Robert Powell has been a star for over 40 years. He is known for his roles on film, stage and television. I asked him how he got started in the business; did he always want to be an actor?
‘My first professional job was as a kid working for the BBC in Manchester doing plays for Children’s Hour while I was still at school. An old boy from the school used to come in to help with the school plays and things and he wrote and performed stuff for the BBC and he got me an audition, this was around 1960. For two or three years I did a fair amount of drama there, out of the Piccadilly studios for four guineas a show, which was not bad in those days. I also did plays at weekends for the BBC in Leeds for Alfred Bradley and some wonderful directors one of whom was Alan Ayckbourn.’
But you didn’t pursue it did you? You didn’t go to drama school? ‘I read law because I was under pressure to get a degree, obviously, with a very academic upbringing. You don’t query it, well I didn’t anyway. I wasn’t a particularly rebellious child. I really do not remember having any theatrical ambitions. I was just going from day to day I think. I did some acting while I was at university and it was because of that that I got invited to switch courses, to do a drama degree instead of law. I wasn’t really interested in law but I’d done Latin, Greek and ancient history at school what the hell can you do for a degree? You don’t have many options; you’ve got to start from scratch somewhere.
‘Suddenly this idea was too good to be true and not an opportunity to be missed; it meant I could combine my studies and my outside interests. So, I left the law faculty but three or four weeks later I found out that I hadn’t qualified for the drama course because I didn’t have English Literature. I’d never taken it. They didn’t even want an “A” level, an “O” would have been fine, which was ridiculous.
‘Anyway, they kept the place open for me and I swatted up on my English Lit, I remember the set book was The History of Mr. Polly. I could have done it in a week but I had to wait a year. In the meantime I wandered into the drama department at Manchester University and spoke to one of the lecturers whom I didn’t actually know, called Stephen Joseph. I told him I had a year to kill and did he have any ideas. I just wanted to work in a theatre; I didn’t care what I did.’
Stephen Joseph was a very important man in the British theatre of the sixties. You must have been impressed. ‘I had no idea who Stephen Joseph was or that he ran a theatre. He suggested I contact three theatres, Colchester, Leatherhead and Stoke. So I wrote to those places and even went down to Colchester on a bus from Manchester to see people there and I think I did the same for Leatherhead. I also went to see Peter Cheeseman at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke which he’d just started with Stephen Joseph.
‘Peter Cheeseman at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke offered me a job for six weeks, in the summer of 1964, as an acting ASM, carrying a spear in King Lear. They had a very small company which they augmented with two or three actors if they were doing a Shakespeare, which they did twice a year. So I pottered down to Stoke. There was a show on in the evenings which I was not involved with so my evenings were free during the rehearsal weeks. Though I wasn’t technically on the staff I went in anyway and said to the stage manager just give me some work. So they did, they had me running around all over the place doing this and that. And this was a crucial thing, always do more than people expect, it’s the absolute boost to success, never do just enough, always do more although I wasn’t conscious of this at the time.’
It seems you had found your place in the world. Was it then that you decided that’s how you were going to spend your life? ‘Being there felt very comfortable, just a really nice place to be. It was like decidedly finding my home so I just ran around and did everything that I was told or asked to do: making tea, cleaning, making props doing all those things and I was happy to me it was not a problem at all. When you’ve got a young actor in a company that shows that amount of enthusiasm it has benefits. Peter came up to me on the first night of Lear and asked me if I wanted to be in the company in the same position, as an acting ASM. Of course I said I’d love to and I never went back to university and I stayed at Stoke for fourteen months I think.’
You are successful in all medium but do you remember the first part you ever had on television? ‘I had six words doing a day’s shooting for the Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1966. I found myself part of the crowd watching Esmeralda, played by Gay Hamilton, going past in a tumbrel amid all these extras and I had the lines “Here she comes, here she comes.” James Cellan Jones, who I subsequently worked with properly, was the director cut three of my words and I’ve never forgotten that day in Ealing on that film because I got lumped with the extras. I was actually an actor but I got lumped in with the extras and with the greatest respect, I think perhaps things have improved now, their conversation was not conversation that I wanted to be part of. It just wasn’t part of what I do for a living. They were all desperate not to get their faces on camera so they could work again, all that sort of thing. I remember going back to my little flat in Highbury and saying to my girlfriend that I never wanted to do that again, I’d rather be a waiter. And I always stuck with that. It was humiliating; it was not what acting should be about. Doing one line in a twelve hour day was non-productive for me and utterly boring. I’d rather be a bricklayer doing something proper because at least he does something productive.’
Having worked extensively in films, television and theatre which is the most challenging? ‘Theatre is the hardest by a country mile, no question about that. It really is the toughest, not just because of having to hit the back of a two thousand seater theatre, which I have to say not many people can unless you learn how to do it and that’s something that takes awhile to develop, to develop a diaphragm and the ability to project your voice over a very long distance. It’s a technical thing which you have to learn.
‘I remember when Liza Goddard and I were doing a tour of Single Spies and we were playing a theatre which was a converted cinema which held two thousand. After the first night we went round to the bar for our glass of warm Liebfraumilch and were greeted by the manager at the top of the stairs who was euphoric. We asked him if he’d enjoyed the show.” Enjoy it?” he said, “I could hear it”. He said they frequently had plays in where the actors couldn’t be heard.’
You kept working in the theatre even when you were a big star didn’t you? ‘From about 1967, for the next ten or twelve years, I was the dog’s bollocks; people couldn’t get enough of me. I had a lot of success on television and films but I still did theatre, provincial theatre. I played Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse in 1971, I did Lady from the Sea at Greenwich and I did Glass Town in 1973 for Prospect company playing Branwell Brontë. I did Royal Hunt of the Sun in the late sixties at Salisbury so I was working quite a lot in theatre. Oh, and I did Nightmare Abbey playing Skythrop at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford. I’d forgotten most of these; they’re not on my CV. I did all of these simultaneously with all the big TV and films I was doing.’
And you worked with Ken Russell who started as a genius and finished up completely losing the plot, or so it seemed. ‘I loved Ken Russell; I enjoyed working with him on Mahler and Tommy enormously.’ Were you never tempted to try you luck in Hollywood? ‘I’ve farted around a lot in my career, just doing things I wanted to do. I spent some time in LA in the early eighties and hated it. I did two or three films there but at that time if you were English in Hollywood, with the exception of Michael Caine and Sean Connery, you played gays and villains. Why would I want to do that? I could play better parts in England and I did. I didn’t want to hang around LA to be 28th on the list.
‘Things have changed now of course. Now you get English actors working there with American accents but that never used to be the case. It started with a Irish and Scottish actors. A lot of Irish seemed to be able to make the jump as a lot of Australians did. It’s probably something to do with their accents being more understandable. Jesus of Nazareth probably didn’t help my film career. It gave with one hand and took away with the other. I had a very high powered agent in the States at that time who was also Robert de Niro’s and Harvey Keitel’s agent. He came to Rome where I was filming to find me to put me on his books, but it was a complete waste of time. They didn’t really know what to do with me, they kept seeing this image of Jesus. I can’t really say it was a millstone because I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t done it. When I was asked to do Jesus of Nazareth I was doing quite well. I was in Travesties at the Aldwych for the RSC and Mahler was on at the Odeon Haymarket. I was just coming up to thirty and it wasn’t the sort of offer you say no to. You kind if hope you aren’t going to be asked but once you are asked, you can’t say no. But you don’t really want to be asked, to be honest.’
Was playing Christ something that has blighted you career? You told me you would often have bets with your agent and press people about how long journalists took to mention Jesus of Nazareth. ‘It was nearly forty years ago and it is goes out every year in Greece and Italy and I would walk down a street at Easter, it happened four or five years ago. I was beardless, short hair and I got recognised. It doesn’t bother me. I’m deeply flattered that something can last that long. It’s nice to be remembered for anything. Although it is unavoidable; we have bets every time I do a television interview as to how many minutes before it comes up. I would rather they didn’t because my catalogue is very extensive now and I’ve done rather a lot of other things.
Given all we’ve said about lack of experience and the lack of technique in some young actors there is still an awful lot of talent around at the moment. ‘There are a lot of good young actors around now who’ve taken over the mantel. There are some stunning performances out there Benedict Cumberbach, Ben Wishaw, lots of them, fabulous actors. I just hope I get the chance of working with them.’
Robert Powell was talking to Michael Hasted in an interview that was included his book THESPIANS
© Michael Hasted 2011 All rights reserved. No reproduction in part or whole without express prior agreement
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