A few years ago I made a documentary for BBC Wales called The Kosher Comedian in which I traced my family’s roots from Lithuania to Port Talbot, South Wales. I looked into why my family was the only one to remain from a once thriving Jewish community, and also the overall reason for the decline of Jews in Wales. (I wanted to call the programme “Jew Do You Think You Are?” but no one would let me).
While researching the programme, and visiting the vandalised Jewish Cemetery with my father, I was reminded of a wonderful story. My grandparents were Orthodox Jews and as such were not able to light their fire on the Sabbath. They therefore had someone to come and light it for them. The person who did this, along with his father Richard, the local baker, was the young Anthony Hopkins. Watching him do this on a weekly basis was my own father, who was around the same age. This simple, helpful action formed a childhood friendship between the two of them.
Because of this friendship – although, to be truthful, I would probably have done it anyway – I have followed Sir Anthony’s career from as far back as I can remember. Seeing him in films like A Bridge Too Far, Magic and The Elephant Man, was the reason I went into the acting profession instead of studying psychology. Well that and the fact I didn’t get the grades I needed.
I recently watched Sir Anthony’s latest film The Father. It was one of the most incredible performances I have seen. I managed to obtain an email address for Sir Anthony and wrote to him. I introduced myself and told him how incredibly moved I had been by the film and how I had related so much to it because my own father, his old childhood friend, now suffers with dementia.
Sir Anthony replied immediately. He told me how sorry he was to hear about my dad. He also told me that he vividly remembered lighting the fire with his father and how he and my father would sit there quietly while the adults chatted.
Since this first email contact, Sir Anthony and I have exchanged wonderful memories, and photos, of Port Talbot. He signs his emails ‘Tony’, although oddly I feel somehow disrespectful calling him that!
I shared all this with my father and passed on Sir Anthony’s good wishes to him. My father was of course delighted and told me other stories of them growing up together. However, as has become the norm, the next time I spoke with him he had forgotten everything.
As too many people unfortunately know, dementia is such a devastating disease. It not only affects the life of the sufferer but also the lives of those around them.
My mother sadly passed away a few weeks ago. My brother and I weren’t sure whether or not our father should attend the funeral but we were advised that he should. He actually coped very well and even took some of the service himself. That evening he had forgotten everything.
Now, whenever I speak with him, he asks where mum is. We thought about pretending that she was still alive and that he just couldn’t see her at the moment. So again sought advice, and again we were told that it is best to tell the truth as otherwise, when he does have those moments of clarity, it could confuse him even more. This means that he constantly suffers the loss of his wife as though for the first time. It is heartbreaking.
If you have the opportunity to see the film The Father I recommend you take it. It’s not an easy watch at times, but it is an incredible portrayal of the disease which cleverly, and upsettingly, shows the effects from the point of view of the victim as well as those close to them.
And from my own personal point of view, having the title role played by someone who knew my own father, made it an experience I hope to remember for a very long time.