Ben Miles is a lucky man. Currently appearing at the Old Vic in Alan Ayckbourn trilogy The Norman Conquests, he tells Caroline Bishop why every job he does is his favourite job…
Some actors say they decided to get into the profession because they saw a particular play that blew them away; some to emulate a stage or screen idol; some because a teacher saw their talent and encouraged them. Ben Miles got into acting to avoid Maths. “I started off doing sound and lighting at my secondary school and you could get off lessons to practise doing it. And then I realised you could get off more lessons if you were actually in the play. So I had a go at being in the play. I got off more Maths and English, it was great.”
Life is a breeze for Miles – or at least, he makes it seem so. Without a negative word to say about any of his jobs since making that casual first step into acting – “I’ve sort of enjoyed every job I’ve done, it’s a very jammy thing to say” – it is no wonder 41-year-old Miles seems a relaxed, innately happy kind of guy when I meet him in his dressing room at the Old Vic. We are here to chat about his latest role, in the ensemble cast of Alan Ayckbourn’s comic trilogy The Norman Conquests, a job he is – naturally – thoroughly enjoying.
Performed in-the-round at the Old Vic in its first London revival since the 1974 premiere, Ayckbourn’s trilogy is set in a house in rural Sussex over a long weekend in 1973 and centres on the relationships between Norman (Stephen Mangan), his wife, his in-laws and Miles’s character Tom, the village vet. The action is divided into three interlocking plays – Round And Round The Garden, Table Manners and Living Together – each revealing what takes place in a particular area of the house over the same time period. Written by Ayckbourn to make sense both when watched back to back and as stand alone pieces, the three plays could have made for a complicated rehearsal process, but Miles, in typically positive fashion, says “There’s three times as much stuff to do, but it’s also three times as much fun.”
Director Matthew Warchus tackled the process by first rehearsing the action in chronological order, as though it were one long play, before later splitting up the scenes into their respective plays. Though you don’t have to see all three plays to understand them, stresses Miles, seeing one will inform the others. “We’ve had people coming to see one play, coming back to see the other plays, and then coming back to see the first play they saw because they are so much more informed about it. So you could in fact come and see these plays on a weekly basis and get more and more from it. They should start doing loyalty cards at the Old Vic!”
“It makes you think of that time in your life when you sort of embark on relationships with other people and how difficult and acutely embarrassing that can be”
In Ayckbourn tradition, the path of love in The Norman Conquests never runs smooth. Bad timing and misunderstanding ensure that the relationships between the six characters are weighted on the side of dysfunction, painfully so for Miles’s socially-awkward, slow-witted Tom, who is unable to articulate his love for his friend and neighbour, Norman’s put-upon sister-in-law Annie, played by Jessica Hynes. “If you were to see them from the outside you wouldn’t really know if they were in a relationship or not in a relationship,” explains Miles. “They have a relationship but it’s not romantic. But that’s not because Tom doesn’t want it to be – he desperately wants it to be; I think Tom actually is very much in love with Annie – but he is unable for various reasons to express that, and that is his tragedy, and there also lies the comedy. It’s actually quite an adolescent relationship they have, even though they are mature adults.”
Though the trilogy is essentially comic, Warchus’s direction focuses on its darker side, says Miles, emphasising the fundamentally heart-wrenching situations that Ayckbourn created for his characters. “It’s not that we’ve set out from day one to say to everybody ‘these plays aren’t funny you know, what the hell are you laughing at?’” says Miles. “They are inherently funny. But they are so much richer than that. The humour comes out of six desperate characters longing to be listened to, loved, appreciated and longing to express their feelings for each other and for things. There’s a lot of discomfort and a lot of pain; particularly for Tom there’s a lot of awkwardness and discomfort and pain and regret and self-punishment going on.
“It’s a curious thing,” he adds, “because you are in the [wings], getting ready to do it, trying to feel how awful the character feels about stuff, and there’s a thousand people out there who have come to see a comedy.”
Married to actress Emily Raymond with whom he has three children, Miles’s life is a world apart from Tom’s. The upbeat, confident man who chats easily in his dressing room bears little resemblance to the emotionally repressed, anxious character he portrays on stage, his movements stilted by an ungainly caution and his usually handsome face drained of all charisma. But Miles can still recognise Tom’s pain: “It makes you think of that time in your life when you sort of embark on relationships with other people and how difficult and acutely embarrassing that can be, and how much annoyance at oneself and misunderstanding there can be.”
“I’ve sort of enjoyed every job I’ve done, it’s a very jammy thing to say”
Miles is no stranger to the comedic minefield of relationships. He is best known for playing a role at the opposite end of the confidence spectrum to Tom, sex-obsessed womaniser Patrick Maitland in Coupling, the BBC series about the sexual misadventures of a bunch of thirtysomethings. Running for four years until 2004, it was a niche success for BBC2 and brought wider public recognition for Miles. Did it open up opportunities for him? “Um, I don’t know if it did actually,” he replies, before adding “I guess it helps your profile having been on telly… so yes it may have opened doors.”
His casual contradiction illustrates an easygoing, come-what-may attitude to his career. His credits since Coupling – which veer from V For Vendetta on film to Lark Rise To Candleford on television and Mike Bartlett’s stage play My Child at the Royal Court – show a diversity which, in his case, comes not from having a game plan but simply from swimming with the tide. “It is really what comes along, you know. I like doing all sorts of disciplines,” he says. “It’s been a very diverse year and it’s fantastic to keep all those plates spinning really.”
Luckily, going with the flow keeps sending Miles in enjoyable directions. “In terms of theatre it can’t get much better than this, so just do it while it’s there; the chance may not happen again so grab it and go wherever this takes you.”
Another theatrical highlight in Miles’s career of favourites was his last outing at the Old Vic, when he appeared as Bolingbroke opposite Kevin Spacey in Shakespeare’s Richard II, directed by former Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre Artistic Director Trevor Nunn. The experience, says Miles, as you might expect, was “fantastic. It was like winning a prize you know, coming to the Old Vic, working on Shakespeare, which this theatre has had a great tradition of. Working with Trevor Nunn, working with Kevin Spacey, it was a dream job, it really was.”
That was three years ago, in Spacey’s first season as Artistic Director at the Old Vic. Since then, the Hollywood actor has weathered a turbulent relationship with the press, receiving criticism after several productions in his first couple of seasons received poor notices. Miles would be the first to defend Spacey’s leadership. “I think he’s done great things to this theatre, I think it has really flourished under him. He loves it deeply, he cares for it so much. The fact that he wasn’t born in this country is totally immaterial. He comes from a huge theatre tradition in America, has worked extensively in the theatre, knows 10 times more than your average English actor about English theatre and is as dedicated as anybody I could think of to maintaining the kind of standard of this place and celebrating its history as well as moving it forward all the time.”
“You could come and see these plays on a weekly basis and get more and more from it. They should start doing loyalty cards at the Old Vic”
If ever there was a person to have on your side, it would be Miles, whose glass-half-full mindset would make any potential problem seem actually quite unproblematic. But there is no false over-enthusiasm or hyberbole in his speech; rather, it is a natural, unforced positivity that makes him appear so laid back that I wonder what could really rile his emotions. He simply seems extremely content with his lot, which, when you’re in one of the most unstable professions around, is a pretty good attitude to have. Miles, I am beginning to realise, has this acting life sussed.
“You always worry about being out of work, even when you’re in work you worry about work finishing and thinking what’s next, is that it, have I been rumbled?” he smiles. The way to counteract this uncertainty, he says, “Is to have as much fun as you can with it while you’re doing it. You try and plan a bit, you start harassing your agent about half way through a job, saying what’s going on, what’s next, but”, he adds, “I’ve been so lucky in the work I’ve done that I’m just concentrating on enjoying it while I’m doing it.”
It is a philosophical approach that seems to have stood the actor in good stead. He has just finished a new Miss Marple television film with a stellar cast including Prunella Scales, Matthew Macfadyen and Helen Baxendale; his latest film, Ninja Assassin, comes out next year. The reasons to be positive keep coming. Would the teenager who signed up for the school play to skip lessons ever have envisioned the consequences of that easy decision? “If someone had said to me you’d have had this career, I’d have probably laughed at them and said, don’t be ridiculous,” says Miles. “It’s bloody lucky.”