Sam West is a good looking chap who has appeared on screen with Julia Roberts and managed not to look like Quasimodo. He’s a respected director as well as a much admired actor and fiercely intelligent. He has charisma by the bucketload and exudes star quality.
But sitting opposite him in the wardrobe in the bowels of the Newcastle theatre I discover something else. Sam West is a total geek.
He’s excited about all the books on post-Great War Britain he’s been reading for research, he’s still got the sheet music from the first single he bought in 1978 – Hit me With Your Rhythm Stick – he’s really excited by the history of coal, he’s thrilled to bits to share the news that he kept a section of the famous carpet from the pre-refurbishment Sheffield Crucible. He is also, I happen to know of old, an avid birdwatcher.
And yet he remains pretty cool. Indeed, one of the things he has collected – the man is clearly a hoarder – is a call sheet from the last movie he appeared in and the story has more than an air of cool about it. “I was filming a movie for Focus International in April called Hyde Park on Hudson will Bill Murray, Olivia Coleman, Laura Linney – some quite brilliant people. Elizabeth Wilson was in it – she played Dustin Hoffman’s mother in The Graduate, was in Hitchcock’s The Birds and Notorious in 1946 with Cary Grant. It’s so remarkable to meet and work with someone like that and to be a few handshakes away from such greatness.
“In the movie Bill plays Roosevelt and I play King George VI. One day we were filming a nine-minute two-hander with just me and Bill – I kept the call sheet from that day – it just had my name and Bill’s name on it. It might not be a nine-minute two-hander in the final cut, but that was a great day.”
It’s stories like that, that make West undeniably impressive, but he immediately pulls the rug from under the feet of his own claims to cool.
“One day shortly before filming I found myself going to an out-of-the-way underground club in London to see the modern version of Booker T and the MGs – the Stax houseband (he gets very excited about this).
“They were amazing, playing Green Onions and Knock on Wood. Then someone who looked familiar came on to sing a number with them, holding a tambourine – and it was Bill. The following day I was in the make-up trailer and Bill came in. I said ‘I saw you on stage last night’ and briefly I became cool because it was this little out of the way club with 200 very hip people and I just happened to be one of them.”
The way he tells it, Sam West is a man in the right place at the right time and it might be tempting to consider that his career – like that of any actor – as a case of lucky timing. The truth is he has worked hard at his success. Perhaps being the son of Timothy West and Prunella Scales means that you have to work extra hard to prove yourself.
He certainly worked like a Trojan when he was running Sheffield Theatres for a couple of years from 2005 and he appears to have barely aged a day since he was appointed artistic director of the theatres (the Crucible, Lyceum and Studio) replacing the highly regarded Michael Grandage. They were big shoes to fill and West did an impressive job – but it ended on a less than positive note.
The Crucible was closing for refurbishment and West wanted to remain in post – and keep the theatre producing work – while it took place. The board didn’t agree and he left.
“The best thing I can say about Sheffield is that I enjoyed my first two seasons very much and would liked to have had a third – but there was a disagreement. Although it was amicable, it was also a disagreement,” he says, resolutely.
“I wanted to keep producing work but for all sorts of perfectly justifiable reasons they thought we couldn’t afford or handle it. I felt we should keep making work while the theatre was shut at all costs.”
Sour grapes? If there are any, West isn’t saying.
“I am delighted that since the theatre re-opened they seem to have re-captured their audience but that’s because Dan (Evans, the current artistic director) is doing very good work with some very good people.
“When Dan was appointed, in one of his first speeches – I think one of the first things he said – was that he was pleased that I had been there and taken the theatre into the refurbishment.
“My concern was that Michael had done such a great job in handing things over to his successor – me – that I wanted to feel I had done the same thing. When I left I didn’t even know who the new artistic director would be, so I never had that opportunity.
“When Dan thanked me, it felt like I had – that awful word – a sense of closure. It was a nod to me and what I had done and that was all that I felt I needed, nothing more than that.”
He has returned to Sheffield a number of times since and “had some very good evenings” but has not felt the need to keep harking back to that period. In fact, since leaving, he has had some of the best professional experiences of his career. He played the lead in Enron in the West End, one of the theatre world’s major hits of the last decade, has appeared in A Number in South Africa opposite his father Timothy (“we played together on his 76th and 77th birthday”) and in ITV series Eternal Law, had the biggest TV role of his career.
Filmed in York and written by the team behind Life on Mars, West played an angel sent to earth as a lawyer to help mankind. “It was absolutely the most enjoyable television job I’ve ever done. I’ve played leads in shows like Narnia and Cambridge Spies, but this was a lead in a six-part series filmed for three months. It was in York, in late spring and early summer, I had a little house next to Orla Brady and we used to have soup and learn our lines together. I worked 61 days out of 64 on the shoot, I’d walk to work, it was lovely.”
The show didn’t find an audience – or it did, three million, but it wasn’t the five million needed to return to the screen. The lack of another series is a shame, West clearly feels, but he has plenty to keep him busy.
What is doing that and making him buzz almost out of his seat in Newcastle, is Close the Coalhouse Door. Alan Plater’s early play is being revived for the first time since the playwright’s death in 2010.
“I’ve been mostly buying and reading books for the play – which is a list that unfortunately never ends. One arrived today called Communism in the Bible which is a really exciting and important book.”
I laugh at this, not the idea that the book is important, but that Communism in the Bible is exciting. West does not laugh along. He’s perfectly serious. “I can’t wait to get stuck into it. I’ve been talking to Paul Younger from Newcastle University, a civil engineer and an expert on water. But he’s also a Christian Socialist and knows a lot about the Prims, the Primitive Methodists, who took the Bible as a sort of radical text – very popular with pitmen in the 1860s. A lot of South American liberation theologists do today in fact, basically...”
And he’s off. It’s difficult to explain just how excited West is about the idea of pitmen’s religious beliefs in the 1860s. He’s almost as excited as he is about discovering that a member of the acting union Equity, is an expert in British political history from 1910 to 1926.
“He spent two years studying that 16- year period, can you imagine,” asks West. I really can’t. “It was the most fascinating period of British history...” He then gets excited about coal fields.
He also gets very excited about politics. Over the past few years he has become one of the arts world’s leading public figures in speaking out against the cuts to public funding of the sector. The fierce intellect, endless curiosity, the politics, make him the perfect person to lead a production of Close the Coalhouse Door.
Based on the stories of Sid Chaplin, Alan Plater’s play was first performed in Newcastle in 1968. It’s set around a wedding anniversary party and charts the major strikes, victories and disappointments in British mining history from the formation of the first unions in 1831. The story is structured around Alex Glasgow’s joyful and heart-tugging music inspired by north-eastern folk songs performed by highly-skilled actor-musicians and in this latest version has seen a script revision by Billy Elliott writer Lee Hall.
“It sounds facile, but it’s true – it’s a great honour to have been given responsibility of the first revival since he died of Alan’s best known play.
“We will have people who remember the first production, people who have never heard of it, those who won’t have the first inkling of what a miner’s life was like and it has to speak to all of them.
“I think when we bring the show to Yorkshire, it will really speak to people who feel connected to the history of manufacturing through their towns and the industry that was once there. In fact, did you know...”
He’s off again. The coolest geek you might ever meet.
Close the Coalhouse Door, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, May 23 – 26. York Theatre Royal June 26 - 30.