You once said that you were only interested in acting that you can’t see. What did you mean by that exactly? Andwilson58
The best way to describe it is to cite the one exception to the rule: Laurence Olivier. He was a genius, always put on a good show, was riveting and sometimes very funny. I admire how the children act in [Courtenay’s new film] The Railway Children Return. They just do it. Perhaps they do it more than they need, to draw attention to themselves. My old friend Albert [Finney] didn’t try to draw attention to himself. He didn’t have to; he’d just come on and be simple and direct. So I like acting where I can’t see the wheels going round, except in the case of Olivier, where his wheels are wonderfully exciting.
Did you ever think that you would enjoy such a long, illustrious acting career? VerulamiumParkRanger
That’s a very quick answer: no. It’s extraordinary to think that I left drama school in 1960 and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner came out in 1962. It’s so extraordinary, I can’t figure it out.
How has your understanding of the acting process changed with age? RoderickM
I’m not sure that it has. Touch wood, it gets easier to deal with your nerves. Do I still get nervous? I think you should, really. I couldn’t imagine first day on set, not being nervous. But as I’ve got older, it’s less crippling.
Doctor Zhivago seems to have been as epic a shoot as the story itself. Do you have any anecdotes or memories? raphph
My great scene was on the back of the train. People say: “Oh, that’s iconic, that!” It took two days to film because [director] David Lean couldn’t decide what I’d wear. I could have told him he hadn’t shot it close enough. David never made choices; he just edited as he went along. For the audience to realise that the student was now the leader of the revolution, they needed to clearly see his scar in closeup. But I wasn’t going to say to David Lean – “Uh, David, shouldn’t it be closer?” – because what did I know? When we went through the whole rigmarole again, with David having decided what I should wear, he shot it close. So that’s my main Zhivago anecdote.
Did you see anything of yourself in the character of Billy Liar? Arleneforster
I remember when I did it on stage: I took over from Albert [Finney] and there was a bit about how grateful Billy is for his scholarship. When I went to school [Kingston High in Hull], I was always being reminded how lucky I was. I wasn’t bringing in good money because my very loving parents wanted me to be educated. When Albert came to see me – fortunately, I didn’t know he was out front as it was a matinee – he said: “You’re going to have trouble with that grateful speech, aren’t you?” I couldn’t finish it; I was too worked up. So that was the closest touching point of both Billy’s experience and mine.
Why the hell didn’t you get on the train with Julie Christie? I know I would have done given half the chance! peter10b
Shall I tell you why I didn’t get on the train with Julie Christie? Because it was in the script! The script said: “Billy doesn’t get on the train.” So what was I going to do? Have them change it?
You appeared in some great films in the 1960s but then did little film or TV work in the 70s. Was that a deliberate choice? Obo1971
I did a film called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich that I thought was beautiful, but no one else was greatly interested in, which was a big disappointment. So I sort of went off it a bit. I kept involved in theatre, so the plays ran. So it was sort of half on purpose, half by accident. I had a feeling something would come back. My friend, [playwright] Ronald Harwood, cast me as Norman in The Dresser. Then [director and producer] Peter Yates got the film rights. I remember Michael Caine telling me they’d wanted Orson Welles, but thankfully Peter chose me with Albert [Finney]. And that’s when I returned to the film world.
Your career seems to have moved effortlessly between comedy and drama. Your recent turn in Diane Morgan’s Mandy made me laugh out loud. Do you have a preference? Johnnybi
First, let me just thank Johnnybi, because I’ve heard about my little performance in Mandy from noone. So I’m very encouraged that he or she laughed a lot. I thought it was funny; I think Diane is wonderful, and I wanted to be in one of her pieces. As for: do I have a preference? I like being funny nowadays – now that I’m old. But they do go side by side, like in The Dresser.
How was working with Caroline, Craig and the gang in The Royle Family? Did you learn the ukulele especially? DeJongandtherestless and ThankYouJohn
I was so nervous because my part wasn’t really written, so I had to do it on trust. My wife said: “You’ve got to be in the Royle Family Christmas Special.” I had such a good time playing Craig Cash’s idiot father. Finally, there was a character even more stupid than Craig; we never stopped laughing. As for Caroline: gosh, I’m glad I did it, because she was so talented. Her acting when she gets upset that she’s blown the Christmas lunch because the turkey wasn’t cooked … I still remember it to this day.
I did already play the ukulele. My wife bought me one for Christmas. Then I got obsessed, threw away the cheap one from my wife and bought six expensive ones. We had a little group with Harry Hill, [actor and musician] Richard Lumsden, Humphrey Ocean the painter, and [singer/songwriter/ukulele player] Steven Sproat as our teacher. We’d drink wine, eat a big pie, and practise the ukulele. We haven’t done it for a while, so I’ve stopped practising. But I’m sure I will pick it up again one night and sing a little tune to myself.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given? alexHD
Easy: when you’re filming, never stand when you can sit, and never sit when you can lie down. Especially when you’re in your 80s.
Who your favourite person to have worked with? 25aubrey
I loved Celia Johnson. We did a BBC play in 1968, Ghosts, with Donald Wolfit and Fulton Mackay, but the silly buggers wiped it. The BBC reused the video rather than save it, so there’s only a tiny clip left. Maggie Smith I loved, when did we Quartet in 2012. And Albert [Finney], of course, in The Dresser, and in a BBC adaptation of A Rather English Marriage with Joanna Lumley about these old two boys who are widowed at much the same time.
Is there a character that you would have loved to play on screen or in theatre but never had the opportunity? septembermoon
Offhand, I can’t think of one. James Bond? Yes. Let’s say Bond, but it’s not true! There was a dinner with – who’s the current Bond? Daniel Craig – for a film we were both in [2007’s The Golden Compass]. Nicole Kidman was there and I said: “I’m gonna play a little trick on him.” So I started to say about how I’d turned down Bond because I wasn’t prepared to do the gym work. And do you know? – and I thought it was so charming – he was a little bit bothered. He believed me. So I thought: “What a lovely bloke,” and said: “Daniel, I’m pulling your leg.”
What was it like filming The Railway Children Return? MrBlancmange
Well, I’ve been talking about it all day today. I’m very pleased to be in it. It’s a sweet film. It’s not that fantastic a part, but it’s nice.
Has your working-class accent ever been reason for a rejection? Were you ever tempted to go the Ian McKellen route and adopt received pronunciation? Do you think it’s easier now for working-class people to get into acting? gin007 and Mary7Kam
Ian McKellen? I don’t think I want to give him any publicity, thank you very much!
July 14, 2022 at 04:49PM As told to Rich Pelley