Coming from an acting dynasty has been a double-edged sword in Samuel West’s career. The actor and director tells Nick Smurthwaite about being typecast in posh roles, why directing is more challenging than performing and how cuts to arts education funding will have a devastating effect on the theatremakers of the future
Being born into a theatrical family – he is a fourth-generation actor – has always been a mixed blessing for Samuel West. On the one hand, acting is in his bones, on the other, he has had a lot to live up to.
His parents, Timothy West and Prunella Scales – high-achieving actors for decades – have recently ascended to national treasure status as a result of their award-winning and hugely popular Channel 4 series, Great Canal Journeys, now curtailed due to Scales’ health issues.
Growing up in a house of working actors can’t have been easy for a shy boy who liked trainspotting and collecting stamps, although West insists, during a rehearsal break from The Watsons, that he never held their frequent absences from the family home against them.
“My parents were both very busy in the mid-1970s and I’d like to have seen more of them but I don’t hold it against them, they were just going where the work was,” he says. “I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to make sense of being the fourth generation of a family of actors, and knowing that most of my talents are simply the result of an accident of birth. I don’t remember ever making a conscious decision to act. I was quite shy as a child. I never had that precocity or bravery that enables children to act at school. I seldom got the parts I auditioned for [at Alleyn’s School in Dulwich] and I don’t think I was very good in the ones I did get.”
It didn’t stop him. Aged 19, he played the 15-year-old schoolboy Taplow in a 1985 production of The Browning Version at Birmingham Rep, which his grandfather, the actor Lockwood West, saw and commended.
But it wasn’t until he got into Oxford to study English literature that West really found his theatrical mojo. “Quite early on I won an acting award for being in a Pinter play in the Oxford Cuppers, a drama competition for freshers. The award was given to me by Katie Mitchell [also a student at the time], who I’ve idolised ever since.”
After leaving Oxford, where he became a member of the Socialist Workers Party as well as chair of the Experimental Theatre Club, West was turned down for a postgraduate course at Bristol Old Vic Drama School, but offered a place on a similar course at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.
At the last minute, he landed the role of a 17-year-old German aristocrat in the 1989 feature film Reunion, directed by Jerry Schatzberg, written by Harold Pinter and starring Jason Robards, which was entered for that year’s Cannes Film Festival. That was quickly followed by the role of King Caspian in the BBC’s 1990 adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia.
So he never got to go to drama school. Is that a cause for regret? “[At the time] it felt as if I was being paid to stay away from drama school. Basically, I see drama school as a process of making a tit of yourself in front of people who love you but don’t really care – it takes you a lot longer to get rid of the self-consciousness I felt for a long time.”
The key role of the downtrodden clerk Leonard Bast in the 1992 Merchant-Ivory film Howard’s End put West on the map, garnering him a BAFTA nomination for best supporting actor.
“It’s the only film I’ve ever made that people have seen,” he jokes. “I feel proud of being in it. After it came out I didn’t work for six months. The first job I did after Howard’s End was a four-day run of a verse drama by Lord Byron at the newly opened Minerva Theatre in Chichester. I think the casting people were confused because I’d played a lower-middle-class character in Howard’s End, then they’d meet me and think I was posh.”
His RP diction and easy fluency has landed him a string of voice-overs for television documentaries over the past decade and may have influenced casting directors on TV and film too. In recent years, he has played many politicians and establishment figures including, memorably, Anthony Eden, Churchill’s successor, in the film The Darkest Hour. “I always seem to get cast as Tory MPs, never anyone from Labour, my own political persuasion.” He adds: “I’ve always tried to be classless as an actor, but if you play enough posh people, you’re going to be thought of as posh.”
In 2005, West, then 39, took a break from acting to become, perhaps surprisingly, artistic director of Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre, where he remained for two seasons, leaving when the theatre was closed for a major refurbishment. For the duration of the closure, West had hoped to stage Crucible productions in other locations in Sheffield, but it did not prove to be possible, so he quit.
Fourteen years on, does he hanker after another artistic director job? “It’s different now. I would want my children to be 10 years older and it would need to be London based,” he says, adding: “If you put the Almeida Theatre on the table I’d be sorely tempted to go for it.”
The same applies to his erstwhile political aspirations that have been simmering on the back burner for years. In the 2000s, he was approached to stand for parliament more than once.
“I didn’t feel qualified to do it at the time,” West says, adding that he wondered if his past life would have survived the scrutiny.
“Now, I wouldn’t make a great constituency MP because I don’t want to be away from my family. Besides, nobody really thinks that parliament is in charge of anything any more, though there has been a principled fight in the last month to prove that it still can be.
“I will try to lend my name or presence to things I care about. I’m very shouty on Twitter, and that can often feel like you’re doing something.
“I don’t share Jeremy Corbyn’s mistrust of the EU,” he continues. “The country is catastrophically divided over this issue in a way that’s been inflamed by the mainstream media. There is now a deep chasm in the country and it’s hard to see where the healing will come from. It’s no great secret that almost everyone who works in the creative industries advocated for Remain. In a selfish way, being part of Europe helps us professionally. I don’t want my ideas, or my collaborations, to stop at borders. I like the idea of being able to go off and do a couple of days filming in Prague without having to sort out a visa.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Washing up at the International Musicians Seminar in Prussia Cove, Cornwall.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Taplow in The Browning Version for Birmingham Rep in 1985.
What’s your next job?
Playing Siegfried Farnon in a TV remake of All Creatures Great and Small.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Even in an established career, it can be a long time between jobs. Friends and birdwatching help. Also, success is not the same thing as achievement.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My parents. I inherited a slightly worthy idea of acting as craft from Ma, and the conviction that it was just a job from Da.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t learn it too well, be flexible. Read the whole play.
If you hadn’t been an actor and director, what would you have been?
I wish my further maths had been good enough to study astrophysics. In my dreams I get to conduct an orchestra.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
When going on stage I always turn my dressing room lights off, especially if someone else is still in there.
As an actor, West’s credits stretch back to the late 1980s and are many and varied, covering film, TV, stage and radio. He reveals he is about to start work on a three-month TV acting job, playing the vet Siegfried Farnon – the role made famous by Robert Hardy – in a remake of All Creatures Great and Small, based on the books by James Herriott.
Standout stage roles include playing Hamlet in a well-received production for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001 – “sardonic, clever and cruelly aware of his own powerlessness,” wrote the Guardian critic Michael Billington at the time – and an acclaimed turn as Jeffrey Skilling in Lucy Prebble’s hugely successful play Enron in 2009.
His directing credits are far fewer – “I really enjoy directing, but good directing is much harder than acting,” he says – but his productions to date have received acclaim, notably his 2007 revival of Dealer’s Choice at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Harley Granville Barker’s Waste at the Almeida the following year, and April De Angelis’ After Electra in 2015.
Given his successful track record, would West ever consider giving up acting to concentrate on directing? “I don’t think I’m skilful enough to give up acting in favour of full-time directing,” he responds. “I do tend to miss acting while I’m doing it, and vice versa. I suppose the answer is to try to continue to do both.”
His most recent directorial challenge, The Watsons, is in previews at the Menier Chocolate Factory, having transferred from the Minerva, where it started out last year. The play is particularly dear to his heart as it is written by his partner, the playwright Laura Wade. Commissioned to adapt Jane Austen’s last, unfinished novel of the same name 10 years ago, Wade was unhappy with her first draft of the play.
“I always liked it more than she did,” West says. “Like a lot of writers, Laura doesn’t find the process of writing enormously enjoyable. I think I suggested dramatising the difficulty she was having writing it, so she wrote herself in as a character who’d gone undercover and then loses the plot. That freed the play up enormously. After Chichester had committed to doing it, Laura produced this dazzling draft.”
Talking to Wade later on, she says: “Sam eventually wore me down as I’d been quite reluctant to go back to it. We sent a draft to Daniel who liked the idea of it, and then sent me away to come up with a shorter, tighter, funnier version. So what made it all come together was a combination of Daniel’s enthusiasm for it and Sam’s dramaturgical skill and sensibility.”
West has clearly enjoyed the whole collaborative experience. “Going into work together was just delightful. I felt very lucky.” How about the work-life balance? Has it been difficult not to talk incessantly about The Watsons at home? “We’re quite careful about talking shop around the children. My brother [Joseph, now a teacher] was often bored by all the theatre talk around the table when we were growing up.” He adds: “But you can still have discussions about a particular aspect of the text while you’re making their breakfast or having a shower.”
All but one of the original cast of The Watsons is back for the West End – “which is a great vote of confidence”.
“We have four mixed-race cast members,” West says. “That’s a quarter of the company. I would hope never to cast an all-white company. I think representative casting is vital. We also have a blind actor.”
He continues: “ The only difficulty I’ve had with representative casting over the years is when talented BAME actors have turned down a part I’ve offered because they were inundated with other work. This level of busyness is extremely welcome and I want to see it continue.”
For the past five years, West has been chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, which lobbies for more public investment in the arts and the promotion of arts subjects in the national curriculum.
“We punch above our weight,” he says. “The thing we’re very concerned about is the fall in creative subjects at GCSE and A level. Drama and theatre arts have fallen by 24.7% in a year. People in business are crying out for creative graduates and yet we’re stopping up the pipeline that has made the creative industries the fastest growing and most profitable sector of our economy.
“Fewer kids are studying music or learning an instrument than since records began. When you learn an instrument, you’re testing yourself against your own limits, which is enormously enabling. Creativity, in general, is a very easy way for people who may not have very much else to have pride in their lives and themselves.”
As if to pre-empt criticism, West hastily points out that he is speaking from a position of great privilege – “I’m white, male, middle-aged, Oxbridge-educated and born into my parents’ profession” – but none of this prevents him from wanting to better the lot of those who weren’t so lucky.
“I was born in 1966, at the beginning of the most sustained period of government arts funding in the history of our country,” he says. “My generation was lucky enough to see theatre-in-education companies come to our schools, to marvel at what they saw and to dream of being involved in the theatre. Since 2010, local authority funding for the arts has been halved: 500 libraries have closed, 111 youth clubs have closed in London alone. And we wonder why our kids are bored and angry.”
Last month, he was moved to write a letter to prime minister Boris Johnson as chair of the NCA. “Arts and culture have so much to give, and have had so much taken away,” he wrote. “They make people physically and mentally better. The strains and tensions of society – poverty, alienation, radicalisation, mental and physical ill-health – are things the arts can and should improve. A nation with an empathy deficit, split down the middle, needs more places for imagination, self-expression and safe dissent. We need a space for conversation where people are free to speak. Stories of difference help us to understand that different people feel differently – and strongly.”
Born: 1966, London
Career: Served on Equity council three times (1988-2014); chair, National Campaign for the Arts (2014-present)
• Arcadia, National Theatre (1993)
• Hamlet and Richard II, Royal Shakespeare Company (2000-02)
• Betrayal, Donmar Warehouse (2007)
• Enron, Chichester Festival Theatre and West End (2009)
• The Romans in Britain, Crucible, Sheffield (2006)
• The Watsons, Minerva, Chichester (2018)
• Howard’s End (1992)
• Persuasion (1995)
• Narrating nine documentaries for film-maker Jonathan Gili
• William Walton’s Henry V, Last Night of the Proms (2002)
Agent: Ruth Young, United Agents
The Watsons runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until November 16