Actor, director and co-founder of the English Shakespeare Company, Michael Pennington has forged a career across five decades. With substantial theatre credits including King Lear, The Seagull and The Madness of King George III, Pennington’s versatility has seen him cross over into film, with a star-making role as Moff Jerjerrod in Return of the Jedi.
Now approaching his sixth decade in the business, Pennington has written his autobiography. In My Own Footsteps is a memoir packed with names, from the theatre giants of the 1960’s (Paul Scofield, Alec Guinness) to Hollywood’s current A-Listers. But rather than dropping them with a clang, Pennington’s contacts populate his world. The book bustles with energy – as we walk with Pennington, he creates a sense of time and transition. This is Pennington’s chief skill as a writer – conveying the almost imperceptible shift from boozy lunches to a more sober work culture, with tightly-managed schedules.
While other stage memoirs have been more concentrated (Antony Sher’s Year of the King, for example, focuses on Sher’s preparation for his role as Richard III), Pennington’s autobiography takes in the whole of his career. Examining his own development, Pennington is aware of not necessarily moving in a straight line, but coming back to people, places and characters later in life – he refers to it as “following in my own footsteps”, which becomes a metaphor for the entire book. Relishing the chance to have another go, it’s Pennington’s sense of adventure that stays with you.
With Pennington’s career spanning television, film and theatre, there’s plenty of showbiz gossip to entice even the most casual reader. From meeting Harrison Ford on the set of Return of the Jedi to a fascinating insight into what’s like to apply for the job of running the RSC (it eventually goes to Michael Boyd), the love Pennington has for the industry is evident throughout. He speaks movingly about lost colleagues – his chapter regarding the late actor Richard Griffiths is especially touching. Michael praises the talents of these actors with real generosity, mindful that some of them are in danger of being entirely forgotten.
What is particularly interesting about Footsteps is Pennington’s lack of ego when it comes to presenting himself on the page. At times somewhat prickly, he freely admits where he got it wrong, both professionally and personally. Aged 78, Pennington still sees himself as a work in progress.
In biographies where the star wields the pen, there always tends to be a trade-off. Crisp, clear prose or a no-holds-barred glimpse into the personality. What Footsteps delivers is an incisive self-portrait of an actor not just looking back on their career, but looking forward to the next opportunity. This is not a carefully edited, media-trained version of the actor. Pennington allows us access to every part of his personality, and Footsteps is a better book for it. While the biography ducks and dives between the present and the past, across each page is the authentic sound of Pennington’s voice – restless, searching and indelibly curious.
Publication date: 24 June 2021