Will of iron

Mary Comerford

Jeremy Irons has enjoyed an Oscar-winning film career but he’s returning to his roots as he tackles one of Shakespeare’s most acclaimed history plays in a new BBC adaptation of Henry IV, writes Mary Comerford

Jeremy Irons was a relative unknown when he landed the part of Charles Ryder in Granada’s landmark 1981 series Brideshead Revisited alongside such greats as Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. Virtually overnight he became a household name and embarked on a successful movie career, starting with The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which inevitably took him away from TV.

But now he’s back on the BBC for the first time in years. Following his triumph in The Borgias on Sky Atlantic, he’s heading the cast of Henry IV Parts I and II in BBC2′s The Hollow Crown, a cycle of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays which have been adapted and filmed by three of Britain’s top theatre directors in a nod to the Cultural Olympiad.

With Richard Eyre at the helm (Rupert Goold and Thea Sharrock complete the trio), it’s easy to see why Irons was tempted. Add to that a superb supporting cast including Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal and Simon Russell Beale, not to mention the power of the play itself, and you have an irresistible package.

“I haven’t done Shakespeare for quite a long time and you forget how wonderfully fertile his language is,” says the 63-year-old actor who trained at Bristol Old Vic and appeared in many London productions including Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew and Richard II. “When you’ve been used to working on film where language is very spare and often not very well written, it’s like picking up a Stradivarius. You think, ‘God, that sounds wonderful – I must learn to play it’.”

And play it he does over the course of the two films. On set in a snowy field in Buckinghamshire earlier this year, with actors in chain mail noisily re-enacting the Battle of Shrewsbury nearby, he cuts a distinctive figure in worn beige cords, buckled riding boots, red sweater and tweed cap. He may have an Oscar in the trophy cabinet for his portrayal of Claus Von Bulow in the 1990 film Reversal of Fortune, but there’s nothing flashy Hollywood about Irons who has been married to Sinead Cusack for more than 30 years.

He readily admits that the challenging economic situation has had an impact on the work he’s offered and, like many film actors these days, is looking more to TV for opportunities.

“The sort of pictures I made are not made very easily now – what I call the £8 million to £30 million movies. The £200 million films are getting made and so are the £1.5 million ones, but the middle ones are finding it very hard. I’ve been watching all the TV series like Mad Men, The Wire and Damages, and, apart from the fact you see all your mates there, it’s such good writing. So if I wanted to keep working, it was inevitable really.”

Neil Jordan snapped him up to play the lead in The Borgias (Sky Atlantic), a piece of inspired casting and yet it is a million miles from the Shakespeare. So what’s it like getting back to the Bard after all these years? “It’s like driving an Aston Martin. You think, ‘Oh yes, this can do anything once I get to know how to do it’. But once you’ve done some of the big roles, even though you might not have done it for some years, you know the possibilities. You know you’re looking to make it sound completely colloquial and understandable to an audience so it [the language] doesn’t act as a barrier.”

He credits Richard Eyre for adapting the play so it will appeal to a wide audience including viewers who may never have seen Shakespeare before.

“He’s taken out all the, I don’t want to say dross because it’s wonderful language, but all the verbiage that isn’t necessary for telling the story. I suppose many audiences, in Stratford for instance, who are used to Shakespeare would enjoy that, but as far as straight storytelling is concerned, you don’t need it. You don’t notice it’s gone until you read the play and, as well as the characters being fantastically coloured, there are great visuals.”

As if on cue, a tumultuous battle cry goes up outside the temporary catering marquee where he’s chatting as actors on horses brandishing a variety of brutal looking weapons, charge into the fray. The impressive action scenes are just one part of the films which also tackle issues ranging from kingship to family strife. While Henry is racked with guilt over deposing his predecessor and also faces rebellion by discontented nobles, the heart of the play concerns the strained relationship between Henry and his wayward son Prince Hal and that’s what interests Irons most.

“Shakespeare writes a relationship which isn’t based on history at all between the son who is out living life as every adolescent, behaving wildly, sowing his wild oats, having a ball, and a father who is feeling insecure and wants support,” says Irons. “It’s the normal battle between fathers and sons, fathers wanting their sons to be themselves, in their image.”

Irons’ son Max, 26, may not be the image of his father. “He looks like his mother, in fact Tom [Hiddleston] looks more like me,” he laughs, but the promising actor is certainly following in the family business, although the pair have no plans to share a screen just yet. “It’s strange because people are always suggesting it. My instinct at the moment and his, is not to appear to be riding on my back. I think it’s very important that, like Hal, he makes his own way. Once he’s really made his mark then maybe we could play father and son, except he doesn’t look very like me.”

Like any parent he’s proud of his son’s achievement, particularly in such a precarious business, but admits he and Cusack were worried by Max’s choice of career at first. “We were both a little concerned because he has two relatively successful parents in the business and I want him to realise that for most actors it’s not like that. But he is determined. He has very lavish tastes so he had better be successful. He’s certainly a lot better than I was at his age. Of course, what you want for your children is for them to have a passion,” says Irons, whose older son Sam, 33, is a photographer. “You see so many young people who either don’t have a passion or have a passion to be famous or rich.”

As for his own passions, he reels off a long list before the question is even finished. “I love down time because there are many other things I love doing. I’ve always been a doer-upper of things. In the early days it was furniture, then it became houses and now I have a boat and horses. One stage in my career, during my 30s, I had to go to work and I remember leaving the house and thinking why the hell have I got to go to work, there is so much I want to get done. And then I thought, careful – you have to work in order to support the life you want to live.”

* The Hollow Crown began on BBC2 on June 30. Henry IV Part I is on Saturday (July 7) at 9pm and Part II is on July 14

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