Billy Graham put him off religion. Laurence Olivier taught him etiquette. And as for Princess Margaret? Don’t ask. Sir Derek Jacobi tells all
It would take a will stronger than mine to resist comparing Sir Derek Jacobi to the Staffordshire porcelain figurines which dominate the drawing room of his Victorian house in Primrose Hill, north London.
There are dozens of them, arranged on individually-lit shelves, as if displayed in a museum.
For he, too, seems to be on display in this room as he sits on a silk sofa, his legs crossed at the ankles, his hands cupped in his lap, his posture erect. The 73-year-old actor is wearing plum-coloured velvet trousers, a checked shirt and a gold ring on his wedding finger. He not only looks ornamental, he looks gathered, like a graduate from a finishing school. There is a lacquered Chinese screen to his right, a window looking out over a sunlit garden to his left. His hair and beard are white, his moon face pink, his eyebrow arched quizzically. All set.
“Well, we’ve done it before,” he says when I ask how he is finding the experience of being directed by his partner Richard Clifford in Shaw’s Heartbreak House, the highlight of this summer’s 50th anniversary of the Chichester Festival Theatre. “We did it at Chichester in fact. About 16 years ago. A play about Strindberg. We got on very well. There is great trust there. It’s like when I work with Michael Grandage; it’s that essential trust and belief and security. It’s the same with Richard. Their eyes are very keen. They don’t miss a thing. You don’t get away with anything unless they let you. It’s a benign dictatorship.”
Sir Derek is measured and deliberate in the way he talks, rarely expanding on a theme, unless pushed. When I ask him about gay marriage, for example, he says: “The word doesn’t mean anything to me. It’s a squabble over nothing.” Until recently he has avoided talking about his private life, declining even to acknowledge that he is in a relationship. But he always knew, pretty much, that he was gay, and he came out to his mother soon after graduating. And five years ago, when civil partnerships came into law, he entered into one. Is his a marriage to all intents and purposes, I ask?
“Richard and I have been together for 35 years,” he says. “We’ve been in a civil partnership for five years. It doesn’t matter what you call it. We don’t think of it as marriage, it’s a partnership. People are getting hot under the collar at the moment because of this word.” Liberal Tories are committed to pushing through gay marriage, but does he have any sympathy with Christians who object to it? “Well, I suppose their argument is that marriage is equated with having children, but what about couples who meet in their fifties? They can’t have children. Or what if you are biologically unable to have children? The word becomes meaningless.”
His view seems to be that, because there is little difference in law between a gay marriage and civil partnership, the latest controversies are a fuss about nothing. Is that about the strength of it? “Exactly, it’s just this word. The Church is the problem.” I take it he’s not religious then. “As a teenager I was taken to a Billy Graham rally at Haringey. At the end of it I went down to the arena to give myself to Jesus. But as soon as Graham stopped talking it was like the choir stopped singing and,” he snaps his fingers, “I felt totally conned and embarrassed. I don’t mind people having faith and finding strength in that. But it ain’t for me.”
I ask his opinion about another topical debate of which he has experience, the call by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, for positive discrimination by Oxbridge colleges in favour of state-school children from underprivileged backgrounds. Jacobi came from a working-class background: his father was an East End tobacconist, his mother worked in a drapery, yet he didn’t need preferential treatment in order to win a scholarship to read history at Cambridge. He’s not sure that any conclusions can be drawn from his own circumstances, but he does think he benefited from having a lucky break.
“Well, I was lucky because I had been at a grammar school,” he says. “I wasn’t gifted academically but I was a swot and I adored school. I was an only child and my parents were very supportive.” His grammar school gave him a taste for acting. “I had an English master, Mr Brown, who encouraged me and put me in a production of Hamlet which was taken to Edinburgh. It got national recognition and, on the back of that, I won a scholarship to Cambridge. In my first week I got a knock on the door from John Bird, who was one of the big directors at Cambridge. He put me in a play in which I was miscast badly. I was so awful in it, everyone said I was overblown. It took me a year to get my reputation back.”
Trevor Nunn was another of the budding directors there. His peer group at Cambridge was impressive, to say the least. “My parents gave me a 21st party and there were Leyton friends at one end of the room and my Cambridge friends at the other. The cabaret was Eleanor Bron, David Frost, Ian McKellen.”
That must have been quite a clash of cultures, I say. Did his parents have cockney accents? “Yes, strong ones. Dad more than Mum. She was slightly better educated than Dad, who left school at 14.” Did they feel awkward about meeting all his well-spoken, theatrical Cambridge friends? “No, not at all. My mother was very demonstrative and loved everyone. No matter who they were, they got a hug and a kiss. They didn’t feel out of their depth at all.”
Did they worry about him becoming an actor? I mean, it’s not the most secure of professions, is it? “They did worry that I wouldn’t be able to earn a living, but they were reassured when I read history at university because they thought that I could become a history teacher if acting didn’t work out. I took the same view. I gave myself five years to try and make it.”
I suppose, unlike a lot of actors, he has never really had occasion to feel insecure about his career. “No. Mine is not a typical actor’s career. I’m very aware of that. I went straight from Cambridge to the Birmingham Rep then, after three years there, I spent eight years at the National. It was continuous employment.”
In 1963 he was talent spotted by Sir Laurence Olivier himself, who was forming the National Theatre, then based at the Old Vic. “He managed to persuade actors who were at the top of their profession to come and work for him on three-year contracts: Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, Robert Stephens – all of them had West End and film careers, and all were willing to give them up to be in an ensemble because it was Olivier asking them. They put their stardom to one side. I didn’t have anything to lose. I was only 24.”
As a young man, he was considered the greatest Hamlet of his generation but he has never been especially precious about his reputation. His attitude is that an actor has to work, and you never know when your agent might stop ringing. He gardens, reads and looks at the wall a lot, he says. And he worries about where his next job is coming from.
And it should be remembered that it was television that gave him his big break. Indeed, the role with which he is probably still most associated – the one that made him a household-name in 1976 – was the poignant, painfully stuttering emperor he played in the BBC series I, Claudius. It would be very hard for another actor to take on that role, I say, given the extent to which he made it his own.
“Well, they say there is going to be a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio so we shall see, and I’d better be in it somewhere! A walk on.” He describes the drawing room with a sweep of his arm. “Claudius was written in this very room. I bought the house 30 years ago from the widow of Jack Pulman, who wrote the screenplay, and this was his study.”
His best screen performance, for my money, was as Francis Bacon in Love is the Devil. “He lived around here, but I don’t think we would have got on. I didn’t go to the Colony Club where Bacon hung out because I wasn’t a great drinker.”
He portrayed Bacon as a tortured genius, but also a cold and callous gay predator. It was convincing, but not exactly sympathetic. “Yes, physically, Bacon was a masochist who liked being hurt, but spiritually he was a sadist. When John Maybury offered the role to me I said: ‘But I don’t look like him. He’s got such a distinct look.’ Then, after 10 minutes in the make up chair, I was looking like him.”
They weren’t allowed to use any of Bacon’s paintings in the film. “The family thought it was going to be a gay exposé, so they wouldn’t give us permission. We used paintings done in his style instead. The DVD still sells well, but I think that’s because there are some scenes in which Daniel Craig is stark-b—— naked.”
Another of his great roles was that of Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park codebreaker who was prosecuted for his homosexuality in 1952. Is it harder portraying a real person than a fictional one? “It was less so with Turing than Bacon, but there were still people around who knew him, and I’m not an impressionist. I try to get close to the emotional side of the person. You have to sound approximately right, but that is less important than getting the motivation right. That film was about breaking the moral code as well as the Enigma code.
“Turing was charged with ‘gross indecency’ and given the choice of two years in prison or chemical castration, and he chose the latter. They inserted a capsule in his thigh which was supposed to lower oestrogen. He became depressed after that and may or may not have killed himself by eating an apple laced with cyanide. It could have been murder, because he knew too much.”
The attitude of the time was partly a reaction to the revelations then emerging about the Cambridge spies, a number of whom were gay. Being gay became associated with being unpatriotic. Well, society has come a long way since then, and there is no questioning Sir Derek’s patriotism. The night before we meet he was at a reception for the Queen. “When her face is relaxed she looks quite grumpy,” he says. “But the moment she smiles she is radiant. Beautiful skin.” He’s less flattering about her sister. “I once had dinner at Joe Allen’s with Princess Margaret. There were eight of us and I sat next to her. She smoked continuously, not even putting out her cigarette when soup arrived, but instead leaning it up against the ashtray. We got on terribly well, very chummy, talking about her mum and her sister, and she really made me feel like I was a friend, until,” he leans forward, “she got a cigarette out and I picked up a lighter and she snatched it out of my hand and gave it to a ballet dancer called David Wall.” Why? “Because I wasn’t a close friend, I hadn’t been let in yet and my goodness she let me know it.”
Well, Del-Boy’s pretty grand himself now, but I wouldn’t say he has airs and graces. There’s something surprisingly low key about him. He’s a little self-conscious, if anything. Describes himself as placid and non-confrontational. Suffers stage fright. Doesn’t like being photographed. “Yes, posing in front of a camera is a bit dental for me. Always has been. I’m fine when I’m working because then I’m in a world of pretend and imagination so I can be anything. But when I’m being myself in everyday life, that is different.”
He can’t stand seeing himself on the big screen. “I have seen myself in films but I don’t enjoy it because there is nothing you can do about it. In the theatre you can have another go. You can get it better the next night. You also have the excitement of doing three hours on stage when there are no safety nets. If they can’t hear you in a studio they move the microphone closer. If you forget your lines you can do a retake.”
I ask if there is a snobbery in the profession about stage acting being the real deal and film acting being a lesser form. “The two are different, totally different. From my point of view, the job satisfaction is greater with stage acting. It’s more exciting, more terrifying, more creative. In a film, someone else decides how much of you is shown. In the theatre all of you is being shown all of the time.”
Does that make reviews of theatrical productions seem more personal? “Reviews can be hurtful if you read them, but I haven’t read them for years. If they are good there is a danger of henceforth acting that review, if they are bad or indifferent you want to kill yourself.”
Most men retire at 65, why does he still want to do it? Is it the applause? “Not at all. If anything the applause breaks the spell and brings you back down to earth with a bump. For me it’s the journey you’ve been on, and the experience you tried to give the audience. I’m bad on curtain calls. Not comfortable with them. The evening belongs to everybody, especially if you are in a Hamlet, a King Lear, or a Macbeth, because you can’t play any of those parts on your own.”
But he has learnt to fight his self-effacing nature and accept applause. “I was told by Olivier himself that not to do a proper curtain call is disrespectful to the audience. You must be there to thank them. He said it because he’d seen me do a curtain call which was just a nod. He hauled me over the coals for it.”
Actually, that wasn’t the first time he was told off for it. He tells me that his mother also had a go at him, after the first time she saw him in a Shakespeare play. “She came back stage and said, ‘Oh it was lovely, but I’ve got one criticism. You should smile more in the curtain call, because you’ve got a lovely smile.’” And so he has, just like the Queen’s.