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In the early 1980s, Simon Annand asked one of Britain’s leading comic actors whether he could photograph him backstage. Now almost 40 years on he has an unrivalled collection of images giving a glimpse into the dressing rooms of some of the country’s most famous stars.

I t began with Griff Rhys Jones.

In 1982 the comedian and actor was starring in the Brandon Thomas farce Charley’s Aunt at the Lyric  Theatre Hammersmith. Directed by his old pal Mel Smith, the show was selling well at the box office and Jones was winning rave reviews.

One of those keen to see what all the fuss was about was theatre bar man Simon Annand who had recently bought himself a camera and reckoned that capturing Jones would be a fitting first subject for his lens.

“I asked whether it would be ok if I photographed the point in the play where Charley fills his father in law’s top hat with milk, which always got the biggest laugh,” says Annand. “Next, I went behind the scenes with Griff and captured one of his entrances from off-stage.

“The natural next step was to ask if I could photograph him in his dressing room. He agreed and I was really taken by how melancholic he was as he got ready to walk out in front of an audience. It was such a stark contrast to the ebullient role he was playing.”

While Annand didn’t know it then, those photographs were the beginning of what has become a life-long project. Over the intervening years he has photographed the likes of Daniel Craig, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench in what’s known in theatreland as The Half – that precious 35 minutes before the curtain goes up.

“It is a very personal time for any actor,” he says. “I knew some would be more receptive to having a photographer there than others. It was really important that they trusted me and knew I was on their side. 

“Every actor has a different approach to The Half, but during that time you see them all set aside their own personality and physically become the character they are playing. They enter the building as themselves, but they go on stage as somebody else.”

Annand has now taken thousands of photographs and published his first collection in a book called The Half in 2008, and now a selection of them are on display at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield.

Among the 75 images there are some familiar household names – many taken before they became famous – and each one says something about the realities of the acting profession beyond the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd.

“I remember photographing David Tennant for the first time,” remembers Annand. “I’d had a call from a friend to say, ‘You need to get down to the RSC as there is a great young actor there’. As soon as I walked into the room you could tell David had something special.”

The same, he says, was true of Phoebe Waller Bridge who he photographed long before Fleabag and Killing Eve made her the country’s most in demand writer.

“I admired her from the off,” he says. “She wasn’t willing to wait around for someone else to write a great part for her, so she did it herself. Like David she had a real aura about her and a  quirky beauty.”

Annand, who also works as a production photographer, doesn’t see the curtain ever coming down on The Half.

“If I thought I was repeating myself I would stop,” he says. “However, the beauty of a project like this is that you are capturing an individual at a specific moment in their life and even when I have photographed an actor on several occasions there’s a variety from the fact they are playing a different role.

“Because I have worked in the theatre for so long you can tell if an actor is posing for the camera. When that happens, I will take the picture they are offering but I will keep shooting until I see an image which says something about who they really are.”

Annand has plans for more books based around the project and his love affair with the theatre remains undimmed.

“I photographed the legendary Joan Plowright in the 1980s and I remember her telling me that even when she was working with husband Laurence Olivier people were complaining that there was a shortage of new writing.

“She said that in every generation there are only three or four great playwrights and the same number of great producers. There’s a tendency to look back to some mythical golden age, but it has always been the case.”

The Half, Lawrence Batley Theatre,
Huddersfield, to February 1st.

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