He settles down into his chair in a room in one of London’s swankiest hotels. It’s the sort of place which, if you were foolish enough to ask the price of a room (or even the price of a drink in its famed American Bar) the likelihood is you would not have the cash to stay there.
Sir Tom Courtenay looks at ease, but The Savoy is clearly not one of his regular stomping grounds. He’d obviously far rather be at home in Putney with his wife Isabel (whom he met while working at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester) or on a film set somewhere, or maybe on the stage. And he doesn’t use that title much, either.
“I thought that when I was knighted it might lead to a few more parts,” he sighs. “It hasn’t.”
On the set of his latest film, Gambit – in which he stars alongside Cameron Diaz, Colin Firth and Alan Rickman – he reveals the rest of the cast “were all rather cheeky to me – and me, a Knight of the Realm.” He rolls his eyes in a pantomime of wonderful mock horror combined with sheer indignance, before adding, “I never use it. Few people do. Oh, one or two rather officious people, perhaps…”
Courtenay, 76, next February, the lad from Harrow Street in Hull, has had a busy time of it recently. For much of last year he was out on tour with his one-man play Larkin About – based on the poems and diaries of another Hull figure, Philip Larkin – and then he made two British films, one for first-time director Dustin Hoffman, and the other for Michael Hoffman. The first, Quartet, is based on the play by Coutenay’s long-term friend Ronald Harwood, who also scripted The Dresser, and the second, a remake of the crime caper Gambit. In Quartet he appears with Dame Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly and Sheridan Smith in her first major film role.
It is half a century now since the young Courtenay became a star with his performances in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and then Billy Liar. He’d played the latter on the London stage, taking over from his old mate Albert Finney, and the subsequent film made audiences even more aware of the fact that a good many of the population of the British Isles didn’t speak received pronunciation.
“I never thought, in all honesty, that it would last this long. Truly I didn’t. But, if you are lucky, you keep on getting re-discovered by another generation.
“I think Michael (Hoffman) saw me in something on telly, I think it was when I played Mr Dorrit in Little Dorrit a few years back, and he thought that I might be suitable for the Major in Gambit. Quartet was something different, because Albert and I had always wanted to make a big screen version of Ronnie’s lovely play, which we’d both seen on stage years ago, back in 1999. I don’t think that it was a brilliant success in the West End, but it had something to say, and it has a lovely ending – Ronnie has re-worked it all for the screen. And, of course, Albert and I being mates, we’d always wanted to work together again after The Dresser.”
Finney had every intention of co-starring in Quartet, but then backed out at the last moment (a more lucrative offer from the makers of the new Bond, Skyfall, just might have had something to do with it) and Michael Gambon was cast in his place. It is said by some that Gambon and Courtenay did not get on together that well. If that is indeed the case, Sir Tom is too much of a gentleman to say so.
“Quartet is a bitter-sweet story about a lot of elderly performers who are now retired, and who are spending their declining years in a home. They put on a yearly show to raise funds for the place and then comes a fly in the ointment – the arrival of an opera singer who has a hideous reputation as a diva par excellence. And she is played so wonderfully well by Dame Maggie.
“The complication is that my character, Reginald, was once married to Maggie’s, and the separation and divorce was extremely messy. At first, they just can’t stand being in the room together, but then things turn out rather differently.
“What made it a joy to do was that nearly all the cast were genuine 100 per cent performers of ‘a certain age’.
“There were singers, musicians, actors, all still very talented who hadn’t had a phone call to offer them work for years. Which is, quite simply, a tragedy. A waste. Disgraceful, really.
“It was a set filled with music, and singing, and laughter, and a LOT of stories! Going to work every day to be with them was a pleasure – I actually looked forward to it.” There’s a pause, and he murmurs: “That isn’t always the case, you know,” but he won’t be drawn any further.
He believes that “There is a huge audience out there for films about people who aren’t teenagers or in their early 20s, driving fast cars and smashing things up all the time. I’m not saying that every film should be a Quartet, but that there is a niche for films like it. And I do feel that the older people, the older audience are neglected when it comes to film – but, get a film like Judi Dench’s Marigold Hotel, and the audiences will come. They are there, just waiting to be tempted”.
Courtenay is one of those most chameleon-like of actors who would blend effortlessly into a crowd. He’s dressed immaculately today in a pressed blue shirt, and matching blazer, trousers and highly-polished shoes, but, when later he saunters through the lobby of the hotel, hardly anyone turns to look.
He doesn’t read his reviews, he confides, “I stopped when someone said (of a stage performance) that ‘he staggers about like an unlicked foal’. Another read ‘the most over-estimated young actor in the country’, which someone went and unkindly stuck on my dressing room mirror one night. That was quite enough.”
The plot of Gambit is all about a conman (Firth) trying to convince odious media tycoon (Rickman) that a Monet looted in wartime has been rediscovered in Texas. Courtenay plays Firth’s right-hand man, Major Wingate, who has served in the African Rifles, and who has newly discovered a talent for painting – particularly painting Old Masters. He is, in fact, an expert and accomplished forger.
Courtenay doesn’t hesitate a second when he’s asked what famous painting he covets.
“A Vermeer”, he says, “that one of the young maid, pouring the milk. It’s exquisite, a true masterpiece, I could gaze on it all day. But it’s so precious, so valuable, well, you could never ever insure it properly, could you – and the security that you’d have to have. You’d just have to put it in a bank vault, wouldn’t you? Far better to have it in a gallery, and let the entire world enjoy it…”
He hit it off splendidly with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz, with whom he has most of his scenes. “Colin, well, what you see is what you get. A complete gentleman, and very courteous to everyone.”
Earlier in his career, stage was his first love, but he admits to having become accustomed to all the hanging around which film inevitably entails.
“As one gets older, you just get resigned to it all, and, really how can one complain about sitting in a comfortable chair, in a nice warm caravan, and having everyone being so attentive – there are a lot of people of my age who are far worse off, and I am so grateful to be even asked to do things. I was brought up to count my blessings, and I do. Every day.
“However, I will say one thing – comedy is very hard to do on screen. It’s much easier in front of a live audience. Film is, shall we say, not conducive to comedy and spontaneity – film is a precision process.”
He loves one scene in Gambit “where Colin is confronted by a lion. A real, live lion. Which was all of, oh, 5ft or less away from him.
“Of course, they took all the precautions that they could, but you could see the look on Colin’s face as the lion approached.
“When the first take was over he went across to the lion’s tamer, and he asked ‘And you are absolutely sure that that lion is tame?’
“And the bloke replied ‘Oh yeah. No worries. He’s pretty tame. For a lion’.”
Courtenay has never been an ambitious man, even though his diary is full.
“Even when I was starting out. Fame came very early to me, for what it was worth, but all I ever felt was ‘just get out there and do it’, which is what I would tell any young actor today.”
Directing isn’t on the cards – at all. “No,” he says firmly. “No. Definitely not. I couldn’t bear to be sitting there, as a director, and watching a lot of actors in front of me, none of whom can remember their words.”
He does, however, quite like writing, and has kept diaries about films he has made. He also wrote the best-selling Dear Tom – Letters From Home, in which he told of his childhood and his life until his big breaks, using the letters that his parents sent him over the years.
His mother’s voice comes shining through. She sounds a remarkable woman – and sadly, she did not live long enough to enjoy her only son’s enduring success.
Sir Tom’s face softens at the recollection. “Remarkable,” he says softly, “yes, remarkable. In every way.”