Interview with Nigel Havers, starring in Art at Cheltenham’s Everyman Theatre
PUBLISHED: 13:55 04 March 2019
Katie Jarvis finds that Nigel Havers is a dream interview – in more ways than one
“Would you like an interview with Nigel Havers?” I’m asked.
“Ee-ee-e-e-ss—ss-sss,” I reply, in the kind of voice that tries to combine madly enthusiastic delight with world-weary passivity. (A kind of madly enthusiastic passivity.)
Look. I know he’s gorgeous and charming and well known. Don’t think I didn’t drool over him as Lord Andrew Lindsay in Chariots of Fire (“Wings on our heels…” De, de, de, de, de, de, de, de. Mud-splattered shirt; heels kicking up waves; big grin despite cumbersome running); or colonial ambitious Ronny in Passage to India. Or naughty Ralph in the Charmer. (I could go on, obvs.)
I know he comes from the most fascinating family (possibly in the world). A lawyer dad who, quite apart from being Lord Chancellor and a life peer to boot, got Mick Jagger and Keith Richards off drugs charges (“Dad turned and gave me the thumps-up… There was sweat on his forehead and, I swear to God, a tear in his eye,” Nigel writes in his autobiog, Playing With Fire). And took a lead role in the prosecution of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper (“Tell me, did you enjoy killing those women?” was Sir Michael’s daringly memorable opening.)
I know he’s irresistibly posh (he’s the Hon Nigel Havers); a sort of cross between Terry-Thomas and Bamber Gascoigne, but with marvellous hair and teeth.
Who wouldn’t want to interview Nigel Havers!
But. The thing is this. I was offered an interview with him back in 2007. So exciting! Saved four pages for it. Did loads of research. Prepared more questions than Jim Acosta at a White House press conference. And then – right at the very last minute – it didn’t happen. Don’t know why. No explanation.
All I know is that I was left staring at four blank pages and my editor asking, “Well?”
So I greet this question with a level of scepticism that makes Dennis Skinner look like Anne of Green Gables.
“You can have 30 minutes!” I’m told.
“OK!” I say, reserving four pages. “In that case, you’re on.”
“Hello,” is my opening gambit when I call Nigel Havers, as requested, bang on 12 noon (I pretty much do a NASA countdown). “Is that Nigel Havers?”
“Hello, sir! It’s Katie Jarvis here. I believe I’m lucky enough to have an interview with you.”
“As long as it’s not too long.”
“How long is not too long?”
*Can’t make out reply* (Similar vocals to someone talking during the 80mph vertical drop of Stealth at Thorpe Park.)
“Oh, gosh. You sound like you’re in a hurricane.”
“No, no. I’m just heading from A to B.”
“Ah, right. Say again how long I’ve got?”
“Five minutes. Can we do it in five?”
Five minutes!?! Hours of research for five minutes! I’ve got four pages to fill, matey boy. (Again.)
“Umm. Well…” I try, winningly. “The only thing I can say is that, if you can do a bit longer, I promise you a good three pages in a glossy magazine!”
“I don’t mind if I’m in a glossy magazine or not.”
“No. I’m sure you don’t.”
“So let’s do it! Let’s crack on. You can make the rest up.”*
Nigel Havers and I are in the Garrick Club. (Does the Garrick Club allow women? We’ll say it does.) It was his dad’s friend, Kenneth More, who proposed Nigel, making him – at the time - the club’s youngest member.
Unusually, I’m wearing a tie, thrown over my shoulder. But that’s because I want to honour the Garrick Club tradition started by the Havers family after every one of them spilled soup down his front. (Page 7 of my edition of Playing With Fire.) (Any less posh a family would have headed to the dry-cleaners and been more careful in future.)
Nigel rests his hand flirtily on my knee. (Vis Holly Willoughby interview, This Morning.)
I stare at him from under my lashes in a way I hope is reminiscent of Lady Di, to whom he once gave a watch.
With that stare, I try to convey several things.
a) That I am wearing underwear. (Unlike Marianne Faithful, when she came to a party thrown by his dad at the Inner Temple, to celebrate the successful Jagger/Richards court case.)
b) That I’ve read his autobiography and know that he once (which seems rare, even during a severe personal housing crisis) was offered digs by a friend in Manchester with her and her friend Yvonne ((inevitably) a blond, intelligent, shapely, fun rock-chick with whom Nigel had never so much as exchanged preliminary pleasantries. ‘How many bedrooms?’ Nigel asks. ‘Well, there’s mine and Yvonne’s.’ ‘So where do I sleep?’ ‘With Yvonne, you idiot.’
c) That his granddad defended Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain.
“I’m extremely sorry about the mess-up in 2007,” Nigel soothes me, in that gorgeous, upper-class twinkle. “I was unconscious for two months; came round with no memory of any missed diary appointments.”
“Oh!” I say, suddenly completely understanding. “Not a problem at all! So how long have we got at the Garrick together?”
“As long as you like,” he replies. “After all, you’re offering me a second chance at three pages in Cotswold Life magazine.”
I look down at my questions modestly.
“Let’s start with your childhood,” I say. “You mention, in Playing With Fire, being sent away to school at six. And then practically bringing yourself up during your teenage years. That can’t have been easy. I’m wondering if it’s no coincidence that you went into a profession where you could show emotion – but your characters’ emotions rather than your own.”
“What a perceptive question,” Nigel Havers says, admiringly.
So. The reason I’m actually interviewing Nigel Havers is that he’s appearing in Art at Cheltenham Everyman – a brilliantly perceptive comedy-masterpiece by Yasmina Reza, (originally in French), focused on three male friends.
When one of them, Serge (Nigel’s part), pays a king’s ransom for a painting, their friendships are tested to the limits. The problem is that the painting is an all-white canvas by a not-well-known artist. Will Serge’s friends – Marc and Yvan – applaud his good taste? Or denigrate him for his stupidity in being conned by supposedly ‘modern art’?
Serge’s part is one Havers has played upwards of 700 times. So…
“Why does Art pull in so many stars and why has it pulled you in so many times, over the years?”
“Because it’s the best modern play I know. The audience love it and the actors who do it love it. There are two reasons. One is it’s beautifully written by Yasmina Reza. Secondly, it’s very, very funny. The third reason [Three? I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition, etc] is that you can be in the pub before 9 o’clock at night.”
This is funny – though I’ve heard him say it before.
“You’re actually doing a panto-run just before Art,” I continue, seamlessly. “There’s work and there’s ‘work’; but blimey that’s punishment!”
Let us - dear reader; just you and I - pause for a moment, here. Because why am I asking about panto, FGS?!? I’m nearly three minutes into a supposedly five-minute interview, and I’m asking about PANTO! For a feature that will come out in February’s Cotswold Life!
I feel like I’ve been granted an audience with the Oracle of Delphi, panicked, and blown my only question on bus timetables in Croydon. When I don’t even want to go there. But I’ve asked now.)
“Well, this is my 14th pantomime in a row so I know what I’m in for. I’ve got a break of seven days – actually, less than that because of rehearsal dates. It’s been one of those years.”
“Can you give us a clue as to how we can do that sort of punishing schedule too?”
“I don’t have a secret. I just don’t. I should really be on prescribed drugs. But I’m not; I’m coping.”
We move on to his love for Cheltenham [three minutes, 20 seconds]; he’s a big fan of the racecourse and loves the Everyman. Then he moves back onto Art.
“This play does very well at a theatre like Cheltenham because it’s a middle-class, middle-brow play – you know what I’m saying.”
You mean, seen by lots of people who buy white paintings?
“Yes, indeed. People who, you know, are well read; they understand the play really well.”
(Is this a dig at my joke?) (I’m paranoid now.)
Actually. What I ideally want to do is to move the interview onto something more personal. The trouble is, I normally spend at least 10 minutes asking easy questions, before venturing into more interesting territory.
So, for example, to start asking Nigel Havers more intimate questions about his late dad – whom he clearly adored – at this early stage seems a bit like being introduced to someone; then, having barely shaken hands, pushing your way into their sitting room, grabbing their remote control and settling down with a beer you’ve nabbed from their fridge.
Nevertheless. I go for the beer.
“I was reading quite a lot about your dad – and I was thinking: What on earth would he make of the world we’re in? Especially Trump?”
I ask this partly to get him talking on a subject I hope he might warm to; and partly because I think his relationship with his father (Lord Havers, as he became in 87, was at the sharp end of some of Britain’s most high-profile, controversial trials; he also served as Lord Chancellor during Margaret Thatcher’s PM-ship) was a fascinating one.
“Funnily enough, my father was quite an adaptable, liberal-minded guy. I think he would be fine. [With Trump?] Indeed, my grandfather the same. They always went with the times. Being a lawyer – rather like being a doctor – anything that you come across is never a surprise. Human beings behave in a peculiar way.”
“Forgive me for psychoanalysing you in any way,” I plough on, “which seems rude when I’ve been talking to you for three minutes. [Actually 5.16]. But you’ve mentioned casually about being sent away at age six. There must be a toll on your emotions – and I wondered whether, in a funny sort of way, acting gives you an ability to play out those emotions with a kind of distance.”
“Well, you know, that is not exactly true because I was perfectly all right being sent away. Because that was the sort of norm, I was led to believe. So I didn’t think it was unfair or anything.
“Secondly, at that prep school, I got involved in acting and really enjoyed that. Encouraged by the headmaster. They were brilliant in that way. So I owe everything to them, in a way.”
I wanted to ask him so much. Over the course of 30 minutes. (Sorry to keep on). Like the fact that the most emotion he shows in Playing With Fire is over his dad. “How I admired him and longed never to let him down.”
Or that, despite what he tells me, he writes that he felt sorry for himself on being sent to boarding school, Nowton Court, at the tender age of six. “Actually, ‘suicidal’ would cover it.” That, once, he spent the entire summer holidays at prep school because his parents were in Pakistan where his dad was working on a case.
Or that, at the age of 13, he was at the Arts Educational Trust drama school in Piccadilly, living at his dad’s Temple flat while his parents were mostly in Suffolk.
“Darling, I hate to leave you on your own. Are you sure you’ll be all right? Mum would say.
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” I’d reply, with a brave smile. “I’ve got so much work, I can’t possibly get up to any mischief.” While inwardly cheering, as would any 13-year-old, home alone.
Never mind asking him about all the later things. Such as the utterly tragic death of his second wife, Polly, from ovarian cancer.
Or his desire to kill Lembit Opik after their joint jungle appearance on I’m a Celebrity in 2010; a topic over which I feel we could have begun to bond.
But I don’t have time.
“I’m going to pick three very quick questions,” I finish (6.24).
“Which character have you played that you would say is most like you?”
“Most like me… Oh, that’s... You could say that all of them are a little bit of me. Well, I suppose, funnily enough, in Art I would say that I’m very attached to Serge. He’s probably pretty much just like me, in many ways. I do like – I love – the white painting, by the way.”
“Genuinely?” I say, in a voice higher than I’d ideally have chosen.
“Yep. Genuinely. I have a copy at home.”
(Two questions left.) Tell me quickly about your relationship with your dad.
“Well. He was a wonderful, wonderful guy. You know, I don’t think, initially, he was keen about me becoming an actor. Even though I’ve always said he didn’t mind. I think he probably did to begin with. Because he thought it was a very insecure job to take on. And also he didn’t want to be left paying my bills.
“When I started and I was quite sort of lucky to begin with, he sort of relaxed and was OK about it. And became more and more relaxed, as time went on. And began to enjoy it. And that was great.”
He must, I think to myself, have become very proud of his actor son.
Final question. Advice to young actors?
“If you want to do it, you have to really want to do it. And start at the bottom and get your training done. Go into the theatre; don’t become an instant hit in EastEnders because, the quicker you get up there, the quicker you’ll fall down again. It’s a slow-burn, this job.”
Thank you, I say.
“A pleasure,” he says. “Nice to speak to you.”
*”I’ve kept you more than three hours,” I apologise.
“My fault entirely,” he says. “I enjoyed it so much. Another glass of Champers?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” I reply, hiccupping very slightly.
Art, by Yasmina Reza, starring Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson, runs from Monday, March 11 to Saturday, March 16 at Cheltenham Everyman Theatre. Book tickets here or via the Box Office on 01242 572573.