From The Independent, October 20, 2004, David Soul: My home is where my art is
When David Soul was growing up on the prairies of America’s Midwest, he never imagined that, aged 61, he’d be sitting in a grey council office, pledging his allegiance to the Queen of England. Here, he explains how it happened.
The initiation ceremony at the Haringey Civic Centre was sweet and warm, not unlike early memories of being welcomed by the principal on the first day of school… except that then, with my hand over my heart, I would have pledged allegiance to the United States of America.
On this occasion, I was one in a group of about 25 persons from all over the world who’d gathered in north London to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen and become a naturalised British citizen, participants in the long tradition and history of this great country. Who would have imagined, nine years ago, when I first arrived in London to fulfil a dream of playing on the English stage, that I would end up a minted British citizen… a bona fide “whinger”? Certainly not I.
So, why UK citizenship? Well, it wasn’t about the weather, that’s for sure. No, like most everything else that’s happened in my 61 years (including becoming an actor), getting UK citizenship was more an accident looking for a place to happen. I found it here.
There is no one event or decision that inspired me to become a citizen; rather, a simple desire to belong. After years and years of wandering the planet, I have finally found a home and a community that I can embrace and that has embraced and encouraged me. I also want to give something back, a feeling I never really experienced in 26 years of “residing” in Los Angeles.
Sure, Hollywood gave me a career, and for that I will always be grateful, but L.A. also burnt me out. By 1993, I had simply run out of tolerance for the bullshit of “the business of the business” of Hollywood, where friendship and self-worth is based on your latest “hit” and “who you know”.
Believe me, there is a lot more to life than being umbilically tied to a telephone, waiting for an agent’s or a producer’s call to stave off the fear and insecurity that permeates Hollywood — the fear that one might never work again. Los Angeles was no longer the place for me. I was tired of justifying a life defined by ratings, box-office, image, worry and a depleted sense of self. I had to get out. Looking back, as I view it from London, Los Angeles is not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.
It all started when I took an offer to do a musical, my first ever, that opened in New Zealand and moved on to Australia. Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers was a wonderful show. And, though I seriously considered settling in New Zealand, an offer to do a couple of television films in Paris led me to Europe.
Then, while working on a film in Paris, where I happily lived on a reconditioned Dutch barge moored in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, an invitation came from the British theatre impresario Bill Kenwright to do a play in England. I jumped at the opportunity, and have never looked back.
Six weeks in London turned into six months, turned into six years, turned into residency, and now into citizenship. For me, playing in the West End (as so many American actors do) was never going to be just a “feather” I could take back to Hollywood and wave to say: “Hey, I’m a real actor now, I played in the London theatre.” No — I found a home.
But why England? Isn’t there some unwritten rule that every English actor aspires to go to Hollywood and become a star? Well, I’ll tell you something. Britain — despite its sometimes misguided desire to emulate the States; despite an almost genetic propensity to apologise for itself (“Sorry” is definitely not the hardest word to say); despite its steady diet of cynicism; despite its penchant to tear down its public figures and hyperbolise the ordinary; despite the myriad problems facing 65 million people living on a small island — still manages to maintain a charm, directness, simplicity and decency that I have longed for. Particularly when it comes to a sense of community.
Sure, people know who I am — I am not an “asylum-seeker” — but then, I was fortunate enough to have grown up with a generation of British TV viewers and their parents during the 1970s and 1980s. In those days, Starsky & Hutch and Match of the Day were “required reading”. And of course, there was also my music; “Don’t Give Up On Us” and “Silver Lady.” The people of Great Britain took me under their wing then, and once they’d done that, they never forgot. In a way, the “strangers” I meet today are really friends from the past, and I encounter them everywhere I go.
Living in this country has inspired me to become involved in community. In Maida Vale in north London, I know my neighbours and the local merchants and they know and trust me. I take walks in the park and on Hampstead Heath, I ride a push-bike along the canal, I hang in pubs, I work with local organisations, churches and charities, I’ve done national theatre tours and concert appearances all around the UK. Oh yes, and I’m a passionate Arsenal supporter. (With a middle initial of R, who else could I support?) For the first time in years, I feel part of an extended community. Why would I want to walk away from that?
Maybe a quick look back would give you more of an insight into my decision to settle here. Born in Chicago in 1943, my early years were split between the plains of South Dakota and the war-ravaged city of Berlin. My family moved to Berlin in 1949, two weeks after the airlift finished. My father, a pastor and professor of history, worked as religious affairs adviser to the US Commission and subsequently, from 1953 to 1956, with the Lutheran World Federation, a refugee-relief organisation. In the almost six years that we lived in that incredible “island city”, Dad devoted his life to the reconstruction of Germany and to reuniting families torn apart by a new, equally oppressive regime as Hitler’s — Stalin’s.
By the time we left Berlin in 1956, 6,000 people a week were fleeing the East into Berlin, hungry for freedom or an “exit visa” to the West. It was the real Casablanca. And, during the time we were there, hundreds of strangers — teachers, farmers, artists, musicians, students, factory workers and children from all over Eastern Europe — passed through our front door, seeking assistance.
I think my appreciation of “the stranger” developed during these early years. My parents were wonderfully kind people — it is still amazing to me how people who have so little can give so much. While my mother saw to their stomachs, Dad would nurture the spirit with his quiet counsel.
As the eldest son, it was my job to look after the children, many of whom had been torn from their families. I’d put together little gifts for each child: mesh bags filled with crayons, a pair of scissors, coloured paper and oranges, none of which these kids had ever seen. In return, our guests regaled us with paintings and sculptures and would, on occasion, perform music and theatre in our front room. And it was my peers who taught me the language, along with the traditions and music of Germany.
When I was 12, we returned to South Dakota laden with memories: the treasures of the traditions and music of Germany, as well as a perspective on Europe, and particularly on Eastern Europe. While many people were eager to hear the story, our perspective was not always welcome back in my home town. I’ll never forget my father being called a “commie” because his job had required that he work with the East German government. In the closed minds of some South Dakotans, it was guilt by association. Mid-America was as frightened of and reactive to the communist “threat” in the 1950s as it is now about terrorism.
I am from a large and, probably, overachieving family of farmers, educators and pastors, who had emigrated from Germany, Norway and Stettin (Poland) and settled in Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota. My grandfather was a child of eight when his father homesteaded in western Minnesota in 1884.
These people braved the unknown, along with the severe weather that swept across the prairies, to build their farms and churches and communities. Although many of this family were farmers and tradesmen, others were responsible for building the church schools on which Horace Mann would base the American system of “public” schooling. Though I take great pride in what my people did to help build Middle America, ironically, when I became a teenager, it was also the restrictiveness of these religion-based, traditional values that I had to escape. I went from belonging to a community to looking for a place to belong. I had to find my own way.
After living and studying in Mexico, marrying, having a child and divorcing (the first divorce in my entire family tree), at the age of 22 I fled the Midwest for New York. Then, after difficult and defining times in the Big Apple, it was on to Hollywood in 1967, where I encountered the film business. I began again, and although success came slowly and painfully, I would spend 26 years in LA and would own my first home there. Still, I never felt I belonged.
Then, in 1976, Starsky and Hutch was selected by The Sun’s TV awards as the outstanding new dramatic series on British television. I came over to accept the award on behalf of the show. An immediate love affair with the UK ensued, and in the years after, through TV, films, recording and touring, I experienced what has proved to be a real and lasting relationship with the people of Great Britain — and, ultimately, a true sense of belonging.
As a “Yankee” in “King Arthur’s court”, theatre has had by far the greatest impact on me, especially having had the opportunity on tour to visit communities all over the country and act in some of the most beautiful theatres in the world.
I love the theatre, but it’s not just appearing on stage that has impacted my life. Each new city or town I have visited has provided me with a new opportunity to learn something. Wherever I’ve toured, I have tried to make local contacts and become, at least for the week I’m there, part of the community. For example, visiting Bradford a couple of years ago, I sought out a men’s group to discuss with other men some of the difficult times we’ve been through. I did the same in Southport. In visiting so many different regions of the UK, I began to develop a real feeling for the whole. I began to feel part of the whole.
One of the great experiences I’ve had since coming to England has been making friends; not just fellow actors, or people “in the business” (which was pretty much the case in L.A.), but people from all walks of life, among them restaurateurs and club owners, musicians and writers, comics and cab drivers and plumbers, and a wonderful guy by the name of Martin Bell.
I saw Martin on Newsnight about eight years ago. In his iconic white suit, he was talking about principled journalism and the journalism of attachment; participatory rather than observational journalism. It’s a subject that fascinates me. So I called him up. He met me at a stand-up coffee bar in Kensington and then invited me over to a barbecue at his home. We hit it off, and have became very good friends. But it was his accessibility that allowed it.
We don’t agree about everything. Martin is an independent thinker, for whose integrity and common sense I have enormous respect — and I will say he’s a lot more fun today than he was when I first met him. He’s also the person who encouraged me to write my autobiography, which is due to be published next spring.
British citizenship does not mean that I am cutting my ties with America. My children and my ageing parents still live in the States, so I’ll be visiting them, and I will be voting in the US presidential election next month (if my vote actually gets counted). God help us if George Bush is re-elected. Still, my choice is to belong here, and in that belonging, I rejoice. Finally.
There’s one thing I’ve yet to comprehend, however, and that is the use of “sorry.” Not long ago, I stopped in at my local newsagent and accidentally trod on this guy’s foot. “Oh, sorry,” he reacted. “Excuse me, sir,” I said, feeling badly, “I just stepped on your foot.” “Oh, sorry,” he repeated. I don’t understand that, but I guess it’s just the way it is. One thing I’m not sorry about, though, is becoming a citizen. And, thank you all.
Oh, by the way: right on cue, at the end of the ceremony, it poured with rain. An appropriate baptism, I thought.