A familiar face on film and TV, Roger Allam is returning to the West End in The Moderate Soprano. He tells Nick Smurthwaite about being inspired by Pavarotti and Paul Scofield, and why the stage remains his first love
Fans of Roger Allam’s silky baritone will not be surprised to hear that he nearly became an opera singer instead of an actor. As a boy, the vicar’s son sang in his church choir and carried on singing into his late teens.
“In the early 1970s, I took singing lessons with John Hargreaves, a leading singer with English National Opera, when I was home from university,” says Allam in a break from rehearsing The Moderate Soprano, which opens at the Duke of York’s Theatre on April 12. Encouraged by Hargreaves, he toyed with the idea of training to become an opera singer, but the lure of acting proved more seductive.
“I loved the variety of acting: turning your hand to different things and bringing whoever you were to it. There is something almost amateurish about it that appealed to me. You know: stick on a beard and have a go at King Lear. Opera requires an enormous commitment. You must devote your whole life to producing that extraordinary sound.”
Allam says he had an intimation of that commitment early on when, as a student, he witnessed Luciano Pavarotti singing in Tosca at close range at the Royal Opera House.
“It was a prom performance, with really cheap floor seating at the front of the stalls,” he says. “To be in the same room as Pavarotti when he hit a top C quite literally took your breath away. That’s the extraordinary thing about opera: it has the power to elicit a physical reaction. I don’t know if I’d have been any good or not, but I do know that I was never committed enough to find out.”
Four decades on, Allam’s feeling for the magic of opera is serving him well in David Hare’s play telling the story of the founding of East Sussex opera venue Glyndebourne.
He plays John Christie, the eccentric landowner and opera lover who fell in love with the soprano Audrey Mildmay, 17 years his junior, when he was 48. Together they established an opera house at his country estate in the 1930s.
The play was first produced three years ago at Hampstead, where Allam’s performance as the improbable impresario garnered rave reviews. Michael Billington in the Guardian said he captured Christie’s “extraordinary mix of obduracy, uxoriousness and visionary zeal with spine-tingling magnificence”, while Paul Taylor in the Independent found his performance “killingly funny and achingly sad”.
The role of the bald, portly Christie requires an hour of make-up before each performance, and when he emerges from his dressing room, the Roger Allam we know and love from TV shows Endeavour and The Thick of It is nowhere to be seen.
When I read the description of Christie being ‘short, fat, bald and wearing lederhosen’, that was it – I had to play this man
He says: “I love dressing up in silly costumes and disguises. When I first read the description of Christie in David’s script, saying he is ‘short, fat, bald and wearing lederhosen’, that was it. I had to play this man. I was also drawn in by the passion and emotional heft of the story. I think for Christie, as for many of us, things that are sublimated in our lives get expressed through opera and other art forms, feelings we find difficult to access in everyday life.
“It might seem to some a surprising thing for David to have written but it is really about the importance of art and how Christie brought all these fantastic German musicians fleeing the Nazi regime – people like Fritz Busch and Rudolf Bing – to Britain to help establish his rural centre of excellence.”
That The Moderate Soprano took three years to reach the West End after its Hampstead run in 2015 may well be down to the workaholic actor being committed to other projects in the interim. The fifth series of Endeavour, the popular Inspector Morse prequel, recently drew to a close, and there are two feature films awaiting release: The Truth Commissioner, about a diplomat appointed to head up a South African-style truth commission in Northern Ireland, and the comedy thriller Ilkley, in which he plays a Richard Dawkins-type atheist author targeted by Christian fundamentalists.
After The Moderate Soprano closes at the end of June he will revert to being Detective Inspector Fred Thursday in Endeavour. Though it purports to be about the early years of Morse, the world-weary Thursday has become, in TV critic Christopher Stevens’ phrase, “the emotional heart of the drama”.
Although he wasn’t born until 1953, Allam understands perfectly the buttoned-up trauma of a man who “experienced terrible things” in the war. He says: “People of my age, who were born and grew up after the war, were aware of the effect it had on the older generation. I think about Fred’s background a great deal when I’m playing him.”
Unlike many actors of Allam’s generation who became big TV stars – John Thaw, Michael Kitchen and John Nettles among them – he has always returned to his first love, the theatre.
What was your first non-theatre job? Stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s.
What was your first paid theatre job? A play called Scum for Monstrous Regiment.
Who or what was your greatest inspiration? Paul Scofield.
What do you wish you’d known when you started out? I wish I’d been bolder in going for things I thought at the time were beyond me.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have been? A singer.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Wear rubber-soled shoes. When I auditioned for Glasgow Citizens as a young actor I couldn’t stop my leg from shaking, and all you could hear was the leather heel of my shoe clattering against the floor.
Do you have any pre-show rituals or superstitions? It depends on the show. My ritual for The Moderate Soprano is padding up and putting on the bald cap, which takes about an hour. I quite like the process because it helps you to focus.
“I don’t like leaving it too long before I go back to the theatre,” he says. “It was the thing that drew me to acting. I love the fact that you have a strong relationship with the creatives, the director, the designer and the writer. Then after they’ve all done their work it’s just you and the audience, and I love that relationship as well. It’s that thing of being in a room with other people, all enjoying a live acoustic experience.”
As a stagestruck teenager, who were the actors who inspired him? “The first time I was really knocked for six was at school, hearing a recording of Paul Scofield as King Lear; that extraordinary voice. Then, a bit later, discovering I could afford to see people like Scofield and Olivier in the flesh at the Old Vic, sitting in the gods for a few shillings. What was so impressive about them was that miles from the stage you could hear every word they uttered. That ability to shrink the room is a wonderful gift.”
He continues: “When I was at the National, under Trevor Nunn, we started using microphones because of the acoustic problems in the Olivier, and I really didn’t like it because you no longer feel in control of your own dynamics. It produces a different kind of energy.”
With his formidable track record – stage roles stretching back to the 1970s and screen appearances since the late 1980s – has Allam become something of a role model to younger actors?
“I don’t know about that,” he shrugs. “I remember when I was doing Troilus and Cressida at the National, there were some young people in the cast who were very complimentary and generous, and wanted to pick my brains about the play. But I think that whole thing about leading a company is a bit of a myth. My attitude is you treat what you’re doing seriously, but you also want the company to have some fun, otherwise what’s the point?”
Allam is the first to admit that he works too hard, moving seamlessly from stage to screen to radio and back to the stage. “My wife [the actor Rebecca Saire] tries to get me to slow down. It does take its toll. I started getting searing headaches and convinced myself I had brain cancer. The trouble is, I love what I do, and it’s very difficult to say no to good jobs.”
Will he attempt the mature actor’s biggest headache of all – King Lear – the first role he ever wanted to play after hearing the Scofield recording? He shrugs it off with a wry smile when asked about it: “Nobody has asked me to do it, and besides there have been so many lately. I might do it in a corner somewhere where nobody notices.”
It seems inconceivable that an actor of Allam’s stature, age and work ethic, who has already played Prospero, Falstaff and Macbeth, would not want to tackle Lear at some point in the near future. But as Detective Inspector Thursday might have put it with a knowing look: “Each thing in its season.”
Born: 1953, Bow, east London
Education: Christ’s Hospital; University of Manchester
Landmark productions: Theatre: Les Miserables, Royal Shakespeare Company (1985), The Seagull, RSC (1990), City of Angels, Prince of Wales Theatre, London (1993), Macbeth, RSC (1996), Albert Speer, National Theatre, (2000), Privates on Parade, Donmar Warehouse, London (2001), Democracy, NT (2003), La Cage Aux Folles, Playhouse Theatre, London (2009), Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Shakespeare’s Globe (2010), Uncle Vanya, Minerva Theatre, Chichester (2012), The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Globe (2013), The Moderate Soprano, Hampstead Theatre, London (2015). TV: The Thick of It, BBC2 (2012), Endeavour, ITV (2012-present)
Agent: Independent Talent
The Moderate Soprano runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre until June 30