Music, Theatre

Even Lloyd Webber isn’t sure why Phantom of the Opera is his biggest hit

The Times February 13, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

webber

As a sequel to the Phantom opens, he talks about his new ‘almost cool’ status, his father’s roving eye — and the joy of a dirty joke

Andrew Lloyd Webber has his kind face on and is looking straight into my eyes as I sing: “Your looks are laughable, unphoto-graphable, but you’re my favourite work of art . . .”

No, alas, I am not the new Dorothy and this attempt at My Funny Valentine, in the back of a black cab, is the closest I could get to being auditioned by His Lordship. “Mmmm,” he murmurs, tactfully, “it’s rather nice, actually.”

We have left behind a long queue of would-be Dorothys snaking around the block. Inside the building in London’s theatre district are hundreds more hopefuls sitting in rows behind a glass façade, and upstairs flanked against a wall are the girls who are about to be called up to sing for the cameras. Following on from his search for Maria, Joseph, and Nancy from Oliver!, Lloyd Webber’s next TV talent show is Over the Rainbow.

One of the wannabes has the number 7,402 on a label on her chest — by the time the series is ready to roll, there will have been 10,000 young women all over England singing Judy Garland’s classic tune.

There was a time when Lloyd Webber — in the wake of his divorce from his first wife, Sarah Hughill, and his marriage to Sarah Brightman, whom he refers to as Sarah 2 — was the nadir of naff. The success of his early musicals with Tim Rice — Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, et al — eclipsed some of the later flops (The Beautiful Game, The Woman in White). But, quite apart from his portfolio of properties (Cap Ferrat, Belgravia, the country estate in Berkshire), the Pre-Raphaelite collection, the Canaletto and the Picasso, his air of haughtiness, masking a certain social awkwardness, did not endear him either to the press or the public. His puggish looks, which were mercilessly caricatured, also did not help.

But now, if he is not quite a national treasure, Lloyd Webber is certainly close to being the nation’s Funny Valentine. With his arch humour and genuine warmth for the kids on his popular television shows, it is possible that he is even in danger of becoming — amazingly — almost cool.

He is certainly keen to push the bad taste envelope as far as he can, once managing the feat of fazing his TV host, Jonathan Ross. Sarah Brightman had got the ball rolling, by enthusing about the enormity of her ex’s penis, on Graham Norton’s show. “I know, and I discuss it with Graham Norton frequently [Norton and Lloyd Webber, of course, do a double act on the BBC reality shows]. I thought it was very funny but as I said to Jonathan, ‘She always had a big mouth’ — which took the wind out of his sails a bit.” Then he adds: “What I do on television is exactly what I do in my private life. What I do all the time — and if I make naughty jokes I make naughty jokes. I’m sorry but it’s what I do.”

We had been introduced at various do’s before this meeting, and the overriding impression he conveyed was of slightly bibulous campness. I can’t be the first person to have made this observation because over lunch in Rules, London’s oldest (distinctly theatrical) restaurant, Lloyd Webber jokes: “Well, you never can tell, can you? I keep saying, ‘I’ve got five children and three wives and it’s a complete front!’ But if I were gay, I have to admit that in my current condition there’s nothing much I could do about it. I would be rather disappointing.”

This is a reference to his recently operated-on prostate gland, which he decided, against all advice from his minders, to make public. You’re fine now, are you? “Yah – ish,” he says. Are you frighened of dying?

“I don’t think that’s going to happen but I’m going to have to keep my eye on it. Be a bit careful. It was a little more complicated in my case but it hasn’t migrated so far.”

Aren’t you meant to be conserving your energy? “Well, yes, but I’ve thrown myself into the busiest schedule that I’ve ever thrown myself into. I have been told that I really should look after myself a bit and not do so much but . . .”

But … well, some chance, frankly. By the time we meet, I am pretty much Lloyd Webbered out. The night before, I attended a performance of The Phantom of the Opera, still packing them in a quarter of a century on, since our maestro is about to unleash its sequel, Love Never Dies. I can’t bring myself to tell him quite what a miserable time I had, although my enthusiasm for the new project — “It’s more psychological … less hammy, more modern” — must have conveyed something.

Why does he think people like Phantom so much? “I’ve often tried to put my finger on what it is. We know that people have been to see the show hundreds of times — insane in my view — and changed their names to Christine Daaé.

“I don’t know what it is. If you sat down and analysed the story of the original Phantom, it’s the biggest load of hokum that’s ever been written … but it’s a piece of really great popular theatre entertainment and, in all modesty, it’s got some good tunes.”

I tell him that I am not really a musicals person (although, oddly, I did attempt one myself) but I do recognise that apart from Lloyd Webber, 61, and Stephen Sondheim, 79, with their rather different audiences, there is no one else alive who has created a body of work in musical theatre at all.

Quite apart from the Phantom show itself, the experience of sitting in a narrow seat at Her Majesty’s, knees rammed hard against the man in front, who had a head the size of a pumpkin, was challenging. The staging, despite the gasp-inducing chandelier swinging over our heads, felt a bit creaky and tired. But the rest of the audience, filled with young people, was clearly enthralled, with endless applause and standing ovations. It is, apparently, the most successful single piece of entertainment of all time.

The next morning, I turned up at 10am at the office of Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group (RUG) to hear the new musical. It was rather eerie, sitting alone at a long dining table in an empty room, walls full of posters from Lloyd Webber’s oeuvre.

The setting has been changed from the Paris Opera House to the freak-show fairgrounds of Coney Island, New York, ten years on, where the Phantom has become the biggest and richest impresario. The original heroine, Christine, is now married to Raoul, who has turned into a bitter, gambling alcoholic, resentful of his wife’s singing talent and her status as the family breadwinner (rather a modern touch), supporting him and their ten-year-old son, Gustave. There are some creepy Mervyn Peake-like underlings, Fleck, Gangle and Squelch, as well as the forbidding Madame Giry, who organised the Phantom’s escape from the baying crowds in Paris and is busily promoting her daughter, Meg, the Ooh-La-La Bathing Beauty of Coney Island.

The music seems, to me, to be more beautiful and less showy — partly, perhaps, because the boy soprano’s voice is so affecting, as is his unfolding relationship with the Phantom. “A lot of people who’ve heard it think it’s a much more rounded piece,” Lloyd Webber says, “and what I think that Ben Elton [who wrote ‘the book’] did was to unlock the psychological area.

“The other thing for me is that the Coney Island setting is very exciting because it all burnt down and the last big park closed in about 1960. I find something very romantic about the decayed architecture of entertainment.

“The original idea was that the Phantom would be this Howard Hughes figure living in the first penthouse in America but Coney Island is much richer because, of course, he could have gone there with his deformed face and walked around the streets and people would have probably paid 25 cents to see him. So that’s the back story with Madame Giry organising the side show, and Meg as the little girl busker.”

Lloyd Webber’s own back story is pretty intriguing, too. He was brought up with his younger brother, the cellist Julian, in a rented top-floor flat in South Kensington, opposite the Tube station, paid for by his maternal grandmother, Molly, who lived with the family. The boys’ father, Billy, was the son of a plumber — “who’d won every scholarship known to mankind when he was young” — and ended up as a senior professor at the Royal College of Music and a director of what was then the London College of Music. He was also the organist at the Central Hall, Westminster.

“He clearly had this seriously academic musical talent but as a personality he was quite regimented in what he was and wasn’t prepared to do. He probably realised early on that he had a side to him that would have been much better suited to becoming, say, a Max [Gone with the Wind] Steiner and working in the film world but coming from that background, his family would have gone berserk,” he says. “The problem was that he was a composer writing out of his time, he was a High Romantic, really, and interested in musicals and what was going on in the pop and rock charts, to a surprising degree. If he had been encouraged, I think he could have been very successful.”

So how did their father feel about the success of his sons? “Well, I was going through a whole load of papers the other day, and I unearthed something I didn’t realise I had, which was my mother’s [Jean, a piano teacher] autobiography, and there was quite a long chapter about my father and his reaction to both me and, of course, my brother.

“I think he was very proud of us but got very upset, according to my mother, with so many people saying, ‘You must be very proud of your sons’. I think therefore he probably always felt that as a composer he was never ever recognised.

“The one thing I’m sad about is that he never heard The Phantom.” Would he have liked it? “I think he would have loved it but whether he would have told me so is another matter. He also had a predilection for young sopranos and particularly for young sopranos if they sang Rachmaninov.

“And what I didn’t know about Sarah Brightman is that she did this series of Rachmaninov songs. I think probably what would have happened is that I would have introduced Sarah to my father and they would have got married,” Lloyd Webber says rather startlingly, “and that would have been the end of that.”

Really? “Yes, Sarah would have been spirited into his office by the sound of his music and he would have accompanied her on her Rachmaninov songs, and the story could have been very, very different. I often think that would have been the most intriguing meeting that never happened.”

More curious still, certainly in terms of its impact on the family dynamic, was his mother’s relationship with the classical pianist John Lill. Julian met him when they were both playing percussion in the junior department at the Royal College of Music. “My mother developed this great … well, enthusiasm is probably the word for it, for a guy called John Lill, who, as you probably know, won the International Tchaikovsky Competition [a music world equivalent of the Oscars; Lill was 26] and she took him into the house.”

Why do you say “enthusiasm” like that? Did they have some sort of thing? “No, no, no, they wouldn’t have done that — but she was very, very, very fond of him … she was just obsessed with him. They were obsessed with each other. It was difficult for Julian and I, but I was away [boarding as a scholar at Westminster], so it must have been far more difficult for Julian than me.

“And it was very difficult for my father, yes, because he never had the family on his own and also he was to a great degree … well, my grandmother was the person who rented the flat, you know, so he didn’t ever really feel fulfilled.”

What does he make of Julian’s observation that with their upbringing — variously described as chaotic or bohemian — it was surprising that neither of them had ended up as drug addicts. (Latterly, it seems, their father did develop something of a drink problem, which Andrew has also admitted to battling with in the past.) “I don’t agree with Julian about that at all because my grandmother was a very, very strong personality and a very interesting woman. She was the founding member of a particularly incongruous political party — the Christian Communist Party — which intrigued me and all my more politically Right friends at Westminster would come home and we would tease her and come up with ever more irritating political solutions.

“But she loved all that. She was just fascinated by all my Westminster friends — you know, the sort of school it is, my nephew is there, and it still has that slight tone of political incorrectness.”

Neither does he recognise Julian’s description of himself as a lonely child. Their parents may have been rather remote figures, absorbed in their own private passions, but as well as his indomitable grandmother, Andrew adored his Aunt Vi and spent most of his holidays with her: “When I didn’t fit into the musical cubbyhole that my mother had seen for me, well … I was so well placed in musical theatre because my Aunt Vi was really my surrogate mum and she knew all these impossibly glamorous theatre names and they were exactly the sort of people I wanted to meet.

“And that was another reason that I couldn’t be lonely because I was in my own world and I knew when I was very small that I wanted to be involved with musical theatre. I adored musicals, they were my life. And anyone who knew me at school knew that I was obsessed with the damn things.”

No change there, then. He says that because of the very nature of its success, the prospect of working on a sequel to Phantom used to frighten him but now he considers it to be the most exciting moment of his career, “because we’ve taken everything on so much further, and I know in my heart of hearts that I’ve put everything I could possibly do into this new score, and I thought of nothing else when I was writing it”.

But, if anything, despite the richness of his life — he is still friends with his exes, as well as enjoying being married since 1991 to wife number three, Madeleine Gurdon, who is more interested in gee-gees than luvvies — there is a sense in which, musically at least, he remains more in his own little world than ever.

“I do often think how marvellous it would have been to have worked in the Fifties when you had Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, the last days of Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter still going just about, Leonard Bernstein — can you imagine? All those great musicals going on.

“I can’t think of anything that I can compare Love Never Dies to … so I often feel like I’m working in this strange vacuum of a world in which there’s nobody who’s doing the sort of musical theatre I do. If there was a whole hothouse of young or, for that matter, old writers … but there’s nothing out there. The last really big hit around the world has been Wicked and it happens to have been written by somebody who’s a great friend of mine [Stephen Schwartz] but he wrote Godspell, you know. I mean, he’s older than me!”

* * *

Love Never Dies previews at the Adelphi Theatre, London WC2, from February 22 (loveneverdies.com, 0844 4124651)

Theatre, Women, Writers

The many lives of Rebecca Miller

The Times July 4, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Daughter of Arthur Miller, wife of Daniel Day-Lewis… It would have been easy for Rebecca Miller to be overwhelmed by the male presences in her life. Here she talks about how she found her own creative voice, and explains why her stories are filled with echoes of the family and relationships that have shaped her

Rebecca Miller
Photo: Mark Harrison

About five minutes into the interview, Rebecca Miller starts to cry. We had been talking about writing, and I read out a line from the end of one of her short stories about different women’s lives which touched me. Louisa, a painter who has a complicated relationship with her mother, has come home to lick her wounds after an emotional collapse in New York. The family are around the table and her mother is drinking, as usual, which enrages the daughter, but when she looks up, “Her mother was looking at her with such love that Louisa could hardly bear to see it: it was like looking into the sun.”

I am saying how much I like Miller’s spare, economical style and suddenly her blue eyes fill. Oh dear, I’m so sorry, was it that line, oh goodness me… “Yes, yes,” a big sniff, tears coursing down her cheeks. “It came as a surprise, because I wrote the story before my mother died.”

Miller’s mother was Inge Morath, the Austrian-born Magnum photographer, who died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 78. Famously, she met Rebecca’s father, the late playwright Arthur Miller, on the set of The Misfits – the screenplay he wrote for his then wife, Marilyn Monroe. The couple married in 1962, 13 months after Miller’s divorce from Monroe, and Rebecca was born not long after.

I had met both Rebecca’s parents in the autumn of 1996 when visiting the Millers’ home in Roxbury, Connecticut, to interview the playwright shortly before a National Theatre production of Death of a Salesman. The next day, Miller had been meeting journalists to publicise the film of his play The Crucible – its star was Daniel Day-Lewis, who had met Rebecca at her parents’ home, and the two married in November that year.

Arthur Miller had graciously shown me around the property where Rebecca, a most cherished daughter, grew up, with its 380 acres of lovely land, its woods and the lake where the couple swam every day in the summer, Morath’s photographic studio and Miller’s cabin in a field to which he would retreat to write. He pointed out the furniture he had carved and hewn – a lifelong passion for making beautiful, useful things out of his hands that his son-in-law, Daniel, shares – and paintings bequeathed by friends. There was a photograph of Rebecca, aged 5, in a sailor suit, white tights on stocky little legs, and a pair of shiny buckled shoes. In pride of place was a poster from Rebecca’s prizewinning debut film, 1995’s Angela.

“I think I look more and more like my mother as I get older,” Rebecca supposes when I say that you can see a little of both her parents in her. She has the height and rangy limbs of her father, and the phosphorescent gaze of her mother. But her manner is unlike either of them. Morath, as I had described, was “a tiny tornado of energy.” Miller, in contrast, was still vital at 80 but a calmer presence.

What impresses about their daughter’s authorial voice is its unshowy confidence, and a steady authority about her storytelling which is a pleasure to read. Personal Velocity, a collection of short stories, and her novel The Private Lives of Pippa Lee – now a feature film directed by Miller and starring Winona Ryder, Robin Wright Penn and Keanu Reeves – are filled with wry observation and a great sense of emotional acuity. In person, although she has a winning and rather surprising lusty laugh, there is something curiously approximate about Miller. She often struggles to express herself with a sort of urgent hesitancy. It may be that interviews for her are a nerve-racking business, particularly since Vanity Fair’s revelations in 2007 about Arthur Miller’s decision to institutionalise Rebecca’s younger brother, another Daniel, now 42, as a baby because he was born with Down’s syndrome.

Family secrets

Reading the Vanity Fair piece, it became clear how traumatic this unearthing must have been for Rebecca in particular who, with both parents dead, became the person to whom the world’s press turned for an explanation. How could it be that this towering figure of humanity – the man who made such a courageous stand against the tyranny of McCarthyism – was capable of hardening his heart against his own child?

One devastating detail in the article was that Inge Morath tried to bring her son home when he was two or three, but her husband would not allow it. (She visited him almost every Sunday, apparently, in the Southbury home for mentally retarded children ten minutes’ drive from Roxbury – but never with her husband.) Miller’s rationale, according to the VF writer who spoke to friends of the family, was that it wouldn’t be fair on Rebecca to have her childhood constrained by the difficulties of sharing her home with a “challenging” sibling.

You don’t have to be a shrink to imagine the guilt you might inherit, especially for a sensitive child, if you sensed that you were the reason for your baby brother’s absence.

Rebecca Miller has said that in her short stories, the characters were “all mixed up with myself”. But as with most writers, her fiction is a literary knitting of fragments of different people known and imagined, and there are some parts of herself – buried or otherwise – that she is more willing to own publicly than others: “There’s always a temptation to reduce fiction to its autobiographical links and that’s important and also not important because, finally, it just boils down to turning writing into gossip, to be honest. To always say, ‘Is that this person or is this that person?’ is a dead end.”

But if you are interested in a writer or an artist, how can you not be struck by the way their life informs their work? Particularly when certain themes keep emerging; particularly when they seem driven by a certain haunting. In her slim oeuvre, there is a palpable sense of sadness about a missing brother (a dead twin in Louisa, and her comforting sibling closeness with a former boyfriend). It’s also there in the difficult relationship between Pippa and her photographer daughter, Grace, in the novel – the daughter always sensing that her mother loves her brother more or, at least, in a more straightforward way.

“When Louisa was 12, Penny [her mother] started changing. She sank into reveries and sighed a lot. On rainy afternoons Louisa would hover uneasily at the door as her mother sat in the darkened living room listening to Peggy Lee… Louisa guessed that Penny’s sadness had something to do with the missing baby [Seth]… Louisa knew that Seth still pulled at her mother’s memory even though nobody in the house ever mentioned him.” And later, around the dining table: “Automatically Louisa’s eyes went to the empty space beside her, Seth’s place. He was there. He was always there.”

I ask Miller about that story: “I think the idea of a missing brother probably came from my own life, but Louisa felt that she had survived and felt that she shouldn’t have survived, and having a twin would have been a bit of a different situation.” We talk about her much older siblings, a sister and a brother, from her father’s first marriage and she says that she is very close now to her half-sister, who lives on the East Coast.

It was Daniel Day-Lewis who was apparently responsible for facilitating a rapprochement between Rebecca’s brother, Daniel, and Arthur Miller, who left an equal share of his estate to his youngest son. “Danny is very much part of our family,” Rebecca said in 2007, and “leads a very active, happy life, surrounded by people who love him”. At that time, he was living with the elderly couple who had cared for him since he left the institution in his teens. Rebecca said that she visits her brother with her family on holiday and during the summer.

I wonder whether she remembers him being taken away. “I’m sure I did,” she says. Do you remember what you were told? “Ummm. Is it OK if we don’t talk about this any more? I don’t feel like talking about it.” Sorry, I say, a bit stricken, since it’s obviously still quite raw and painful. There are no more tears but she gets up and crosses the room to fetch a glass of water.

Transatlantic currents

We are conducting the interview in a hotel room in Dublin; for the past three years, the Miller-Day-Lewises have been living a rural life in Co Wicklow with their two sons, Ronan, 11, and Cashel, 7. Miller has a bad cold but, being a trouper, she is soldiering on with the publicity campaign for her new film.

There is something both graceful and awkward about her. When she poses for photographs at the end of the interview, for instance, she crosses the room with the natural elegance of a dancer in her ballet pumps and drainpipe jeans, and is quite unselfconscious in front of the camera. She is also remarkably unvain, not even bothering to check her appearance before the shoot. There is a delicacy about her features, but also a sort of wounded quality to her Pre-Raphaelite loveliness, particularly around those startling eyes.

She is most strained at the beginning of our interview, almost apologising for the slight strangeness of her short, flattened fringe: “I am naturally ringlety, but I straightened my bangs [fringe] because I looked like a poodle this morning.” As a child, she says, “I was kind of haunting looking. There were kids who said I looked like a witch, and I remember there was a period when they were afraid of me because of my eyes, which I think come more from my father’s side – Polish Jews.”

There have been a number of different, sometimes overlapping, Miller careers to date. She studied art at Yale (there are strikingly vivid descriptions of paintings in her fiction): “I painted on wood a lot, big kind of abstract paintings… I had a kind of repetitive dream cycle for years…” It wasn’t about a bull, was it? I am thinking of a grotesque series of paintings in Louisa – which precipitates the character’s suicide attempt – of a white bull trapped in a grotto by two men, its sperm spraying the walls, before they slash its throat and blood spatters everywhere. “I did actually have that dream, yes,” she says.

Wow, I say, no wonder you needed go to a therapist! “I probably was in therapy then.

I definitely had a few. But I haven’t gone for years and years – I don’t have time.” We both laugh at that and I ask her whether in that case she considers that it was a bit of an indulgence. “I remember talking to my father about it, and saying that I was angry because my psychiatrist or therapist or whatever hadn’t congratulated me on the birth of my first child, which I thought was terrible, and he said, ‘But you can’t expect them to love you. They’re not going to love you.’ And I never went back to any psychiatrist after that. I’m both fascinated and repulsed by that whole process. Actually, I just wrote a story about a psychiatrist.”

Her father seemed to be so secure in himself and grounded – although, of course, I had no idea when we met about aspects of his private life that must have weighed on him – that I couldn’t imagine him unburdening himself to a therapist. “Oh yeah,” Miller says. “He did.”

There’s something of his looks at least, I suggest, in the main character of Herb, the 80-year-old publisher, in Pippa Lee.

When we first encounter him, married to the 50-year-old Pippa, Herb has made the eccentrically unbohemian decision to sell their Manhattan apartment and Sag Harbor beach house, in a Lear-like unburdening, to move into a retirement community. Herb has massive hands and a lopsided grin and is, “A darkly funny man who despised religion, all exaggeration, and musicals… He mistrusted extravagant metaphor, favoured the driest prose.”

She says the hands and the grin may be her father’s, but “Herb is a real amalgam: the cadence of the Jewish intellectuals coming through New York – I could hear that partly because of my father, but also other people that I grew up with. But the big difference is that Herb isn’t an artist and he’s a wilier character.”

Pippa Lee is the perfect artist’s wife – even though she isn’t married to an artist. One of the writers in the book, Sam, describes her as, “The icon of the Artist’s Wife: placid, giving, intelligent, beautiful. Great cook. They don’t make them like that any more.”

What fascinates Miller, an avowed feminist, about this dying breed of women who support the careers of powerful men, is what they bury of themselves in order to fulfil that role. Pippa’s past, for instance, which makes up a sizeable chunk of the novel, was defined by a suffocating relationship with her amphetamine-addicted mother, a troubling relationship as a teenage girl with an older, married man, her escape to New York and descent into a drug-fuelled rackety life on the Lower East Side before she is rescued by Herb.

The novel is much darker than the film and more interesting because of it. The film, I suggest, is Miller-lite – avoiding the more troubling and challenging complexities of character. “It’s one thing to write about a woman crawling across the floor and eating out of a bowl of spaghetti,” she says (referring to the scene which leads to Herb taking Pippa to bed), “but it’s another thing to see it. If I had gone down the dark street, I would have had a very dark film. My other films are probably darker, but the philosophy behind this one is of lightness and forgiveness.

“When I went to Berlin and saw the film for the first time with a large audience, I was actually shocked by how funny it was to them and I thought, ‘Oh my God, is it too funny?’ I remember my husband saying, ‘That’s really not a very smart question – how can it be too funny?’”

What Miller finds so attractive about her heroine, Pippa, is her lack of ambition: “What I love about her is that she really doesn’t have any need to make something outside of herself.” Her prototype in Personal Velocity is Julianne, a poet who realises, “She would never write a great poem, she had married a great man instead.” Miller compares herself, in contrast, with another of her characters, Greta, a publishing minion who, offered the chance of a quick route up, discovers she is “rotten with ambition”.

She has both written and directed all of her films to date. Is that because she is a control freak? “Ahhh… I’m greedy for experience and I don’t necessarily want to give it away to other people,” she says. “There’s something about the totality of that experience that’s very nourishing and very exciting to me. Although I have to say that I would like to write my own screenplays of someone else’s book.” (Top of her wish list would be Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Miller has made overtures but Tartt is unwilling to let anyone adapt her novel.)

Of her own mother, who was very much an artist in her own right, Miller says: “She kind of split the difference, you could say. She worked throughout her marriage but she was the one who made the house a home.” In her own marriage, “I would be the person who would do the logistics of childcare, parties and who is going to whose house and all that stuff.” (Earlier, she had broken off from the interview to text a friend about arrangements to pick up her boys.) “But at the same time,” she continues, “Daniel is very involved with the actual children.” Can he cook? “Yeah, he can, but he’s more of a short-order cook.” His sister’s pretty good, of course (the food writer, Tamasin Day-Lewis). “Oh yes, his sister is very good,” she says, with a sideways smile. “None of us are competing in that department.”

Literary influences

Miller says she is also like Greta in Personal Velocity because of the way she “compulsively edits everything. When people are talking, she can’t help but see how things could be simpler and more powerful.” The economy of her style, she puts down to necessity: “I had my first son and he was a terrible sleeper. He was about one and a half, we were living in Italy and I had a couple of hours in the morning when I could write. I was so tired my eyelids were always twitching and I think that in a funny sort of way that’s how I found my voice as a writer. That exhaustion sort of helped me cut through any bulls*** that I would otherwise have had to navigate my way through. I was just so raw when I wrote and I never lost the ability to find that voice again.”

Apart from Donna Tartt – who is a big favourite – she admires Rachel Cusk and Jeanette Winterson, Jonathan Franzen and the late John Updike, to whom she pays an unusual tribute: “I was so excited when someone compared me to him once, I nearly peed my pants.”

She is not a fan of the upholstered writing which is in vogue now – the return to the 19th-century novel, as she puts it, as though modernism had never existed: “But when you have someone like Raymond Carver or Hemingway… the greats, where the writing is simple, real, hewn to the bone… I feel that’s where the power is. And sometimes that writing is almost not thought of as good because it doesn’t seem fancy enough.”

At the moment, she is re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird: “My 11-year-old son was reading it and I was thinking, ‘I want to read that again so I can talk to him about it,’ and I was also thinking, ‘What is it about that book?’ Is it that it comes directly from the heart, directly from someone’s deepest beliefs? But also that the language is extremely simple.”

I had wondered, with a pronounced thread in her fiction of mothers who are pill-poppers or drinkers, whether there was something of this close to home. She says not: “That didn’t come from me but I did have a very close friend [who did have that problem] and so I feel almost as though it was me. I was always quite sensitive to other people’s needs… I think that if you don’t become the people you’re writing about then you probably can’t get very far towards the truth. For the writer, it’s a kind of channelling. You’re almost at the mercy of other people, and there’s a danger to that, too.”

Her father had also talked to me about the dangers of writing, although he expressed it differently. For him, a writer had to lay himself open to the mysterious force of inspiration: “I often think of the image of someone walking around with a metal bar and waiting to be struck by lightning,” he said. “Of course, it can kill you, too.”

The mother and daughter conflict, without giving too much away, reaches a sort of resolution in Pippa Lee with the heroine thinking about the long pattern of problematic relations: “The chain of misunderstandings and adjustments, each daughter trying to make up for her mother’s lacks and getting it wrong the opposite way.”

I wonder whether Miller is relieved that she hasn’t had a daughter of her own. “In some ways I’m kind of sad that I don’t have one, but in other ways I think maybe it’s for the best.” Why do you say that? “I wonder if maybe I would have been a little intense. Or maybe that the daughter that I would have produced would have been… such a strong personality. I kind of miss having a daughter sometimes, but I love my boys. What I think is that I’ll be a really great grandmother… if I survive long enough.”

She’s pretty accepting about ageing: “But what I’m afraid of is losing my mind. Because to me, that’s what I really have… I mean everyone wants to stay pretty and young-looking and all the rest of it, but I don’t sit in fear of creases all over my forehead or whatever.

“But to go senile, that’s what really frightens me. You’d be in the middle of the sea and you couldn’t touch the bottom, you know.”

Miller’s working on a new novel now. I think I can guess its theme.

* * *

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee will be released in cinemas nationwide on July 10. Rebecca Miller’s books The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and Personal Velocity are being reissued by Canongate on July 7 (£7.99)

Theatre

Peter Hall – my memories of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett

The Times April 04, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Nudging 80, he’s full of memories of his theatrical past, but the great director’s love of work – and family – is undimmed

Almost two decades have passed since Peter Hall and I last met. The baby that his fourth wife, Nicky Frei, was expecting then is now a 17-year-old bright spark, Emma, who thrills her father with her scholarship and enthusiasm for theatre, and occasionally appalls him with her use of language. Emma Hall’s accolade of “awesome” for a performance of Hamlet by a scion of another notable dynasty, Will Attenborough, made her father blanch. “I said, ‘Don’t use that word. I hate ahhhh-soom,’” he drawls, like a septuagenarian valley-girl .

The junior members of the Attenborough and Hall families will be combining forces in Edinburgh this summer in a late play, Celebration, by the late Harold Pinter. There is something poignantly circular about this cross-generational appreciation of the playwright as it was Emma’s father who discovered and championed Pinter, when Hall was barely in his mid-twenties, after he had performed a similar role for that other towering figure of modern theatre, Samuel Beckett.

So much has been written about Hall in his own right, and among the wealth of his achievements (founder of the Royal Shake- speare Company; 15 pivotal years estab- lishing the National Theatre in its present South Bank home), one can detect an underlying theme of insecurity and self- doubt, which contributed to several breakdowns and thoughts of suicide.

In our 1992 interview, Hall told me that he felt he was unpopular at Cambridge – where he had a scholarship to read English – and was often patronised because he was poor. I ask him now what gave him the intellectual confidence to recognise the worth of Waiting for Godot, a play by an Irishman who was then unacclaimed, when the manuscript landed on his desk in 1955 at the Arts Theatre in London.

“Answer – I don’t know,” he says.

“Except it happened. But when I read the script I didn’t say to myself, ‘This is the key play of the mid-20th century’ because I didn’t. I said, ‘It’s poetic, it’s beautifully written, it’s funny, it’s very arresting. I think it will work on an audience and I think it’s very moving, so we’ll do it.’

“So then you cut forward, and there’s a letter in the mail from someone unknown and it says, ‘Dear Mr Hall, I saw your production of Waiting for Godot last night and I enjoyed it very much. I wonder whether you’d like to look at my new play which I’m enclosing called The Birthday Party, Yours ever, Harold Pinter.’ And I didn’t know who Harold Pinter was because Harold Pinter wasn’t ‘Harold Pinter’ then. But, I mean, what a lucky boy I was to have those two giants.”

The impact of Pinter’s death in December is still all too raw and recent: “I find it quite difficult to talk about Harold because I’m so upset,” Hall says, his voice wobbling for a moment. “I suppose in a way he left us an extraordinary legacy so one shouldn’t be silly and one should see it as constructive, not destructive. But he meant an awful lot to me as a friend and a colleague as well as a dramatist I wanted to serve.”

Does he understand why Pinter lost the urge to write plays and transferred his creative energy to writing poetry?

“Harold’s plays are like most men’s poems,” he says. “And they always came from an inspirational energy. I can remember him saying to me, ‘I think I’ve got a play’, and I’d say, ‘Really?’ and he’d say, ‘Yes, I don’t know what it’s called yet but I’m going away for a couple of weeks and I’ll see if I can write it.’”

Would that be exciting for you when that happened? “Oh, yes, of course – because then you cut to him ringing the doorbell one summer evening and he’d just driven up from somewhere and he’d say, ‘There it is’, and it was The Homecoming, which was the first specific play he wrote for me and the Royal Shakespeare Company, which I still think was – is – his masterpiece.”

Hall says that Pinter was the man “who made me believe in inspiration because he didn’t know why he couldn’t write a play – and he certainly had years without writing one and would write film scripts during that time [collaborating most fruitfully with the director Joseph Losey]. He wanted to write a play but there wasn’t a play to be written until, suddenly, he had something.”

Hall was 61 when we first met. He was 6ft 2in then and shrinking, he had said, with the onset of old age. Now that he is pushing 80 there is something etiolated about his monumental frame. He still has style and is dressed like an ageing Beat poet – black leather jacket, tapered shoes and a rather chic black wool cap. But he seems a bit deflated now and the infectious giggle is less ready than I remember. A couple of years ago he had a cancerous kidney removed but his health has been fine since then.

Does he feel his age? “I get terribly tired, which makes me angry,” he says; so now he has naps and tends to do full mornings, handing over to an assistant in the afternoons. His memory started going at about 60 and, he says, “if it’s possible to forget something I do”. Are you frightened of diminishing powers? “Yes, yes,” he says. “I don’t think it’s happened yet but I will be told – my colleagues will tell me and when they say, ‘You can’t do it any more …’”

Hall has no plans, himself, of letting go any time soon. He has been directing Feydeau’s farce Where There’s a Will, adapted from the French by his wife, for the English Touring Theatre (ETT). Rachel Tackley, the ETT’s director, tells me that what impresses her about Hall is that he doesn’t miss a beat and is alive to every nuance and rhythm of the text.

In June the Peter Hall Company returns to the Theatre Royal Bath for its seventh season there, with half a dozen plays, and Hall will be back in the director’s seat for three of them, including Shaw’s The Apple Cart: “It’s a political play and extraordinarily prescient, from the rather minor level of the Prime Minister saying, ‘You know, what’s wrong with this Cabinet? There are too many Scotsmen in it!’ The audience will think we’ve put that in,” he says with a laugh.

Hall famously voted Tory, “out of desperation”, early in his tenure at the National as a protest against the unions, who seemed hell-bent on disrupting the opening. He reverted to Labour but was not a Blair fan: “I never believed him. We saw him giving a speech on television and I said to Nicky, ‘If he came and did that as an audition piece I wouldn’t hire him because he’s not telling the truth.’

“He’s acting badly and he’s a very bad actor. He’s also got the capacity to be a very good actor but he has to be somehow wired up correctly because he’s very false. The worse one was the Diana [Princess of Wales] funeral. Bad acting … ‘sob, sob’. ”

How about Gordon Brown – not much acting there? “No acting at all – just desperation.” At last, a Hallmark giggle. “No, honestly, I think things are pretty bad – worse than they were when we saw each other by the Avon.”

Our last interview had been rather dominated by intimations of his own mortality after I had heard Hall tell the late Anthony Clare, the psychiatrist, that he feared death every single day. Does he still have that morbid dread? “Oh, yes,” he says. “How can you not? What is it all about? Where do we go?”

Now that he is approaching the end of his life, as he would emphatically not put it – “I could go on for the next 20 or 25 years” is his optimistic position – Hall never entertains those early thoughts of doing away with himself. There’s so much left for him to do, so many people he loves and would hate to leave behind.

He said all those years ago that Frei was the one for him and so it has proved. They have been together now for 19 years: “If you talk to her now she’ll say, ‘I’m the longest-serving Peter Hall wife.’”

His first and third wives, Leslie Caron, the film star, and Maria Ewing, the opera singer, had huge careers of their own. Jacqueline Taylor, his second, was Hall’s secretary and Frei worked in the publicity department at the National. It’s “terribly difficult” when a marriage has two huge egos – “Nicky was trained as a lawyer and has a brilliant mind and should be able to sit down and write that novel or that book of short stories – but she doesn’t because she spends so much time on Emma and me and she makes our lives very, very comfortable.” Perhaps she’ll write a memoir about life with you after you pop off? “Exactly,” he says, only a little uneasily.

He gives Frei the credit for making him less obsessed with work; she has even persuaded him to take the odd holiday. What’s her secret? “She just treats everything terribly calmly and reduces everything to common sense and logic.”

Calmness is a quality lacking in Hall, which is why he must prize it so highly in others. When we talk about his actress daughter Rebecca (from his marriage to Ewing) – the fifth of his six children – he says, “She’s quite calm, quite a different sort of animal to me.”

He plainly adores his children – all of whom have carved their own successful niches in the arts – but he seems to have been particularly besotted with Rebecca as a baby, perhaps because it was the first time that he was a hands-on father. “It was largely because her mother was an opera singer and was a great traveller as a consequence, so there was quite a lot of time when I was the nanny,” he says. Er, house-husband? “House-husband, I’m sorry – get it right!” he smacks his hand. “I don’t mean that Maria was in any sense a delinquent mother because she was a terrific mum – but it had to be done and I loved doing it.”

He goes on: “Rebecca was a particularly beautiful baby, and babies are usually not very beautiful. She was also … passive is

the wrong word … she was very calm, and still is.” At that point, I had only seen her in a Poliakoff television play and Frost/Nixon, where she plays Frost’s decorous and decidedly pukka girlfriend. “Well, that’s no part at all,” her father admonished. “No, you must see her in the Woody Allen [Vicky Cristina Barcelona; she plays Vicky, for which she got a Golden Globe nomination]. She’s terrific in that.

“What’s interesting is that Woody obviously took a great liking to her and fed her lots of extra lines – so she does speak like a Woody Allen character – ‘East Coast ambiguous’ – and she does it terribly well.”

Did she really want the part? “Oh, desperately, desperately. It was one of her ambitions in life to be in a Woody Allen film and I said, ‘Well, not like the recent ones!’ Hahahaha.” Penélope Cruz and Scarlett

Johansson may look gorgeous in the film “but they’re not very funny and Rebecca is”, her father says stoutly.

Later I get to see his daughter in the Allen film and she is, as her father promised, terrific and utterly credible as that “East Coast ambiguous” type. But what, I wonder, is Rebecca Hall’s real accent? “She can be anything you want,” her father says, “but, no, her normal accent is a bit more ‘Essex’ – a little sloppy.”

Oh dear. One daughter talks like a Valley Girl, the other like an Essex Girl. What a disappointment for the creator of the Royal Shakespeare Company. As if. I’ve never interviewed a father who was more obviously delighted by his offspring, from his 52-year-old television producer son, Christopher, to Edward, “probably one of the best directors in this country”, and all the others. At one point Hall begs me not to write about his glowing tributes because it will embarrass the recipients. There is no question that he is proud of what he has achieved in the theatre but as he says, rushing off to meet Emma from school: “Whatever else, at this moment in time what I’m really proud of is my children.”

Where There’s a Will by George Feydeau finishes tonight at Liverpool Playhouse, then is at Oxford Playhouse (01865 305300), April 7- 11; the Peter Hall Company’s residency at the Theatre Royal Bath (01225 448844) runs from June 25 to August 29

Actors, Theatre

Steven Berkoff: angry man or cursed by the past?

The Times March 21, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Slovenly, ignorant, inept – his attacks on fellow actors are legendary. Does he have a softer side?

Steven Berkoff

You definitely don’t want to be around Johnny Friendly when he smiles, and the same could be said of Steven Berkoff, who plays the murderous, most unfriendly, union boss in his play of Elia Kazan’s classic film On the Waterfront. The acting-directing-writing-theatre-company-founding polymath has his own intimidating form when it comes to interviewers (particularly women) as well as theatre critics, whom he has abused in various ways, with insults, bannings, even a death threat.

With the rapturous reviews of his new production (he is director as well as actor) one might have expected to find Berkoff in a sunnier disposition than usual. But not a bit of it. His mood matches his clothing and setting – black jogging gear, black table and chairs, huge black and white photographs of East End characters (taken by him), more gloom in the monumental canvases of rough-hewn faces by Peter Howson. Even the water lapping against the deck of his Limehouse office, a wall of glass looking out on to the murky Thames, fails to soothe.

Berkoff may be the most charmless person I’ve interviewed, eclipsing even Madonna, which is no mean feat. Eye contact is minimal. Small talk non-existent. Manners have been bypassed altogether. “What’s this about?” he raps out by way of introduction, plonking himself at the head of the table. “What is it called, the thing? Does it have a title, this piece?” About 20 minutes in, more barking: “What’s next? Anything else? Get on with it.”

Actors who have displeased him (because it “tends to be a little bit of a cross to bear being a perfectionist”) are often those who have come through the major theatres – which rejected Berkoff (but, no, he’s not bitter) – pain him with their “slovenly ineptitude…their flaws…and ignorance”.

He says that he has never been snide about a director and I remind him of one that he described as a dictator: “Oh, he was a ghastly kind of power-mad lunatic. I didn’t want to hit him – kill him, maybe – no just avoid him and not look at his ugly…loathsome…smug…smarmy little face,” each word weighted in the verbal equivalent of GBH. The film was called Fair Game. “It died a thousand deaths. I felt the poor man may have been bullied by his producer but he was sarcastic and that’s the worst thing.”

He was bullied himself as a child growing up in the East End; son of Albert, a tailor, and Pauline Berks. Steven was christened Leslie, which he loathed almost as much as Berks. He switched to his middle name, adding “Off” to his surname to preserve the ethnic ring without reverting to Berkovitch, which Albert had abbreviated to assimilate in the adopted country of his Russian forebears.

What with Berkoff’s descriptions of his colleagues in the theatre, and his behaviour towards my sisters in the press – he has described them as “angst-ridden bitches” with “second-rate minds” – I wondered if the bullied had not turned into a bully. But he says: “I’ve never needed to or had the desire to bully because I find the opposite is much more satisfying. To be gentle, loving, caring,” a slow icy smile. “But, occasionally, if something really strikes you as being unjust, to express a little bit of anger is all right.”

There was more than a little anger between his parents, which the young Berkoff witnessed often and absorbed. His father was a gambler, a womaniser and absent for long periods. Rejection and disappointment became leitmotifs in his son’s life and on a personal level, with his 72nd birthday on the horizon, all his memories seem to be pickled in bile and a lot of pain. “As Ibsen knew very well in Ghosts, we inherit the curses of the past. And it could be that the pattern and behaviour of my father or his father has created in me a distrust of marriage, and that, in turn, did not perhaps make me the most perfect passer of the baton to the next generation.” They f*** you up your Mum and Dad? “Well, I think you inherit that pattern of conflict. I always saw them fighting and horrible, horrible shouting when I was young. I can remember it vividly, 5 or 6 years old, and there would be screaming and terrible language. But anyway I think that might have affected me.”

I ask him whether he believes that people’s faces reveal their characters; he does, but says it’s for others to decide what secrets to the soul the Berkoff features might reveal. It is a face, coupled with a certain atmosphere its owner projects, that has provided a lucrative income in an array of cinematic sadists: from the Krays to Rambo (as opposed to Rimbaud, the French poet, whom he had rather hoped the film might be about) to Octopussy.

Berkoff says that he hopes his face denotes trustworthiness which, to him, is the most precious quality in a person: “Trustworthiness – to believe in someone, and you, yourself, to be believed in. Not to be betrayed. That may be a little extreme, to talk about words like ‘betrayal’. But within this industry you need to have people that you can believe in and who believe in you.” His father, he says, betrayed his trust: “Oh totally. Absolutely and utterly, unfortunately. And that’s why I’ve always sought it in other men and sought – perhaps too eagerly – honesty and integrity and response in other men. When I find somebody who’s even remotely loyal or decent to me, I will move heaven and earth to fulfill his needs and I will love him for the rest of my life. When I don’t get it, sometimes I’m apt to become a little more disappointed than I should be; when a man is busy and he’s got other agendas – I can kind of really take it too much to heart.”

His mother was a pianist but even she let him down, he says. “Could you believe that I begged for a piano, every year since I was 4 or 5, but she said, ‘No, you’ll get over it’ or ‘We’re going to be moving away’. My parents were rather ignorant of my desires or not prepared to fulfil them.”

There were a couple of failed marriages early on, but the most abiding relationship of his life has been with his German partner, Clara Fischer, a handsome woman who is, perhaps not coincidentally, a classical pianist. They were introduced through a mutual friend, about 20 years ago, when Berkoff finally bought a piano and needed lessons. “I practised very hard for some months but by then it was too late and I knew it was too late. Eventually I couldn’t bear it; it was a threat to me so I had to give it up.”

What a curious, cussed cove he is. At some point during the interview I actually begin to enjoy the challenge of the Berkoff experience and not in a masochistic way. There is something oddly relaxing about being with someone who is so utterly careless about conventional conversational decorum. And unlike Madonna, he does have real talent. We had met, years ago, at a party hosted by one of the few women journalists he appeared to like. We stood on a tiny roof garden of a flat in the heart of Soho and he was a different character then, stylishly dressed in a tailored gangsterish suit, like the Zoots that were his father’s stock in trade, and warm, chatty, friendly and engaged. The difference between him then and now left me wondering where he’d lost his mojo; was it age and fatigue or was this cantankerousness a form of play-acting. When I mentioned the occasion, he did not remember it and could barely summon any interest in the woman who was once such a close friend.

For many years Berkoff was a keep-fit nut: swimming in arctic conditions, yoga, a passing flirtation with break-dancing. Now he calls himself “a bit of a lazy slob”, restricting himself – merely – to a few daily sit-ups, press-ups and a walk, as well as the 20-mile weekend hike, “sometimes a run”, along the seafront in Brighton.

When I ask him about his health he says: “It’s excellent. Touch wood.” No ghastly illnesses? “I have had them all but I reject them all.” You haven’t had cancer? “Everything. I had a brush with that when they thought… but it’s gone. I just plain willed it out.” Minor ailments? “A few little niggles. I can’t run as fast as I used to, a little problem in my knee, a dimming of the eyes. All my teeth, except one. But no pains, no arthritis. I think the reason for that is to lead a balanced life. Not to indulge – and to live with another person.”

I say that this Clara seems to have suited him well, and his faded eyes light up. Her concert days are behind her now, but still she plays for him on the gleaming black piano in front of the glass wall opening out on the river. Does it move you? “ Oh, indeed, yes, of course, it’s lovely to listen to her. When she plays it’s phenomenal.” They share a new passion, in any case. “When she got tired of practising seven hours a day, her energy had to go somewhere else and she is a kind of genius of a cook. She’s got about 100 cookbooks and she can do anything: Greek, Turkish, Russian, English, German, Spanish, Italian. And her sushi…” he sighs. “It’s incredible, as good as a Japanese chef.”

For the most part, these feasts are conjured just for their own pleasure. But occasionally friends will be invited: actors – “I’m not one of those actors who says”, he puts on a theatrical voice, which is not a far cry from his own, “‘Oh, I don’t mix with luvvies’”) – but also the odd writer and lawyer, even a couple of old schoolfriends. Is it her cooking that is responsible for his compact but quite pronounced little belly? He roars, and this time with genuine good humour, “Yes! Yes! It’s too much!”

What, I was wondering , would be Clara’s recipe for handling the Berkoff ego. If one were to do the physiognomy test on her, judging from the one photograph I’ve seen of her dating back to 1991 – full lips, strong nose, an open forthright gaze – she does not look like a pushover. “She’s very relaxed but she does have her moments and can be a bit…temperamental,” her boyfriend says. “She’s also a very, very good mimic and does impersonations constantly.” Does she do you? “Yes, she does and then I’m on the floor because she does them when I’m getting angry or in a mood and then she does me and I find it intolerable because I collapse.” Ah, I see, because then she’s won the argument? “Yes,” Berkoff says, “yes, of course.”

On the Waterfront, Theatre Royal, London; 0845 4811870

Theatre

Out of the shadows

THE TIMES MAGAZINE – January 28 2002
Ginny Dougary

Richard Eyre found the making of his first big film about Iris Murdoch a form of therapy, a way of coming to terms with his own parents life and death There is little in Sir Richard Eyre’s person or habitat to suggest a troubled soul beset by fundamental uncertainties. Indeed, if he hadn’t chosen to expose his inner conflict in a memoir which has been described as a minor classic — Utopia and Other Places — it is doubtful whether anyone would still be asking him the questions he attempted to answer for himself so eloquently nine years ago.

As he wrote then, “our parents cast long shadows over our lives”, and he has clearly yet to emerge from their depths.

Time and again in our interview he returns to the vivid spectre of his father on subjects as seemingly unrelated as his knighthood in 1997 and his celebrated production of King Lear at the Cottesloe, featuring a naked Ian Holm, which prompted Eyre’s sister to ask him: “Why have you put Dad on stage?” We had spoken on several occasions during his ten-year tenure as artistic director of the National Theatre, when I had sought his opinion on theatrical notables other than himself. Despite the pressures of the job, he had always made himself available and was unstintingly courteous and generous in his response.

These qualities are immediately in evidence when we meet at the West London home that Eyre shares with his wife of 28 years, Sue Birtwistle, a television producer of such successful adaptations as Pride and Prejudice and Wives and Daughters. Their own grown-up daughter, Lucy, was educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School round the corner.

He is one of those older people, now at the fag end of his fifties, who still manages to look cool in the blue jeans he first wore as a minor form of rebellion against his father when the teenaged Eyre was in love with all things American. “Oh, I see, they’re so the girls can tell what you’re thinking,” was his father’s decisively louche put-down; a memory which still makes his son wince.

“Of course, I was embarrassed — I felt ‘Kevin-ed’,” Eyre says, referring to Harry Enfield’s archetypal awkward male teenager.

Before we start talking about Iris, Eyre’s first big film, based on John Bayley’s two books about his late wife, the writer Iris Murdoch, we descend to the kitchen where the director organises coffee. He tells me that the electric blue sweep of colour against a bank of bright yellow cupboards was his sort of nod to Matisse.

In the past couple of years he has discovered the quiet pleasure of painting. “I am used to looking at people in a critical way, critical in the sense of examining or observing, but not landscape and objects and trees. And I find it serene and wonderful just to look at the world,” he says.

There are lovely little paintings all over the house, mostly by friends of the couple; studies or portraits in muted colours. In the upstairs corridor there is a tremendous black and white photograph of his maternal grandfather, a tiny matchstick figure at the base of an enormous iceberg. Charles Royds was a Polar explorer who went on Scott’s first expedition to Antarctica. His grandson and great granddaughter are planning their own 21st-century trip to the South Pole — which they will record not in a hardy leather-bound journal but as a video diary.

When I ask him whether there were many family photographs from his childhood (he says not, in stark contrast to the hundreds of snaps that he has accumulated as a parent), he takes me over to look at a painting of his mother, Minna, as a young woman. It is a period piece of a very English beauty: a ball dress with a fine line of ermine around the cleavage, a crimson velvet wrap, a bob of shining hair and such an open, untroubled gaze. There is something about the innocent hopefulness of her face that produces the same emotional contraction as seeing the young Iris Murdoch, played by Kate Winslet, careering downhill on a bicycle, dancing and delighting everyone around her with the supple swiftness of her mind, when one is so mindful of all the loss that lies ahead.

Eyre’s mother sailed into darkness, Murdoch’s haunting evocation of her own descent into Alzheimer’s, when she was the age that her son is now — and struggled on in an increasingly vegetative state for another 20 years. One of the most moving scenes in the film comes at the end when Bayley (Jim Broadbent), finally admitting defeat, takes his wife to the nursing home where she will die. Their calloused hands, nails bitten down to the quick, are intertwined, and Judi Dench as the old Iris looks at the camera with eyes so blank that you feel her soul has already departed.

Eyre says that he was unable to detect the shifting moods of a sensate human being in his mother. His monthly visits to Dorset were too infrequent to detect any changes in her, but the nurses who looked after her every day saw someone different.

“One of the characteristics of Alzheimer’s, which is a consolation for people who are long-time carers, is that the soul does remain,” he says. “There is something there that is the human spirit which goes on until their death.”

Perhaps in some way the making of this film helped to provide the consolation that Eyre was unable to find during his mother’s life. It may be a source of regret that he managed to come to terms with both his parents only after they had died, but a posthumous accommodation is surely better than none at all. As the screenwriter of Iris, he has appropriated scenes from his own mother’s diminishing ability to make sense of the most commonplace activity. There is a moment, for instance, when Murdoch (Dench) confronts an open door and is unable to understand how she should negotiate her way to the other side. “Which way do I go?” she asks her husband, as Eyre’s mother once asked his father. “In the early stages my mother used to pick up a knife and fork and just gaze at them, absolutely bewildered by their function,” he recalls.

What makes Iris such an extraordinary film is that it is uplifting and beautiful, despite the painful subject, because it is essentially about what it means to love someone enduringly, come what may. Since so many of the key people involved in the production must have been forcibly reacquainted with their own loss, one wonders what the mood must have been like on set.

Judi Dench’s husband, Michael Williams, had died only six weeks before the shoot. “She is a very, very old friend. And Michael was a friend. And so I was working with someone I felt very protective of. Because it is very, very painful to see somebody you love . . . suffering,” he says. “So I wanted, you know, to make her feel better.

“And although she was frightened that somehow every scene would be weighed down and filtered through her thoughts of Michael, she actually found it was quite the opposite — that the act of concentration, of having to commit your mind to inventing another person, took her out of herself completely. At the end, she said to me that those five weeks were her saving grace.”

The making of the film was an exhilarating process, but when it came to the cutting room both Eyre and the editor kept breaking down: “Yeah, sometimes it was so overwhelming that we would both sit and blub,” he says, slightly sheepishly. “And, of course, that sort of emotion is a professional hindrance.”

There was one scene that he was guarding himself against particularly, when Bayley rounds on his sick wife in bed and tells her that he hates her. Her childlike response, which is almost unbearably touching, is to stroke him and murmur “Ouch”.

“When the emotional temperature of a scene is near boiling,” Eyre says, “you have to keep a cold eye and a still heart, otherwise everything gets clouded and distorted.”

As the director points out, he is by no means the only practitioner of the arts who has had to struggle to master his feelings. When Sir George Solti was conducting Eyre’s La traviata at the Royal Opera House in the mid-Nineties, Solti was so overcome in rehearsal by Violetta’s death that he started to sob uncontrollably. “It came to the end, there was silence and he was pouring tears and said, ‘I simply don’t know how I’m going to be able to conduct this’,” Eyre recalls. “But that was the last time that he was violently moved by it because he was a professional and all that emotion was simply channelled through his expertise.”

For Eyre, writing, he says, is definitely a form of therapy. Of course, one person’s reconciliation with his past, when it is published for public consumption, can lay bare and rob another person’s life. “We are what we remember,” Eyre wrote in his memoir, but there is no copyright on the ownership of memories. It is a conundrum that provokes Eyre to sigh:

“Oh Christ, who was it who said, ‘if you want to become a writer, be prepared to lose a family’?” When his friend Liz Calder asked him to write a book about the theatre for Bloomsbury, he couldn’t bear the idea of the sort of memoir which starts: “As the curtain rose . . .” “But my parents both having died, I was obsessed by coming to terms with my relationship with them. For me, there was a huge amount of unfinished business.” Achieving closure, as the therapists say, may have been a cathartic process for the writer, but for his sister, Georgina Livingstone, it was clearly a rather less beneficial exercise.

In the first half of the book we learn about the violent rows between Richard’s parents, their brazenly adulterous relationships, the casual cruelty of a boorish father who thought that Shakespeare was “balls” and who set out to seduce his son’s girlfriends, actually succeeding in one case.

But, of course, they were Georgina’s parents too. “I feel great sorrow that I upset my sister to the degree that I did because I am very, very fond of her and close to her,” he says. “And I felt very bad.”

Were you prepared to change anything or dilute certain passages? “I thought very hard about whether what I had written was truthful, and truthful from my point of view, and I thought ‘Yes, it is’. . . so my conscience was clear on that count. We have recovered now, but for her the upsetting thing will always be that that book is the public record of her life. She lived through it as much as I did and in some respects had a much more difficult time. So it’s unfair that I have the opportunity to broadcast my account.”

When we have our own mini-therapy session, Eyre tells me that he looks back on himself as a small boy and thinks “Oh, there’s a lonely, slightly reserved child who had an active secret world, reading all the time, and with a secret friend or secret alter ego who was very extrovert and positive”.

How your father would have liked you to have been? “I guess so.” Did he think you were a bit of a pansy? “Yes, he did.”

Eyre realised that his father had given up on him when, as a boy, he confessed that he didn’t much care for riding — sacrilege in his equestrian family — and was met with the rebuke: “That’s because you’re no bloody good at it.”

The truth was that Eyre was frightened of riding, something he overcame in his thirties when his father was in his sixties, and which he now loves. So what was your father’s reaction when you came into the fold? “I don’t think I told him, actually.”

Really? “I suppose I knew that he wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, why don’t you ride my horse?’ or ‘Come riding with me’. I knew he wouldn’t, so I just did my own thing.”

He almost dismisses his father’s seduction of his son’s 20-year-old girlfriend, saying: “I mustn’t exaggerate this. I was very upset, but it wasn’t an absolutely life-defining ‘Rosebud’ moment . . . although it was, you know, a bit depressing. What I think now is that I should have been stronger but also more communicative; more prepared to accept him on his own terms. And at a greater distance, it is possible for me to see his virtues as clearly as his vices.”

I wonder what effect his father’s attitude towards women had on Eyre. He says that for some time he measured himself against the only male role model he knew. In his book he refers to “a sort of competitive promiscuity”. But his long marriage, in an age when divorce is so commonplace, suggests that he was able to break free from the mould.

“You surely do try to learn from other people’s mistakes, however difficult it is,” he says. “Knowing yourself, even if you are not entirely able to act on the conclusions of your knowledge — that is the process of life.”

I ask him whether he ever tried to intervene in his parents’ violent rows — his father once told him, as they were visiting Eyre’s mother in the nursing home, that their marriage had been in trouble, “oh, for the past 30 years” — and Eyre says: “No, I didn’t, but then . . . and again, this is rather sad, I grew up in Dorset, in just about the most beautiful part of England, and of course I was desperate to get out from the age of 18, and when I went to university, I went back as rarely as I could.”

Because your home was so associated with unhappiness? “I didn’t want to have to deal with it, and it certainly spoilt that part of England for me.” For a whole landscape to be tainted by the misery of your upbringing seems to be a pretty devastating admission of family failure, but when I later make a reference to Eyre’s appalling home environment, he recoils as though stung. “I think it is wrong to say appalling. I really do. I mean, that may be your judgment but I would not say it was an appalling childhood.” When I read back the things he has written and said about it, he counters: “Well, that may be but that’s your judgment . . . I mean, everybody goes back to their childhood and . . .” Not necessarily. “Don’t they?” He laughs slightly awkwardly.

I say it is interesting that when I spell out what he is surely saying himself, he reacts so strongly against it. “I know, I know, I can see . . . I do feel protective. You know how you want to be the only person who can say that your parents are terrible. We all do that at certain times and in the end it’s upsetting for me . . .”

To hear someone else say what you are saying? “It is. It is. And it immediately inspires in me the desire to defend them.”

And your sister had the same reaction to you that you are having to me when she read the manuscript of your book? “She did. Yes, she did.”

We were both slightly surprised, I think, by the temperature of this exchange. Eyre has a reputation for being mild-mannered, and he says himself that he is hopeless at being angry.

He feels he is a warm person, but that some people might say he is detached. People close to you? “Yes, but not consistently. And I would say that was my defence. You devise a carapace and think, ‘I’m not going to be hurt’.”

Do you believe in the sins of the father being revisited on the son? “Yes, there is no question that I do.”

So, given that cycle — “Was I as bad a father to you as my father was to me?” Eyre’s father asked his son as he lay dying — do you think that it would have caused complications for you if your wife had given birth to a boy? “I think that subconsciously I would have tried very hard, probably excessively, to subvert the line of descent,” he says.

As it was, Eyre’s wife had a daughter who clearly gives him abundant joy. “Lucy has the happiness gene and, as I said to my father, ‘it is a gift, like dancing’. She is happy, I think, and I find it inexpressibly moving that she is. My condition tends to be — ughhh — faintly Eeyore-ish,” Eyre says. “But actually I have a pretty good life and I have a lot of fun, and I love being with a group of people. And if I have a gift, it is that I can be with a group of people and act as a sort of catalyst for fun.”

He also spends a lot of time alone in his study, those long shadows circling around him, brooding on existential questions. Sometimes he imagines his neighbour being dragged away by the police. What would he do? Would he intervene? Would he be brave?

He often wonders how he would have behaved in Hitler’s Germany, since the war cast its own sombre shadows over the lives of his parents: “Their emotional clock was set by the war,” Eyre says. “It was endlessly being invoked in my childhood, particularly because my father was in the Navy.”

He says that he is obsessed, as a consequence, by the notion of the test of one’s moral character. He fears that his first response would be caution, and then he would force himself to act “because of the fear of being branded a coward, and I would do anything to avoid that”.

I had thought that Eyre was the sort of socialist who would turn down a knighthood — and so, it turns out, did his wife. But she must have had her doubts since, as he says: “Sue had always said she would leave me if I ever took a knighthood, but then it came along and I did, and she didn’t.”

So what made you accept it? “Vanity,” he admits, rather winningly.

At least the actor Sir Ian Mc Kellen’s defence was that it was important for gays to get that kind of recognition. “Yes, but he would also say that he had always felt that he was in some sort of race to make his mark, and now he could relax and just get on with his life.”

Did you feel that, too? “Yes, and I think that if you say, ‘Did my father think I was a . . .’” Although I had not introduced the subject of his father. “Well, ‘did he think that my work didn’t amount to much?’ . . . I mean, he never came to see any of my shows . . . ” (Later Eyre calls me to say that, in fact, his father did see two of the 120-odd plays his son had directed — High Society and The Taming of the Shrew.) “Anyway, I could see that taking a knighthood was partly a case of, ‘Oh, I’m a proper person now’. Of course, it’s an awful paradox, thinking what I think about class and about the way in which the honours system perpetuates it, but there it is.”

King Lear came up in the last moments of our interview. At first, he says, he was astonished by his sister’s comment about their father: “ ‘Ian (Holm) has never met him,’ I said. ‘And I have never mentioned him.’ And she said, ‘Well, he is playing it very like Dad’.

“And, you know, she was right . . . the irascibility, the extremes, the sense in which our father would test the love of his children in that way, that refusal to concede. One of the reasons I was fascinated by the play is that it takes the family as a microcosm of the state, and of course all parents have the potential for tyranny.”

Recalling Eyre’s sense of wonderment that his happy daughter actively seeks out the company of her parents, and how much she seems to enjoy being around them, I thought: Your Mum and Dad? Well, you know, they don’t always f you up.

Actors, Theatre

Oh, what a roguish and pleasant slave

LONDON TIMES – November 22 1992
Ginny Dougary

Kenneth Branagh appears to think he is in a comedy sketch in which the interviewer is cast as the fall guy. Our question and answer routine is like something scripted by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. All the punch lines hinge on the same word. ”Isn’t it stressful”, I ask, ”directing the woman you live with?” ”Well, as Hamlet would say…” ”Can you only achieve public success at the cost of private happiness?” ”You know what really fascinates me about Hamlet is…” ”Do you take part in the showbiz circuit?” ”I’m no good at small talk. Playing Hamlet reminds you of how precious life is.” Is he taking the mickey or what?

Branagh is 31. This production, directed by Adrian Noble for the Royal Shakespeare Company, is his fourth attempt to conquer the colossal role of Hamlet. His last essay was in 1989, with Derek Jacobi as director, the same year he married Emma Thompson at Cliveden, filmed and starred in Henry V, set up his own Renaissance Theatre Company and wrote his autobiography. His critics found the breadth and prodigiousness of all this activity perfectly nauseating. To attempt so much and at such a tender age was not only impertinent, it smacked of overweening ambition and a monstrous ego. How dare the whippersnapper challenge Lord Olivier’s epic Henry V with his own celluloid version? How tedious the Ken and Em show had become: a one-note samba, the couple endlessly playing different versions of themselves in The Fortunes of War, Look Back in Anger, and on and on; he appearing in her television series, she appearing in his plays and films.

But those seeking the comfort of schadenfreude were to be disappointed. There was no fall and, even more disconcertingly, whenever Branagh submitted himself to the scrutiny of the press, there did not seem to be too much pride either. If anything, he came across as such an unassuming, nice bloke, it was a bit of a letdown. Even his fans, however, must have wondered how a 28-year-old, regardless of his achievements, could think he had been around long enough to justify writing an autobiography. His response to the cavils was that he needed the money to buy office space for his theatre company. The book illuminates Branagh’s obsession with the part of Hamlet. It was seeing Jacobi in the role at the Oxford Playhouse that sharpened the starstruck schoolboy’s appetite to act. Not many years later, he chose the play for his final performance at Rada, taking note of Tyrone Guthrie’s advice, in A Life in the Theatre, that young actors should tackle the great roles at the start of their careers, so that there would be more chance of getting them right early on. ”I wanted one day to be a great Hamlet,” Branagh writes. ”I wanted to play Hamlet as many times as possible, so that each time I played it I would get better in the role, and would get closer to the truth of the character.”

”John Gielgud said that the play describes the very process of living.” Branagh is warming to his theme as we sit in a tiny, rather squalid eyrie in south London, during one of the company’s rehearsal breaks. ”I would compare Hamlet to a great piece of music or a poem. It’s something that you respond to with your insides. And that response is a little deeper, and a little richer, as you get, perhaps, a little older.” There is something puzzling about Branagh’s delivery at this early stage of our meeting. Each phrase, regardless of its insignificance, is carefully weighed and balanced before the next is pronounced. As he speaks, he stirs the air with his hand, in a precise little movement, like someone folding a cake mix. It is as though he is parodying Alan Whicker and Fanny Cradock simultaneously. It is the very reasonableness of his tone that appears artificial.

Perhaps because we suspect that actors are never not playing a part, it seems more natural when they are arch or mock-heroic, fantastically dotty or over-the-top camp. Why bother being Mr Ordinary, after all, when you can be Peter O’Toole?

It feels churlish to quibble about an actor’s lack of theatricality when it should make a refreshing change, and particularly since Branagh is such an affable interviewee. He is effortlessly courteous springing to the door every time anyone knocks, scrabbling around on the floor to fix the wonky table so that I can write my notes and he does something with his eyes which makes one see, despite what he describes with some accuracy as his nondescript features, why he has a reputation for being a ladies’ man. It is only, however, when he drops the measured pontificating to let off steam that one senses he is being himself.

We are discussing The Wedding. Had the couple intended it to be quite such a public spectacle? ”No, no, very much the reverse,” Branagh says. But it was not exactly a quiet, understated celebration, was it? The marriage even featured in Hello!, although the magazine did not attend the ceremony. ”The wedding was not quiet because there was nothing else going on in the country at the time,” he says. ”There was absolutely I’m here to tell you no pursuit of publicity for that wedding whatsoever, may God strike me dead now. The more we said, ‘Look, we’re just havin’ a do’, the more interest there was in it. The press was overdosing on us at the time.” (Thompson makes another appearance in a recent issue of Hello!, under the teasing banner ”Caring Actress Who Hopes Her Future Family Will Share In Her Commitment”, to publicise Oxfam’s fiftieth anniversary.)

There was no question that the couple would get married in a church because of Branagh’s antipathy to conventional religion. (His parents are Irish Protestants. The family moved from Belfast to Reading when Branagh was nine years old.) He starts off languidly enough: ”I don’t like churches. Never have done. I associate them with fire and brimstone. I find them oppressive places. They are the most joyless, soulless places. I hate them. ” And suddenly he is off, in a crackle of anger: ”I really hate them. I hate all that religious stuff. I hate what the Church of England does. There’s so much hypocrisy about what God is supposed to do. I come from a province where the whole place is divided because of it. Inevitably, there’s a personal connection with it. And what’s this about the Vatican having just endorsed the death penalty the other day? Great. Thanks. That will help promote human understanding, won’t it? Let’s kill the buggers. Then we could have hung the Guildford Four, couldn’t we?”

An animated Branagh can sound like a slightly arrested, bolshy undergraduate. The ”kind of”s, ”y’know”s and expletives come so thick and fast, they are in danger of obscuring the words in between. The effect is oddly reminiscent of the character he plays in his new film, Peter’s Friends. Come to think of it, he even seems to be wearing the same clothes: grey and black, an open-necked shirt, revealing a tuft of mousy chest hair, a casual jacket.

The film (produced by, directed by, and starring Branagh) is a sort of Oxbridge version of The Big Chill: a group of friends who were at university together meet up ten years later for a weekend reunion. Since Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery and Thompson were all at Cambridge together, as well as Martin Bergman, who co-wrote the script with Rita Rudner, one can guarantee the audience will be searching for autobiographical clues.

This process of identification can prove too elliptical. Many people assume, for instance, that because of the company he keeps and his glittering career, Branagh was part of the Footlights set. In fact, he went straight to Rada, with a set of undistinguished A-level results from a Reading comprehensive. He visited one of the Oxford colleges with a girl friend from Reading, and wrote about the experience in his autobiography. ”We sat in some ancient rooms at midnight, drinking port. Our host put a violin concerto by a little-known composer on the record player. The smooth-talking undergraduate next to me turned and spoke as if the effort might kill him: ‘They’re taking this at quite a lick, aren’t they?’ I smiled and shifted nervously in my seat, moving an enormous working-class chip from one shoulder to the other, and thought that this definitely wasn’t the place for me.”

”One of the myths about this film”, Branagh says, ”is that we are all as thick as thieves. I’m sure that some people will say it should be called Kenny’s Friends, when in fact I have no past history with them at all. It’s Em who goes way back with them. The other thing I’d like to say is should this company the RSC be known as Adrian’s Friends because vast numbers of people work regularly in this organisation? And look at Martin Scorsese’s films. Are people annoyed because Robert de Niro has worked with him six times? And, ‘Apparently, he knows him!”’

This is said, partly I am sure, as a pre-emptive strike to ward off the inevitable question about the Ken and Em partnership. How does the power dynamic work offstage? ”Um, um, um… the bottom line is as a director I wouldn’t be employing her if I didn’t think she was a fine actress,” Branagh replies, which is not exactly an answer to my question. ”I feel very lucky to have her. She’s one of our best. She is very much her own woman. She doesn’t back down from what she would normally say as an actress in response to a director. And I don’t back down either. She’s very good at being specific. She’ll say, ‘No, I don’t know what you mean. You’ll have to tell me again.’ It’s good for the other actors because it sets the example for a certain level of communication. In all honesty, it is very professional because I’m not interested in parading my personal life in front of the people I work with. Obviously our professional life is very warm, but we have our married life, as it were, away from work.”

Branagh is as evasive as a politician when he is asked questions he prefers not to answer. The more personal the enquiry, the more general his response. This probably explains why he persistently steers the conversation back to the comparatively safe terrain of Hamlet. When I point this out, he practically chokes on his sandwich and then mumbles something unintelligible about a walnut. Sorry? ”Em sometimes calls me a walnut because that’s how unemotional I could be.” Could you elaborate, please? ”I’ve always felt that ‘You’ve got to be strong’ male stuff. My dad’s very much like that. I think it’s a very natural thing to be protective of your own emotions, so that you make an advance decision not to involve yourself as much as you might. But I’m much less like that now.”

On one of his many forays into Hamlet’s character, Branagh mentions that everyone knows what it’s like to suffer from a broken heart. So what was his experience? This is probably below the belt, since one knows that he will be far too polite to say, ”Mind your own business.” Instead, he scrunches up the discarded wrappings of his sandwich with such deliberation, that we both crack up. When I ask whether the couple plan to have children he becomes spectacularly inarticulate: ”Yeh er that would be nice, that would be nice. Er. Er. I I I. You You You hope that you’ll have them and we do. Yeh.”

I wonder, since we must talk about Hamlet, whether it’s principally the pyrotechnics of the part, the fabulous rolling arias of the speeches, that explain the pull. ”I don’t say that it’s completely without ego”, Branagh says, ”but it isn’t just about putting on the tights and being a kind of mincing luvvie. For me, the part expresses doubts and concerns about whether there is any point in being alive at all. And I believe that everybody has those doubts, however embarrassing it is to talk about them.”

Branagh proceeds to launch into one of his key speeches, which convinces me that, if nothing else, he knows his lines. ”I mean, you’ve only got to say, ‘Well, what about Somalia?’ And that’s fine because we do feel and Hamlet feels, indeed, the extraordinary pressure of world events. ‘To be or not to be…’ is full of that. ‘Who would bear the whips and scorns of time?. Th’oppressor’s wrong (Yugoslavia), the proud man’s contumely (John Major), the pangs of despis’d love (everyone’s had their heart broken), the law’s delay (Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six) and the spurnsThat patient merit of th’unworthy takes (Anyone who’s had anything to do with the government or whatever). I mean, who would do this, you know, if you could actually take a dagger and kill yourself?”

It is tempting to invest our artists with damaged psyches, to somehow believe that they are making themselves whole through their art. But this is particularly wrong-footed in the case of Branagh. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis, for instance, he has none of the existential angst of the young Danish prince he loves to play. He is an optimist who is fascinated by the preoccupations of the pessimist. But he is also more reflective and inward-looking than one might imagine he has time to be. (His current schedule is fairly typical: the days in punishing rehearsals; the evenings devoted to editing his forthcoming film of Much Ado About Nothing and planning his version of Frankenstein.) Last year, Branagh and Thompson went on a four-month walking holiday, staying in bed-and-breakfasts in Ireland and Scotland. Branagh says he desperately needed a break, an unencumbered period that was not at the end of one immense project and at the beginning of another. ”One is exercised by our inability to be happy; we have very unquiet minds. It is a dangerous game with actors. You can’t pretend when it suits you to be ‘in life’. Sometimes you just have to stop.”

It is this desire for inner stillness which attracts him to eastern religions. Towards the end of the interview, when he had loosened up considerably, Branagh talked about this inward journey. ”One of the wonderful things about those people, and I am not among them, who can meditate well, is their ability to achieve that sense of being absolutely nothing. To just ‘be’ and not to have your head full of ‘Oh God, I’m late’, ‘The gas man’s coming’, ‘Oh Christ, Somalia’.” He is particularly taken with one Buddhist tract: ”There’s this grand master, 100 years old, and he’s asked to sum it all up. ‘Just be cheerful’ is what he says. It sounds glib, on one level, but it’s also delicious. It’s the kind of thing that Shakespeare does all the time.”

Branagh’s obsession with D.H.Lawrence, rather than Hamlet, may yield more clues about what drives him. He started reading Lawrence’s letters in a moment of emotional crisis, and has been hooked on the man and his work ever since. ”There’s this character from a working-class background who went away into a different kind of world, and I felt a deep connection with that. It’s very romantic to someone like me, that he achieved a great position and accomplished so much, and that he came from Nottingham. I like the idea of him being on his own when he first came to London, and suddenly being on the edges of the whole Bloomsbury caboodle. He was so single-minded about what he wanted to do. I’ve even got a bunch of books that he and Jesse Chambers had back in the early 1900s in Nottingham. I have spent some considerable time touching his signature and thinking, ‘God, I wish I had met him.”’

Olivia Manning’s phrase about the Anglo-Irish sense of ”belonging nowhere” has a special significance for Branagh. The passage in his autobiography in which he describes his transformation from a cocky Belfast lad into a solitary teenager in the English suburbs is surprisingly affecting: his mother suffering from loneliness and a loss of confidence which took years to regain; the young Branagh, surrounded by fellow pupils whose older brothers were in the army, straining to mask his Irishness at school and then suffering from guilt at home. ”For as long as I could, I kept up the double life”, he writes, ”but my voice gradually took on the twang of suburbia. However, I still sounded different, and was very careful when the subject of English casualties in Ulster came up in school.” Between the age of 12 and 15, he coped with his predicament by retreating into himself. It was through acting, a legitimate method of reinvention, that Branagh discovered a way out.

Branagh seems to be at his happiest in a culture where actors are not made a fuss of. He fell in love with Australia when he spent several months there filming an adaptation of Lawrence’s The Boy in the Bush. He has used return visits in much the same way that other people go to health farms. He is similarly restored by trips to Ireland. The premieres of his three films have been in Belfast, and the Renaissance Theatre Company performs in Dublin and Belfast each year. He is recognised there, but not gaped at. ”There’s a different attitude. They’ll say ‘Hello’, or breaking into an accent ‘Very nice on the television there, ah Kevin, very good.’ In a pub in Ireland you can talk about a football match and you can talk about a poem. You can get very deep very quickly, in a way that you can’t quite over here,” he says. ”It has something to do with the unaffected knowledge and curiosity across the social classes and sexes which I like.”

Branagh’s conversation is littered with references to the way actors can get marginalised into a self-obsessed kind of ”luvvery”. Some of his best friends are actors, but he avoids the theatrical hoopla of first nights and the right restaurants. ”It’s very easy to get into a scene where your feet never touch the ground…Where you’re only ever having conversations with people who are looking over their shoulders to see if there’s anyone more interesting to talk to. Your vocabulary narrows into ‘How are you?’, ‘Good’, ‘Oh good’, ‘Lovely’, ‘It was marvellous’, ‘No, you were great’, ‘I was great’, ‘Let’s not talk about me. What did you think of my performance?’ So one tends not to do it.”

Branagh strikes me as thoroughly likable, and a good deal cuter and more larky than his bland image. He is so unpretentious, indeed almost gauche, that it is easy to forget how much he has accomplished for such a young man. At the end of the interview, a rather harassed stage manager knocks on our door for the second time. Hamlet is very definitely needed back in the rehearsal room. Branagh says: ”I’ll be right with you, darling.” And it doesn’t sound right at all.