[Measure for Measure] leaves me with the sense that life is all there is, so we might as well live it as best we can; that being human is not a given but something we have to strive for. That the reason we are here is to live and that this involves making many difficult judgements.
What is your earliest memory?
The sound of the tug boats and barges on the river in Bromley-by-Bow, where we lived in the rectory.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
What was your most embarrassing moment?
Many years ago, I was found in compromising circumstances in a dressing room by a security man. The other person was hiding.
What is your most treasured possession?
Some paintings by a very old friend.
What is your wallpaper?
A rather nice picture of me, actually.
Grumpy, sarcastic, baffled and occasionally vulnerable, Roger Allam’s best roles constitute a résumé of how many Britons feel most of the time. And we love him for it.
To that list Allam could add The Missing, Game of Thrones and Cabin Pressure or the Falstaff that won an Olivier award in 2011. And the full-faced, but in the flesh not in the least bit portly, actor’s turn as Inspector Javert in the original London production of Les Misérables remains unmatched, despite Russell Crowe’s best efforts.
Though Allam, sitting opposite me in a West End office, is niggled when I compare his low, expressive baritone to Roger Whittaker. “Roger Whittaker! I have not been listening to any Roger Whittaker whatsoever.” Still, singing or not, the thesis is simple – if Roger Allam is in something, then everyone likes it.
Roger Allam talks to Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode about his new film, an adaptation of Stephen Fry’s The Hippopotamus.
Listen to the audio version (also available for download)
In each volume of the Shakespeare On Stage series, a leading actor takes us behind the scenes of a landmark Shakespearean production, recreating in detail their memorable performance in a major role. They leads us through the choices they made in rehearsal, and how the character works in performance, shedding new light on some of the most challenging roles in the canon. The result is a series of individual masterclasses that will be invaluable for other actors and directors, as well as students of Shakespeare; and fascinating for audiences of the plays.
In chapter 1, Roger Allam discusses playing the iconic role of Falstaff in both Henry IV plays in Dominic Dromgoole’s production at Shakespeare’s Globe.
Julian Curry: Was the text more or less complete?
Roger Allam: No. We were always looking for cuts, and I was very willing because, my God, Falstaff goes on! The part’s a monster. I don’t know how much of the text we performed, but certainly some of the monologues were cut quite a lot. One of the unexpected perks of working there, having thought that it was an anti-intellectual place, is that they have a whole department of scholarship focusing on the history of the Globe, and which actors might have played the parts first.
JC: In Shakespeare’s company, originally?
RA: Yes. Which can lead to certain clues. I found a book about Shakespeare’s clowns in the library, which is terribly interesting about their development coming out of the Tudor interludes, and Tarlton. The author is convinced that the first actor to play Falstaff was Will Kempe, who was immensely famous at the time. It would have been like having Tommy Cooper playing Falstaff, some really beloved comic, or Eric Morecambe. And indeed a lot of the writing of the part is like a brilliant homage to the improvisatory style of a stand-up comic. The book examines those notions very well.
JC: I think of Kempe as more of a lightweight. He was also famous as a dancer, wasn’t he?
RA: Yes, but he was a big man. I found that resource very stimulating. There’s plenty of information about what it must have been like round there when London Bridge was the only way over the Thames, and executed heads were stuck on spikes above the bridge. There’s a little row of houses next to the Globe, charming houses, one of them with a blue plaque saying it was built by Christopher Wren to use while he organised the rebuilding of St Paul’s. Next to it is an alleyway called Cardinal Cap Alley. I thought: How delightful – so I went down it, and you can see into the gardens of the houses. The following day I was looking in a book called Filthy Shakespeare (which is extremely entertaining) by a woman called Pauline Kiernan. She manages to find filth on more or less every page. And she says Cardinal’s Cap was a brothel near the Globe. It was run by the wife of Edward Alleyn the actor, on rented land that was owned by the bishops of Winchester.
JC: The whores wore long white gloves and were known as ‘Winchester geese’, isn’t that so?
RA: ‘Winchester geese’, that’s right. A Cardinal’s Cap is also an Elizabethan slang term for an erect penis. So you can imagine punters saying to each other: ‘King Lear’s boring, let’s hop out and go down to The Stiff Cock for a shag.’ You start thinking about all sorts of aspects of life in that part of London when the plays were first done.
JC: Tell me about the sets and costumes.
RA: It was done in period. In Mark [Rylance]’s time there used to be a rule, I believe, that you had to be able to pack up every show into a single skip. You tend to get less of that now, depending on the director. But rather wonderful, I think, because with easier changeovers they can do twelve or fourteen shows a week, and that’s how the place runs economically. I think over the season I was there, they probably had about five different companies of actors.
JC: One skip containing all the sets and costumes?
RA: Well, not any longer. It was one skip for the costumes and another for the set and props. But you couldn’t do that any more, because they now tend to build more elaborate sets. And we had the stage built out a bit, with steps going down into the yard.
JC: The yard is another name for the pit, where the groundlings stand who pay five pounds, is that right?
RA: Yes. There’s also an upper level that we could use. It gave a sense of vertical space for the tavern, which was very good.
JC: So the tavern was on the upper level?
RA: No, no. The tavern was mainly on the ground, but at times we could go down some steps into the yard, or upstairs. And you could also go down under the stage through a trapdoor. There was a sense, therefore, that the tavern was on many levels. We went along and had an illegal rehearsal one afternoon in that old pub, The Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. It was originally built after the Great Fire as an inn to house the builders. The place is an absolute warren, with all sorts of upper and lower levels, rooms leading off other rooms, and so forth. I suppose our setting was a gesture towards that.
JC: Why was the rehearsal illegal?
RA: Because we didn’t ask permission.
JC: Oh I see. You just went along and had a pint, and then did some rehearsal.
RA: Had a sandwich and a pint and worked on the play.
I ask him if he was among the thousands who signed up to the SDP by — and this was revolutionary in itself — credit card. “No,” says Allam solemnly. “I bought very much into the narrative that they split the left vote and gave us 18 years of Thatcherism. However, the play is an opportunity to reconsider.”
Even for then Jenkins, in his dark suits and with his silk handkerchiefs, whose diaries of his years as president of the European Commission were stuffed with accounts of long lunches and heavy dinners, was an old-fashioned figure, I say.
“Well, that’s another one of the what-ifs, isn’t it? What if Shirley Williams had led? But, actually, reading about Roy Jenkins I got to really like him. I think he’s a really interesting figure and incredibly intelligent and bright and was, 15 years before this, a very civilising home secretary in the Wilson government. So, was he old-fashioned? I don’t know.”
What do you do to switch off from the world?
I have a glass of wine. Red. Generally when I’m cooking.
How do you deal with negativity?
When and where are you happiest?
Probably having the glass of wine while cooking.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
When someone asked Jimmy Cagney what the secret to acting was, he said, ‘Never relax and mean what you say.’ I think that’s quite good.
What has been the hardest lesson you’ve learned?
Your mind makes appointments that your body can’t keep.
What would you tell your 13-year-old self?
Work harder and try to know what you want. I could be wrong.
What 3 things are at the top of your to-do list?
I’ve never been to Barcelona, I’d like to go there; also South America.
What do you think happens when we die?
When do you feel a sense that we live in the presence of something bigger than ourselves?
Whenever you see a spectacular view, or just when you’re out in nature. I live near a beautiful park, and when I walk around it, the beauty of it can take your breath away. It makes you realise there is something bigger, certainly bigger than me.
What do you try to bring to your relationships?
What keeps you grounded?
The weight of my body.
What was the last good deed or act of kindness you received?
Something terribly simple, somebody opening a door, asking me if I’d like to sit down, offering a chair. That’s all I need. I remember once about 10 years ago when I was injured, having to rehearse, and I was walking with a stick. And I was terribly touched by the amount of people willing to give up a seat. You often hear that London is so brusque and rude, but the grace with which people negotiate incredibly crowded spaces is something rather nice.
Roger Allam chats about the new series of Endeavour and the relationship between Morse and his character DI Fred Thursday.
Bonus interview. Roger Allam returns to the podcast to take us behind the scenes of the wild Endeavour season finale — from the bullet-spitting scene to Thursday and Matthew’s standoff.
Jace Lacob: “My jaw dropped when I watched the the bullet spitting scene, which was so unexpected and horrific as Thursday coughs up a piece of the bullet that had been troubling him all season, and then very calmly wipes the blood from his mouth. What was it like filming that scene and does that strengthen his resolve?”
Roger Allam: “Oh, yes of course it does. It’s great. I mean talking about me as an actor paying my own internal homage to the movies, there was Doc Holliday, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, you know.” (laughs)
“It’s always wonderful to play an extreme scene like that, something that’s kind of like a turning point, you know, but the moment when he thinks, “Right, I can now go out there and attempt to get the bad guys. Save my daughter.” All those things that we fantasize about.”
“You were there at the end. Nobody else. You had the chance to run, to look to your own neck. You didn’t. You stood.”:
“It was absolutely freezing cold. That’s what I remember about filming that. It was achingly cold, and no sane person — even in this country — would have sat on a bench eating a sandwich. (…)”
About working with Anton Lesser: “Laughing and laughing and laughing, and gossiping and gossiping and gossiping. I think that’s…Yes. We like to think that that’s what we’re paid for really, and we throw the acting in for free. (…)”
In BBC Radio 3’s Private Passions, guests from all walks of life discuss their musical loves and hates, and talk about the influence music has had on their lives.
Roger Allam talks to Michael Berkeley about his lifelong passion for music and why he became an actor rather than an opera singer.
They listen to and discuss the following pieces:
Estampie Royal no.6 from Anonymous
Performed by Stevie Wishart (buy)
Goldberg Variations: Variation no.14 from Johann Sebastian Bach
Performed by Angela Hewitt (buy)
La Nativité du Seigneur: La Vierge et l’Enfant from Olivier Messiaen
Performed by Jennifer Bate (buy)
About being cast in Les Misérables:
“Lots of people are astounded that I was in the first cast of Les Misérables,” he jokes. “Possibly because I look so incredibly youthful. But then you meet people who are mad about Les Misérables and they don’t know that I’ve ever done anything else.”
When he left the barricades in favour of a role in Arthur Miller’s The Archbishop’s Ceiling, Miller, for one, was most impressed, saying: ‘This is part of what theatre culture means, And it is something few New York actors would have the sense of security to even dream of doing. Arthur was very romantic about that decision, but to me it seemed entirely practical. I had been doing Les Misérables for a year and I needed to move on. I didn’t want to play the same role eight times a week for another year.”
There must be times when doing telly isn’t quite as, well, rich, as, say, doing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet?
“They are different. Shakespeare is the best writing ever. It’s incredibly rich, dense, expressive language. About 95 per cent of the meaning of the play is expressed in that language, whereas most writing is as much about what happens when people aren’t speaking, what happens beyond language. Often in television, a lot of information has to be relayed in a particular scene, but what has been said has nothing to do with it.”
“Falstaff was particularly pleasing because I didn’t really have much notion about how to do it. At the Globe, you’re approximating how they would have performed in Shakespeare’s time. So it’s daylight and there’s no pretence – if you like – that you’re not doing a play. The performance is always present and Falstaff is a character who speaks to the audience all the time.
“It was thrilling because it demanded bits of language and music and everything. And bits of everything is what it’s all about.”
So does he enjoy being in Endeavour or is it just another job?
“It can be enormous fun and if it’s ever boring I just think I’m being paid to hang around and do the acting for free.”
The highlights so far?
“The tiger, although we weren’t in the maze with it at the same time, but I got to wave a massive gun in the air which appealed to the infant in me.”
And what of his similarities to DI Thursday?
“Well I’m not a policeman, and I didn’t fight in the war, but I do enjoy the part and I do really like and respect Thursday and feel great sympathy for him. So there are always things that you use to engage with a character, to bring a sense of yourself to your work, so you do your research so you know what it was like. And for the rest?” he pauses, “You just use your imagination.”
“When I turned 16 I was just becoming aware of politics and the wider world. There were all the disturbances in Europe in 1968 and marches against the Vietnam War, then in 1969 the Troubles in Ireland. It suddenly seemed like the world was quite a dangerous place. My father was a vicar so we moved around. I am a London mongrel, really.”
“I have warm feelings towards my younger self but wish I’d been more conscious. I feel as though I just wandered around and things happened to me. The things I could do, like sing, play instruments and later on, act, I took for granted. I wish I’d honed them more.I’d tell my younger self to work harder on himself. Drink less. Don’t take up smoking. He wouldn’t have listened. And on his love life? Just go for it more.”
“When I was 16, my heroes were Laurence Olivier and Paul Scofield. That is who I wanted to be like. They were very different people – Olivier wanted fame and success, while Scofield rejected the more public side of acting. It is easy to say I haven’t succeeded in either of those regards. My career now wouldn’t match up with my fantasy from then because my fantasy was completely unreal. How impressed would my younger self be about my career? He would think I’d done ok.”
“My advice to my younger self would be that difficult times do pass. You have to remember that they are not necessarily going to be forever. If you live in a reasonable country, have a roof over your head and have enough to eat, generally speaking things have the possibility to get better.”
“Parenthood happened much later to me than my parents. I was 46. It is the most astounding thing. You might have children in your wider family but when you don’t have children you don’t understand what it is like. I was sometimes quite critical of my parents for sending me away to school but I know they meant it for the best. They thought it was giving me an opportunity, and it did. But when I look at my sons, it has really not made me want to send them away.”
What’s your must-see TV?
“I’m not that loyal because I’m often in plays in the evening. So I get a lot of programmes stacking up. But I try to keep up with interesting dramas that come along: I thought Stellan Skarsgard was wonderful in River. I enjoyed Unforgotten. And I always watch Ripper Street.”
What’s your earliest TV memory?
“Oh, this is going to date me. Dim and distant memories of The Army Game and children’s programmes like Four Feather Falls. We’d also watch The Forsyte Saga together as a family. And I was one of those children who’d hide when Doctor Who started.”
Have you ever done Doctor Who?
“No, much to my rage! I’d like to do it. Playing a villain would be great.”
What do you watch with your own family?
“I have two sons, aged 15 and ten, and I recently introduced them to Fawlty Towers. That was such a pleasure because they both loved it. It’s just so beautifully constructed – each one is like a mini French farce.”
How high does TV come on your list of cultural pursuits?
“When TV is at its best, it’s as good as absolutely anything. If I’m gripped by a really good drama, I’ll make sure I’ll see it by whatever means.”
That’s really hard, isn’t it? I think there’s something in the play that explores the huge dangers of Wagner; not just about fascism but about emotion, in that if you’re feelings about what a relationship should be is that someone is getting a sword from a river or taking the Rhine gold or hammering something on an anvil and all that kind of Game of Thrones stuff- Jonathan Miller famously called Wagner “musical Tolkien.” There is something utterly glorious about it when you see it done well, but it’s also kind of overwhelming. It’s not real life.
A few years ago I did a gig at the Manchester International Festival with the Halle Orchestra (The Madness of the Extraordinary Plan, 2011) and I was playing Wagner in this little curtain raiser, and I tell you, if you’ve got an 80 piece orchestra behind you playing Wagner you think “yes, yes! Why don’t I have this accompanying me round in life? This massive orchestra making everything I do hugely important. The soundtrack to my every request.”
And so, I wouldn’t say I was a Wagnerian. And I think the play shows is that the thing about life is that the more ordinary things that Mozart dramatized in, say, The Marriage of Figaro, certainly, are worthy of being given some sense of the sublime as well through that incredible music and that wonderful way that opera does, as I was describing earlier, concentrating. The fact that someone can say “I love you,” and they’re singing it and they have to repeat it, and because it has this astounding music it takes on something else than just someone standing on stage saying “I love you.”
I think it depends on your mood. Wagner’s not terrific at comedy- Wagner for certain moods, Mozart for others, I would say. But Mozart for most of life, I think. Mozart less dangerous.
Which was your favourite role to play? (@VonBlade)
I don’t know whether I’ve got a favourite, really. There’ve been a number of ones where I’ve really liked the play and I felt that I’d done reasonably well with it. I absolutely loved doing Uncle Vanya, because I thought that I was a little too old and I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to play it, it had never been offered to me. And actually, that came about because Jonathan Church was talking to me about doing something about doing something in Chichester and that they were thinking of doing a Michael Frayn translation of a Chekov play- Platonov, I think it was, Wild Honey. And I read it and it’s brilliant- absolutely brilliant- but he’s meant to be sort of twenty-eight.
I said I was really drawn to it, I’d never played Uncle Vanya and it would be a way of playing Uncle Vanya without actually being in Uncle Vanya, but I can’t, because he’s twenty-eight. And so, in the end, Jonathan thought why not do Uncle Vanya in Michael Frayn’s translation. So that’s how it happened. But I loved that part, I suppose because I didn’t think I’d get a chance to do it whereas with something like Prospero you think “alright, I could have done it some time ago, but I’m still a reasonable age for Prospero.” So I loved doing that, as well, but it felt as though I just grabbed the last chance to do Uncle Vanya.
And it’s sometimes when roles just seem to fit and sit on you in a different way, it just comes very naturally. But I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily my favourite because there’s some I look back on- Terri Dennis in Privates on Parade, that was just glorious, the most enormous fun. Not to mention Cage Aux Folles, they were both lovely to do. And stupid things like Abannazar in the pantomime, that was just great.
Roger Allam is an opera fan, but not a fanatic. He’s been to Glyndebourne only twice – “musically superb, disastrous productions” – but admits “a visit there is a special treat, and I feel the world is a nicer place because Glyndebourne is in it. Writing opera off as intrinsically elitist is absurd. The expense of the posh seats may exclude people for financial reasons, but there are plenty of ways in which it is still accessible: Glyndebourne’s autumn tour, for instance, or the Upper Slips at Covent Garden for ten quid. What I don’t believe is that DVDs or HD broadcasts can be a substitute for the real thing. I remember as a student going to Covent Garden, where they took out the stall seats and you hunkered down on the floor – I heard Pavarotti in Tosca there, and the experience of being in that same room with that astonishing voice has never left me.”
“Manchester was wonderful for me. There was a battered old converted chapel where every Monday night we could put on whatever sort of show we liked. There was no fancy equipment, and no budget either, but you could take wing with your imagination and experiment. Nowadays they have a properly equipped studio theatre, and I’m told it just doesn’t get used in the same creative way.”
(Allam) remains a theatre man at heart – “that’s where I feel I belong. I just wish it paid a bit better” – and his only ambition is “to go on like Maggie, Judi, Ian, Derek and Eileen, getting good parts till I drop dead. I couldn’t possibly retire. I’d be bored rigid.”
“I did think of becoming an opera singer, but as soon as I got to Manchester [University] I became a lot more interested in acting.”
“I loved the variety of acting, turning your hand to different things.”
“We [The Monstrous Regiment] did a cabaret once, and I worked up a stand-up spot, which was a useful experience for a young actor.I have enormous admiration for stand-ups.”
“I’d never really got the Globe…but doing Falstaff to that audience was a great thrill.”
“If you’re doing comedy and the audience is really up for it, that feels fantastic, like the best kind of drug. The whole pleasure of performing in the theatre is that you can improve on your performance night after night, and each audience is different. Unlike TV and films, it’s never finished.”
“I was heckled once but a very large, very drunk man in the Woolwich Tramshed when I was doing a cabaret turn for Monstrous Regiment. He kept shouting obscenities at me, so I said into the microphone, “He’s got a lot of charm, hasn’t he? He’d make Liberace appear brusque.” I stole the line from Alan Coren. Luckily, the audience thought I was funnier than the drunk.”
“I love classic westerns, that whole thing of mythologising the Wild West.”
“I’ve got to what Tony Sher calls the ‘oh-fuck-it’ stage.”
Can you give a quick synopsis of how a Cabin Pressure episode comes to be? Reading/rehearsals, etc. @redswhinez
John Finnemore, after an agony of body and spirit, produces two wonderful scripts. We go in on a Sunday. Read them round the table. The odd word might get changed. Read them once in front of the microphone. And then perform them for you.
You’ve played a lot of scoundrels. Is there something attractive to you about the ‘sympathetic bad guy’? @KrisGutknecht1
Yes there is, they are often very funny and released from the constraints on our behaviour in real life. It’s Richard III syndrome. We get a vicarious thrill out of seeing them on stage or screen, and it’s a thrill to play someone like that.
If you could be any of your characters for a period of time, which one would you choose? Why? What would you do as them? Becca via @All_Allam
Benedick in Much Ado. He’s funny, he falls in love, then he’s serious, then he’s funny again. He learns stuff and changes and grows. I think I’d try and do the same.
What’s the funniest/most unexpected thing that’s happened when you’ve been on stage? Catherine via @All_Allam
Jonathan Coy called me ‘Fizzy’ instead of ‘Willi’ [Roger’s character’s name] inDemocracy. He went puce. Conleth Hill’s face folded into two.
“He [Leonard] is no charlatan,” he adds, “and he writes articles about the world’s trouble spots, so raises pertinent questions about what they’re going to write about in their luxurious Upper West Side apartment. I’m making it sound rather serious but I assure you it’s very, very funny.”
[On Shakespeare’s Globe] “It was a perfect place to perform Falstaff. I didn’t really understand him before and it taught me a great deal about the character, and about the type of theatre that existed when he was created… It was an interesting and educational experience to have at my time of life.”
So interesting, in fact, that Allam returned the following season as Prospero. I tease that the Globe hasn’t done a Lear in a while, if he’s looking to complete a trilogy. He darkens. “Lear is very hard – I wouldn’t know how to do it there.”
“Acting, like many professions, is getting more exclusive. It’s hard to get a further education now without getting massively in debt. When I started, there were a lot of fringe companies that paid a decent wage. (…) “Art has always been commercial, to a degree. But the National Theatre was built for all of us. I don’t like to see bits of it become exclusive or unavailable, it should be a democratic institution.”
And could he ever envisage running seminars himself? With another deep roar of laughter, he demurs: “I’ve no idea what I’d teach.” No doubt there are many who’d disagree.
“I’d seen Peter Brook’s Dream, which helped me see not only the play’s joyousness but also its playful seriousness about being possessed by love. I could still hear some of it in my head.”
“When we were leaving, the crew were taking down the auditorium and a couple of the locals were crying. We asked what was wrong and this woman said: “You have no idea what we had to go through with the council and the school to get the money to afford the RSC. And it’s been such a success – the school is humming with energy.” It was the most wonderful feeling.”
“Bizarrely, someone involved in the children’s show Sarah and Duck, which I narrate, recently found a coat with my name on it in a secondhand shop. It’s the coat I wore as Theseus in the Dream. So it’s back in my possession after all these years, which is rather strange and wonderful. It’s in very good nick but I don’t quite know what to do with it.”
“There wasn’t a single point at which I decided I wanted to work in theatre, but I got interested at school. The first Pinter play I saw was a school production of The Birthday Party, which I remember well. I also heard a recording of Paul Scofield as King Lear when I was studying the text. The final thing was going to the theatre on my own when I was about 16. I saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard at the National Theatre, which was then at the Old Vic. You could get in incredibly cheaply. Something about the whole experience made me think, this is what I want to do.”
“[In 1999] I was in three of the five plays, Troilus and Cressida, Money and Summerfolk. Troilus and Cressida had many battle scenes, and for some reason the designer had decided that although the Greeks and Trojans had swords, shields and armour they didn’t have the technology for shoes, so we were all barefoot.”
“At the same time I was rehearsing Money, in which I had to do a Highland fling. I learnt the dance on one leg.”
“Summerfolk was nearly four hours long and had a huge cast – we got through it in rehearsals only about three times. I went into it thinking, ‘I’m going to hate this, it’s going to be dreadful,’ but actually it was hugely enjoyable.”
“Driving the car [in Endeavour] is a nightmare… the gear stick is about a mile away, and you’ve got these two tiny mirrors that are also about a mile away in which you can hardly see anything at all … I’m surprised anyone got through the era in one piece.”
“They do remind you of those cars with the big leather seats that were like driving around in your front room.”
“[The Thick of It] was enormous fun to make and very different to making most television drama because of the way we rehearsed and the way we shot it. There were two cameras continually on the move, so there weren’t those mastershots and then midshots and closeups, so it was a much freer kind of feeling to it. And, although there was the most fantastic script, arrived at by a whole bunch of writers and a bit of improvisation and then more writing, there was also liberty on the floor to extend little bits and mess around.”
“[On the possibility of doing another musical] if the right thing came up.”
You’ve had parts in musicals, TV and film. Should an actor always be open to new things?
Yes. There’s a particularly British way of going about things that I rather like, which is very different to the American way. It comes out of the amateur rep tradition of actors thinking: ‘Well, I’m only 26, but I’ll put on a beard and have a go at King Lear.’
Which of your roles has been most challenging?
Macbeth. I’ve done it twice: the last time at Stratford, in a production that wasn’t very well received. It was a challenge just to keep going. Playing the drag queen Albert in La Cage Aux Folles presented another difficulty: I had to ask my beloved to help me shave my entire body once a week with a beard trimmer.
What’s the biggest myth about acting?
That you have to be in character all the time. For me, acting is like a pool you dive into. If you’re lucky, you find what you need, then get out again.
“I was born at All Hallows Rectory, in Bromley-by-Bow, in the East End. I was the son of a vicar… so my childhood was coloured by my father’s profession.”
“For the last three years at school, I started acting in plays. I was Guildenstern in Hamlet, Edgar in King Lear and Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. I also developed an interest in blues and folk guitar music, and started to go to local clubs to watch bands.”
“I started going to the theatre, too, in central London. Laurence Olivier would be on at the National, and I remember being inspired by the live theatre experience. None of my family had been actors or had any ambitions to become one.”
“He even tries to talk me out of coming to his press night for The Tempest: ‘You don’t want to come and do that – it’s uncomfortable in there,’ he says. Never has a leading actor tried to talk me out of coming to his press night.”
“‘I’d love to do [films] that are completely impossible for me to do.’ He pauses. ‘Like a western…. Getting on a horse, walking down a street, killing the bad guys,’ he says. ‘Absolutely brilliant.’ (The actors he admires are the dead, dark bastards — Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Humphrey Bogart.) He also wants to do ‘one of those really serious French films about relationships.’ Incest and picnics? ‘Yeah.'”
“I have always been very neurotic about being typecast,” he says. “I find knowing what I want really, really hard. I look back and think, that was stupid, and I should have been more conscious. I have sort of just drifted around.”
“‘I’ve been saying for about 20 years, ‘When am I going to get my cop show?’ he grins.”
“Cop shows, Allam thinks, are ‘our version of a Western. Where you can be someone striving to try to do the right thing. You can look at terrible things that people do to each other, which is always interesting, and try to solve it. It’s the trying that’s the important thing. Lots of those detective characters are interesting for that reason.'”
“‘I don’t know who can constantly afford to go and see things. A play, which has five people in it and one set and it cost you 60 quid? And you’re in a theatre that really hasn’t had a great deal of money spent on it in the last 50 or 60 years? It’s kind of weird.'”
Earliest London memory?
Playing on the bomb site in Bromley-by-Bow with my sister, when I was four. It was a desolate place that became something of a playground. We’d let our imaginations run wild.
Best piece of advice?
Judi Dench told me to shut up once. I was probably going on and on about something, in the way that I do sometimes, so she was being a good friend.
Who do you call when you want to have fun in London?
“I’ve chosen all these [songs] because they were things that when I was driving I heard on the radio and I think in all cases except one I had to stop the car.”
“I would so love to be in the film that this is the music of.”
“That’s the wonderful thing about Radio 3… you’ll just hear something unexpected, something you don’t know.”
“[This version] completely reveals the song afresh… this feels just tragic.”
Daphnis Et Chloé – Ravel – Pierre Boulez, New York Philharmonic (buy)
“[Favoured Boulez because] he picks out things for you to hear rather than just give it this general wash which is so easy to do.”
“[As with ‘A Case of You’] it completely reveals the song, something you think you know… in a very fresh way.”
“I’d like to dance like Fred Astaire; and sing like him as well, actually.”
“Yellow socks [in Christ’s Hospital school uniform] were to keep away plague, and indeed they did; no one had the plague when I was at school.”
“I turned down spear carrying [in the RSC].”
“[The directors of Les Mis] were keen to get people who were part of the RSC in it but there weren’t enough singers… I did a ludicrous audition. I’d never auditioned for a musical, I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know any of the songs that you should sing at an audition for a musical. I think I did the baritone solo- unaccompanied solo- from Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, and something of Macheath’s from Threepenny Opera, and I think Trevor Nunn said ‘don’t you know anything more popular than that?’”
“I had a ball [in the panto, Aladdin, with Sir Ian McKellen], and we did it two years running. I’d rarely experienced that kind of roar from the audience of just wanting to have a good time.”
I’m heartbroken that apparently there’s not going to be another series [of The Thick of It]. I auditioned for Armando and did some silly improvisation for him and I just got it… it’s a very releasing way to work.”
“Hollywood villain-dom is a door which has remained closed… so far.”
“[Fred Thursday is] a wonderful role… this is a man who’s more sort of salt of the earth and good… a strong sense of what’s right and wrong, formed, I think, from his experiences in the war… I wear great sixties clothes and smoke a pipe, it’s brilliant.”
“I’d love to get off a horse and walk down a street like Clint Eastwood.”
“Keep a notebook about the play, the character, the period, your moves. It’ll help you remember what you have done so far – especially if you’re having to rehearse in your spare time rather than all day, every day.”
“Never go dead for a second on stage. Even if you are doing nothing, do it actively. Listen.”
“Try not to worry about embarrassing yourself. That’s a lifetime’s task.”
“You are released from the miserable aspects of having to earn your living in this marvellous business called show, so have fun: be as serious as you like, but enjoy yourself.”
“The preparation [for playing a whisky connoisseur] was grueling, apparently. ‘I had a serious and rather drunken research session with the great Charles MacLean, who took me through the history of whisky and malts. I can’t remember a thing about it now. In fact I don’t think I remembered a thing about it the following morning. Very, very entertaining.'”
“The great thing about the Globe, he says, is that half the audience, 700 if the place is packed, only pay £5 to get in. ‘That gives a totally different feel to playing to people who have paid £50 to sit in the stalls.’
He’s not a fan of playing to corporate jollies then? ‘Corporate jollies are generally speaking the kiss of death to an audience. People are not there to see the thing, they’re there for other reasons. It can be good, but generally speaking I would say not.'”
Simon Russell Beale, Lesley Manville and Roger Allam talk about acting at the National Theatre.
In this series of video interviews the actors discuss methods of keeping performances fresh on stage, and then speak about the specific challenges faced when performing on the National Theatre’s stages: the Cottesloe Theatre, the smallest of the three spaces, the proscenium arch Lyttelton Theatre and the famous Olivier Theatre.
On the Lyttelton Theatre (click the theatre names for videos): The problem with the Lyttelton is that you’re playing to two audiences because a lot of well-designed Victorian and Edwardian theatres, you’re playing to the same room, and the audience feels as though they’re in the same room. But if you sit in the circle in the Lyttleton, you’re completely unaware of there being anyone in the stalls at all, except in a comedy you hear this laughter coming from somewhere underneath you.
On the Cottesloe Theatre, where Allam performed in both The Cherry Orchard and Democracy: Its adaptability gives directors and designers a lot of choice in how they mount the play.
On the Olivier Theatre: You step on the stage and it feels as if it seats three thousand people, and it only seats twelve hundred, so there’s an awful lot of empty air per member of the audience and per actor on stage… You have to often start a line looking at one side of the auditorium and literally kind of move it around to the other so it just gets shared around a bit. It’s a difficult space in which to ignore the audience if you wanted to do a production like that, that was sort of pretending the audience wasn’t there; I don’t think you could really do that on the Olivier stage.
“Early last year a man stopped Roger Allam in a street in Cambridge, where he was on tour. Hadn’t he performed a go-getting Tory minister in that TV docudrama about the political death of Margaret Thatcher? Oh yes, Allam replied, expecting a compliment. ‘I have to say it was absolute rubbish,” came the reply, “an absolutely vile attack on Mrs Thatcher.’ Allam gulped, told the stranger it was he who was talking nonsense, and invited him to p*** off — ‘and there were these two middle-aged men raging at each other on the street. It was very, very funny.'”
“In his autobiography Arthur Miller compared Allam favourably with his Broadway counterparts, few of whom would have left Les Mis to appear in his The Archbishop’s Ceiling for the RSC. Allam shrugs off the compliment, saying that Miller romanticised a decision made because his contract was ending and he wanted to return to the RSC. He is, he says, pretty pragmatic when it comes to accepting a role — ‘How long is the job? Can I afford it? What possibilities can I see in it when I read it aloud?’ — and sees his career as ‘a series of accidents.”
“He’s a modest, self-critical, somewhat contradictory man, this Allam, because he certainly isn’t tackling Falstaff for what’s likely to be much of a wage. The role is a risk. So is performing at the Globe, a theatre that he has only recently come to respect: ‘When I was at the RSC there was a lot of talk about thatched-cottage Shakespeare. I was very resistant to the place and rather snobbish about it. But last season I went to see Trevor Griffiths’ play about Tom Paine, a big, sprawling piece that was playing to 1,500 people, and I was very impressed by the way it had found an audience that absolutely love it.'”
“‘The acting bug first bit when I went to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic,’ he says. ‘I went on my own and it seemed like the most extraordinary adventure, getting a ticket and all that stuff. I’d been studying Hamlet, so I understood the jokes and we all laughed together in the audience. I just got it.'”
“‘I remember my early theatre experiences much more clearly than recent stuff. I can still hear David Waller and Alan Howard in Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream – I can actually hear them!'”
“Did you enjoy Les Mis? (I suspect not, from the look in his eye.) ‘Well…no. Not really, I have to say. There’s no scope for your own interpretation, your own timing. You have these little head mikes, so if you decide to sing very, very loudly they turn them down at the controls. If you sing softly, they turn them up.'”
“‘God, [Falstaff] talks a lot!'”
“‘Me? Oh, I’m not a creature of excess,’ he says. ‘I’m half-hearted, an amateur compared with [Falstaff]!'”
Actor Roger Allam talks to Heather Neill about his critically acclaimed performance as Falstaff in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (Shakespeare’s Globe), directed by Dominic Dromgoole. Recorded at Shakespeare’s Globe.
“So much has been written about Falstaff, but you really can’t say that this character has read all that has been written about him!”
“Award winning actor Roger Allam once spent three days preparing and cooking a duck – the French way – for a party.
‘I was in my early 20s, a student and loved doing the elaborate French stuff,’ said Roger.
‘I lived in a bedsit and started doing this duck recipe. I marinated it, stuffed it with minced pork, sewed it back up and wrapped it in pastry and three days later it was ready. I was sick of it by then.’”
“He admits that he still has a passion for cuisine and does most of the cooking in his home. ‘I came to like it through greed and gluttony,’ he said.”
“‘A lot of [playing Robin Janvrin in The Queen] was getting the voice right. I did it posh and it was funny at the read through. But the royal advisor we had said it was too posh. I was disgruntled.'”
“I don’t think acting is complicated. I think acting’s quite hard sometimes but its essence is quite simple, you know.”
“There comes a time as an actor when you’ve simply got to forget about [your research], you know. And trust that you’ve done your work… You’ve got to be able to walk around, and sit down, and speak. And… have the audience believe that you are who you say you are, in the simplest possible way.”
“Something can easily become simply theatrical, simply some strange, some sort of accepted idea of style, or elegance, or whatever. Whereas a lot of those plays are very, very down to earth. They take a very cold, hard look at human relations… Suddenly everything is about sex and money.”
“Well, [cabaret] seemed to me completely natural, not naturalistic, but completely natural, and the other stuff is sort of odd, really, pretending they’re [the audience is] not there.”
“To my mind Les Misérables became about ways of staging, became a style. It almost became a style of itself, really.”
“[With Hitler in Albert Speer] the appearance and physicality was of enormous importance… I mean, once you do the haircut and the moustache – you’re very close. It’s quite scary when you actually do it, you think, ‘Oh! God!'”
The actor who plays German impressario Max Reinhardt in Michael Frayn’s Afterlife (National Theatre) talks to Philip Fisher about the role, and about his career, in which he has played other historical figures, from Adolf Hitler to Willy Brandt.
“Playing a real person does have its challenges – we only have other people’s accounts of what Reinhardt was like.”
Most stage treatments of Hitler have been parodic or comic in some way. David Edgar had anxieties that his portrayal of Hitler would be criticised by some precisely because he didn’t want to use comedy to subvert the role. Did you have any worries about accepting the part?
It didn’t concern me at all. The play is based on Gitta Sereny’s book, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, which is all about Albert Speer’s relationship with Hitler. To make Hitler some sort of monster would be wrong. He was seen by those in sympathy with his politics , by those close to him, as a powerful, charming and charismatic man and, to my mind, the whole idea was that you should see precisely that. You watch him selecting a kind of favourite who gets increasingly drawn inn and his monstrosity is only revealed later, as Speer’s opinions start to change and Germany’s fortunes.
To what extent were you involved in the creation of the role?
David tends to use rehearsals as a way rethinking and rewriting and there was a lot of discussion, whereas with Michael Frayn that isn’t the case at al. Everything is very finished: there might be one or two alternations but Michael attends at the beginning of the rehearsals and then only comes again when we’re running through.
Do you do a lot of preparation before rehearsals?
It depends entirely on the circumstances. Initially, I turned down playing Hitler because it coincided with the birth of my first son. Then, as my wife was going into labour, I got a phone call.
To read the full interview, buy the book Playing for Real by Tom Cantrell and Mary Buckhurst.
Career high: Doing well at the RSC in the 1980s. Sheila Hancock was doing a British tour and she cast me as Oberon/Theseus in the Dream. We went to small towns all over Britain.
Favourite theatre: Small- to medium-sized Edwardian theatres are my favourites, like Stratford East, the Royal Court, Wyndhams, the Theatre Royal in Newcastle. And I love the Old Vic. I started going to the theatre on my own as a teenager when Olivier was still the artistic director there.
Why is British theatre so good? Nick Hytner and others are reinventing British theatre, turning massive spaces like the Olivier into studios, so it is not all about expensive sets. There is so much innovation.
[about career change] “After Democracy,” he says, “I did make a conscious decision to try to not do any really long runs. I was available, and I think I was probably getting through the door, for a different set of work.”
[on doing a musical] “I’d be hugely tempted,” he says. “If the money’s right. Especially when one discovers what people who take over roles are being paid.”
Allam did audition for The Producers after Richard Dreyfuss withdrew from rehearsals for the London production. “I think Mel [Brooks] wanted an American. I got in the door to be seen and did an audition for about 25 producers in suits. I hadn’t had the chance to learn anything, and I was just starting to get a cold. I did the first number and they all burst into applause and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m doing all right here.’ “
[comparing Blackbird and Boeing Boeing] “The audience’s complete silence in Blackbird was very unusual, actually. If one was doing Boeing Boeing and there were not many people there and they were utterly silent, it would feel like falling off a very, very high building very, very slowly.”