LOCAL ACTOR PUSHES THE BOUNDARIES
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
How long have you lived here?
Since 1983. We moved here because my wife was a junior doctor, an anaesthetist, and got a job at Charing Cross.
Favourite local haunts?
Adam's Café, for breakfast and evenings. And Detour's and Louche.
I have the dubious honour of saying the most obscene profanities in the history of broadcasting
Where did you grow up?
In Hampstead till I was 10, then we moved to Thame, where I went to the local grammar school.
Were you the school show-off?
Probably. I didn't have a happy time at school and resorted to mucking about so they put me on the stage.
I fell in love with Shakespeare when I was 9 or 10. My parents introduced me to the easier passages in the easier plays. When they told me about Henry the Fifth and all those great speeches I thought, oh, this is good.
How did your parents react when you got into RADA?
My father had wanted me to go into commerce, but he was pleased. He had gone to RADA and my mother was pleased to get me out of the house. He left school at 14 and had a very humble background in Wales. Mum's parents were Hampstead Liberals. They'd both acted during the war as Stars in Battle Dress (Army entertainers). My father was conscripted but my mother ran away to join the army. She was an army driver, properly trained, the best driver I ever knew.
Did they continue to act?
No. My father worked for British Airways, BOAC as it was then. He started as a sales clerk. He could be extremely charming, but he was very strict with us. Strict, not cruel. I have three sisters. None act but, if they did, they'd act me off the stage. They're better at being emotional.
Who were your contemporaries at RADA?
The biggest name was Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty, Michael Clayton). I was in the year below Graham Seed (Nigel Pargetter in The Archers). Back then you couldn't act without an Equity card and you could only get one from a repertory theatre company and they only gave out two a season. I'd been cultivating a relationship with the Oxford Playhouse since I was 12, visiting all the time. I was lucky. I wrote to them and asked for a job. My first role was servant to Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice in 1973. I was paid £25 a week.
Do you have a favourite performance?
That's difficult because I've been acting for 45 years. I loved doing Michael Frayn's Democracy. We started at The Crucible in Sheffield and moved to The Old Vic, a dream come true.
You often perform for the satirist Chris Morris (Brass Eye). How low did you go?
Chris hired me to play it dead straight and told me to improvise. There were lots of weird sketches. I stripped off in a pigsty and wrestled pigs. I had to put on a giant penis extension to play a porn star who orgasmed to death. And I was one of the unconcerned parents whose son had been kidnapped, but we just didn't care. It upset a lot of people. I have the dubious honour of saying the most obscene profanities in the history of broadcasting. I won't repeat what I said.
Even the C-word?
Do you prefer comedy or tragedy?
I didn't set out to be comedy actor. Comedy is probably the more difficult. People understand tragedy but comedy, even if the script is good, if they're not in the mood...
You've been in many film and TV hits: Grange Hill; The Bill; Silent Witness; Eastenders; Run, Fatboy, Run; Bridget Jones's Diary; Les Misérables... Did any actors particularly impress?
I did 3 days on 1984 with Richard Burton and John Hurt. Once I got over the initial meeting, I wasn't star struck because they were very kind to me. There's a lot of snobbery in acting, but they were genuine.
Are you often recognised in the street?
Sometimes, in bus stops and supermarkets, but I don't want to be too well-known or you're pigeonholed. I like to be more flexible. In this business, you must make public recognition by 30. John Hurt and Tom Wilkinson are rare exceptions. When I hit 30 and realised I wasn't a household name, I became a housewife. I had absolutely no problem with that. My wife worked and I made a home. I did the childcare. I told my agent, don't put me up for any theatre in Glasgow. I was looking after my son. His mother died when he was 12. He's 29 now and lives at home, which is great for me. He's very creative and pursuing his music and art.
What's been the best perk of being an actor?
Oh, lots of limos, stretch limos, darling! Sadly, they're too early for the neighbours to notice. I once made a pilot in Gran Canaria and got a week's holiday for free. But, I'm very down to earth. I'm very happy with a peppermint tea.
On set, how do you kill time waiting to be called?
On stage, it's crosswords. On set, chat and gossip. I avoid politics. Most creative people are on the Left and I'm Conservative. I canvassed for Shaun Bailey and walked every street in the area, but he didin't get in. I'm not active now, but I'm still a member of the Conservative Party. Sadly, some people have used it against me.
Have you done much voiceover work?
Some. I just did something for Coca-Cola, and I've been working with a brilliant artist, Mel Brimfield, who filmed my mouth describing the hallucinations of a schizophrenic, the heavenly highs and the hellish lows.
Top tip for someone who wants to act?
Do accountancy instead. You need another qualification because you'll need another job and working in bars or being a waiter won't be enough. Over the years, I've worked on building sites, done van deliveries, I've installed tons of office furniture.
If you hadn't chosen acting, what would you have done?
Aircraft design. My uncle designed the HS125, the executive jet, which is in the Science Museum. He also worked on the moonshot, the spaceship that landed on the moon, but he was one of a large team.
When your agent calls now, what part are you hoping to land, film, TV or voice work?
I'd like a regular part in a new TV series. We'll see.
How do you fill your time waiting for the call?
An actor must keep fit. I like cycling to the river. When I was a boy, I cycled to school, 4 miles there and back. And I keep a diary, no literary masterpiece, but it's important to stimulate the higher brain function. And I love reading poetry. I read it aloud. I wait till my son's gone out, but the neighbours must think I'm mad.
Thank you, David. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.