The Big Interview: Sir Derek Jacobi

He’s played all of Shakespeare’s greats, so why was Sir Derek Jacobi so keen to take on the role of a down-to-earth Yorkshireman? He tells Phil Penfold.

Sir Derek Jacobi

He has worked on some of the world’s most prestigious stages, and in some of the most exotic locations. So an industrial estate out on the edge of Bolton has to be, well… how would Sir Derek Jacobi describe it? He looks around him – we are in a tiny, sparsely furnished, white-walled room, a production office only yards from today’s set – and he gives a little smile, glances about, and thinks for a second or two. “Different,” he says, “decidedly different.”

Sir Derek is back in the north to make series two of Last Tango in Halifax, alongside (among others) Anne Reid and Sarah Lancashire. So why Bolton? “Well,” he explains patiently, “while all the exteriors are filmed in or near Halifax, most of the interiors are shot on this side of the Pennines, because this is a very good new facility. So – because of the magic of film and television – you can see Anne and me walking off the moorland track in Yorkshire and into the farm building, which is here in Lancashire, and hopefully no-one will notice the seams and joins. Things have changed a lot, haven’t they? Not so many years ago, I’d be always working in studios like the ones at Yorkshire Television, or at TV Centre in London, or Granada in Manchester, and one did so little location work. Today, any warehouse can be made into a studio.”

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Jacobi, now a sprightly 74, is still working as hard as ever. But he claims that he is slightly perplexed.

“I did actually think that life might get a little quieter, and the offers get a little bit less frequent as anno domini advanced. And it was, I have to admit, a total surprise when they offered me the part of Alan Buttershaw last year, because he’s a Yorkshireman, he’s a working man, and he’s very down to earth, and I simply do not get offers like that – all I’ve seemed to get, throughout my career, is what I’ll call the ‘posh parts’.

“Don’t ask me why, because I’m an East End lad, and my family was anything but upper class. Dad was a tobacconist in Chingford, mum worked in a draper’s shop and yet I’ve spent the years playing emperors, aristocrats, friends to kings and princes, Shakespearean nobles...”

What he loves about Last Tango, he says, is the sheer quality of Sally Wainwright’s writing. Last Tango was inspired by Wainwright seeing her mother’s happiness in a second marriage in her later years, and in the series Alan finds love rekindled with Celia Dawson, a woman with whom he once had a relationship 50 years earlier.

“There are a lot of people out there, many thousands of them, who know for a fact that love, enjoying yourself, and wanting companionship doesn’t stop when you reach 40,” says Jacobi. “There is a lot of life in some of us older dogs, and there’s an audience to watch older people on screen leading interesting lives. There’s a lot of ageism in television and in films, so few parts written for older actors – many writers seem to think that you are over the hill and as dull as ditchwater the moment that you turn 30. Even earlier. As Anne said in her very good speech at the BAFTAs earlier in the year, older people are treated appallingly by the media….”

Ah yes, those BAFTAs... a glittering occasion to be thoroughly enjoyed? Jacobi rolls his eyes in mock despair and says: “I spent most of the evening bored out of my skull. It is tedium stretched out to infinity. Trust me, I know. There were four nominations in all for Last Tango, and the first was for Best Series, which we won, and we were, of course, delighted. We all traipsed up on to stage, and Anne, bless her made her speech when we all declined the honour and pushed her forward. She’s very good at things like that. Then we spent the rest of the evening gracefully losing.”

If he finds awards ceremonies a little dull, he finds watching his own work even more of a struggle to sit through, albeit for different reasons

“I never ever watch the rushes, the footage we’ve shot that day. It’s as much as I can do to be persuaded to sit through the full, finished article, and even then I find it very painful.”

The first series ended just after Alan suffered a heart attack. The next will pick up where it left off with him and Celia booking a date at Halifax Registry Office.

In real life, Derek has been with his partner Richard Clifford, the stage director, for nearly 40 years, and they had a civil partnership six years ago. “Partnership is a good word,” he says, “It’s a perfect way to describe it.”

He wasn’t an academic child, he reflects, “but I was a swot, and I was lucky enough to go to Leyton County High School, and met quite a few teachers who were inspirational in their own way. I adored school and my parents were very supportive – I had, I think, a very happy childhood. One master, an English teacher called Mr Brown, was so supportive that he put me into a production of Hamlet, which was taken to Edinburgh that year, and I got a bit of attention. It certainly didn’t hinder my ambitions to go to university, and I got a scholarship place at St. John’s, Cambridge, to read history.”

Contemporaries while he was there were John Bird and Trevor Nunn, and he recalls his 21st birthday party, thrown by his mum and dad, with another fond smile. “At one end of the room were all my friends from Leytonstone, and at the other were my friends from college – Eleanor Bron, David Frost, Ian McKellen... there wasn’t a lot of what you might call ‘mixing’ going on!”

He and McKellen have been good friends ever since, and earlier in the year starred in the TV sitcom (“that was another first, I’ve never been in a sitcom before”) Vicious, about two ageing gay actors at the end of their careers. It got what could be called “a mixed reception” from audiences and critics alike.

“Yes, well, it could be called ‘Marmite television’, couldn’t it? You either liked it or you loathed it.” And, he adds, if there is another series made, it will be widened out from the single set of the home, and into exterior scenes.

He was acclaimed as the best Hamlet of his generation, and has played all the Shakespeare greats. He went from university to Birmingham Rep, from the Rep to the fledgling National Theatre, after he’d been spotted by Laurence Olivier, and he has rarely been out of work ever since. Half a century of memorable parts, superbly judged performances. But still, the one that everyone of a certain age recalls was his stuttering, lame Emperor, in the landmark I, Claudius, which was re-screened in its entirety earlier this year.

“People have been asking me if the wedding in Last Tango is the first time that I have been married on screen, and the answer is no, it isn’t. Claudius was married in that earlier series (it was in 1976, can you believe it?) and to a giantess. I certainly couldn’t forget that particular scene.

“I have so many wonderful memories of that experience, and it is sad that a lot of the actors that one worked with are now no longer with us, but I had lunch only the other Sunday with the glorious Sian Phillips, who played Livia, and we shared a lot of laughs and many, many stories. Happy days. Now that, you see, was all shot indoors, at BBC TV Centre (so tragic that that has now gone as well) and there wasn’t a single moment outside the studio.

“The budget was next to nothing, and yet it looked glorious. I don’t know how Herbie (Herbert Wise, the director) did it, to be honest. He’s still very active, in his 80s, and when I watched the re-runs, I rang him to congratulate him all over again. I watched most of the recent screenings, and, this is really weird, I found that I could remember all my lines – I knew instinctively what was coming next.

“When I made Gladiator, with Russell Crowe in Malta a couple of years back, they recreated the entire Roman Forum and the Colosseum, and it looked just like the real thing. Life size, no expense spared. For I, Claudius, we were standing on painted plyboard, a few feet in the air, with yellow tape on the studio floor to show us where to stand. Very clever camera work and set design, let’s say that!

“There’s a rumour that it will be re-made, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Claudius, and that is going to be interesting if it happens. And I shall definitely be wanting a walk-on part!”

He did, he says, get recognised a lot when Claudius first aired. “People used to shout ‘Hail Caesar!’ across the aisles in Sainsbury’s, that sort of thing. I don’t get much of it these days. I admired the classy sort of fame that Olivier had – he was known the world over by totally unrecognisable in the street. I once went from London to Bradford with him on the train, and no-one flickered an eyelid. He was just an ordinary bloke… that’s the sort of thing that I like to do. Blend in.”

In down time, he gardens, he reads, “and I lean on walls and stare into the distance. I don’t blog, I don’t Facebook, I don’t Twitter. I’ve just dragged myself into understanding and being able to send and receive e-mails. Social media? Don’t be silly!” And he gives another one of his bewitching smiles just as someone taps on the door and says: “Wanted on the set, Derek….”

Last Tango in Halifax is due to be back on television screens later this autumn.