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Cotswold Character: Robert Hardy

PUBLISHED: 16:00 03 August 2017 | UPDATED: 16:40 03 August 2017

One of our best-known and loved actors, Robert Hardy has died aged 91. Alongside a tremendous career in film and television, Katie Jarvis discovered his fascination with medieval warfare while talking to him in 2012

"There are many interviews I’ve felt privileged to do during my time at Cotswold Life – and this is one of them. Robert Hardy spoke to me in perfect Anglo Saxon (with a pronunciation learned at Oxford from Tolkien); and told me of how he’d argue with CS Lewis (whom he adored) about the vaingloriousness of Falstaff. His anecdotes were compelling; his intellect phenomenal; his kindness always in evidence. Robert Hardy was an old-school gentleman of very rare vintage." Katie Jarvis

So this is the plot. A famous 21st century actor receives a blow to the head and awakens to find he has time-travelled to early 15th century England – say, the Battle of Shrewsbury. But unlike Hank Morgan (if you didn’t get the Mark Twain allusion (though odds on you did), then rush and read it), this actor fits in perfectly. He can talk like Chaucer, fight like a Percy, and knows exactly where to find Falstaff (skulking on the edge of the battlefield, pretending to have fought).

So am I right? I ask Robert Hardy. If he were to be transported back to the Middle Ages, a la Connecticut Yankee, not one of Merrie England’s peasants would bat an eyelid?

“I would have got away with it when I was younger,” he agrees, thoughtfully. “But, at 86, I would have outlived most of the population. There weren’t many people around of that age.”

Note the singular nature of the objection. Robert Hardy, as one of the country’s best-loved thespians, is known in many capacities. “I’m going to interview Siegfried Farnon,” I tell my husband. “Who?” ask the children. “Cornelius Fudge,” I reply. “Churchill,” I say, as an aside to my dad. But, in Tewkesbury, many of the populace know him for his distinguished parallel career. Unlikely though it may seem to the unaware, Robert Hardy is also one of the country’s leading experts in medieval warfare. And each July, you’ll see him at the town’s medieval festival, of which he is patron.

“I used to look down my nose at re-enactors until, eventually, I went to see the Tewkesbury Battle re-enactment, and I was so impressed. When you go down that avenue of tents, full of armourers and bow-makers, shoemakers and goodness-knows-what, it is quite extraordinary how there is still this longing and interest in the past.”

Is it the accuracy that appeals?

“Absolutely. I wouldn’t be interested if the accuracy wasn’t there. And the abbey – the abbey is a miraculous medieval building; and in that abbey, a whole lot of people took sanctuary, fleeing from the battle, to be hauled out by the victorious Yorkists and executed in the market square.”

In Robert Hardy’s beautifully-proportioned Cotswold house, we’re surrounded by shelves and groaning tables of books; books as neatly arranged as the years they represent: flowing seamlessly back-to-back. (“Kindle – pah!” he scorns.) But take a look through those neat pages, and the events they chronicle will tumble out: bloody, violent, chaotic, frightening. The Middle Ages were not the ideal era for the lily-livered.

“They’re covered in romantic haze, aren’t they: the age of chivalry and all that (though chivalry is a much-argued matter). It was an extremely tough, extremely hard time. Your life expectancy wasn’t very high. If you meddled in power-politics, your life expectancy was really extremely short. But,” he muses, “everybody knew that so it didn’t seem to them, I believe, any different from what modern life seems to us. I mean modern life, in some ways, is extremely unattractive.” (Umm. Though misery with a dishwasher still seems more appealing to me.)

I’ve read that it was while playing Henry V that Robert Hardy developed an interest in medieval warfare. And, certainly, his knowledge has helped him in his acclaimed bringing-to-life of so many of Shakespeare’s characters: “That’s why I have found it so difficult to enjoy productions nowadays done in modern dress,” he says. “This is not a racist remark, but to see a black actor playing Hotspur [is incongruous] because we all know that Hotspur was a Percy. We know exactly when he lived and exactly where he died; and we know he had red hair. And that seems to me a jump that I don’t want to take.”

In fact, his interest in weaponry goes (as so many passions do) straight back to childhood. “I must have been about six when I found two longbows in the attic, left over from the 18th century – sport bows. I broke them both in the end! But I just got stuck on this particular interest and, thereby, on battles. I suppose the next step was turning up on the battlefield of Agincourt, when I was about 13, which was very hard in those days to find because the French denied any knowledge of it ever having taken place. Now, of course, they have a smart museum and they make money out of it.”

The youngest of six children, born in Gloucestershire to the headmaster of one of its leading independent schools, Robert Hardy received the best of educations. Sent away to prep school from a young age, he learned, among other things, to speak French near-fluently – a skill that was to stand him in good stead many years later, when he played Churchill in an outstanding Parisian stage production. It was, he says, “the only good thing about my prep school”, for he hated being away from home. Rugby completed his schooling, from where he went up to Oxford, to read English at Magdalen. One might assume that history would have been his discipline: in fact, the temptation of being taught by CS Lewis and Tolkien, understandably, triumphed.

“Tolkien taught me how to pronounce Chaucer, and to pronounce Anglo Saxon.” And he launches into a magical, word-perfect, near-cantation of the Prologue: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote/The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote/And bathed every veyne in swich licour/ Of which vertu engendred is the flour.” And more.

“Tolkien was enchanting. Very gentle. Very quiet but firmly persuasive. (One day in a tutorial) he got us all to change places and, without looking at us, he pinpointed exactly where we each came from, even though we spoke – as I thought – in almost-identical voices in our Oxford English. He said, ‘The reason I’ve done this curious exercise is I want you to believe, when I tell you how Anglo Saxon is pronounced and how Chaucer should be pronounced, that I really do know; because I’ve studied languages and their roots in depth’. He was, I suppose, a little bit eccentric but a very fine teacher.

“But Lewis was adorable. I really loved Lewis. He came out of the First World War, with Tolkien, as a kind of atheist – though not in the sense of that poisonous man from Oxford, Dawkins. Then, gradually, Lewis turns into a profound Christian, and writes about Christianity and suffering and belief in the most profound – and also in the most comical and most brilliantly funny – way.”

He tells the story of an intellectual argument he and Lewis had about the fictional Falstaff – how Hardy thought he was boasting and lying in his soliloquies and how Lewis thought he wasn’t. “This became a kind of battle between us; a very good-tempered battle.” His joy – even after all these years – in Lewis’s final capitulation clearly tops many of his stage triumphs.

We talk about others he has known. His close friend, Richard Burton: a wonderful but self-destructive friend. “Somebody, in a film that I was in the other day about Elizabeth Taylor, asked me: ‘Do you think she was a bad influence on Burton?’ I said, without hesitation, ‘Oh yes! Not only a bad influence: I think she destroyed him’. But then I went on to say that, of course, I think he would have destroyed himself without ever having met her; it just might have taken longer.”

Churchill, whom he has played so mesmerically, memorably and definitively, on stage and television, he met twice. “I met him at some sort of reception in London, when I was quite small, before the war; and then I met him with Burton. He was playing Hamlet at the Old Vic and I was playing Laertes, and the old boy came to see us. He was just wonderful: one of the hardest things to get is this wonderful, broad humour he had. As he came into Richard’s dressing room – Richard having played the Prince of Denmark – Winston said, straight off, ‘Your Royal Highness, I wonder if I might avail myself of the amenities of your bathroom?’”

In Robert’s triumphant French stage run, he had to blend a Churchillian voice with French-as-the-Parisians-would-understand-it: surely, the equivalent of one song to the tune of another? He shrugs it off effortlessly: “I’d tried him six times before in English so it was familiar ground; and the words of this play were just magic. I loved it; the best thing I’ve ever been engaged to do, I think.”

We discuss playing Siegfried, in the much-loved TV series All Creatures Great and Small, the real-life vet who became a dear friend. (“Though he and his wife hated what I did – absolutely hated it – because he was a true eccentric and, like all true eccentrics, was totally unaware of how odd he was.”); and his appeal to a younger audience, thanks to his part as the Minister of Magic in the Harry Potter films. (“The amazing thing is that people write to me to say: ‘It’s just how I imagined him from the book’. Yet, in the book, he was a little, round, fat man, with a curly green hat: I had had long-flowing pin-striped clothes and a Homburg.”). We chat over his work with the Mary Rose Trust, as their consultant in charge of all the bows that were rescued from the depths “astonishingly preserved”; and about his love of music, possibly inherited from his mother, an accomplished violinist. Indeed, he took violin lessons at school.

“When I was first on Desert Island Discs in 70-something, under its originator, Roy Plomley, I told the story of my violin teacher, the most lovely Belgian, now long dead. He thought I was quite good and he used to give me more and more difficult things to try and play – from Mozart sonatas to Dvorak. Then, one day, I did a school play at Rugby, and the next morning I was having to play a Mozart sonata in my violin tutorial. When I’d finished, this same teacher said, ‘Well, I don’t think you’re going to be a great violinist but, you know, I saw you in the play last night, and I think you will be a great actor.’

“When I told that story, he then still alive, living in Ireland; retired; still as Belgian as ever. He was so touched that he wrote to me and it reached me eventually. And when he died, he left me his sapphire evening-dress shirt-front studs, which he always wore when he played with the Isolde Menges Quintet.”

And we talk on. How could you not, with this erudite, fascinating, multi-faceted man, who seems so much younger than his 86 years. I get up to go – I’ve stayed much longer than I intended and he must be speaking of things he’s had to relate a million-and-one times before. One of the clocks strikes lightly, as if to illustrate my point.

On the contrary.

“Please do stay as long as you like,” he protests. “Would you like a cup of tea and a piece of cake?”


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