeymoon. The concerto was the only record in my parents’ house when I was ‘growing up’ — I still haven’t. Marchbear travelled by train to Wales, where he survived the huge waves as they beat on our hotel windows in Aberystwyth; Ireland, where we almost got lost in the mists of Connemara and saw our first rainbow on a trip around the Ring of Kerry; Israel, where Marchbear watched as I recreated General Montgomery’s relief of Tobruk; Yugoslavia, where he observed Christopher Reeve make his Great Escape from Stalag 17; Bermuda, where he braved many Turks and Tomahawks; Barbados, where he was embarrassed by my ignorance of the iambic pentameter; Trinidad, where the Governor General insisted we ‘jump up’ at Carnival time; Tobago, where we met the great photographer Norman Parkinson; St. Kitt’s and Nevis, where Marchbear watched me swim naked through the coral reefs; Antigua, where he turned a blind eye to Lord Nelson’s good one; Paris, where we lined up for hours to see the Degas Retrospective Exhibition at the Quai D’Orsay; Ibiza, where we often lunched, wined, dined and reached unexpected heights with Robin Maugham, Terry Thomas, Diana Rigg and Denholm and Susie Elliott, together with many other artists and writers who had fled the grey skies of England; Mallorca, where Marchbear sat with Robert Graves and his family in their garden in Deja and Robert rediscovered a pair of nesting lovebirds and marvelled at Diane’s “beautiful black hair”; Mijas in Spain, where I played a set or two with Lew Hoad, the former Wimbledon Singles Champion; Corfu, where we were entertained by Emlyn Williams and Beverly Nichols; Crete, where I watched Hayley Mills record her first screen kiss; Rhodes, where we shared a deserted beach or two with Diana Rigg; Rome, where we climbed the Spanish Steps and slept in the former home of the poet, John Keats; Mykonos, where we mistakenly went to Hell and back, before sailing to Paradise, and Athens, where Marchbear sat in state in the Emperor’s chair after a performance of The Frogs by Aristophanes at the Herodicus Atticus Theatre.
One of our biggest adventures was to cross the Atlantic to America, where Anna Strasberg, the widow of Lee Strasberg, one of the founders of the Actors Studio had invited me to present Bother! This introduction took us to Hollywood and Los Angeles, then to New York, where I failed to persuade an unimaginative theatre producer to introduce Pooh to an off-Broadway audience; Florida, where I shocked the locals by swimming in the Gulf of Mexico on a blustery cold Christmas Day; Chicago, where twelve floors up overlooking Michigan Lake the cold winds almost blew Marchbear’s fur off, yet he still nightly bravely attended the performances at The Famous Door; Brigham Young University, Utah, where the Paxman family introduced us to the Mormon way of life; South Carolina, where we slept peacefully in a four-poster bed; Las Vegas, where we stayed at The Mirage and in the morning wished it had been!; Santa Barbara, where Bother! was presented during the 1989 International Film Festival and San Diego, where I faced one of most appreciative audiences of over 750 undergraduates at the University of California San Diego.
We had a number of adventures during 1997, including a return trip to Chicago, where I introduced many of Disney’s ‘grown-up’ customers to the writings of Alan Alexander Milne, followed by a visit to the Woodstock Opera House in Woodstock, Illinois, where echoes of operatic arias prompted me to renew my early ambitions to perform at the Met. A few days later we took a trip to Sun Valley, Idaho, where we met Arnold Schwarzenegger, who joined us on the ice for a few minutes.
During Marchbear’s travels he has faced numerous dangers, including being shipwrecked off the coast of the island of Ios in Greece. He narrowly escaped dismemberment while perched on the front of our 1922 Sun tandem as we crashed while avoiding an oncoming lorry (truck) on a steep hill approaching Lyme Regis in Dorset. It was on the train journey back to London when, covered in bandages, I proposed to an equally bandaged Diane — and was accepted. I once inadvertantly left Marchbear on the luggage rack of a Birmingham to London train. Fortunately a fellow passenger handed him in to the Lost Property office in Baker Street, where, for a small fee, he was released and returned safely home. His most frightening experience was when his right arm suffered serious injuries as a result of being gnawed by Nellie, Lynda Marchal’s King Charles Cavalier spaniel. Marchbear recovered to brave more adventures — sadly, Nellie passed away some years later, and is buried underneath a clump of daffodils in Kensington Gardens.
Marchbear underwent a series of major refurbishments in 1987, including nose lift, arm transplant, fur graft and intravenous sawdust transfusion. Travelling several thousand miles by air, land and sea during the past ten years has aged Marchbear considerably and he is now in urgent need of further restoration. He anxiously awaits an operation and a speedy recovery in order that he may appear once again before his public.
I am often asked why I want to read Milne’s works to a public over-fed on Disney’s bowdlerized version of Winnie-the-Pooh. I can only answer that it is because Milne’s extraordinary writing, the way he gives life and emotions to these apparently ‘stuffed’ animals is so beautifully economical and descriptive of all our emotions and experiences Part, or all, of each one of Milne’s characters is in every person we meet. What happens to each of them — and each of us all — has been written in such a simple and witty manner. They represent the ‘ideal’; they are the childhood we may not have had, but wish we had. The irony is that the real Christopher Robin did not have the ‘ideal’ childhood that many of us imagine he had as the only son of a prominent dramatist and writer. The courtesy and appreciation that each of the characters show to each other is so frequently lacking by people in the modern world. To the undiscerning ear, Milne’s writing has sometimes been described as whimsical, particularly by writers such as Dorothy Parker. But Milne’s supporters far outnumber his critics — why else have over seventy million copies of the four Winnie-the-Pooh books been sold and the works translated into over thirty languages during the past seventy or so years?
Since 1962 American audiences have been introduced to Pooh mainly through Disney’s cartoons, but Disney’s Pooh ‘bears’ little, or no, resemblance to the characters created by Milne. It’s my joy and privilege to get people to forget Disney’s Pooh and introduce them to or remind them of the immortal stories from Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner and the verses in When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six written by Alan Alexander Milne
BOTHER! received its American premier at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in December 1986, before transferring to the Coronet Theatre in 1987. The show received eight 'Critics Choices' the "L.A. Weekly Theatre Award" and the "Drama-Logue Award".
Peter Dennis died in Shadow Hills, Los Angeles on April 18th, 2009.