The importance of being Nigel Havers

Nigel Havers on stage in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest

Nigel Havers on stage in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest

  • He’s one of Britain’s best loved actors and ahead of starring in The Importance of Being Earnest in York, Nigel Havers talks to Phil Penfold.
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Nigel Havers is in a mellow mood. “I generally am, these days,” he reflects. “I’m getting more unruffled – or less and less ruffled, should that be? – as the years go by.

I’m definitely not going down the Victor Meldrew route, turning into a grim old curmudgeon. I am very easy-going, my wife says. In fact, she’s told me that she thinks that I am one of the most placid people she knows.”

Havers has just turned 64, but looks a decade younger than his actual age. He’s lean, fit, has that trademark shock of elegantly wavy hair and is unfailingly polite. A charmer, in fact. He was still a very young man when Kenneth More, the leading light of British cinema at the time and a friend of his father, gave him a sound slice of advice. More said: “If you are charming, you don’t have to ask them [the ladies] if they want to come to bed – they ask you.”

It may be a line that he kept in the back of his mind when he was asked to play the more than plausible ladies’ man Lewis Archer in Coronation Street. Smooth, and always out for number one. “Oh, he was wonderful to play. And yes, I had terrible misgivings when I said I’d do the role. Joining the cast of a show that had been running for decades. How on earth will I fit in? But they were all amazing, all so welcoming, so very friendly. The nicest, kindest people in the world. Would I go back? In a shot. Lewis was a rogue 
with a twinkle in his eye – the sort of part that I adore.”

Having conned Gail Platt out of £40,000, Havers is rather proud of the fact that, in one set of soap awards, he was named as Villain of the Year.

He reflects: “They always say that playing villains is easy, and that playing the hero is hard, and I think that is true, to a degree. It’s all a matter of dimensions – cardboard cut-out villains are indeed a pushover to deliver. Proper ones, with a few layers to them, those are the tough and challenging ones.”

I mention to Nigel that just a few weeks earlier I was interviewing comedian and chat show host Jack Whitehall – and that he had let slip that ‘Uncle Nigel’ was his godfather. When I said in return that, I was interviewing Nigel a little later, he made me promise to pass on his fondest love and regards.

“Jack’s father Michael was my agent for well over 40 years, and we always got on so very well. It wasn’t just professional, it was a very good friendship. And when the young ’un was on his way, I was asked if I would stand as a godfather. In point of fact, I was the second or third person in the delivery room after Jack had arrived into the world, which was a huge honour.

“He’s a very dear, and very talented lad, and I hope that his career keeps on blossoming. We don’t see half as much of each other as we should do – but that’s because we are both lucky enough to be working so much of the time.”

Has he ever offered any godfatherly advice? Nigel laughs: “Don’t be ridiculous – that young man seems to be doing extremely well without me bodging up his career with a few random words of wisdom.”

Which brings us to a statement that Nigel is said to have made about himself a few years back. He was reported as saying “I am a letterbox actor”.

“What I meant was, that if a script comes through the front door, I pick it up, read it, and I say ‘yes’ to it. If it is work, it is foolish to turn it down. We all of us have bills to pay, and beggars cannot be selective choosers. Thinking about it, I don’t believe that I’ve ever said ‘no’ to any offer that has come through. And, to be equally as honest, I have no regrets about anything I’ve done. I love to work. I don’t love not to work. That’s it in a nutshell.

Currently, Nigel is touring the country in a revival of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a production which has an interesting new slant on it, for the entire cast is made up of actors “of a certain age”, and each is playing a part written for much younger performers. Alongside Nigel are stalwarts like Sian Phillips, Martin Jarvis, Rosalind Ayres, Christine Kavanagh and Nigel Anthony.

“Audiences seem to like it a lot,” he muses. “They certainly seem very intelligent, and they know the play – who, indeed, doesn’t? And it still gets the laughs in the right places”.

He’s “delighted” that one of the dates will be at the Grand Opera House in York and he’s juggling the tour with filming for a new series of the satirical send-up series A Life of Rock with Brian Pern. “I’m back as music industry executive Tony Pebble, and – as usual – we’ve been having a lot of fun. We were all delighted when the show found itself so popular that it got shifted from BBC4 to BBC2. I love it – because it’s of my era, and it is deliciously written, a beautiful parody of the music scene of the time. I think that Simon (Day) does a fantastic job as Pern.

“The angle is that Brian Pern is an ageing rock star, and that he used to front a band called Thotch. He’s a man who comes out with bizarre claims like his being the first person to have used Plasticine in a promo rock video. It’s affectionately based on the real-life Peter Gabriel, and – if you haven’t seen it – it’s all done in mock-documentary style. That means that they can weave in real-life people – like Roger Moore, John Humphreys, Rick Wakeman and Noel Edmonds – to give it that authentic feel. I love it. And if Tony Pebble is a little bit of a send-up of me, well, then I’m all for it!”

Not so long ago, he found himself as the subject of Who Do You Think You Are?, the BBC’s hugely popular genealogy and ancestral research show. Since Nigel is the son of a peer – his barrister father was ennobled when he became Lord Chancellor – and the grandson of Sir Cecil Havers, the judge who sentenced Ruth Ellis to hang after her murder trial in 1955, not to mention being the nephew of Baroness Butler-Sloss, the first female Lord Justice of Appeal, did he expect a long line of blue-blooded toffs in his family tree?

“Well, everyone says how posh I appear,” he laughs, “but I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I really didn’t. But the whole process was fascinating, and they really do take care of you on that programme. There is a surprise in every meeting, and you never know what might be revealed. In my case, it was that a distant grandma on my father’s side, a very ordinary Essex girl, married an up and coming lad who ran a Hackney carriage firm, and then later his business went bankrupt. He ended up owing what, in today’s terms, was £2.5m. On my mother’s side of the family, I found that I had Cornish roots, and that my great-great-grandfather, a miller, cheated on his wife and made a servant girl pregnant. He was a bit of a cad, in other words, and I’ve been playing those parts for years.

“Sadly, the girl in question lost her baby just after it was born. But the good thing is that she wasn’t rejected and made an outsider. On the contrary, the family accepted her as one of their own, which certainly wasn’t common in those Victorian times. But yes, I do think that there are things that are ‘in the blood’, genes that are passed down from generation to generation.

“There’s something of all those people in me, and that’s a pretty sobering thought.”

The Importance of Being Earnest, Grand Opera House, York, November 17 to 21; 0844 871 3024, atgtickets.com

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