[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.
Roger Allam: ‘I wasn’t surprised when one of my school masters was convicted of child abuse’
By Maureen Paton
10 September 2021
Roger Allam has looked into the heart of darkness many times during his 46-year career. The actor has played every villain from Adolf Hitler and Javert – nemesis of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables – to Robert Maxwell in the forthcoming film Tetris.
The consummate chameleon, he has also bedded Gillian Anderson six times a week in one West End play, played a vicious, fork-tongued politician alongside Peter Capaldi’s foul-mouthed spin doctor in The Thick Of It and earned a whole new female following for his womanising author in the film of Posy Simmonds’ Tamara Drewe.
Like John Thaw and Alan Rickman before him, Allam has become the discerning woman’s crush with that youthful mane of hair and a distinctively silky baritone that makes him recognisable even under a ton of make-up. Like Thaw and Rickman, he also seems uncomfortable with adulation and sets out to live as normal a life as possible. You won’t get flouncy stardom from him.
Now 67, he started his career in the 1970s, after Manchester University, as one of the few men in the radical feminist theatre troupe Monstrous Regiment, named for John Knox’s notorious denunciation of uppity women; their office and rehearsal rooms were based in a London squat. “I had a whale of a time,” he says. “You could live cheaply in London then.” The grit of that experience seems to have given him the necessary ballast to survive all the celebrity hoopla and to travel below the radar (including on public transport whenever he can).
But it’s the essential decency of the battle-hardened, trilby-wearing detective chief inspector Fred Thursday in ITV’s Endeavour that has finally made Allam a household name and which seems to resonate with him most of all. Actors can relish playing detectives, those hawk-like observers of human nature – as thespians themselves have to be. And Allam sees Thursday, the seen-it-all-before mentor to the young Endeavour Morse in this Inspector Morse prequel, as a homage to his parents’ hard-pressed, hard-working generation that had been through immense poverty and two world wars.
The eighth and latest season of Endeavour begins on Sunday September 12 and is set in 1971 to a soundtrack of Won’t Get Fooled Again by The Who, which ushers in a subversive new decade. At that time, Allam was in his last year at school, Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, West Sussex, which he has described as “strange” and “odd” and an “Eton for paupers” where the pupils wore (and still wear) Tudor uniforms. Born in the East End of London, where his father was vicar of the Hawksmoor church St Mary Woolnoth in Bow, Allam would play on bomb sites before becoming a scholarship boy at 10, thanks to its charitable foundation. His parents were “education-obsessed”, seeing it as the way to better yourself.
There he enjoyed “a great tradition of music – I was in the choir – and remarkable facilities”, though the events of the world outside only seeped through in newspapers in the school library, with no television allowed.
He first fell in love with theatre, he says, when he saw a Christ’s Hospital house production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. “The play seemed just like the school itself then: strange rules and always the potential for violence, so it made perfect sense to me,” as he puts it. From 1970, he started going to see Laurence Olivier at London’s Old Vic in the school holidays for 15p – “the price of a Tube ticket,” recalls Allam, who himself has now won three Olivier Awards.
There were, he recalls, “good sides as well as bad sides to the school, like everywhere. And the atmosphere seemed to relax and change in the 1960s. But if you didn’t address a senior boy as Sir, they hit you – that was the punishment. I was terrified when one boy got hit on the head with a wooden boot brush by another. It was culturally allowed, if you like.
“We used to get caned by the teachers as punishment; your housemaster could make you change into your pyjamas so that it hurt more.” Yet such corporal punishment was rife in many, if not most, boarding and day schools then, memorably captured in Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If.
I ask him if he was surprised by the convictions – between 2018 and 2020 – of six former Christ’s Hospital teachers for historic indecent assault against pupils from the 1960s to the early 1990s after complaints from 22 former students.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” he replies, calmly. “Nothing like that happened to me, I’m very glad to say, although one of the teachers who was put away I remember well and I remember liking very much,” he adds, preferring not to name names. “I remember him getting to know my parents – and now he’s in prison. I [also] remember a feeling about him alongside all of that, a feeling that maybe he would go too far and do something, one of those feelings you have when you’re a child: a feeling of wanting to get away from them – as well as them being very nice.”
It sounds like a classic grooming technique that he managed to avoid, thanks to a stable family background with loving parents and two older sisters that gave him a sixth sense for danger and what was not right. Which is where the solid values of the Fred Thursdays of this world come in: a copper who can sniff out a wrong ‘un at 20 paces while the Sherlockian genius of the young Endeavour Morse works out the intricacies of the crime.
As for Endeavour, how long can it continue its fruitful exploration of all our yesterdays? Shaun Evans, who plays Endeavour, is currently hiding in plain sight under a ginger beard in BBC One’s Vigil, while Allam is about to jet off to the South of France to film exterior shots as a French examining judge in Murder In Provencefor BritBox – based on M L Longworth’s crime novels.
“I don’t think we can do loads more Endeavours, but I think there will be more,” says Allam, whose wife – actress Rebecca Saire – and older son William both appeared in last year’s seventh series; they also have another son Thomas.
He still has an unfulfilled yearning to do a Western, so the Endeavour writer Russell Lewis wrote scenes in a previous series where he could “access that longing – such as firing an enormous pistol in the air in an OK Corral scene as I burst out of a bank after the baddies.”
Because of lockdown, several projects were cancelled or postponed. “I hardly did any work last year. It was nice to have a rest, but only of course because of Endeavour – which means I’ve got money to live on and wasn’t worried about bills.”
But Allam was still keen to get back in the saddle again, as it were. He admits: “I just want to go on and on like Maggie, Judi, Ian, Derek and Eileen – getting good parts until I drop dead. I would be bored rigid with retirement.”
“It was lovely to see everyone again” Roger Allam on growing up in the 70s, Morse’s crisis and Thursday’s turnaround
11 September 2021
As Endeavour returns to our screens on Sunday night, it’s all going on. Morse has developed a drinking problem, the IRA have started their bombing camping and DCI Thursday, as played by Roger Allam, is holding it all together.
Not that it’s been plain sailing for him either over the previous seven series, but that’s the delight of Endeavour – the characters develop over time, warts and all, as the drama unfolds around them.
Picking up in Oxford in February 1971, it’s all change for Thursday and Morse at the start of the new series. “Morse is in a bad place, Allam concedes. “Then again, Fred made a serious mistake a couple of years ago when he was drawn into corruption and things got very bad with his wife Win. Now he’s back on an even keel. “I think that’s a true, sincerely and honestly felt thing that we make mistakes and we should have a chance to get back on the straight and narrow.
“Throughout this series Morse is in some crisis. Violetta died in his arms at the end of the last series, so he is in a very bad away. He is drinking too much and that starts to affect what he is doing. But no-one speaks about it until it is really necessary to do so.
So how does Thursday react? “I don’t think Thursday realises how bad Morse’s drinking problem is at first. It was a drinking culture then and Morse has always drunk, ever since they introduced him to the notion in the pilot episode. But it’s now very serious. It’s whisky during the day.
“But Thursday is always defensive of Morse and perhaps tries to put to the back of his mind any concern, anxiety or worry about how he is. But, as the series progresses and Morse misses days at work it just becomes too much to ignore.”
Not that things are all plain sailing in Thursday’s world either: “Things are OK between Fred and Win at the beginning of this season. But the big difficulty is that their son Sam is serving in Belfast with the Army, which is dangerous. In the last episode of this series a lot of the feeling that Win has buried about Sam being in the Army comes out. So things are bad between them.”
As for his fractious relationship with his daughter Joanie, Allam says: “Things have been rocky between them. But the big crisis around her leaving home and Fred’s resistance to that seems to be over. That’s a thing lots of parents and children can feel. The need for young people to get away and the anxiety on the part of the parents.”
And yet Allam too grew up in the 70s, so did the first episode really resonate with him? “It is a different world today compared to 1971. I guess that’s always the same between the generations. My parents both came from poverty economic backgrounds. Now I look around and if you have economic well-being today you are surrounded by endless stuff. All of those kind of things would also have an impact on Thursday’s generation if they could see it today.”
But wasn’t 1971, when the first episode it set, a turning point for Allam? “I went to Manchester University the year after 1971. That was a big change for me. I was doing something I absolutely loved and it completely expanded my horizons. The only thing I was sure about was that I wanted to be an actor. Then again, back in those days I had a grant and my fees were paid. In 1975 I came back from university £10 overdrawn. My parents thought that was absolutely awful. I think they saw the workhouse down the road for being £10 overdrawn.”
But don’t be foiled. DCI Thursday also has a dark side that surfaces now and again, especially in the fist episode.
“That scene is just saying, ‘Hello, here I am.’ ” Allam laughs. “Fred grew up in the East End of London and also fought in the war. So, he can easily resort to fighting and violence.
“People had witnessed terrible things and probably done terrible things. Fred fought in the Italian Campaign, the Battle of Monte Cassino. There would have been killings in that terrible battle. Some of it face-to-face in hand-to-hand combat. You are looking in someone’s eyes. It’s something that is always within you which, again, makes the access to violence in Fred easier. But it is also locked up and hidden from view. It also means in Fred’s case, and lots of people’s cases I’m sure, that ordinary life and family life can keep it at bay. And if that is under threat it seems more terrible and has a more violent response. I think lots of people had post-traumatic stress. I remember when I was younger, adults having recourse to violence. You would be beaten at school. A stranger in the street could smack you on the head if they thought you were doing something wrong. I remember that feeling. But men at that time did not express their emotions so readily. Very internalised and locked up. Especially people who had been through the war. The actual experience was something that wasn’t really talked about. The same applied to my grandparents and the First World War.”
All of which Allam uses when Thursday’s nuances appear. So what’s it like playing such a beloved and long running TV character? “I have found it surprisingly interesting. The longest time I’d played characters before has been in long runs on stage, whereas Endeavour goes on over years and you pick the character up again. There’s something very reassuring about playing a long running TV character. With the hat and the pipe and certain lines that Russell Lewis writes, it’s an easy step to get back into that character. It’s readily available to you. So that’s very interesting as well.”
Does playing in such a globally successful series impact on his private life though? “I do get recognised a fair amount. I’m lucky in that I’m not at a level of fame where it becomes a pain in the backside. But travelling around on public transport as I generally do, people come up to you and it’s usually to say something really nice about your work. That can make your day a whole lot nicer if someone has taken the trouble to say something nice to you.”
So it must have been frustrating when the pandemic delayed filming for over a year?
“We were the first ones to be picked up in the autumn of 2020,” Allam explains, “which meant filming of the new series of Endeavour was delayed until 2021. “So it was lovely to start again and to see everyone.”
All helped by his fellow actor and director Shaun Evans who directs the first episode in Endeavour Series 8. How was that? “It works, I have to say, tremendously well. He moves from behind the camera to in front of it with the greatest of ease,” Allam concludes. “But then Russell’s scripts are very special. He has created a wonderful set of characters who have gone through all of the series. And a wonderful world with the relationships between them which are very rich.”
How Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam found the funny side of Covid
27 December 2020
There’s nothing funny about coronavirus – and yet for most of this year, I’ve been writing, recording and editing a comedy. It’s the second series of Conversations From a Long Marriage, starring Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam, for BBC Radio 4. It’s a two-hander about a long-married couple who met…
Roger Allam Interview: Endeavour’s No-Drama Detective
What do you like most about Fred Thursday?
As an ordinary working class man who went through the Second World War and whose parents went through the First World War, just as my parents…and grandparents did, he reminds me very much of that generation of my own family, and when I play him, I feel somehow that I’m hopefully honoring them. And I like his down-to-earthness. I like the fact that he survived the war, and the war gave him his moral foundation, if you like. There’s a limitation to that, of course, but there’s also something in which he knows who he is. In a scene, I think in Fugue, he says something about how he’s looked into the eyes of people far worse, doesn’t he? When you read about what soldiers went through in the Italian campaign, what it’s like to be standing next to someone who’s your comrade and your friend, and then they’re blown to bits, and bits of them are over you and how you sort of get through that and survive that—he’s someone who’s seen that, and he’s someone who has survived that somehow, and got through it with his humanity intact. Although, I think it’s one of the reasons why he’s relatively free with his fists.
A particularly powerful moment comes in the first episode of Season 7, Oracle, when Thursday brings home the canaries. Can you talk about that scene?
Well, I was always a bit resistant to the canaries, worried because I didn’t want it to be sentimental. But, actually, when they were there, I was remembering my family. I remember a great uncle and great aunt who lived in the back room of my grandfather and grandmother’s place, a very little house, and they had a budgerigar [parakeet], a budgie, and whenever I visited them as a small boy, they’d just be sitting there with this budgie.
It’s a strange thing, because you look at a bird and it’s in a cage, and you don’t feel great. But on the other hand, it’s something to look after. It is a sort of replacement for the kids, I suppose, to a degree—although of course Thursday wouldn’t be aware of that. He’d just want something, as he says, something that’s just perhaps sort of nice and beautiful and natural, and isn’t killing and death and all the awful things that he sees.
In Season 7’s second episode, Raga, your son, William Allam, plays Gary Rogers, and your wife, Rebecca Saire, plays his mother, Mrs. Radowicz. What was it like for you to play the scene in the morgue where Gary’s mother breaks down when identifying his body? Was it personally harrowing to see your son on the table like that, and have your wife inconsolable, or do all your years of training and inhabiting characters allow you distance from it?
It’s a strange double thing, because of course I thought I’d be really upset. But we’d traveled in together, and I’d seen William in makeup and everything, so there’s a part of you that knows—I knew he wasn’t dead. It’s a very strange kind of double reality. It is undeniable that it is very powerful to go in and see your son on a slab and your wife being very, very upset, and you’re not. I wasn’t his father—my character isn’t his father, so it’s a very strange situation. And of course, it was also the first scene that either of them did, so Rebecca had to sort of leap in at, probably, the most difficult thing to do.
Did your your television wife, Caroline O’Neill, and your actual wife, Rebecca Saire, ever gang up against you and compare notes?
No. No, they didn’t. [laughs] I don’t even think they were in filming at the same time actually, because it all depends on which setting we’re using—one day you do all the morgue scenes and on another day, you do all the Thursday household scenes. So I don’t think they even met. Or perhaps I arranged that so that they wouldn’t…
Thursday’s friendship with Bright seems so British from my perspective, with so much unspoken respect and even tenderness, but always disciplined by restraint. Can you talk about their relationship?
Yes, they don’t hug a lot, do they? No, you’re quite right [laughs]. Well I think it’s also very classic kind of officer and noncommissioned officer relationship, in which the noncommissioned officer, Thursday, is trying to manage the officer, but also help the officer. I think that over the years, over the series, they’ve developed an awful lot of love and respect for each other, and in these often really quite brief scenes, as the story gets unfolded, and as news about Bright’s wife gets released, there’s something very touching about it. I always look forward to a scene with Anton [Lesser]. I remember seeing Anton when I was just starting out as an actor—he started out, I think, just a few years before me, and I’ve always admired his work. We’ve only ever worked [together], I think, before, on the radio, so it’s been very nice to work together over a long period like this.
What did the two of you get up to between takes?
Gossip. Endless gossip. Did you know, that is supposedly the collective noun for actors, a gossip of actors?
Can you talk about Thursday and Morse’s father/son relationship and its fraying that we see this season?
In lots of situations between men, if there’s an age gap like between Thursday and Endeavour, inevitably somewhere hovering in the background, conscious or not, is a father/son relationship. There is a ghost of a father/son kind of thing hanging around—the father that Endeavour didn’t get on with, and a kind of a son that I think Thursday would have liked, although he loves his own son. So that’s always there, something that can be tapped into and resented, and also loved and sometimes used. But there are plenty of occasions that can be reversed, when Endeavour, fathers, or looks after, Thursday; occasions when perhaps they’re like an older and younger brother, or like a teacher and a pupil. They both teach and learn from each other.
So, I think all those things are there in a relationship like theirs that goes on for some years. And when I say—me personally, Roger—that one of the things I really look forward to about Endeavour is just simply seeing everyone, of course in all these long gaps that we have when we’re not doing it, if Thursday and Endeavour were real, they’d be seeing each other all the time. So they have had plenty of opportunity to get bored with each other, and you can feel the irritation. You can feel the irritation when their basic approach to things, and to crime, and to life, is somewhat different. Although having said that, Endeavour’s constantly throwing himself at the nearest beautiful woman, and not using his great intellect on these occasions. So he’s got plenty of feelings, too.
There’s a scene from Fugue, in Season 1, that really resonates in light of their deteriorating relationship this season. It’s where Thursday tells Endeavour to go home and put his best record on as loud as it will play, “to remember that’s something that darkness couldn’t take away from you.” Is the darkness winning in one or both of them?
I remember very well that scene up on top of that gorgeous building. And that was very much Thursday then, I think, still connecting to the experience of the war. But things have become more bitter now, and we’ve been through a stage in which, actually, work did come home, and we’ve been through a stage where, now, the family has gone. So the contrast between a lonely Endeavour and the Thursday household that was sort of filled with a Dickensian kind of warmth has gone, or it’s changed, has moved on. I suppose putting work to one side is not really possible for Endeavour and Thursday. Although they’ve had some spectacular triumphs and although they’ve saved each other on many an occasion, it feels at the moment like there will be no getting back to how it was. That’s how it feels.
As we get closer to the intersection of prequel Endeavour Morse with the Inspector Morse of that series, Morse completists have been pointing out that Thursday wasn’t in the books or the TV series. I’m worried that this won’t end well. Can’t we just depart from canon, here?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t see how you can really, because there’s a whole other rightly beloved TV series that starts in the future where, indeed, Thursday is never mentioned. So I don’t think it can end well. But I don’t know how it does end. I don’t know.
What are you most looking forward to once you are able to start making Endeavour again?
First of all, seeing everyone. Over all these years, we’ve got a wonderful team. I’d never done a really long-running series like this before, and indeed I was very resistant to doing it, and never signed up at the beginning for years and years and years—I think I signed up for two years and then we just took it year by year…What I was looking forward to about going back and what one looks forward to, hugely, is just seeing everyone and doing scenes with them and acting with them, and it becomes strangely … “easy” is the wrong word—It becomes in its way full of ease. But it’s also very satisfying because, for me, I’ve never known a character this well, because it’s been such a long time. So I look forward, hugely, to reacquainting myself with Fred Thursday and also all my fellow actors who have been in it from the beginning.
‘People always use power to try to sleep with who they want – women as well as men do that’
The award-winning stage actor and star of ‘The Thick of It’ talks to Ellie Harrison about the new series of detective drama ‘Endeavour’, the sexual culture of the theatre, his shock at the Weinstein scandal, and why British politics is now beyond parody
9 February 2020
Roger Allam used to be a member of a feminist theatre collective. The 66-year-old, who starred as wet Tory Peter Mannion in The Thick of It and now plays the lugubrious DCI Fred Thursday in Endeavour, was part of The Monstrous Regiment in the 1970s, which was based in a Camden squat.
It was named after the misogynist 16th-century tract The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. “The women who founded the collective had got a bit p***ed off with the macho side of political theatre groups and wanted to set up a way of working where the majority of roles were for women,” says Allam over the phone, in that unmistakeable warm, syrupy voice.
“Our offices and rehearsal rooms were in a squat. I think I got the job because I can play various musical instruments and sing.” The young Allam, fresh from studying drama at Manchester University, could not have known he would go on to become one of Britain’s most distinguished stage actors. “It was radical because it was run by a majority of women. But that didn’t feel weird – in my family I had two older sisters, so I was used to being bossed around.”
He recalls one cabaret set that “separatist feminists did not approve of” – “It was about a man shouting at women in the street, ‘Cheer up darling! Cheer up!’ all that kind of stuff,” he says. “Eventually this man became so outraged that women weren’t cheering up that he simply got a gun to go around and threaten people with.”
Allam is astonished that men still yell at women in the street, ordering them to smile, and he was bewildered by the avalanche of sexual assault stories that came out of Hollywood following Harvey Weinstein’s notorious fall from grace in 2017. “I was deeply, deeply shocked to discover that lots of women have commonly experienced men pinching their arses and putting their hands up their skirts,” he says. “I don’t understand how anyone would feel the right to do that. In the theatre, there were plenty of people having sex all over the place – wanting to, and doing it quite successfully – but male violence? Personally, I have witnessed very little. Very, very little.”
He pauses. I envisage his lustrous eyebrows furrowing at the end of the line. “People always use power, that’s the unsurprising thing,” he says, eventually. “They use it to try to sleep with who they want to sleep with – women as well as men do that – but I don’t understand violence.”
“In an utterly naive way, part of me thought that we would go on being more equal and behaving better with each other,” says Allam. “But that is manifestly not the case.”
Alongside his theatre triumphs – he was Les Miserables’ original Inspector Javert on the London stage and has won two Oliviers (for his Falstaff in 2011 and for Privates on Parade in 2002) – Allam has built a successful career on television. This will be his seventh series of Endeavour. He is evidently fond of the ITV drama, but says he would “never have done it” had he known it would be an eight-year commitment.
Over time, he has bonded with his character Thursday, a modestly heroic detective and Second World War veteran. “It’s the first time I’ve ever played someone over a long period of time and that’s surprisingly interesting,” says Allam. “You get old with the character and you don’t know the end of the story like you do when you take on a play or a film. You know as much as you do in life, really, about what’s going to happen to yourself.”
We rejoin Thursday and the young Inspector Morse (Shaun Evans) in the 1970s, the decade of package holidays, the oil crisis, and the three-day week. Allam – who was born in a rectory in 1953; his father was a vicar – says being transported back to that time was a curious exercise because he got to see it through the eyes of his parents, who would have been a similar age to Thursday back then. “My parents both came from working-class backgrounds, my father particularly,” he says. “He came from a very poor family, 12 of them lived in a little three-bedroom terrace house in Fulham, it was very small with an outside loo and a tin bath on the scullery wall.”
Allam suspects both his parents had elocution lessons because “to be well spoken was a way out of class, a way upwards”. “They were education obsessed,” he says, “so they thought it would be a good idea for me to go to this strange boarding school where you only paid a tiny amount according to how much you earned.”
It was Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex, which Allam describes as “like Eton for paupers”. When Allam was there half a century ago, the schoolboys dressed in Tudor uniforms consisting of long blue coats and mustard yellow socks – and the class of 2020 are subject to the very same humiliation now. “We also marched into lunch to a military band,” sighs Allam.
His time at Christ’s Hospital was “utterly miserable to begin with” because of the “bullying culture” in the house he was in. “It was the students, really,” he says, “but the teachers could also beat you with a cane. When you’re boarding, there’s no escape.” He remembers being terrified after seeing one boy getting thwacked over the head with a wooden boot brush for not addressing an older student as “Sir”: “It made me very afraid.”
There is a long silence – one of many during our conversation – as Allam breaks off in contemplation. I imagine those eyebrows twitching once more. When he starts to speak again, his voice is softer.
“I think I caught the fag end of the violent atmosphere in the particular house I was in,” he says. “The whole atmosphere of the place loosened up through the Sixties, possibly because I was getting older and more at ease.”
It was also at the school that, aged 13, he found himself truly connecting with a play for the first time: a house production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party.
“I was mesmerised by it,” he says. “I completely understood it because, like the characters in the play, I was also in this strange place with mysterious rules and an atmosphere of violence underneath everything.”
He would go on to display a range that would take him from playing Adolf Hitler in David Edgar’s Albert Speer to Leonardo da Vinci in The Giant.On television, he has proved to be as at home in Game of Thrones (he was Magister Illyrio Mopatis) as in the world depicted in Armando Iannucci’s imagining of the banal inner workings of government.
In The Thick of It, Allam’s world-weary MP was baffled that society expected him to be able to tweet let alone feign political correctness. One particularly memorable scene for someone of my profession was when Mannion, who was being driven away from a group of journalists, told his chauffeur: “Run those f***ers over! Fifty quid for every one you maim!”
Allam laughs when I relay the line to him. Does he think The Thick of It would be made today, or is modern politics too farcical to satirise?
“It is difficult to parody it when you’ve got the person who’s now our prime minister escaping into fridges,” says Allam, referring to when Boris Johnson went to extreme measures to avoid a TV interview ahead of the Christmas election. “People are just repeating mantras like, ‘get Brexit done’, ‘strong and stable’, ‘dither and delay’. There must be a way of satirising it, and I long to see it, but it’s gone beyond The Thick of It.”
Roger Allam interview: ‘Caryl Churchill is like Picasso — she’s able to stay at the edge of things’
By Nick Curtis
4 February 2020
The first time Roger Allam encountered the work of Caryl Churchill was in 1976, in a north London squat.
A newly formed, explicitly feminist company Monstrous Regiment was mounting Churchill’s witchcraft drama Vinegar Tom; Allam had been working in an office, auditioned for them at their rehearsal room in the aforementioned squat in Camden Square — unthinkable now — and became one of the company’s two male members. It was his second-ever professional job.
“It was fantastic,” says Allam in that lugubrious, treacly voice. “I was an actor, but I think they hired me because I could play various instruments and sing, do bits of lighting, this and that, manage the financial books…”
Now 66, Allam is about to appear in a Churchill play once again, in Polly Findlay’s revival of A Number at the Bridge Theatre, and this time he won’t be doing the lighting, or the books. Starring alongside Merlin’s Colin Morgan, he plays Salter, “a complete disaster, a drunk, [on] drugs, violent”, who after his wife kills herself ends up putting their young son in care. Then, missing him, he contrives to have an illegal clone of the boy made.
“He gets the chance to do it all again, and becomes kind of addicted to being a good and loving father, until the fiction he has built up between him and the second son is completely destroyed. I think it’s incredibly emotional and tragic.”
A Number is one of two Churchill revivals in London this month — next week Far Away opens at the Donmar Warehouse. Winner of the Evening Standard Award for Best Play in 2002, it was written a few years after the creation of the first mammal clone, Dolly the sheep. “The subject is now not so novel, but she writes about it in a very challenging and mischievous way,” Allam says. “The play has become more about the story of these particular people and about free will and destiny, whether we are the agents of our own lives.”
Churchill, now 81, has been in the rehearsal room. “She is such a lively, interesting and interested presence whose comments are always immensely practical. She seems to live exactly the same life she did in 1976 even though she is revered now.
“I read a piece recently that said as a writer, she is a bit like Picasso. As time goes on and a new subject comes up, she has to reinvent how to write about it in a different way. It may be my ignorance, but there seems to be less that’s avant garde than when I started going to the theatre, but Caryl seems to have been able to stay at the edge of things.”
Most actors will tell you that success is down to luck as well as talent, and Allam seems to have been unusually blessed in both departments: he always seems to arrive at just the right time, starting from his birth in the newly optimistic Fifties. His extraordinarily varied career embraces Shakespeare and Chekhov, Stoppard and Frayn, Game of Thrones and the Inspector Morse spin-off Endeavour. He was the original Javert in Les Miserables and has played Hitler, a drag queen and the founders of both the SDP and Glyndebourne on stage.
He’s often cast on screen as a shifty posho, like his sublimely self-interested Tory MP Peter Mannion in The Thick of It, but he’s from humble London stock. One grandfather was a baker who became a decorator after he was gassed in the First World War, the other was a stonemason.
His father, though, stayed on at school, got to King’s College and became a vicar, tending parishes in Putney, the Isle of Dogs and the City: one of Allam’s two older sisters is also a vicar now. Their parents “loved amateur dramatics and rambling, believed in education and also in being well-spoken as being the way upward” — hence that orotund voice.
Allam was sent on a bursary to the independent charity school Christ’s Hospital, where he excelled in music, singing and acting. His first experience of the professional stage was seeing the likes of Laurence Olivier and Paul Schofield at the Old Vic, when a gallery seat cost 15p, “the price of a Tube fare”. He studied drama at Manchester and during the holidays received singing lessons from English National Opera’s vocal consultant for £2 an hour. As a young actor, he lived in Wapping and Stoke Newington when they were dirt cheap.
Soon after his work with Monstrous Regiment, Allam joined the RSC, acting in Peggy Ashcroft’s last-ever production under the direction of a young Trevor Nunn. Les Misérables was an RSC co-production that became a massive hit, but Allam left the role of Javert to appear in an Arthur Miller play, which Miller found extraordinary.
“Arthur thought that on Broadway, people would long to stay in a big musical,” Allam says, perplexed. “Well, I’d done it for nearly a year, which felt easily long enough, thank you very much.” Ever since he’s darted back and forth between new plays, classics and the odd musical, between TV, film and theatre, ideally always doing something different to what he’s just done, always governed by the voice that says “ooh, I’d LOVE to do that”. As an older character actor he’s also lucked into a boom time in TV drama.
The one thing he was late to was fatherhood. Allam and his wife, actor and writer Rebecca Saire, have two boys aged 19 and 14 and now live in East Sheen. “I sometimes wish it had happened 10 years earlier, just so I would be around longer while they are,” he says. “It altered everything for me. Every time you play a father now it gives you a different take on it, not always a very pleasant one.” The boys have the showbiz gene: William is at Guildhall: his younger brother Thomas is “obsessed with film”.
I realise I’ve never heard him express a political view in an interview. He says he keeps quiet about it because the one time he personally posted to the Twitter account run in his name by fans — a link to a tactical voting guide before the last election — he got trolled. “But yeah, I am Left-wing,” he says. “I was nervous about a Corbyn government, although I would have supported it because a lot of the policies were good. I was far more nervous of a Conservative government but here it is, we’ve just got to deal with it.
“Life will go on,” he drawls, giving a pouchy, laconic smile, “until it doesn’t.” Someone should put him in Beckett.
Roger Allam: ‘I like that in the theatre nothing is ever finished’
19 May 2019
By Lisa O’Kelly
The actor on playing a factory owner in Rutherford and Son, shyness, and Peter Mannion’s take on Brexit
Roger Allam is a distinguished English actor whose stage work has ranged from Inspector Javert in the original London production of Les Misérables to Adolf Hitler in David Edgar’s Albert Speer. His TV roles include Peter Mannion MP in The Thick of It and DCI Thursday in ITV’s Endeavour. He is now starring in the National Theatre’s production of Githa Sowerby’s overlooked 1912 classic, Rutherford and Son.
Is director Polly Findlay right to say that Githa Sowerby merits a place alongside Ibsen and Shaw?
Yes, I think she is. I can’t think of another play as good from that period. It takes a very cold, hard stare at the patriarchy, capitalism, industrialisation and the relations between men and women, families. It’s extremely challenging and very strong stuff. It was a huge hit in its time but then languished for almost a century. It is certainly time that it was done again.
Your character sounds a bit of a brute…
He’s a driven kind of obsessive, really, who is the owner of a failing glass factory. Githa based the play on her own family. She came from Sowerby Glass in Gateshead, which was an enormously successful glass manufacturer throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.
What’s your way into a part like this?
I went up to the north-east in February to try to get to grips with the geography of the play. I was being slightly obsessive about “where is it?”. I went to the North York Moors, which I had never visited before, which are stunningly beautiful, then on a big journey up past Middlesbrough to Sunderland, to the National Glass Centre, then to Newcastle and Gateshead, which is where the Sowerby factory was.
The Bard stuff: actors reveal their favourite Shakespeare character
23 April 2019
By Andrew Dickson
Roger Allam on Benedick: ‘You’re rooting for him’
I played Benedick in Much Ado About Nothingnearly 30 years ago at the RSC, alongside Susan Fleetwood as Beatrice, and I loved every minute. Benedick absolutely reflects the movement of the play: at the beginning he’s funny in a lighthearted way, then deadly serious, then funny in a different kind of way – wiser, more grown-up. The role has so many monologues, you’re confiding in the audience the whole time. And when you play him, it’s like being inside someone much more intelligent and sharp than you are. When you get it right, you feel like there are 1,500 Benedick supporters in the room.
Though, of course, the audience is rooting for Beatrice too: those sparring matches between the two of them, where they’re trading witticisms by the dozen, are the heart of the play. The strange thing is that, technically, Beatrice and Benedick are the subplot. The main story of Much Ado is the love affair between another couple, Claudio and Hero, which threatens to go disastrously wrong after Claudio is fooled into thinking that Hero has been unfaithful to him. Beatrice and Benedick get dragged in: he’s forced to choose between his best friend and the woman he loves, just moments after he’s told her he loves her. That’s what I like about the play: there’s such humanity there. You see how complicated life is.
Would I like to play him again? Maybe. I think it can work well when Beatrice and Benedick are older; there are hints that they’ve had some kind of relationship in the past, though it’s maybe more of a skirmish. But I like the idea that it’s the last-chance saloon for them. You’re rooting for them, aren’t you?
What would your younger self make of your life today? 65, actor
23 February 2019
My father was a vicar, and when I was at primary school I thought it’d be great to have that job because you only worked on Sundays. Later on, I realised I was wrong about that and decided to be a fireman instead.
I didn’t want to be an actor until I was a teenager. A friend of my sister’s lived near the Old Vic theatre, and because I’d been studying Hamlet at school , she said I should go and see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Such was my sense of being on a huge adventure that I might have slept on the floor, which was unnecessary because we were living at the time in Muswell Hill.
This was about 1970, and the ticket was 15p, the same as my Tube fare and the same as the saveloy and chips I ate afterwards. The play was a magical experience – on my own but in a crowd, laughing and enjoying the performance. That’s what got me; that’s what sealed it.
So my teenage self would be pleased that I became an actor, although he probably would have wanted to be a Hollywood star. And, as I did with my father, he’d wonder how I occupied my time. If you’re acting in film and television especially, there’s a lot of time when you’re at home, so he might think that’d be quite nice and that actors don’t have to work very hard.
But quite a lot of the time you have to get up at about 5.30am and go to some godawful place to get made up and work in the cold, and you don’t get back till about 13 or 14 hours later. So I think, overall, he’d be slightly baffled by the life of an actor, because what he was attracted to – that experience of seeing a performer and imagining what it was like to give that performance – is not representative of how actors spend most of their time.
He’d be interested in the parts I’ve played. He’dparticulary like the role of Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, which I did at the RSC in 1990. You experience the play through Benedick’s eyes more than the other characters’, and it’s a part that starts off being funny and then has to take on the seriousness of love and revenge. He matures and changes, but is still funny at the end, and my teenage self would enjoy that. I don’t know whether he’d understand The Thick of It, and he’d be deeply chocked by the baroque swearing, though he’d secretly enjoy seeing adults make a mess of things. But he’d like Fred Thursday in Endeavour. He’s a character from my parents’ era and he reminds me of that generation in my family. My younger self would recognise that, and be reminded of the warm, loving parents he grew up with. They were committed Christians, but not in a narrow way. It was a shock to go to school and realise the rest of the world sometimes isn’t so lovely, and that people can be bullying or cruel.
Having said that, he’d been prepared in some degree for today’s politics. He’d certainly be scared and baffled by what is going on now, but he grew up in the Sixties, the decade in which awful things happened, such as the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, not to mention the threat of nuclear Armageddon.
Despite all that, I had a wonderful upbringing. In my own family life (Allam is married to fellow actor Rebecca Saire; they have two sons, aged 13 and 18) I’d say that we have a similarly warm environment. We laugh a great deal and mess around and have fun. Rebecca and I didn’t get married until she was pregnant with our second child, so my younger self would be a bit surprised by that, living in sin and everything, but I think he’d find our domestic life quite familiar.
Actor Roger Allam on family roasts, nicking pencils from theatres and dreams about Ian McKellen
‘My wife and I yearn for order, and it’s something we continually fail to achieve’
17 February 2019
By Alexandra Goss
Home is where I live with my family. It’s a place of warmth and love, messing about and laughter. And hard work. There’s a lot of work involved in keeping the place going and organising our two sons’ lives.
Are you good at splitting chores with your wife, Rebecca?
Fairly good, I’d say.
Which room do you gravitate towards?
The kitchen. If we are both here, it would tend to be me that would cook. I don’t do anything chichi any more, because of family likes and dislikes, so my signature dish is probably roast chicken with herbs and garlic and wine. Nothing elaborate, but I do think it’s worth spending money on a good chicken, from the butcher. My interest in cooking developed in the 1970s, around the Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson era. I love Nigel Slater’s stuff, too.
Roger Allam: ‘I don’t know how you would satirise politics right now’
31 January 2019
By Chris Bennion
“Oh God, no! Oh, death . . .” I didn’t mean to offend Roger Allam, but I think I may have done. I had, after all, merely suggested that the 65-year-old actor — whose face and sonorous voice we all know so well, whether from the stage, The Thick of It, Cabin Pressure or the Inspector Morse prequel, Endeavour, which returns to ITV next week — was approaching the status of national treasure. “Death,” he says. “I want to be an actor, not a national treasure. I don’t really know what national treasure means.”
Roger Allam: My part in Endeavour reminds me of my parents’ generation
27 January 2019
By Tom Ough
We asked the actor, 65, what his younger self would make of his life
My father was a vicar, and when I was at primary school I thought it’d be great to have that job because you only worked on Sundays. Later on, I realised I was wrong about that and I decided to be a fireman instead.
I didn’t want to be an actor until I was a teenager. A friend of my sister’s lived near the Old Vic theatre, and because I’d been studying Hamlet at school, she said I should go and see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
Such was my sense of being on a huge adventure that I might even have slept on her floor, which was unnecessary because we were living at the time in Muswell Hill. This was about 1970, and the…
Q&A: Nany Carroll and Roger Allam on The Moderate Soprano
30 May 2018
David Hare’s highly-acclaimed drama, The Moderate Soprano, won the hearts of audiences and critics during its Hampstead Theatre run in 2015. Now, it’s making the West End swoon at the Duke Of York’s Theatre. With just over four weeks left of its strictly limited run, we spoke to the show’s stars – Roger Allam (playing John Christie) and Nancy Carroll (who plays Audrey Mildmay) – to find out more about the intense love between their characters, what drew them to the roles and why it’s such an important watch in a post-Brexit world.
How would you describe the Moderate Soprano to anyone who’s unfamiliar with it?
Nancy: It’s a story about the beginning of the Glyndebourne Opera Festival and the three men who escaped from Nazi Germany and happened to arrive at Glyndebourne at just the right time. It’s about the marriage between Audrey Mildmay and John Christie. And it’s about this extraordinary dream that really shouldn’t have happened but did because of the serendipity of these people coming together.
Roger: Because the three refugees from Germany – Fritz Busch the conductor, Carl Ebert the theatre director, and Rudolf Bing the administrator – were probably the three best people in the world if you wanted to start an opera house. So John and Audrey completely lucked out that they happened upon them. It’s also about John and Audrey. John fell head over heels in love with Audrey. He had the money and the land and she had the diplomacy and was a fantastic singer so those five people came together and got it started. And Audrey and John have a great love story as well.
What did you know about Audrey and John before working on the play?
Roger: Nothing at all. I mean the story of the play was a complete revelation to me which made it so interesting to do.
Nancy: I think, to this day, there’s very little known about her. People tell fantastic stories about John. He was an extraordinary man. He didn’t have to work but he used his energy, eccentricity, money and, I suppose, stubbornness to start a building company. He also ran an organ company. The Christie Unit Organ which was sold to cinemas all over England was completely his idea. He just had an extraordinary brain and was a hugely entertaining, charismatic and brilliant man. But she was an extraordinary woman. The Edinburgh festival was her idea. And in the last 8 years of her life, when she was up against it medically, she stayed on arts boards and continued to work at Glyndebourne. They were two very extraordinary human beings who worshipped each other and amongst all of those strands of David’s brilliant play, there’s this tale of deep married love.
Roger: I think they needed each other. If she hadn’t met John, she would have remained a singer with the Carl Rose Opera Company. And if John hadn’t met her, he would have stayed an eccentric, rich bachelor who poured all his feeling into opera. I think opera was an access to feeling for him in a way.
Was that what drew you to the roles?
Roger: First of all, what drew me to the role was the description at the top of the first page: “John Christie enters. He’s short, fat, bald and wearing lederhosen.” That was an instant attraction for me. The infantile aspect of dressing up which I enjoy. But then what drew me was the revelation of the story. The love between John and Audrey and these three men escaping from Nazi Germany.
Nancy: For me, the thing that scares me and enthrals me is playing the same woman but in two very different times in her life. One when she’s pregnant with their second child and was really at the height of her powers and then when she was basically dying and her light was going out. And I think there were elements of it when I first read it which terrified me. In one scene, she’s completely blind and it very much scared me. In that moment you feel like you want to be in control of the image you’re presenting to the audience so to lose your sight, I didn’t know how that would feel but actually the fear of it informed the performance. It’s a challenge I now enjoy.
What was it like bringing real, historical figures to life?
Nancy: The Christie family has been involved from the very beginning. So there was a great responsibility to the family and the story. And it’s such an interesting time for women. There’s so much people are prepared to listen to now. That wasn’t the case even five years ago. And if women speak loudly, it’s not anger. It’s informative. Previously, if people spoke up about things they’d be slightly written off – like they were making a bit of a fuss. But now, we want to bang the drum a bit and actually, these extraordinary women have been making things happen for centuries. Audrey’s one of them. This woman who allowed herself to slip into the shadow of her husband’s glory but was actually totally, glorious in her own right. It’s wonderful to play a woman whose story is finally being told in the light of all the changes that are happening as we speak.
You were both in the Hampstead Theatre production, how different is it at the Duke Of York’s?
Nancy: Very different. It’s a different experience and a different access for the audience. Because of the cross arch, it suits the production more in many ways. David has re-written parts and we have three new actors. Although Ray Smith’s set was beautiful in many ways, Bob Crowley’s suits the play in its new form extremely well. It’s a beautiful revisiting. I can only speak for myself, but having the chance to do it again has only deepened my love of the play and David’s extraordinary writing.
What was it like playing those characters again after so many years and what was the process to get back into them?
Roger: I worked at the RSC for a long time where very often you pick up a play a year after you’ve performed it to perform it again. So I rather like the process of coming back to something because you’re familiar with it and you can get back into a groove as it were. And you can change things. I enjoy it very much.
Nancy: I think with any passing of time, your skin changes, your anatomy changes – whether you like it or not – and all that time in between, you inevitably come to it with slightly different eyes which I think is a really interesting process.
Even though it’s set in the ‘30s and 50’s, there are a lot of themes that are relevant today. How are they translated?
Nancy: I think post-Brexit, it’s an incredibly necessary story to tell. The fact that something that’s seen to be so quintessentially English is actually totally the baby of these three extraordinary Europeans. You know, as we threaten to leave that alliance, these stories are essential. It’s incredibly relevant and incredibly interesting for a modern audience.
Roger: The play is set during the lead up to the war that decimated Europe and out of it, the EU was created as a kind of modest way of stopping that kind of war in Europe again. So you know, it takes us back to the beginning of that. And whether you like opera or not, it’s irrelevant. Because art and telling each other stories, it’s what human beings are best at. We’re at our best when we work together to create something beautiful that inspires us instead of having the most intense, destructive and volatile arguments about politics or religion.
Could you sum up why people should come and see the Moderate Soprano?
Nancy: Because it’s a bloody good play performed by six bloody good actors.
Roger: Because it’s about passion and feeling…
Nancy: It’s a really good story and it has so many surprises. It’s a beautiful play. To say it’s just about opera does it an injustice.
A champion actor and fully paid-up member of the human race: Roger Allam interviewed
There’s little Allam hasn’t tackled – from Shakespeare to Les Mis – in his four decades as an actor
26 May 2018
A most excellent fellow, Roger Allam. On the stage he brings dignity to all he does, in the noblest traditions of the British theatre. Off it he is a fully paid-up member of the human race, admired by his comrades as a man no less than as an actor. Some mummers, eager to let off steam, occasionally let the side down. Allam is the sort of chap — star and team player — who brings the profession into repute.
Three times a winner of an Olivier award, twice for best actor, he is currently to be found on the West End stage in The Moderate Soprano, David Hare’s touching portrait of John Christie, Etonian, commissioned officer, eccentric and founder of Glyndebourne Festival Opera on the family estate in Sussex. ‘I’ve grown to love the man,’ says Allam. ‘He was an early car enthusiast and in 1911, with a couple of friends from Eton, he took a boat to France, and towed a barge behind with a car in it.’
Christie, bald and shambling, is many a meadow from Fred Thursday, the robust police officer Allam has played in Endeavour for the past six years. His double act with Anton Lesser, cigarette squeezed precisely between fore and middle fingers, has become one of the great television treats of our day. But Allam has covered pretty much everything in his four decades: Shakespeare and Chekhov; Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard; Cy Coleman and Jerry Herman. He was also, let us not forget, the original Javert in Les Misérables.
He’s an authentic cockney, born in Bow, where his clergyman father had a parish before moving to St Mary Woolnoth in the City, and later to Muswell Hill. Allam was schooled from the age of ten at Christ’s Hospital, near Horsham, ‘an utter misery to begin with’, before he found his feet, acting for the first time at 16 as Guildenstern in Hamlet. ‘The thing that has stayed with me is that I was at a school where being clever and intelligent was valued. The headmaster used to speak to sixth-formers, Grecians we were called, on philosophy from the Greeks to Wittgenstein. It was an atmosphere of learning.’
By the time he reached Manchester University, where he studied drama, he had already absorbed quite a lot of theatre lore. He saw Olivier and Scofield at the Old Vic (‘Scofield sounded like he was speaking into my ear, without any effort’), and caught Peter Brook’s celebrated staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘That was injected into my head. It was so coherent, so beautiful. Everything had been thought about. When I did the Dream years later at Stratford I could still hear it in my head.’
Those early days at the RSC, when Peggy Ashcroft called Allam ‘the finest verse-speaker in the company’, underlined what Christie says in Hare’s play: ‘It’s the starting out that’s fun.’ When Allam went to Stratford, ‘Trevor Nunn was a young man, John Barton was around, and the company was in its first flush of success.’ These days it’s increasingly hard to pin actors down to seasons in Stratford. ‘They want to do high-profile, well-paid jobs. It’sa different landscape.’ Did he do his prep at Glyndebourne for the play? ‘I was taken twice, to Don Giovanni and Der Rosenkavalier. The productions were not terrific but musically they were fantastic evenings. There’s a line in the play about “snobs on the lawn”. I came to theatre as a teenager by going to the National Theatre when it was at the Old Vic and sitting on padded seats in the gallery for 15 pence, which was the price of a bus fare. ‘Then I discovered opera at ENO, and that was pretty cheap, and of course I went to the Proms. I heard Pavarotti in Tosca at Covent Garden, when they took out some of the seats. That’s my kind of ethos, when things of such quality are widely available.’ He might have sung professionally. ‘I took lessons at the Coliseum with a vocal coach, John Hargreaves, who charged £2 an hour, I recall, and I toyed with the idea of being a singer but I was more interested in acting. The life of a young actor then was broader. You could join a regional repertory company, as I did in Manchester at the Contact Theatre, whereas with singing it can take a long time to find out what kind of singer you are, and you’re not sure how good you are going to be. I like to do a wide variety of things, and acting, particularly in the theatre, has given me that opportunity.’ A lover of Fred Astaire (‘there’s a bounciness, I always preferred him to Bing Crosby’), Allam has made his mark in musical theatre, in Les Mis and also City of Angels and La Cage aux Folles. ‘It’s nine years since I sang on stage, and it took a huge effort to get my voice back in shape. It’s not called upon that often. I don’t think there are roles that would attract me to do a long run in the theatre.’ There are so many highlights: Trigorin in Terry Hands’s unforgettable production of The Seagull at the Swan in Stratford; Willy Brandt in Frayn’s Democracy; Privates on Parade at the Donmar; Falstaff and Prospero at the Globe; Blackbird, with Peter Stein, the great German director, at the Edinburgh Festival; Vanya at Chichester, ‘when I was happier than I have ever been’. Aladdin, too, for light relief. And Endeavour, of course, with his mac, his trilby and those sandwiches. ‘It’s lovely working with Anton. In one show he shota tiger, and we thought it had to feel like the end of Lear, and I think we succeeded. What is nice about doing a long-running show is finding a language that gives it some depth.’ With that superb mahogany voice, and absolute command of each role, Allam provides the kind of sustained pleasure that brings to mind a golden age. Not that he is sentimental. ‘Things go in and out offashion.’ Salute a champion actor, and a capital fellow.
The Moderate Soprano is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 30 June.
Roger Allam chats to Michael about his play The Moderate Soprano
6 May 2018
Actor Roger Allam will be joining Michael for a chat. The three-time Olivier Award winning actor is currently starring in David Hare’s new play The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York’s Theatre and will be telling Michael all about it.
‘King Lear? I might do it in a corner somewhere where nobody notices’
3 April 2018
A familiar face on film and TV, Roger Allam is returning to the West End in The Moderate Soprano. He tells Nick Smurthwaiteabout being inspired by Pavarotti and Paul Scofield, and why the stage remains his first love.
Fans of Roger Allam’s silky baritone will not be surprised to hear that he nearly became an opera singer instead of an actor. As a boy, the vicar’s son sang in his church choir and carried on singing into his late teens.
“In the early 1970s, I took singing lessons with John Hargreaves, a leading singer with English National Opera, when I was home from university,” says Allam in a break from rehearsing The Moderate Soprano, which opens at the Duke of York’s Theatre on April 12. Encouraged by Hargreaves, he toyed with the idea of training to become an opera singer, but the lure of acting proved more seductive.
“I loved the variety of acting: turning your hand to different things and bringing whoever you were to it. There is something almost amateurish about it that appealed to me. You know: stick on a beard and have a go at King Lear. Opera requires an enormous commitment. You must devote your whole life to producing that extraordinary sound.”
Allam says he had an intimation of that commitment early on when, as a student, he witnessed Luciano Pavarotti singing in Tosca at close range at the Royal Opera House.
“It was a prom performance, with really cheap floor seating at the front of the stalls,” he says. “To be in the same room as Pavarotti when he hit a top C quite literally took your breath away. That’s the extraordinary thing about opera: it has the power to elicit a physical reaction. I don’t know if I’d have been any good or not, but I do know that I was never committed enough to find out.”
Four decades on, Allam’s feeling for the magic of opera is serving him well in David Hare’s play telling the story of the founding of East Sussex opera venue Glyndebourne.
He plays John Christie, the eccentric landowner and opera lover who fell in love with the soprano Audrey Mildmay, 17 years his junior, when he was 48. Together they established an opera house at his country estate in the 1930s.
The play was first produced three years ago at Hampstead, where Allam’s performance as the improbable impresario garnered rave reviews. Michael Billington in the Guardian said he captured Christie’s “extraordinary mix of obduracy, uxoriousness and visionary zeal with spine-tingling magnificence”, while Paul Taylor in the Independent found his performance “killingly funny and achingly sad”.
The role of the bald, portly Christie requires an hour of make-up before each performance, and when he emerges from his dressing room, the Roger Allam we know and love from TV shows Endeavour and The Thick of It is nowhere to be seen.
He says: “I love dressing up in silly costumes and disguises. When I first read the description of Christie in David’s script, saying he is ‘short, fat, bald and wearing lederhosen’, that was it. I had to play this man. I was also drawn in by the passion and emotional heft of the story. I think for Christie, as for many of us, things that are sublimated in our lives get expressed through opera and other art forms, feelings we find difficult to access in everyday life.
“It might seem to some a surprising thing for David to have written but it is really about the importance of art and how Christie brought all these fantastic German musicians fleeing the Nazi regime – people like Fritz Busch and Rudolf Bing – to Britain to help establish his rural centre of excellence.”
That The Moderate Soprano took three years to reach the West End after its Hampstead run in 2015 may well be down to the workaholic actor being committed to other projects in the interim. The fifth series of Endeavour, the popular Inspector Morse prequel, recently drew to a close, and there are two feature films awaiting release: The Truth Commissioner, about a diplomat appointed to head up a South African-style truth commission in Northern Ireland, and the comedy thriller Ilkley, in which he plays a Richard Dawkins-type atheist author targeted by Christian fundamentalists.
After The Moderate Soprano closes at the end of June he will revert to being Detective Inspector Fred Thursday in Endeavour. Though it purports to be about the early years of Morse, the world-weary Thursday has become, in TV critic Christopher Stevens’ phrase, “the emotional heart of the drama”.
Although he wasn’t born until 1953, Allam understands perfectly the buttoned-up trauma of a man who “experienced terrible things” in the war. He says: “People of my age, who were born and grew up after the war, were aware of the effect it had on the older generation. I think about Fred’s background a great deal when I’m playing him.”
Unlike many actors of Allam’s generation who became big TV stars – John Thaw, Michael Kitchen and John Nettles among them – he has always returned to his first love, the theatre.
Acting in British Television is the first in-depth exploration of acting processes in British television. Focused around sixteen new interviews with celebrated British actors, it delves behind the scenes of a range of British television programmes in order to find out how actors build their characters for television, how they work on set and location, and how they create their critically-acclaimed portrayals.
The book looks at actors’ work across four diverse but popular genres: soap opera, police and medical drama, comedy and period drama.
Acting in British Television has an insightful interview, followed by a discussion, with Rebecca Front and Roger Allam about the BBC series The Thick of It.
Roger Allam on playing an alcoholic and his own boozy days
2 June 2017
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.
“Ah, I’m not sure about that,” says Allam. “I don’t get mobbed in the street or bothered.” Really? “Well, people do stop and say nice things. ‘I like Endeavour,’ or, ‘I loved The Thick of 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.
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.”
Shakespeare On Stage: Volume 2 – Twelve Leading Actors on Twelve Key Roles
23 February 2017 (interviewed in 2011)
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.
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? Ignore it.
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? Nothing.
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? Humour.
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.
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.”
Jace Jacob talks to Roger Allam about the third season premiere, playing Inspector Fred Thursday, and his other acting endeavors.
“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. (…)”
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.”
“Myadvice to my younger self would bethat 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.”
Roger Allam on his Doctor Who ambitions– and why he’s sick of background music on TV
10 January 2016
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.
Roger Allam: ‘Acting, like many professions, is getting more exclusive’
30 September 2014
“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.
Roger Allam: how Sheila Hancock gave me a Dream gig with the RSC
30 July 2014
“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.”
Roger Allam remembers rehearsals at the National Theatre in 1999
21 March 2014
“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.'”
“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.”
II B.S – Charles Mingus – Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (listen || buy)
“I would so love to be in the film that this is the music of.”
Les Roses d’Ispahan – Faure, sung by Barbara Hendricks – Melodies (listen || buy)
“That’s the wonderful thing about Radio 3… you’ll just hear something unexpected, something you don’t know.”
A Case of You (orchestral version) – Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now (listen || buy)
“[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.”
If I Only Had a Brain – Harry Connick Jr – 20 (listen || buy)
“[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.”
A taste of the whisky trail? Roger Allam swears by it
30 May 2012
“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.”
Playing for Real. Actors on Playing Real People. Roger Allam on playing Adolf Hitler, Willy Brandt and Max Reinhardt.
25 June 2008, published in 2010
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.”
Roger Allam is in hot demand as a villain, but thats only part of his range
By Ian Johns
With his bulky frame and mellifluous voice, Roger Allam was made for villainy. You may have seen him over Christmas as a gleefully cackling Abbanazar opposite Ian McKellen’s Widow Twankey in Aladdin. And you can catch him as the embodiment of a fascist future Britain in the Wachowski brothers’ forthcoming thriller V for Vendetta.
Panto and a Hollywood blockbuster from the makers of The Matrix? That’s typical of Allam’s varied CV, but the idea of evil is disturbingly blurred for his new stage role. In David Harrower’s tense drama Blackbird, acclaimed at the Edinburgh Festival last year and now opening in the West End, Allam is fiftysomething Ray, who is confronted by Una (Jodhi May), a 27-year-old woman full of unanswered questions regarding their sexual affair when she was 12.
“These are two very damaged people who were consumed by desire, but in no way is this a defence of paedophilia,” stresses the 52-year-old Allam. “Ray was undoubtedly wrong and was jailed for his actions. But the play is really about the shockwaves of such a relationship. It’s the most overwhelming thing that has ever happened to them.”
In its exploration of self- delusion and personal responsibility, the play is drenched in ambiguities as Ray and Una wrestle over the meaning of their past. “It’s fascinating to tackle a play like this,” Allam says. “The dialogue is sometimes fractured, almost like poetry, and people aren’t saying, or are unable to say, what they mean.”
Blackbird also offered Allam the chance to work with Peter Stein, the German maverick who was the formative artistic director of the Berlin Schaubühne company in the Seventies and Eighties.
“No other director I’ve worked with combines such a marvellous visual sense and a forensic analysis of the text with an awareness of body language,” he says. “In this play they say one thing but their bodies can say something else.”
Working with Stein also meant rehearsing at the director’s country estate in Umbria. “It was bizarre reading up on paedophilia in such lovely surroundings,” Allam says. “The estate has olive trees and wild boar. But it got very hot and there’s nowhere else really to go, so rehearsals were pretty intense.”
The part of Ray adds to Allam’s impressive range that encompasses Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, a Chandler-like private eye in the musical City of Angels, and starring opposite Gillian Anderson in the West End two-hander What the Night is For. He’s even played two German Chancellors: Adolf Hitler in David Edgar’s Speer and Willy Brandt in Michael Frayn’s Democracy.
Such versatility comes at a price. Having been a stalwart of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Eighties and the National in the Nineties, he’s now one of those actors who regular theatregoers know will deliver something funny, fresh or true. But he’s yet to have the screen break – ie, a hit detective series – that makes you a household name.
His film parts have been small – he describes his V for Vendetta role as “this fascist evangelist TV presenter, a tiny but fun turn” – and admits that people aren’t sure how to cast him. “Nowadays, especially in film and TV, you have to cultivate a distinctive persona,” says Allam, whose desire to be an actor was first stirred by a recording of Paul Scofield as Lear.
“I belong to an older tradition that encouraged you to be as versatile as possible. I remember seeing this book at school about Olivier, Gielgud and the like. It had all these pictures from their rep days in all sorts of roles. That’s what acting is all about, I thought.”
The son of a London vicar, Allam can recall “playing on the bomb sites in the East End in the Fifties”. A good enough singer to play Javert in the original production of Les Misérables, he was encouraged to become an opera singer but opted to study drama at Manchester University: “I realised you could do a lot more as a young actor than as a young singer.”
His first job was as part of the feminist troupe Monstrous Regiment in the Seventies: “I could sing, play piano, keyboards and guitar, which suited a collective where you did everything. One day I’d be handling the lights, the next discussing a new play with Caryl Churchill.”
Last year he became a father for the second time. He and his actress wife Rebecca Saire now have two sons, William and Thomas. And after years of being a company man, he now wants to keep himself “open to possibilities”. He doesn’t know what lies beyond Blackbird. But he’s keen to tackle Lear. “After all,” he says, “it’s what made me want to act in the first place.”