For this role, I must learn the art of silence

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Well, I've been promoted to colonel. This rise through the ranks was not, I modestly admit, entirely unexpected. I suppose I might have aimed at a professorship instead, but that empty chair - of phonetics - was more appropriate for a younger man.

My real aspiration was to be an undeserving cockney dustman with a generous way with words and a penchant for doing as little as possible. But it wasn't meant to be. The auditioning committee, after about a week's cogitation, decided in their wisdom that I should be Colonel Pickering.

"My Fair Lady" buffs may have some inkling what I am talking about. Professor Higgins; Eliza Doolittle, the flowergirl; her father, Alfred, the London dustman - these are the chief protagonists of that fine piece of musical theater. But our amateur drama club doesn't do musicals. What we are doing instead is the play on which the musical was much later based: "Pygmalion," by George Bernard Shaw.

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Colonel Pickering - the product of Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge, and India - is an amiable, upper-crust, and minor cog in the "Pygmalion" wheel. He is a sort of straight man to the preposterous "genius," Higgins; he's a fellow phonetician and background chum. Pickering helps the story on its way by laying a wager with Higgins that he can't turn the cockney flowergirl into a socially acceptable "lady" in time for the ambassador's garden party. It is he who pays for the lessons. It is he who, in contrast to Higgins's highhanded and bullying ways, wins Eliza's fond respect by being consistently courteous to her. He is a nice man. (You might be justified in asking if our club goes for type casting, and I might be justified in evading the question.)

When we arrived at the first rehearsal, I was unusually well prepared. Normally I prefer to just plunge in and flounder. I call this "discovering as you go along." But this time there was a nine-day gap between casting and kickoff. I even learned some of Pickering's lines, such as: "Come Higgins, be reasonable." And "I think you ought to know, Doolittle, that Mr Higgins's intentions are entirely honorable." I began to form some concept of his character.

It strikes me that a minor role is a good test of a playwright. Are his lesser figures mere sketched-in ciphers, or do they have rounded personalities? Is it left to the actor to instill a cardboard cutout with credible warmth? I suspect Pickering is a bit of both - a useful tool, but also a convincing reminder that most people aren't ruthlessly insensitive to the feelings of others.

I decided that Shaw was probably concerned that the good Colonel, if given too much to say, might become a bit of a bore, so he gave him a sprinkling of brief remarks and only one speech longer than 40 words.

Pickering is nevertheless ubiquitous. He is onstage for most of the play. He acts almost as a surrogate audience member. He is a kind of affable, spare Greek chorus. "Are you," he asks Higgins, "a man of good character where women are concerned?" This is a very Greek-chorussy sort of question.

At the end of the play, when Miss Doolittle, transformed into a lady, is about to leave, he says, "Eliza, do forgive Higgins and come back to us." As with Greek choruses, he voices what the audience may wish would happen, yet everyone knows isn't going to. Acting such lines will be interesting because most of them are heartfelt, each one building the believable Pickering image.

The columnar aspect of Pickering is his other side. I've already been accosted twice by Adrianne, who is playing Higgins's sensible mother, and told that I need to develop a more military posture and keep my arm gestures in check. To be, in fact, columnar. It seems my usual arm gestures have become a joke among club members.

I tend to be only too unaware of my extravagant gesticulations. And now our good director tells me I need to walk more like a military man. I told my wife after the rehearsal that the director said I needed to practice "smooth walking." "Apparently I walk roughly," I said. Instead of the immediate denial of this aspersion I had hoped for, she said, "Hmm. Has he seen you putting on a jacket yet?" A low blow.

Walking and jacket donning apart, so much of Pickering's time is spent saying nothing and standing still, like a Parthenon column, that there's a chance I may turn to stone - a reversal of the Greek Pygmalion myth in which the ivory statue of a woman is, in answer to her sculptor's entreaties to Aphrodite, brought to life.

The director told me: "Pickering should be upright, yes, but not too prominent."

"Oh," I said, "you mean I mustn't upstage everyone?"

He smiled tolerantly. But it was enough to make me realize that I need to develop special skills for this role. I need to listen much more than speak. Although I once heard a fine actor say that listening is, above all, what actors do, I'm still not quite convinced. As Pickering I need to ask myself, as the great accompanist Gerald Moore did in the title of his autobiography: "Am I too loud?" Dear me, no, this club does not go for type casting.

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