Not many actors are lucky enough to have major career opportunities fall in their laps. But that’s exactly what keeps happening to Nicholas Lyndhurst, finds Caroline Bishop.
There’s something about Nicholas Lyndhurst. He may look like an unassuming middle-aged man – greying, perhaps a little broader in his tall frame, but undeniably recognisable as an older version of his most famous character, Rodney Trotter – but this is a man who has some of the UK’s most eminent directors courting him like amorous suitors.
Take his current job, for instance. Lyndhurst didn’t jump at the chance to play the jester Trinculo in Sir Trevor Nunn’s new production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He already had a TV project in the pipeline and didn’t think he’d have time to do both, so a phone call from the director was politely declined. But he didn’t bet on the persuasive power – and, frankly, stalking abilities – of the former RSC and National Theatre Artistic Director.
“I was at my agent’s office having a meeting with this TV production company,” Lyndhurst tells me when I meet him in his dressing room at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, “and I had a message slipped to me saying Trevor Nunn is in Sloane Square, and I was only down the road. Then I had another message saying he’s in the King’s Road wondering if he could just pop in for a chat. I thought, this is awkward, because he’s outside. When you know Sir Trevor Nunn is in the street waiting, you think Christ, I don’t have a good enough excuse really. So he came up and he started explaining what he had in his head and within 20 minutes I went ‘yep, absolutely I’ll do it, of course I will’.”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard such a story. Nunn, it seems, can be like a dog with a bone. “Tell me about it!” grins Lyndhurst. “He sets his sights; you are going to do it, that’s all there is to it.” But he’s not complaining. “Thank heavens he was tenacious enough to say ‘alright, well maybe you’ve got your doubts, but let me just explain this and let me just email you this’.” Judging by the awe-struck way in which Lyndhurst speaks of the resultant production – the magical themes within Shakespeare’s final play are boosted by aerial work and illusions – there’s no doubt he feels he made the right decision in succumbing to Nunn’s pitch. “The realisation is through those doors and it’s astounding.”
“It’s time to do a little bit of stretching, to get out of the comfort zone, to put the tights on”
Though the role of the drunken fool, Trinculo – he watched Police, Camera, Action! as research into what drunk people look like – isn’t a massive casting departure for someone best known for comedy, the fact Lyndhurst is making a rare stage outing, and in a Shakespeare no less, might surprise some. In fact, it’s his first professional appearance in a Shakespeare play, having not tackled the Bard since being put off it at drama school, perhaps another reason for his initial reluctance at Nunn’s proposal. “We started studying [Shakespeare] in earnest between 15 and 17 and that really is not a good time.” (Later, he admits to his awkwardness at that age: “growing at a ridiculous rate, had spots and pimples.”) “Being a boy and having to be examined on Shakespeare, blank verse and iambic pentameter and all that stuff… I certainly wasn’t hooked the way I was taught. Nothing wrong with the teachers, it was just I didn’t get it – I didn’t want to get it.”
But working with Nunn has finally converted him. “The man’s a master, there’s nothing he doesn’t know.” So much so that he thinks “Trevor Nunn should teach it at school!”
Someone else once tried to persuade Lyndhurst to tackle Shakespeare, without success. This time it was RSC founder Sir Peter Hall, no less. “I don’t suppose he’ll talk to me again,” jokes Lyndhurst. This was around a decade ago, when once again Lyndhurst was contracted to a television project and didn’t have the time to rehearse for a play, so he turned down the director’s recurring request that he do some Shakespeare with him. “And then my agent said ‘Peter Hall’s on the phone again and he wants you to do…’ I said no, I can’t do that. And then there was a bit of desperation in my agent’s voice, he said ‘well Peter has said, what will you do then?’ I thought, my God, how can I be so blasé and stupid? A knight of the British theatre is saying ‘what do you want to do then, arsehole?’”
So Lyndhurst admitted that he’d always wanted to play the title role in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. “That was at 12:05. At 11 minutes past 12 Ronald Harwood the writer was phoning me: ‘Peter said you might want to do my play, that’s a lovely idea’. I thought Christ Almighty. So I said yes.”
You may think, from reading such anecdotes, that Lyndhurst is something of a boaster, bragging about being pursued by some of the world’s foremost directors. But that’s not how he comes across. Whether it’s the way he sits in his dressing room chair, with the slouch common to tall men, or the courteous, contained way in which he greets me, Lyndhurst does not seem like someone who would be comfortable boasting about his achievements. Instead, when he speaks of these things it is with a sense of incredulity – almost bewilderment – that they have happened to him.
What, I ask, does he think these directors see in him? “Christ, I have no idea,” he responds quickly. “I don’t know. I thought at first it was a misprint, that he was after Rick Lyndhurst or something.”
“I certainly wasn’t hooked the way I was taught. I didn’t get it – I didn’t want to get it”
Despite the best efforts of Nunn and Hall, Lyndhurst’s stage outings are sporadic. Appearances in The Straight And Narrow in the West End in 1992 and The Dresser in 2004 have had to fit around a hugely successful sitcom career. It’s not that he hasn’t wanted to do theatre, just that there hasn’t been enough time. “It’s just the way it’s panned out. I’ve been under contract to do it [sitcoms] and now I’m not. So I can say it’s nice to be able to do that. It’s time to do a little bit of stretching, to get out of the comfort zone, to put the tights on.”
But of course he will always be known for his television career: as teenage Adam Parkinson in Carla Lane’s Butterflies from 1978 to 1983, as time travelling bigamist Gary Sparrow in Goodnight Sweetheart during the 1990s and, most significantly, as Del Boy’s little brother ‘Rodders’ in Only Fools And Horses, a sitcom that was to dominate his career and our television screens for more than 20 years.
Unsurprising, getting the biggest role of his life was another thing that landed in his lap. Already making his name in Butterflies and, previously, as Ronnie Barker’s son in Porridge spin-off Going Straight, the young actor was leading a busy life in London when the script came through his door one day. “This big thing arrived and I ripped it open just as I was going out. It said ‘can you read for the part of Rodney?’ I said I’m not doing that now, I’m not going to search out this Rodney character out of this pile. So I left it.” It wasn’t until he staggered home at two in the morning “slightly worse for wear” that he saw the note asking him to come and read for the part that very morning. Finally sitting down to sort through the scripts, he suddenly realised what a big role Rodney was. “I was thumbing through it and I thought oh good he’s on the first page, oh he’s on the second page… then I started reading it and just fell in love with this thing.” So he went to meet the director Ray Butt and writer John Sullivan. “We started reading with various actors in combinations. I didn’t realise I had the part, I thought I was just reading them, auditioning, and in another room there was somebody else.”
But, of course, he did have the part. It is fast becoming apparent that most of Lyndhurst’s career has been thrust upon him. “I know,” he laughs. “I’ve had absolutely nothing to do with my career really. There’s a lot of luck involved in everyone’s career I think. I’ve been very lucky.”
Perhaps Lyndhurst was destined to be a successful actor without even knowing it. It certainly seems that way. Unlike many actors, who were inspired by theatre productions or movies they saw as a kid, Lyndhurst can’t give me a reason for why he wanted to perform. But he did, so much so that from the age of eight he pestered his mother – his father was rarely present, Lyndhurst being the product of his mother’s relationship with a married man – to let him board at Corona Stage Academy in London. “I don’t know why I went. I don’t know how it occurred to me, because I came from a tiny little village in Sussex where the words ‘theatre school’ or even ‘theatre’ were just unknown really.”
“I’ve had absolutely nothing to do with my career really”
Eventually his mother relented and he did go to Corona from the age of 10 to 17, gaining professional experience through BBC schools programmes, commercials, radio and high profile mini series Heidi and The Prince And The Pauper. When his awkward period – the spots, the growth spurt – led to auditions drying up, he supported himself by working in a chemist until the BBC called him back for Going Straight.
Despite not knowing why he wanted to perform, probe a little further into his background and his pedigree emerges. His mother was a dancer, while his uncle on his father’s side was an actor with the Donald Wolfit company, though due to his parents’ estrangement, Lyndhurst didn’t know that initially. He is obviously drawn to performers; his wife, Lucy, is a former dancer with English National Ballet. This pedigree has transferred to his son, Archie, who is following his dad by heading to Corona this year. “I tried for two years to stop him, just as my mum did, but from a probably slightly more knowledgeable point of view.” Lyndhurst is wary, he says, about the job prospects his son will face in today’s acting landscape, bemoaning the lack of repertory theatre and BBC schools programmes and railing against the X-Factor style route into performance.
He knows this makes him sound old, and it’s true, the gawky, youthful boy that was Rodney Trotter is, at 50, no spring chicken now. Perhaps it will soon be the turn of his son to play those characters instead. “He’s got a wicked sense of timing,” smiles Lyndhurst, “and you can’t be taught that, it’s just something he’s got. He’s very funny.”
It takes one to know one, after all. If his son has that same “something” that catches the eye of top directors, just like Lyndhurst has, he’s going to have a very successful career indeed.