Interview: Martin Jarvis

Martin Jarvis
Martin Jarvis
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The best way to do an interview is, obviously, face to face. It gives you the chance to get a sense of the real person, look into their eyes and see what they are really like. It seems appropriate, however, to interview Martin Jarvis on the telephone.

His face is famous – from roles in television series from The Forsyte Saga to EastEnders by way of Doctor Who and Nicholas Nickelby and from movies including James Cameron’s Titanic – but by his voice do we know him.

Chances are you will recognise his face from all manner of different productions, films, television, stage, but it is on the radio that Jarvis is ubiquitous.

He is so ubiquitous, in fact, that he became the butt of a joke on Radio Four’s Dead Ringers programme which mocked that very ubiquity. High praise indeed.

It takes all of a few seconds on the phone to him to grasp why Jarvis is the go-to guy for radio work – and why he has been for most of his acting life.

His voice is wonderful. It does not have the gravity of Christopher Lee, nor the deep, sonorous quality of Patrick Stewart, but it is lovely to listen to.

As the stories pour forth – and they really, really do pour forth – he begins to do something that absolutely confirms that there is no-one better at what he does for radio (which includes reading books, as well as giving voice to plays) – he begins to imitate voices. Gielgud, David Mamet, Gregory Peck. Yet, they are not straight-forward impressions, but give more of a sense of a whole person. It is like a performance coming straight down the telephone line.

This voice will be put to its best effect when the actor visits Sheffield next week to narrate a piece of work about Franz Liszt.

“It’s not a theatre performance, or a straight concert, but, well, I think it’s best described as a ‘happening’,” says a delighted Jarvis.

The “happening” is called Franz Liszt: Odyssey of Love in which acclaimed pianist Lucy Parham plays the music of the Hungarian composer, while Jarvis and fellow actor Joanna David read from the love letters and tell stories of the fascinating man.

“He says himself that he went through his life ‘suited only for loving’ and that as a lover he had been ‘more ardent than constant’,” says Jarvis. “It is an absolute joy of a show.”

The performance has popped up in various concert halls in Britain and has also been seen in America, where Jarvis spends a great deal of his time. Indeed, when we speak he is suffering from jet lag, it being less than a day since he returned from his latest trip to the States, where he was working on David Mamet’s as yet untitled film about Phil Spector. The movie stars Al Pacino as Spector and Helen Mirren as a lawyer.

Recounting being on set is the starting point for an hour full of wonderful stories from a man absolutely steeped in acting history and who appears to know everybody.

At the end of our conversation he says: “Oh my lovely friend Tim Pigott-Smith is in Lear up there at the minute – if you see him, do send my love” (Pigott-Smith is currently performing the lead in King Lear at West Yorkshire Playhouse).

Picking up the story of the Spector movie, he says: “David Mamet rang me – I’m the only English character in the film – and he said (and the voice really is a wonderfully perfect imitation) ‘listen, when shall we call this character?’ He’s the man from the BBC and I said ‘I don’t know – Nigel?’. David paused and said ‘Right, Nigel it is’. And put the phone down.”

RADA training was where the journey began for Jarvis, who went into theatre almost immediately on graduating – and as a working actor appearing in shows in the evening, thought it was a great opportunity to start doing radio parts during the day to make more money.

It was a lucrative trade and he has spent the past quarter of a century voicing his own abridgements of the Just William books for Radio Four.

His illustrious career was bookmarked in 2000 with an OBE.

As well as acting, through his own company, Jarvis and Ayres, which he runs with his wife Rosalind Ayres, he has also produced a number of radio plays, one of which led him to work with the legendary Gregory Peck.

“We were producing a radio play of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciples and we really needed someone to headline the piece as the narrator,” says Jarvis.

“I could have done it myself, but I really wanted someone else. My old friend Michael York suggested I call Gregory Peck. He gave me his number, I called, explained what we wanted to do and he said (there is another pause while Jarvis’s voice prepares itself for another performance) “Martin. I think I would like to do that. I don’t get my breath too well these days. Can we record it at my home. In short bursts?”.

“I would have done anything to work with him, so we took a unit and spent the most wonderful day with him. It was the last performance he gave before dying.”

There is another amazing story, with an equally stunning imitation – this time of John Gielgud, who Jarvis appeared on stage with for a reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost at York Theatre Royal.

There are stories of Judi Dench, with whom he acted very early on in both their careers, stories of learning his craft in radio acting alongside Donald Pleasance.

In a way, I feel sorry that the people in Sheffield next week will get to hear him tell stories of Liszt and not his own.

That said, the voice telling the stories will probably make up for any disappointment.

Franz Liszt: Odyssey of Love, Organised by the Department of Music, University of Sheffield is at the Upper Chapel, Sheffield, on Oct 18. Tickets on 0114 256 5567.