Where do you go when you are heading the cast of a drama set in a courtroom? For Tom Conti, the answer was perfectly obvious. A couple of years back, he found himself cast as a crusading TV journalist, who found himself in the dock. Tom recalls: “So I did what seemed totally natural. I went off to the Old Bailey, and I sat and I watched the proceedings, day after day, to get a flavour of what it was all about. I have to say that some of it was pretty gory, and there were some gruesome details disclosed. But in between all that ‘excitement’, there were some long and very boring passages that were just plain tiresome….”
He laughs: “Clearly, you can’t have those bits played out on stage, otherwise you’d be sending the audience off to sleep. So a playwright takes the best moments, and distils them into his narrative.”
But that wasn’t Tom’s first experience of the legal process. He’s now 73, and we have to go back over 60 years to when the 10-year-old Tom went to court in Scotland (he was born in Paisley and raised in Glasgow) after he and a young chum discovered some abandoned goods in a local wood.
“Being two very well-brought-up youngsters, we knew that our duty was to go to the local police station, and to report our find,” he recalls, “and then, later, we were asked to go and repeat our story in the court…the only thing I really remember is that I felt rather sorry for the man who was on trial for the burglary. He looked so very miserable.”
It will be a totally different perspective on the long arm of the law when Tom arrives in Yorkshire with a revival of the Fifties classic, Twelve Angry Men, which started life as a US TV drama, was adapted for the stage, and then became a huge hit film with Henry Fonda.
“The strange thing is,” muses Tom – based at home in North London for a few days – “that a lot of people will remember Mr Fonda’s scene-stealing performance in the movie and quite rightly so, but very few can recall what the plot is, and how it twists and develops.
Go away and do something useful. Anything but acting. There are more than 80,000 actors in Britain and only a few hundred are in work. I’ve been monumentally lucky with my career.
“I’ve met people after the show who have said that they were mystified as to how everything turns out – and that they’d seen the film, ages back, but couldn’t remember the ending at all.
“So, in effect, we are delivering something that is very fresh. It is very much a glimpse into a world where relatively few of us will ever go. The closed room where a jury deliberates. A peek into the sanctum sanctorum,
He reflects: “Angry Men is all about conscience – doing the right thing, making sure that justice is done. I rather like that.”
Conscience bit the teenage Conti hard at one point.
He explains: “I went out and got a part-time job, and I was sent out to sell encyclopaedias with another lad. The training was incredible – we were given an intense spiel on what to say, how to get the customers sign on the dotted line. And the area where which we had to target was dirt poor. Not a penny to rub together. We were told that we should say things like, ‘Would you really prefer a new washing machine or a TV, instead of the incredible knowledge that your children will get from these books?’ That, of course, made the poor potential buyers squirm a little. More than a little. And the net result was that we managed to off-load several sets of the blasted things, all on a pay-as-you-go scheme.”
He rolls his eyes, just thinking about it all. “Anyway, we got on the bus back to the office feeling rather pleased with ourselves. But that pretty soon wore off, and – it was incredible, total synchronisation – the other guy and I looked at each other, and we said ‘You know what we’ve done, don’t you?’ and we got off that bus, got the next one back to the estate, and we went and knocked on every door again, begging every successful sale to let us have the bloody things back.”
The tour of Twelve Angry Men takes Conti up and down the country for many months to come. So how does he fill his time before matinees and the evening performances? Is he a man given to exploring galleries and museums? Does he pack his golf clubs and have a round or two?
“No,” he says, “we all do very different things. I’m forever seeking out antique shops and centres, places where I can find interesting buys and sometimes the odd bargain. It happens – only the other week I discovered a pair of rather nice Victorian chairs, which are now here, back with me.”
It was said, a few years ago, that he might be persuaded to stand as the Conservative candidate in the London mayoral elections. Is that true?
“It is. Completely accurate. I was definitely up for it. Very much so. But then I was persuaded not to. After a lot of consideration, I decided that it would be too much – not for me, mind you, but for my family and friends. If I’d been elected, then the searchlight would have been on me – and perhaps more importantly, them – 24 hours a day. You are never out of it, it’s relentless. I think I could have done a decent job, but….”
He pauses and adds: “Being an actor in the spotlight is a bit different, you’re only in it for just a short time every day. I don’t regret my decision”.
Over a long career, Conti has starred in dozens of high-profile films and TV dramas. His big break was in television’s The Glittering Prizes, but he started out in repertory theatre in Glasgow, earning not much more than about £8 a week.
“What a learning curve it was. We were doing a new play every week or so, and you had to learn lines fast. You saw how productions came together, and you got your craft together. There wasn’t a pause. And, of course, there were a lot of very good writers developing some excellent new plays. If one of them was successful, it was picked up by other theatres, and the author could see it with different casts, different scenery, different lighting. That doesn’t happen these days, and that’s a terrible shame.”
In fact, he says, when he’s asked for advice from aspiring young actors, his reply is concise. “It’s just one word. Don’t. Go away and do something useful. Be a carpenter – wood is a beautiful thing to work with – or be an engineer. Go and train as a doctor – or a nurse. Anything but acting. It’s a terrible profession. There are more than 80,000 actors in Britain today, and only a few hundred of them are in work at any one time. And that is a depressing statistic. I’ve been monumentally lucky with my career, such as it is, but a lot of others haven’t had that good fortune. I’ve had two very good, very close friends who committed suicide because they felt that they were washed up, and useless. Others turn to drink, and hit the bottle. Go away and make something of your life.”
He and his wife Kara were “completely dismayed”, when their daughter Nina told them that she too wanted to be an actress.
“We were dumbfounded. We told her that it simply wasn’t a good idea. And, to be fair, she did heed what we said – for a while – and went to train for the law, to be a barrister. After a year she came and told us ‘Listen, mum, dad, if I go on with this any more, it will drive me insane’.
“So off she went to the RSC, and that nearly drove her nuts as well. Her salvation came when her then partner gave her a box of bits and pieces, and there at the bottom was a beaten-up old ventriloquist’s dummy. She was off and away.”
The daughter in question is, of course, the celebrated vent act Nina Conti, whose most famous creation is the acerbic and potty-mouthed Granny.
Tom’s many films include Dark Knight Riding, Rueben, Rueben, and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. He’s won awards. Appeared on Broadway, had a career at the top for many decades. But the one film that he will always be remembered for is Shirley Valentine, in which he starred opposite Pauline Collins.
He was Costas, the Greek with whom Shirley found romance away from her humdrum Liverpool life.
“I think that Pauline and I had a bit of chemistry,” he says, “and of course Willie Russell’s writing was first rate. I’ve always thought that we could have got a sequel out of it, but when I asked Willie about that, he told me that for him, Pauline and I were now Shirley and Costas, and that if he wrote any more, he’d be writing for us and not objectively. So it was not to be.
“But I always wondered what happened to Costas. I think that, after years of womanising, he became really tired, very bored. And very lonely. And that he left the Greek sunshine behind, and came to the UK, and went to Merseyside, to try and find the woman who he finally realised was the love of his life. What happened? Well, we’ll never know, now, shall we?”
• Twelve Angry Men will be at the Grand Theatre, Leeds from April 6 to 11. 0844 848 2700, www.leedsgrandtheatre.com; Grand Opera House, York, from April 13 to 18. 0844 871 3024, www.atgtickets.com