Last Updated on 29th September 2018
Robert Lindsay has enjoyed a diverse career on stage & screen that has seen the actor win numerous awards including two Oliviers, a Tony and a BAFTA.
Phil Matthews finds out about his rise through the ranks.
A year ago I interviewed Zoë Wanamaker for our first issue. I have to ask, what’s it like working with her in My Family?
Well, ironically Zoë and I go back to drama school days. Zoë was at Central, which I’m sure you know, and I was at RADA, and we had mutual friends. I remember going into a party at her flat – 1969 it must have been, or something like that. One of those drama student parties. I knew her Dad [Sam Wanamaker, the founder of the Globe Theatre] very well. I did the very first production ever at what is now The Globe, which was then ‘The Tent’, and I remember we had a rainstorm so badly it all leaked. Equity tried to stop the show, and Sam pleaded with us to go on, and we all supported Sam and carried on. There’s a little anecdote for you, I’d forgotten that.
So Zoë and I have known each other a very long time. How is it working with her? Zoë and I share a sense of humour which I think is very important when you’re working on such a lengthy sitcom. We’ve got a very twisted sense of humour, which is not always prevalent to a pre-water shed comedy. We do get on terribly well. But the more we do it, we’re getting on more like husband and wife. I think we’ve got to stop it soon!
Well you can definitely see that chemistry. It certainly comes across on screen.
Oh without a doubt. I think if it hadn’t have been for Zoë, I think we’d not have lasted this long. If it hadn’t have been for that relationship. I mean, Kris [Marshall] was terrific, who played my elder son, he really had his own fan base. But I do think the real success of the show is their [Ben and Susan’s] relationship, it’s very funny.
You talked about your early days at RADA. How did you decide to become an actor?
Of course I’ve written this book in which I described the cathartic moment, there’s always a moment. I was at a very tough secondary modern school in Derbyshire, which had a very serious reputation. We had this Art Master who was an extraordinary individual, who formed this thing called The Grand Order of Thespians, which was regarded with suspicion by most of the boys. It was kind of like Dead Poets Society, you know, it kind of caught on. There was one day he was rehearsing me in the school hall, to go to college in Nottingham, Clarendon College. I was rehearsing and discussing the play – “Once more unto the breach” and what it meant, and how it stirred people into action, and it’s propaganda and so on and so forth. The school bell went, and all the lads started firing out. And John [the Art Master] made them all stop and made me do the speech in front of 400 boys, most of whom were enemies and desperate to get to the bog and have a fag. And at the end of the speech, they all cheered, and I realised that was it. (Adopts a theatrical voice) This is what I wanted to do.
And you auditioned for the Royal Academy?
Yeah, without telling anyone at the time, because you see coming from a very industrial mining town in the 60s, you didn’t really tell people you wanted to be an actor. It was like coming out the closet really, people regarded it with great suspicion. So I hid it for ages and told everyone I was going to be an English and Drama teacher. But without telling anyone, I went off to RADA to audition, at the time with people like Richard Beckinsale, actors I’ve admired very much. I borrowed a fiver off a friend of mine called Clare Monks, who was a fellow student at Clarendon, which was my audition fee and train fare. A fiver, can you believe that? And I got in. I literally got in the first time, and there was no turning back.
What was it like being at RADA at that time?
RADA was a curious mix then. It was still a mixture, partly a finishing school for very very beautiful ladies, I remember, who were very wealthy. It was a very eclectic mix. The working class revolution was beginning to happen, I mean they’d had Tom Courtney and people like that there in the 50s, but it was very much a school that wanted to change your personality really. I mean really, breaking down, particularly my accent which was very broad, I mean really broad. It was so dense nobody could understand me there at all. Some of the tutors there were very eccentric. I’ve mentioned my great fondness of Tosca Fedra who was from the Russian Ballet, who taught movement. I remember vividly, arriving in her class in my tights and leotard, and being deeply embarrassed.
As every drama student does, I imagine!
Oh, I mean dreading it, dreading it… and she picked on me straight away. She said (adopts Russian accent): “My darhlings, I want you to walk along the room, I want you to walk from your bawlls.” I said “My bowels, Madame?” Cos I’d never called anyone ‘Madame’, which to me meant hooker, you know?! At that point, I couldn’t believe I was calling someone ‘Madame’. “No my darhlings, your bawlls,” pointing at my testicles. And so, I acted from my bawlls for two and a half years at RADA. Yeah, it was good and it was bad. I kind of regret allowing them to take away my personality as well, because they made me very conscience of who I was. I think I lost myself for a very long time after I left drama school. I didn’t quite know what I was, and where I fitted in, I kind of lost my true self, if you know what I mean. I think that happens even now, although it’s less geared towards changing accents, am I right?
It’s about training who you as an actor. Accents aren’t necessarily discouraged, but I think it depends on the individual.
Yeah. I don’t think my accent served me that well. It was neither northern or southern. I know even my brother is very conscious of his accent when he’s in London with me.
You can hear yours coming through when you talk about your brother! When I go back to the north east mine comes out.
It does. It will always be there somewhere.
You’ve talked in the past about how Citizen Smith was not really your big break, although every tabloid newspaper seems to suggest it was. You felt that working at the Royal Exchange in Manchester was your big break. Was that because you felt theatre was more legitimate?
You see I never had any pre-conceived ideas of working in TV. I mean TV was what rather good-looking people did, and rather untalented people did. I hate to say that, but that’s how TV was regarded then. But I gradually realised when I left RADA, I needed to pay the bills as well. I’d done the Northcott Theatre in Exeter, I’d done one film called That’ll Be the Day. I’d run out of cash and I literally couldn’t feed myself. I didn’t have parents I could turn to, to say ‘lend me a few quid’. So I was kind of desperate. I went up for an audition for a Thames TV series called Get Some In!, about National Service. The Producer was a wonderful guy called Michael Mills and he said “I’m going to offer you this part”. I couldn’t breathe, because I knew it was thirteen episodes, and I knew the fee was around £200 for each episode, which was going to solve…
.. a lot of problems.
Yeah, solve my life. And he said “Look, before you sign this contract, I want you to know something now. The moment you sign this contract, that’s your anonymity gone forever.” You know, I wasn’t even listening. I didn’t care, I paid my electricity bills, I paid all my tax bills I had to pay, I was solvent. And of course it began to hit me as I got into Citizen Smith, which was knock-on from that [Get Some In!], when it dawned on me – 24 million people – suddenly I was a TV star, which I never really planned to do. I just wanted to do theatre, that’s all I ever wanted. The business has strange twists and turns.
How was it going to the Royal Exchange after that?
Well I was so thrilled to be asked, because it was then in the late seventies and early eighties, the 69 Company and the people there were regarded as the best. Michael Elliott, Jasper Raider, Braham Murray and James Maxwell. The design and the concept of it, it really was the place to be. Redgrave was there, Mirren was there, Hoskins, you name it – everyone who was anyone worked at the Royal Exchange. Zoë [Wanamaker] was there at one point. I remember auditioning and got a season there, and that was it. At that point I’d become a TV name, which was odd. Being stopped everywhere. I remember doing Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, and there were queues around the block, and I remember them saying to me “You do realise, you’re bringing another audience to this theatre that’s never been before”.
Which must have felt good, no?
Well… (Long pause) Do you know, I think I’ve always been embarrassed by my TV Celebrity. It’s never really sat very well with me. I’ve always thought of myself as an actor. And of course, there’s a lot of baggage comes with being a TV Celebrity and it never sat very well me at all. I mean, I’m used to it now, but it’s taken a long time.
You did The Entertainer at the Old Vic (pictured above). How was working at such an iconic theatre and with Kevin Spacey?
Well, there’s a long story attached to that. Kevin had the rights, and I’d already done a reading of it a year before at the Royal Court. David Hare directed the reading, and everyone was saying this is a role you have to play. I had been told when I was doing Me and My Girl at the Adelphi that it was a role I should take on at some point, by the man himself who played it – Laurence Olivier. But Kevin had the rights, and I thought he obviously anticipated doing it himself at some point. David Hare said “ring him,” and I said “well, I don’t know him.” He said “never mind that, ring him. He must have heard about you.” So I did, I left a message on his machine and within minutes he called me back, which freaked my daughter out completely because she answered the phone. I don’t think she’s really recovered.
Kevin was great. He said “Robert, you have to do it, but the deal is, you do it here [at the Old Vic], which was perfect because it was Olivier’s theatre and we had his wonderful widow [Dame Joan Plowright] there on our first night, so it made it particularly exciting.
You’ve won numerous awards, would you say they’ve been an important part of your career?
Well it’s recognition isn’t it. I mean, I don’t knock it. I think it’s very easy to sneer at awards. If they’re from your peers, it’s particularly pleasing, and if it’s from the public it’s particularly pleasing. The irony is, I never got a Best Newcomer Award and I’ve just received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Television Society, which means I’ve got to start going to the gym very soon! I don’t mind saying that I do have them on a shelf, I’ve always had them on a shelf, they are slightly hidden from general view. I don’t use them as a door stop or anything silly like that, I’m rather proud of the moments when I’ve received them.
And rightly so. Now, you’ve played Tony Blair twice. Have you ever met him?
No, I don’t think I ever will now. I’ve always made it very clear that I’ve never been a fan. I was very anti-war. That’s why I did the second film [The Trail of Tony Blair pictured above]. And that’s why I dropped the impression. Simon Cellan Jones who directed the film said “I think, Robert, you need to drop the impression, which is rather good, but this is a film that doesn’t need an impression, you need to play the character that’s written”. Which is a man haunted by his mistakes.
You’ve had a long varied career, tackling many different roles, what advice would you give to those launching into the profession?
My daughter’s at drama school at the moment [Syd is training at Arts Ed], and she’s loving it. She turned down the chance to go to university, which I was knocked senseless about I have to say. She turned round to me and said “No, Dad, I don’t want to be sat behind a desk any more, I want to get my hands on and get in there.” And I’m very proud of her because, Syd has seen what the industry can do, she knows the ups and downs. I call those reality shows, throwaway reality shows. It’s a disposable industry we’re in, you get a telly, it doesn’t work, you throw it away, you don’t get anyone to mend it anymore. And the same with the talent shows, you know. These people have no concept of a career, of an industry that you have to learn a technique, and sustaining a performance over eight shows a week, or sitting on cold film sets and waiting for the moment you give a performance. Syd admires people like Julie Walters and Helen Mirren, who are great friends of mine, people who have worked in the industry all their lives. They’re not one-off wonders, they like everyone else in this industry have had their failures as well, and failures are very important, they really are. I’ve always talked very publicly about my acting failures, and my personal failures, I think because they push you on.
I believe that’s what’s wonderful about drama school, you can afford to fail, if you need to, in a safe environment.
Yes! Kevin [Spacey] said that, at the Old Vic, when he was choosing plays that were particularly mauled. He said “You know, that’s why I came into the theatre, because it’s about trying things out – experimenting”.
Okay, Mr Lindsay, I have to ask. Rumour has it, you had a punch up back stage with another well-known actor? Is it true?
Very much so, yeah. I’ve got a broken nose to prove it.
You’re not going to say who it was though?
Go on, give us a scoop…
No, no, I think it’s water under the bridge now. You know, egos can collide, it’s an ego business, you are putting yourself on the line, you are constantly being criticised by the public and your colleagues, and sometimes on set and stage you get friction, and you have to resolve it, otherwise it reaches a situation like that.
A true Gent. All the best Robert. ●
Robert Lindsay’s autobiography Letting Go is out now and available from all good book stores or via Thorogood Publishing.