With an early career that included selling toys at Selfridges and washing up at the Dorchester, I guess you could say that veteran actor Denis Quilley has worked in all the best places. Add the Piccadilly Theatre, the Garrick, the Palladium, the Lyric, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, to name but a few, and you go some way to outlining the extent of a long, varied and hugely successful career. It was certainly deemed worthy to find Quilley on the honours list this year and in line for a well-earned O.B.E:
'It came as a complete surprise,' Quilley declares, and in more ways than one when his original letter of notification actually went astray, resulting in a mad rush to officially accept his O.B.E. when they called up to see if he wanted it. 'I discovered the same thing happened to the newsreader Trevor McDonald when he got his knighthood. They’d sent his letter out to another Trevor McDonald, somewhere in Worthing I think.' Although he admits he was pleased to be recognised, part of the thrill and pleasure came from the overwhelming amount of phone calls and letters of support and congratulations from friends. 'The hard bit is that they ask you if you’re willing to accept it about two months before hand and then they practically threaten you with life imprisonment if you tell anybody. So I was dying to let the cast in on it, but you tell half a dozen actors and a moment later it’s all over London.'
It is of course the cast of his latest venture, Humble Boy, that Quilley has been keeping things from, among them Simon Russell Beale, Diana Rigg, Cathryn Bradshaw, Marcia Warren and William Gaunt. The show, from In Flame author Charlotte Jones, played to packed houses last year at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre, and proved such a success it has since transferred across the water to the Gielgud Theatre, with Felicity Kendal taking over from Diana Rigg. 'Diana and I have been married, engaged or a couple six times,' Quilley points out when I ask if they have worked together before. She has been Cleopatra to his Antony, Clytemnestra to his Agamemnon, his wife in Evil Under The Sun, his fiancée in the film In This House Of Brede, with her entire biography entry in the National’s program shortened to ‘Diana Rigg has been around for a very long time and this is the sixth time she has coupled with Denis Quilley’, or words to that effect.
This will also be the fourth time that Quilley has worked with actor Beale and director John Caird, the last of their collaborations being Hamlet, which also ran at the National last year. Playing Guildenstern alongside them was Charlotte Jones’ husband Paul Bazely, who approached Beale and Quilley with his wife’s new play. 'Everybody has asked me "what’s it about" and I’ve said, "don’t ask!"' he jokes, although he adds that there are deliberate echoes of Hamlet all the way through it. 'It’s about the difficulty of family relationships and how you can love somebody and yet they get on your nerves, you know? We know, we know! But describing the plot doesn’t do the play any justice. It’s the flavour of the piece which is so original and Charlotte has written six wonderful characters.'
For those who know Quilley from his film credits (Masada, Murder On The Orient Express, Evil Under The Sun), or his recent spell of performances on the National stage (Humble Boy, Hamlet, Troilus And Cressida), it may come as a surprise to learn that his two Olivier Awards were won for Comedy Performance Of The Year (Privates On Parade, 1977) and Best Performance In A Musical (Sweeney Todd, 1980). 'In my 20s and 30s I did lots of musicals,' he asserts, recalling his change of direction in 1971 following a three-year spell in Australia. 'When I got back I said to my agent "it’s time I did some serious theatre, you know". I was pushing 40 and I wanted to join one of these big companies.'
The ‘big company’ Quilley had in mind was none other than the National and the draw was its Artistic Director at the time, Laurence Olivier. 'I would have given an arm and a leg to work with him. Who wouldn’t?' Coincidentally, he had already been spotted in action during the director’s trip to Nottingham (to discuss the possibility of a National Theatre tour) playing two roles that Olivier is now famous for: the murderous King in Macbeth and Archie Rice in The Entertainer. 'So he took me on, and I was there on and off right through until 1976 when we moved from the Old Vic into the new building, into the National as it is now.' That very first season saw Quilley in Hamlet, playing Claudius to Albert Finney’s Prince of Denmark. 25 years later, during the anniversary season in 2000, he came full circle, taking the role of Polonius opposite Simon Russell Beale’s Hamlet. 'Those five years with Larry and this latest period are the two most memorable times of my career. I think of the National as my second home.'
With the transfer of Humble Boy comes more happy memories for Quilley who hasn’t performed at the Gielgud Theatre (formerly the Globe) for many years. Although his career had begun at the age of 17 when he joined the Birmingham Rep as an 'A.S.M., general understudy and dogsbody' under the directorship of a 20-year-old Peter Brook, it was put on hold when he was called up for National Service in1946. 'The nice thing is that when I came out of the army, the first job I got was at the Globe, which is where I first met Stella, my wife.' The pair, who understudied Richard Burton and Claire Bloom before taking over the roles, married during the run of the play, 'and now I’m back there for the first time in 50 years.'
Quilley seems pleased at the move to the Gielgud, not just for nostalgia’s sake, or a change of scenery, but for the obvious advantages that a bigger space brings. 'At first I was worried because it looked so pretty in the Cottesloe,' he says, mentioning Tim Hatley’s name, one of those in the running for Best Set Designer at this year’s Olivier Awards, 'but he has expanded the set to fill the bigger space and it looks marvellous.' And, as well as giving the performers a little more room to manoeuvre ('I’m a coarse actor, I like big stages!'), the larger seating capacity means that no keen theatregoer need miss out, something that Quilley recognises as the only drawback of a hit show in the compact Cottesloe – 'it’s very hard to get anybody in.'
The show not only has a new space, but also a new face in the form of Felicity Kendal, who has taken on the role of Beale’s domineering mother. 'It’s given us all a shot in the arm,' Quilley remarks, going on to say that Kendal’s approach to the part has re-shaped many of the scenes. 'She’s brought a different colour to the piece.' Like most in the business Quilley is unsure about where his next role may take him. Humble Boy will keep him busy at least until the spring, 'but after that, I just toss a coin.' Commitments at the National have meant he has had to turn down 'two tvs and a film. Typical,' he informs me. 'It’s like buses. You wait all day for one and then three come along all at once.'
Humble Boy opens tonight and is currently booking until May 18.