Robert Glenister has revealed his struggle with depression and anxiety following a long-running dispute with HM Revenue & Customs, which he said has left him with a bill of £170,000 and at risk of losing his home.
The actor was speaking to The Stage, in what marks his first in-depth interview since it emerged that he had lost a legal battle with HMRC over national insurance contributions, which found Glenister liable to pay thousands for a period dating back 15 years.
HMRC pursued Glenister for providing services as a performer through a personal service company he set up with his wife in 2004, called Big Bad Wolff Ltd.
HMRC claimed the actor’s personal service company should be liable to pay not just primary Class 1 NI contributions but also what would normally be the production company’s NI, which amounts to 70% of the total allegedly owed.
Glenister said he had been prescribed anti-depressants as a result of the action, and had suffered anxiety on stage during performances.
“When the whole thing kicked off I got very depressed, so I am on medication for depression,” he said, adding that the stress of the situation had affected his performance in the West End production of Glengarry Glen Ross in 2017, around the time his case was brought before a first-tier tax tribunal. While his problems during the show were reported widely at the time, he has not spoken publicly about the reasons behind them until now.
“That play is not an easy one at the best of times. I had a blip during one preview. I blacked out. I was very anxious and mentally I was very stressed,” he said, adding that the performance was cancelled following this incident.
He returned to the show a few days later and performed on press night, but said he was hit by anxiety again the next day.
“It was just terrifying. I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. It was a massive panic attack,” he said.
Glenister said producer Ambassador Theatre Group paid for him to have a week off and to have a physical examination.
This revealed his “blood pressure was through the roof”. He is now also taking medication for this, he said.
“I put that down to the pressure that has been going on with HMRC. It’s a very difficult thing to live with. I have been affected and my family sees it, which is not nice for them. But you have to keep going somehow,” he said.
After the 2017 tribunal ruled in HMRC’s favour, Glenister appealed – supported by Equity – but this was rejected earlier this year. He now believes he owes about £170,000, which includes interest dating back to 2004. Interest is still being added, he said, even though HMRC has not been in touch with a final amount.
He said he had asked to meet someone from HMRC in person, but had not heard anything.
“I have never met a tax inspector in nine years, and I find that anonymity quite sinister. You can’t have a government body behaving in that way – it’s like the Stasi,” he said, adding: “It’s important, not just in terms of actors but generally, that we try to persuade the government to rein HMRC in. Its power is not regulated at all.”
Glenister was part of a test case supported by Equity. He was representing about 60 other high-profile names as part of the case. The actor said he felt actors were being targeted because HMRC considers them to be wealthy.
“The other thing is, we are low-hanging fruit, we are vulnerable. We are vulnerable as a profession because there is always an element of ‘Where is the next job coming from?’ and we are easily intimidated because of that vulnerability,” he said.
‘Actors are vulnerable because there is always an element of ‘Where is the next job coming from?’ and we are easily intimidated because of that vulnerability’
As Big Bad Wolff is a limited company, Glenister said he was hoping that HMRC would only be able to claim against its assets, which amounts to just a printer and a computer.
“We are investigating whether it can go for us personally as opposed to just the company,” he said.
In the former scenario, Glenister said his options included a payment plan, remortgaging his house or selling his home completely – the latter being the most likely outcome.
He said a payment plan or remortgaging was too risky, because of the nature of acting and the fact that pay can be irregular.
“I do want them [HMRC] off my back though, no question, so we will have to wait and see how this manifests itself in terms of whether they can find a way of going for me personally or not,” he said.
Glenister also expressed concern about older actors being targeted.
“People are desperately worried. I am thick-skinned and can look after myself, but people who are elderly or ill and can’t work anymore – that is just wrong,” he said.
The actor also praised union Equity for its support.
“There is no question that without them we would not have been able to fund either tribunal. We would have been on our own,” he said.
The union itself has recently taken aim at HMRC, warning that the department was on the verge of being “out of control”.