Derbyshire born actor Robert Lindsey
PUBLISHED: 17:18 27 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:54 20 February 2013
Ilkeston-born actor Robert Lindsay visits the Derby stage for the first time this month. He talks to Ashley Franklin about how it feels to get back to his roots
Youre giving me goosebumps! exclaimed Robert Lindsay when I raised the matter of his remarkable range as an actor in the midst of our discussion on his starring role in Onassis, which comes to the Derby Theatre this month. Robert has already played Aristotle Onassis to great acclaim at Chichester The Times reviewer called his performance a work of art while the Daily Mail critic pronounced it a salacious delight and this subsequent staging has provided a welcome opportunity for this Derbyshire actor to perform professionally for the first time in Derby prior to Onassis going on to a West End run.
Its been a long time since I spoke with Robert Lindsay. The first time I met him was at the turn of the 1980s. I was working at Radio Derby and it was exhilarating to be interviewing an Ilkeston-born lad who had shot into the stratosphere of television fame as Wolfie in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith. Those were the days when the top sitcoms as this decidedly was pulled in audiences of 20 million, a particularly remarkable feat for a newcomer. The scriptwriter was also a fledgling: a certain John Sullivan, who was to move on to work on Only Fools & Horses.
Robert moved on, too. Although he spoke dutifully about his sudden success in television comedy, his heart lay in meatier, more serious drama, with a special place reserved for the stage. He has become one of Britains most well known and well loved actors, largely through another TV sitcom, My Family, which is still going strong after ten years, but the awards and plaudits have come through TV dramas like Hornblower, Jakes Progress, The Trial of Tony Blair and Alan Bleasdales GBH, the latter earning him a Best Actor BAFTA.
Then there have been the stage performances in The Entertainer, Richard III, Oliver!, for which he won the Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical, and perhaps most distinguished of all Me and My Girl, for which he won the Olivier Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Musical and, when it transferred to Broadway, the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
In between Citizen Smith and Onassis, I spoke not to but about Robert Lindsay in 1997. It was to John Cleese, who had cast Robert in the film Fierce Creatures, his follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda. Roberts cinema career hasnt exactly been tinged with greatness he admits himself in his autobiography Letting Go that he made some poor choices but John Cleese could see the greatness in Robert Lindsay. The wonderful thing about Robert is his versatility, enthused Cleese. Im just a comic but Robert ... well, he can do drama, comedy, he can dance, he can sing, he can do voices... I envy him.
Thirteen years on, I quoted this to Robert because here he was, again, having played John Osbornes famously washed-up vaudeville act Archie Rice in The Entertainer, taking on an entirely different stage role: that of the wealthy Greek playboy and shipping magnate in a story of money, sex and power.
In the light of this, I told Robert that it had led me to think of another British actor who had his sheer range on screen and stage: I considered Chaplin and Sellers but I decided the only actor who could match his versatility was Laurence Olivier. This is what brought on the goosebumps...
Laurence Olivier was my model and my hero as an actor when I left Clarendon College, declares Robert. And was that because of Oliviers enormous range, I asked? Exactly that, came the swift reply and probably why Robert refers to Larry in his book as the definitive actor. Robert even had the honour of performing with him and, arguably, the even greater honour of having the great man come to see Robert perform in Me and My Girl. Indeed, some time after, it was Olivier himself who suggested Robert should play Archie Rice, as Olivier did, on both stage and screen.
All actors at RADA were influenced by Oliviers versatility, Robert states in his book, but what also led to the variety of Roberts roles is that, as he also reveals in his autobiography, he never really had a career plan... all I had really was a basic desire to perform.
Theres a variety of reasons behind Roberts desire to perform in Onassis. He begins by telling me of an incident which told Robert he was on to something with the part when the cast and crew of My Family at Pinewood Studios had a visit on set from HM The Queen. Ill bet not many people can say they spoke to the Queen in their bedroom, quipped Robert. It was in that bedroom set that Her Majesty asked Roberts co-star Zo Wannamaker what she was doing next. Much Ado, replied Zo. There was a slight ado when Robert replied to the same question, informing The Queen that he was due to play Aristotle Onassis. Oh, do you have to? she responded before moving to greet the next cast member.
This story led me to ask what had led him to play Onassis? Initially, it was reading, about five years ago, the book Nemesis by Peter Evans a searching study of the shipping magnates marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy, his entanglement with the Kennedy clan, his personal vendettas and his relationship with opera star Maria Callas.
I read the book in a morning, Robert recalls. I just couldnt put it down. I was completely shell-shocked by the behaviour of these powerful= people. Their duplicity, for one thing, the way they used others to gain something. They thought they ran the world. Then Martin Sherman wrote his brilliant play, much of it based on the book, and he wrote it like a Greek drama with a chorus. This was because Onassis, for his sins, believed in the Gods and also believed they were after him. And why shouldnt they be when you consider what he got up to? As Robert points out, the play is more than a fascinating insight into a larger-thanlife character. This play is saying that if you meddle with the Gods, you pay for it, says Robert. In a recent interview, Tiger Woods was talking about his infidelities and said he was so rich and powerful that he felt he could get away with anything. But these people pay a price.
Another sound reason to take on this part is that Robert Lindsay has always been drawn to iconic, charismatic and rather flawed characters and he agrees that they dont come much more iconic, charismatic and flawed than Onassis. However, for a lad brought up in Ilkeston with everyday values, was he shocked to find how enormous wealth and power can be so corrupting and corrosive?
It made me all the more intrigued by him, replies Robert. Ive always been fascinated by money, for instance, because Ive never had any. Ive got a very Ilkeston sense of saving something for a rainy day. I have also met some very rich and powerful people, most of whom I dont like and who say things that would have shocked my late mum and dad. Im always shocked at how innocent people are of corruption. Theres a lovely naivety to Derbyshire folk which is why I go back so often.
All actors, though, try to find something empathetic in their characters, however monstrous or dislikeable they are. Will play-goers have any compassion for Onassis?
Yes, and thats why I was asked to play him, states Robert. There is something accessible about me. People seem to like me. Look at my character Ben in My Family. I get letters from kids saying, I wish you were my dad. What?! Some wacky dentist who hates his children? But Ive played so many likeable characters that it gives the audience a feeling of its all right, its Robert Lindsay.
Actually, I do identify with Onassis in that he had a humble background and went off to seek his fame and fortune. He was also very self-willed and strong-minded. We also have to understand that he had a terrible childhood. He was raped as a young man by a Turkish soldier. He was angry about the world and craved wealth, success and power.
When Robert Lindsay went off to seek fame and fortune, he had the backbone of a good, solid family upbringing, thanks to his parents Norman and Joyce. They were what parents should be, Robert points out, Full of love and support and always there for you.
It was difficult for them to support their son financially. Sometimes he didnt have the full bus fare to get to Clarendon College, so he would have to walk over five miles. It was a fellow student who lent him a fiver to pay for his RADA audition fee and train fare to London. Yet, as he recounts in Letting Go, such was his mothers pride that when her son was accepted, she grabbed Robert and ran through Ilkeston, tapping on doors and windows, yelling Hes got in! Hes going to the Royal Academy!
However, being an Ilkeston lad meant you shouldnt let too many people know you wanted to be an actor. He told me that he was encouraged by his Clarendon tutor to audition for Derby Shakespeare Theatre Company in the mid-60s but I talked my way out of it Derby Shakespeare seemed a bit posh for me.
Once at RADA, he began to get my voice, thinking that had he not stripped away his Derbyshire accent, he would have ended up playing D.H. Lawrence characters all his life. Ironically, his first professional play was The Roses of Eyam.
I went to enormous trouble to lose my accent and personality, Robert remembers, and thats what my book Letting Go is all about. The death of his mother on Millennium Eve brought Robert to reflect on his life. The consequent autobiography he describes as hugely cathartic.
I realised that it was no good running away from myself any more. When I got on that train to London, my plan was to escape my roots. I used to be embarrassed about where I came from, that small town mentality I left behind with its drinking culture. I also used to think these people werent very intelligent. A terrible admission, I know. I had this notion that you had to be upper class to be intelligent. Then I met people like Alan Bleasdale, an intellectual but so true to his working class roots. I realised eventually that it was no good running away from myself anymore.
For this month, Robert Lindsay is back home and couldnt be happier, giving his support to the Derby Theatre and, at 60 years of age, making his debut on the old Playhouse stage. Fittingly, it was former Playhouse director and now Artistic Director at Chichester, Jonathan Church, who suggested Robert warm up for the West End by performing Onassis at Derby. I told Jonathan it would be more than a warm up because it would be in Derby, says Robert, to which Jonathan said: My very point. If its a success, Derby will get some money out of it and you will have given something back to the local theatre and community. So, I now feel as if Im on a little mission.
Part of that mission is Roberts desire to keep theatre alive. He concedes that this is the only reason he perseveres with My Family after 11 series: Its for the money. I cant survive just doing theatre, not with three children. I say that with complete honesty. My whole career has been based on doing telly to earn money to work in theatre. It goes right back to Citizen Smith that was to support my work at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.
Robert declares that he will always do live theatre because its a drug, and he has already achieved a high with Onassis: There usually comes a moment when you become at one with the character, yourself and the audience. All great theatre actors know what it is. Judi Dench, Helen Mirren they know what it is. Theyve both got a film career but they just cant leave theatre alone. There is a moment when youre into your part and you click. You get it. Once youve had that moment, you never want to let it go. I achieved something in Onassis which I have never experienced before. It was a moment of absolute silence and then a wonderful surge of emotion from the audience. Its the best drug youll ever get.
Onassis starring Robert Lindsay can be seen at the Derby Theatre from 9th to 25th September. Roberts autobiography Letting Go is published by Thorogood. Price: 18.99 hardback.