I believe it was comedian Eddie Izzard who once speculated that the secret of Edward Fox's magnificent drawl is that he has a wedge of muscle tissue stapled to the inside of his cheek. At any rate, Fox's voice was surely fashioned by the Almighty in the knowledge that one day he would play Harold Macmillan, an opportunity finally afforded him in Hugh Whitemore's A Letter Of Resignation.
Set primarily in the summer of 1963, Whitemore's main narrative is that of the Premier receiving said letter from John Profumo whilst weekending at an unnamed Scottish castle. After a lengthy briefing with his PPS and an MI5 agent, Macmillan then falls into a reverie which transports him back over a third of a century to the moment at which his wife Dorothy admitted her affair with Bob Boothby.
Following hard on the heels of (although mining an entirely different temperamental vein from) Snoo Wilson's HRH, the play implicitly raises questions about the use of "faction" as a theatrical device; historical and biographical speculation which might easily be digested upon the screen becomes more problematic when we are presented with the protagonists in the flesh, as it were. In this case, Whitemore's thesis – plausible but naturally unconfirmed, as such theses tend to be – is that Macmillan, having lived for decades with the burden of his wife's adultery, was too timid to pay the necessary direct attention to the Profumo affair in its early stages, accepting the War Minister's initial denials of impropriety at face value.
Fox's "Supermac" is rather too doddering, the voice excessively high and febrile, but he counteracts this with a ramrod-backed posture; as his own sharper features combine with a fine makeup job (right down to the eyebrows which he habitually strokes), he bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Willie Rushton's drawings of Macmillan. Whitemore's script overplays Macmillan's affected patrician antiquarianism, with the principal reminders that this was an act coming in the form of sporadic remarks from others to that effect. The author also goes into rather too much detail in the first-act briefing, simply having the secretary and the spook serve up a succession of cues for reflection or anecdote from the PM; the chain of loosely connected reminiscences at the end of the play, although far less relevant to the narrative, is more satisfying because it seems less forced. A clutch of philosophical discussions about religion and morality serve to give intellectual heft to the piece, albeit that they pop up as unbidden as a Jehovah's Witness upon the doorstep.
The initial air (possibly deliberate upon the part of director Christopher Morahan) of a stilted country-house play is dispelled by the entrance of Macmillan and Clare Higgins's excellent Lady Dorothy – all easy aristocratic amiability, making small talk with casual remarks such as, "I gather you're a spy, Mr. Ritchie," but using the appearance of directness as a defence when she confesses her affair. Yet, for all the other factual, fictional or speculative ingredients, the play's main appeal is (to quote a 1980 punk single about Edward Fox himself) "the uniquely English charm of old houndstooth jackets" of which Macmillan was a grand master.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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