Were you surprised when you were asked to reprise a role you first played nearly 25 years ago?
I think actors go round in a state of preparedness for almost anything coming up! Yes, I suppose not having to physically present the face of Gilmore, I suppose I didn’t mind so much, because I suppose vocally you don’t age as fast as the face does. I’ve so much enjoyed Gilmore and the whole filming of it with Andrew Morgan and then the team here, it was a delight. You don’t have to learn anything or hold your stomach in.
You have good memories of the original show?
Yes, because I think when a show has momentum, as Doctor Who had at that original time, it just feels so exciting to be part of it. To meet a Dalek up face to face and to meet the Doctor was just great; it was huge fun, especially when you’re filming tense action stuff. There’s a huge amount of humour and light-heartedness about and then suddenly you hear “action” and you get into the tension by contrast very quickly. It was great, great joy.
What do you look for in a script when it arrives?
I think a good question for an actor to ask himself is, “Does my character affect the events of the story? Do the events of the story affect my character?” If the answer to both those is yes – i.e. does the story change you, or are you redeemed, or killed or whatever – then it’s probably a good part. If you don’t change, and you don’t change anything in the story, then it’s probably not a good part at all. A lot of parts, especially these days, can be very much information-bound. You find yourself playing a consultant or a QC, sitting across a desk giving information, and that’s pretty thankless.
Would you turn down a role like that?
I’m very bad about turning anything down! I just love being with actors. The sense of storytelling and hoodwinking the listener or watcher with the imagination of a group of people I think is wonderful. I don’t turn much down.
Is that what got you into acting in the first place?
I think possibly if I hadn’t had such awful teachers at school, I might have been a writer. I think a lot of people just after the war had terrible teachers; they seemed to really dislike children. I think teachers nowadays have a respect for, and an enjoyment of children, little fresh faces with their approach to information and knowledge.
I like writing as much as much as I like acting: it’s a solitary business but you’re completely in control.
Until an editor gets near it…
Well that’s another problem!
You’re still well known for Upstairs Downstairs and your involvement with Doctor Who. What do you think makes people buy into long-running things like those, or plays like The Mousetrap?
I suppose after a time, all those things you mentioned have their own kind of momentum that attracts people. They’re stories about people. Theatre is only just removed from being a peeping tom, peeping over your neighbour’s fence into the garden. We want to recognise people; the weakness, the ludicrousness of people. I think that’s what intrigues us – seeing how much we have in common with our fellow man.
Is that why you enjoy going to the theatre?
(Pause) Yes. Because when you see a good piece of acting, a good actor at work, you sit there with 900 other people and think, “I don’t believe he’s transmitted such a subtle thought to 900 people all at the exact same moment.” Maybe it’s a half blink of an eye, or just a tiny intake of breath, and the whole audience knows precisely what he’s thinking. To transmit that, to be part of that contract between audience and actor, is just wonderful.
I’ve seen it happen both ways. I’ve seen good actors make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and I’ve seen the opposite. Generally speaking, a bad play, there’s nothing to be done about it. You can try and act the pants off it, try and make it look slightly better, but it’s just a bad play, with artificial flaws in it, too much disbelief, improbability. But there is a sort of hokum that actors can weave to make things tolerable. And it’s good to see a clever actor at work.
Actors who work all the time have a kind of aura of making everything work. Given the choice of employing an actor who hasn’t worked for a time, and someone who can just fit in the job because he’s got five other things on, you know [the latter] is somehow going to bring something to it that’s spontaneous and unselfconscious and free. It’s very interesting.
What irritates you about the acting profession?
I’ll tell you what increasingly irritates me is a script that you feel needs at least two more drafts. Quite often you think it’s great but it needs two more drafts. It’s careless, it’s not fine. People who haven’t done the same amount of preparation as you annoys me.
Acting is a collaborative process after writing: you might learn a scene that’s with another person. You’ve learned the lines and have a clear picture of how it should be: maybe you imagine yourself walking through a rose garden doing the lines, then you get there and the director and the other actors say, “no, you’re actually lying under a tree”. Instantly you have to recalibrate all your thinking to accommodate what you had from the walking to what they want from the lying to see where the common ground is. It’s all compromising. Writing not so: if you don’t like a character, you kill him off. If you love him, you put him into bed with someone. You can go anywhere. Acting has got this restriction which is good.
I don’t know if my brain goes into different parts! What’s nice about it is, as an actor you’re dealing with the same basic raw materials, day in, day out. It’s nice to have a look at somebody else’s problems: what are they resisting here? What is the problem here? How can I help them? It’s nice to be dealing with someone else’s bag of rubbish. I like to direct.
Is there a particular type of play you like to direct?
I love to direct comedy, but it’s so hard. The difference between what’s funny and what’s not funny is just a tiny recalibration of the lens. Some people are just funny, they’re just true: Judi Dench comes to mind, Michael Gambon. They’re not artificial. Somebody else comes on, and they only have to say “good morning” and you don’t believe them. You can’t put your finger on why that is. That’s always been fascinating to me.
When I was young and I saw a particularly bad performance in a play, I’d go and watch it again to try and see what it is. A good performance I’d store it away in my mind; a bad performance I’d go and watch and ask why? Is it lack of concentration? What is it that makes someone not believable?
Did you find mechanics that answered that?
I suppose it’s unfashionable to say it, but with all art, there’s quite a lot of technique. It’s about brushwork, about positioning your fingers on the violin, understanding what you’re transmitting as an actor. I suppose it is partly technical: you have a broad picture that comes to your imagination and then you have to fill in the bits.
Is that something that can be taught, or is it something that has to be “caught”?
I’ve seen quite a lot of actors – and I think I’m probably one of them – who started out and suddenly got better somewhere. I suddenly saw it was possible.
It’s about confidence. When I started as an actor, I was playing a lot of things through the filter of my father: I would imagine him playing the part and impersonate that. It took me a long while to realise that a) he was dead and b) I could use myself as a point of departure. I don’t think I’ve ever said that before, but it’s true – I always saw him playing the part I was playing and that was a strange shadow.
I’m thinking particularly about Upstairs Downstairs, because he’d done a lot like that – he’d been in the film of An Ideal Husband. I had a picture of him in a tail coat, and his very pretty voice – he had a wonderful voice. I was doing an impersonation of him playing James Bellamy, and Michael Crawford, who I was working with in the theatre at the time, said, “You know, you can make it closer to home, this.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Just be yourself.” I was holding the character at arm’s length and quite noticeably I got better halfway through Upstairs Downstairs. Once I married Hazel, I got the hang of it; I understood him, and I could use the weakness of my own personality for him. And they started writing to my strengths.
I think when you hire certain actors, you reckon they’re going to bring a bag of stuff with them that’s going to be interesting. When you see an actor like Edward Fox, he comes on and the character has history; you sense he’s a whole person. He’s not an actor walking on stage, he’s somebody who’s living the life of the character in another room, and he’s come in. That used to be called being a straight actor. They enliven what might not be much of a part on the written page. I think you have to put a certain amount in.
The technicalities are different between television and audio or stage, but in terms of mental preparation for a part, is it different for something like Counter-Measures compared with [the stageplay] Chariots of Fire?
It’s the same old process – apart from doing audio which is lovely because you read it. With all the others you have to know the tune. You have to know the words so well that you can kick it around and feel comfortable, so not for a nanosecond is there a look of “Christ, what do I say next?”
It really is like music: when you know the tune, you can do harmonies, you can improvise. You can’t do that if you’re struggling for the lines. Every so often an actor might get away with it by disguising it as a pause, but I know – I think, “you’ve had a moment of uncertainty there and it’s unstitched everything you’ve done in the past two minutes”, because suddenly it’s not King Edward, it’s Joe Bloggs the actor.
Of all the characters you’ve played, who would you like to reprise with the benefit of experience (assuming you can get away with the physicality)?
It’s always difficult this territory of question, because all the successful parts, you sort of love. They’re like your healthy children and they’ve gone off and made things. The ones you’d like to go back and visit again are the ones that didn’t work, the viewing figures were crap, the people didn’t come to the theatre. You feel kind of sorry for them. They’re the little lost sheep that you want go back and have another go at and make them have a good life. That’s a pretty fanciful answer!
I’d love to go back and do some more Rattigan. Terence Rattigan is a fantastic writer for actors: he understands how much he can underwrite, in other words what the actor will bring. Given a short line, he knows what an actor can imbue with meaning. He never overwrites. I’m a big fan of his. I’d quite like to play The Browning Version. There are one or two wistful characters in Chekov that I’d quite like to play. But I’m just really happy with new material.
I love new material. We do a different script every day of this: new stories, new adventures, new lines, new ways of finding making a line interesting.
Thanks to David Richardson and all at Big Finish for their help in setting up this interview and for the photo (above) of the Counter-Measures team