David Bradley

Published April 17, 2008

There are not too many men in the world who can say that at different points in their life they have been both God and Jesus. But, with a list of credits that goes on longer than your great auntie Ethel after one gin too many, David Bradley can. His current role lies in a much more human domain as he portrays the drunken father of three girls in The Night Season at the Cottesloe. Matthew Amer caught up with him to ponder good and evil…

It is not the most pleasant summer’s day to be strolling around a National Theatre balcony. If the sun was gracing the sky, the view across the Thames, taking in St Paul’s but with the great, glass Gherkin neatly obscured, would show London at its most picturesque. As it is, the sun’s hat has been left in the wardrobe and the persistent drizzle and oppressive humidity are not entirely conducive to comfortable levels of body moisture; air conditioning, on the other hand, is.

Inside the National, David Bradley is recovering from a morning of rehearsals; the last five weeks have been spent in a National Theatre rehearsal room and the company are preparing to move to the Cottesloe stage. He seems very excited about how things have gone, although does confess “I enjoy rehearsals sometimes just as much as, if not more, than performing”.

"We went drinking with whoever would drink with us."

Bradley plays the alcoholic Patrick, whose life was torn apart when his wife Esther left the family 15 years prior to the start of the play. Patrick was left to raise his three girls, Judith, Rose and Maud, with only the help of mother-in-law Lily. 15 years on and Lily is nearing the end of her life, Patrick drinks more than a blue whale on a very hot day, and the girls each have their own problems to deal with. When an actor arrives in the rain, to stay with them while he films a Yeats biopic, tensions within the house start to boil over.

Bradley is ponderous and thoughtful as he discusses the play and his character in particular; he has “quite an affection for” Patrick. “He’s quite complicated, and in turns very dark and very funny – as is the play. Although he does behave like a total prat at times, I still find him terribly human. That’s what I got when I read it; he wasn’t just an arse. He has been a bit of a bastard, but he is a man with a lot of pain because of what happened.” At this point Bradley stops, considering his character much like a painting in a gallery, trying to pick out that sparkle of genius. “He did stay; he stayed and brought the girls up.”

Bradley talks about Patrick in such a way that he seems to truly feel and share his pain. The loss of a mother/wife/daughter causes problems for all the characters, but drives a wedge of estrangement between Patrick and his eldest daughter Judith. Being a family man himself, Bradley feels the full force of this particular situation; “I’ve got a daughter and I can imagine what that must be like, feeling that alienation from someone who suddenly turns their back on you at that tender age…”

The Night Season is set in Sligo, on the west coast of the Republic of Ireland, but, as Bradley points out, “there’s no mention of the troubles”. Potato famines are also conspicuous by their absence. In preparation for the role, Bradley took it upon himself to make a fact-finding trip across the North Sea. Dipping his stage-worn toe into the world of method acting he frequented a few of Sligo’s finer public houses. “I went with my wife for about four days – in the name of research – drinking with whoever would drink with us. It’s such a wonderful part of the world. The people are so witty and laid back; they just talk to you.”

Annette Crosbie, most recognisable to those who have owned a television sometime in the last decade as the put-upon wife of Victor Meldrew, stars alongside Bradley. Although Bradley and Crosbie are the production’s most recognisable faces, there is no ‘lead character’ to the play. As Bradley puts it, “It’s a real ensemble piece. I guess that’s because it’s written by Rebecca [Lenkiewicz], who’s an actress, so she writes good parts for everybody.” Crosbie plays Lily, Patrick’s mother-in-law, who is slightly insane yet incredibly loveable and has some of the most affecting lines in the play. Lily, it is clear to all, is coming to the end of her turbulent life, and her death, and death in general, becomes a key theme of the play. Bradley is typically thoughtful about the subject before resorting to his northern roots. “I think it’s easier to think about if you embrace it and don’t pretend it’s not going to happen. My mother used to say ‘Our David, if you died tomorrow you wouldn’t be able to grumble, would you?’ It’s a very Yorkshire thing to say; of course I wouldn’t be able to grumble, I’d be dead.”

"Stratford is like a big village, people are up for partying a bit more and going to the Dirty Duck."

As Bradley talks about his mother, his thick Yorkshire accent, which is slightly softened in casual conversation, comes to the fore. He may have trained at RADA, but there is no mistaking where he grew up. Bradley was not born into the acting profession, his first words were not ‘To be or not to be’. In fact, the York council estate in which he lived was “a culture-free zone”. It was only when he joined a local youth club, to meet people of his own age, that he had a taste of the thespian life. “Someone put a script into my hand and said ‘read that’. It said ‘Oh pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers’. I think that’s how the line goes; it’s Marc Anthony from Caesar. I didn’t know what it meant, I just liked saying it. I wanted to say it again.”

At that stage the young David Bradley still saw acting as a hobby, something he enjoyed doing, but never a career. The money was to be made from manufacturing and Bradley, like legendary theatrical prankster Michael Gambon, started his working life as an engineer. But acting, it would seem, was never far from his mind. “People on the factory floor would say ‘where’s Bradley?’ Where Bradley was, was sitting in the lav learning lines for some play or some show! We used to do musicals – things like West Side Story with two pianos and a drum – another group would do Chekhov and another group would do obscure Greek plays that nobody came to see. But it didn’t matter because we enjoyed doing them anyway. I would end up cycling furiously from one rehearsal to another some evenings, because I was in three groups at the same time. I couldn’t get enough of it.”

"I thought that war 20 years ago when you got rid of the Visigoths was brilliant work!"

It is hardly surprising that Bradley went on to become one of the country’s most prolific stage actors, having performed more Shakespearean roles than Macbeth falling down a hill. Whilst working with the RSC, Bradley has played Gloucester, Polonius, Shallow and Sir Andrew Aguecheek among many, many others. He is arguably one of the greatest and most prolific supporting actors the company has ever known. There must be something in the Stratford air then, that keeps him coming back. “Stratford is like a big village, and people are away from home. It’s like when you’re filming on location: if you’re away somewhere you’re up for partying a bit more and going to the Dirty Duck afterwards. There’s more of a social life and the bonding within the company is much stronger.”

Surprisingly, considering his long time love affair with the RSC, Bradley had not taken a lead role with the company until last summer, when he took to the Stratford stage as Titus Andronicus. One of the most horrific of Shakespeare’s plays, it sees Titus return to Rome a conquering hero, before his life and family is brutally torn apart. Bradley has his own, typically Yorksire-ian view on the tragic hero: “The wars were so brutal and so bloody. If Titus is coming back from that world, he’s got to climb over the Alps and come down the other side, and then march to Rome, it’s no wonder he’s knackered and wants to give up; he’s had enough of war [for full effect read Titus with the accent of a Roman from Wigan]: ‘40 years. Thank you very much. I just want to sit in the forum and read Corriere della Sera or something’. You imagine people coming up to him and saying ‘I thought that war 20 years ago when you got rid of the Visigoths and brought back 20,000 slaves was brilliant work!’ And he imagines he’s going to have a nice gentle retirement, and of course, what happens…” If only Shakespeare had been a Yorkshireman, how different English culture could be.

Although Bradley has been pottering about the wonderful world of entertainment for a fair few years now – on stage, television and film – the chances are that until recently, if you saw him in the street he would be ‘that-bloke-from-what’s-it-called’ or ‘haven’t-I-seen-him-in-something-man’. That was until the extraordinarily successful Harry Potter books were made into just as successful films. Bradley, like most Harry Potter fans over the age of 30, was introduced to the young wizard by his children, who forced him to read a couple of the books while on holiday. They were also the driving force behind his agent arranging an audition, though possibly not by owl post, for the films. As a result, if Bradley is recognised in the street these days it is more often than not for his role as Hogwarts’ horrible caretaker Argus Filch. But Bradley is not the only West End face caught up in the magic. Over the course of the three films so far Dame Maggie Smith, Zoë Wanamaker, Michael Gambon, John Hurt and Alan Rickman have all made appearances. The films are becoming somewhat of an English actors club. “It’s a good atmosphere, which is very important. It’s a mixture of old mates from my RSC days in the late 70s and early 80s, and people I’ve never met but always wanted to, like Maggie Smith and the late Richard Harris.” It also seems that, while on the South Bank, Bradley is missing the creature comforts of a big budget film. “You get looked after; they come and pick you up in the car, take you down and bring you back home. Then you come and work here and you’re back on the bus!”

"That’s one of the best things about this building; the chips"

There are, however, some elements of working at the National that make Bradley’s public transport torment a little easier to bear. Yes, there is the support that the National can give an actor; vocal and movement coaches, technical nous. These are all important and Bradley recognises the benefit they hold. But above all that, what he really cherishes about the experience is… the chips! “Let me tell you, they’re consistently firm and crunchy. I have them everyday. That’s one of the best things about this building, the chips in the canteen.”