Robert Lindsay has won two Olivier awards, a Tony and a BAFTA, and has played everything from leading roles in iconic sitcoms to Hamlet and even Tony Blair. As the actor approaches his 70th birthday, he talks to Giverny Masso about his long and varied career
Few actors can say they’ve turned down a dinner invite from Margaret Thatcher due to their moral convictions, but this is just one of many anecdotes from the fascinating career of Robert Lindsay. Others include working with Laurence Olivier and getting into a fight with Harvey Weinstein.
Lindsay is a familiar face on screen for his roles in BBC sitcoms My Family and Citizen Smith, Channel 4 drama GBH, for which he won a BAFTA, and films including Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool. His equally impressive list of theatre credits include the recent Prism at Hampstead Theatre, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy, Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Me and My Girl at the Adelphi Theatre and on Broadway and Power at the National Theatre.
As he approaches his 70th birthday at the end of this year, the actor reflected on his career during a Q&A event at London restaurant J Sheekey last month, discussing everything from his RADA training, during which he was told to ditch his accent in order to be taken seriously, to his struggles coping with fame and his latest theatre project Prism.
Throughout the conversation, Lindsay continually refers back to his family roots, revealing that he carries the memory of his father, who was in the Navy during the Second World War, with him every time he performs.
He says: “My brother [once asked me]: ‘I don’t know how you work on stage, you must be terrified’, and my dad said: ‘You know what, when our captain turned round to us and said, ‘Listen chaps, some of us may not come back’ – that’s what fear is.’ And do you know what? I think about that every night I go on stage.”
Lindsay was bought up in a council house in a small mining town called Ilkeston in Derbyshire, where most people would end up working in the steelworks and “to say you were going to be an actor was really very suspicious”. Indeed, Lindsay’s pre-RADA job involved cleaning the sewers at the local steelworks.
“I convinced my parents I was going to teach English and drama somewhere, then I went behind their backs, nicked £5 off my best friend I was at college with, went on a train to London and got into RADA,” he recalls.
Lindsay, who recently financially supported a young actor through RADA, was given a government grant to support him through drama school. He laments the “heartbreaking” fact that these no longer exist: “Now you wouldn’t believe the amount of letters I get personally from students [asking for financial help]. There’s no support.”
The actor says it was a “strange leap” to go from “talking with a very broad DH Lawrence accent” to going to RADA and “being talked to incredibly posh”.
“I didn’t realise changing your accent changes your whole personality, and I desperately wanted to lose it, because no one understood what I was talking about. My drama teacher said: ‘Darling, you really won’t get on if you carry on talking like that.’ But then by doing it, I kind of lost who I was, and so I think that’s why I ended up doing Wolfie Smith in Citizen Smith,” Lindsay says.
However, the actor admits he “couldn’t really cope with the fame” from playing the Marxist character in the BBC sitcom, which at one point had 24 million viewers, amounting to nearly half the country.
Lindsay’s popularity saw him “chased out of supermarkets and through car parks”. He recalls: “I was about to play Hamlet at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, I was walking down the high street, and there was a builder on a roof.
“As I walked past he went: ‘Power to the people’, and I did it back, and he slid off the roof grabbing on to some tiles, grabbed the guttering, the guttering snapped, he fell through a shop awning, landed on the pavement and came across and asked me for my autograph.”
The next thing Lindsay did after Citizen Smith was to realise his dream of working with Laurence Olivier in the 1983 film King Lear.
‘Thatcher asked me: ‘Have I done anything to offend you?’, and I said: ‘No, not me personally, just the whole of the country”
He recalls an interaction between Olivier and actor Doris Speed, known for playing the iconic role of Annie Walker in Coronation Street, which was filming at the same studios.
“Laurence Olivier walked over [to Speed], and said: ‘My darling, on behalf of the entire theatrical profession, I’d like to say your characterisation is giving us life and inspiration. On behalf of the theatrical profession, I salute you’ and walked back to his chair. Annie Walker looked at her make-up artist and said: ‘Who’s that?'”
The evening is filled with equally entertaining anecdotes from Lindsay’s momentous career.
These including falling in love with his now-wife Rosemarie Ford when he worked with her in the musical Me and My Girl, which won him an Olivier award; working with Julie Walters in GBH, which Lindsay describes as “probably one of the greatest things” he’s ever done, and insisting, against the wishes of the director, that he would play the character of Fagin as Jewish in Cameron Mackintosh’s 1997 revival of Oliver!, which won him another Olivier award.
Lindsay also recalls “getting into a terrible fight, a real fight” with producer Harvey Weinstein on the set of Pinewood when filming Strike It Rich, over changes the producer made to the film and Weinstein’s behaviour. The actor went public about this in 2017, claiming that the producer had blocked him from future film roles.
The most memorable story of the evening though, is the time that Lindsay turned down a dinner invitation from former prime minister Margaret Thatcher following a performance in the 1991 revival of Jean Anouilh’s Becket, in which he starred alongside Derek Jacobi.
“Derek said to me, ‘Darling, Margaret’s in tomorrow night, would love to take us out to the Savoy’, and I went: ‘Derek, there’s no way that I could do that, because I don’t agree with her politics.’
“He’d obviously said to her ‘Robert’s not coming to dinner’, so she came down to my dressing room in a shimmering gown and said: ‘I hear that you’re not joining us for dinner.’
“She said: ‘Why, have I done anything to offend you?’, and I said: ‘No, not me personally, just the whole of the country.’ And she said: ‘Oh, do my politics affect your appetite?’, and I said: ‘Yes, they do.'”
Lindsay finishes the evening discussing his current project Prism, which is to tour the UK in October and November, having premiered at Hampstead Theatre in 2017. The play is about cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who is the father of Lindsay’s childhood friend Mason Cardiff.
“When Jack died I did a little eulogy at Mason’s house and then he and I got very drunk. Then he told me this story about how when Jack got Alzheimer’s, all his carers – and indeed Mason and his mother – became to Jack subjects in his movies. His own wife became Katharine Hepburn, and one of the carers became Marilyn Monroe. I said: ‘Mason, this has got to be a play’ so we worked on this for eight years, then two years ago we got Terry Johnson to write it.”
Despite turning 70 in December, it is clear that Lindsay has no desire to slow down as he talks animatedly about plans to transfer the play to Broadway and develop it into a film, telling the room: “I think it will be a great adventure.”
Born: Ilkeston, Derbyshire, 1949
Training: Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (1967-70)
• In Praise of Love, Theatre Royal Bath (2018)
• Prism, Hampstead Theatre in London (2017)
• Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Savoy Theatre (2004)
• Power, National Theatre (2003)
• My Family, BBC (2000)
• Richard III, Royal Shakespeare Company (1998)
• Oliver!, London Palladium (1997)
• GBH, Channel 4 (1991)
• Me and My Girl, Adelphi Theatre (1985)
• Citizen Smith, BBC (1977)
• Laurence Olivier award for best actor in a musical for Oliver! (1997)
• BAFTA for best actor for GBH (1991)
• Royal Television Society award for best actor for GBH (1991)
• Variety Club best theatre actor award for Becket (1991)
• Laurence Olivier award for outstanding performance by an actor in a musical for Me and My Girl (1985)
• Tony award for best actor in a musical for Me and My Girl (1987)
• Manchester Evening News theatre award for best actor for Philoctetes (1982)
Agent: Christian Hodell and Joshua Woodford at Hamilton Hodell
The Q&A with Robert Lindsay was part of a wider series of events at J Sheekey called Sheekey Secrets, which includes upcoming evenings with Bill Paterson on July 8 and Maureen Lipman on September 9