Robert Lindsay has enjoyed an eclectic career ranging from stage musical to TV drama. Currently, he’s bringing laughter to the nation’s Fridays in hit BBC sitcom My Family. But until appearing in his new production Power – for which he has grown some fantastic facial fur – he had never featured in a stage world premiere. Matthew Amer caught up with the wickedly whiskered one to talk about My Family, his family and a fraudulent Frenchman.
Nick Dear’s new play Power explores the many scurrilous goings on in the court of Louis XIV, France’s famous Sun King. Aside from the rakish facial hair and strangely disturbing pantaloons the court was rife with rule-bending, cheating and lying. Chief among the royal rascals was Nicholas Fouquet, the character played by Robert Lindsay, who was Superintendent of Finance with ambitions to yield even more power as France’s First Minister. “He was the most powerful man in France. He owned France. He’s a rascal, but you can’t help liking him. He’s a very generous man who gives as much as he gains. He gives extravagant parties, lays on extravagant surprises. He makes people’s lives glitter with possibilities. But basically [he] was collecting taxes on behalf of the king, pocketing some ridiculous percentage and not letting the king have it.” Attempts to liken Fouquet’s unique brand of country bankrupting fraud to modern day political scallywaggery from the likes of Jeffrey Archer and his ilk are simply dismissed by Lindsay as trivialising the matter – modern politicians just aren’t as corrupt as they should be. But, continues Lindsay acting as a character witness for Fouquet, the unscrupulous but really quite amusing behaviour didn’t stop with the politicians: “The royal family were so immoral. The king had mistresses everywhere. He had a wife he never saw; he would just go in, make love to her and then she’d have a baby. His brother was having affairs with men and women, and he was married.”
"Every actor has to originate something."
Lindsay’s distinguished career has seen award-winning success on across stage and screen. Olivier Awards for both Oliver! and Me And My Girl and a BAFTA for TV drama GBH are just the golden tip of a glittering iceberg of accolades. Something he had never achieved, though, was opening in a world premiere. “It’s what makes this so exciting: first time at the National, brand new play, never been seen. For me it’s like a rebirth really.” What is it about performing in a world premiere that makes it so different from everything else and so important to him? “I think on stage there’s a sense that you want to create something before you move on and do other things. Every actor has to originate something.”
Lindsay has undoubtedly picked a good time and place for his debut world premiere. Nicholas Hytner’s first season as Artistic Director of the National has been a time of exciting new policies set to rejuvenate the theatre. The Cottesloe is presenting some of the best new writing in recent years, the Lyttelton currently hosts a ground breaking new style of musical in the form of Jerry Springer – The Opera and the Olivier is encouraging new audiences into the theatre by cutting the price of two thirds of all tickets to £10. It is certainly an exhilarating time for everyone working at the National. “You can feel the atmosphere here. People are very supportive in all the companies, all intrigued to know how you’re getting on. There are always people coming up and asking how rehearsals are going, interested in how reviews have gone for a particular show. There’s a genuine feeling of wanting everyone to be successful. It’s nice. It’s the way it should be in a theatre.”
"You can feel the atmosphere"
Recent claims that, as a key part of Hytner’s new regime, the National Theatre has bought the rights to use the entire cast of My Family in this season’s productions are unfounded (in fact they are completely fabricated). But by some quirk of fate seemingly predestined by the ever-humorous gods of sitcom both Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker, My Family’s loving if slightly dysfunctional parents, are appearing at the National this season. Wanamaker is currently starring in His Girl Friday opposite Alex Jennings in the Olivier. “I think it’s sheer coincidence. We both wanted to do a play because we felt we’d had enough of telly for a while.” One could be forgiven for feeling at little surprised at Lindsay’s sentiments. My Family has, in the space of four series, become one of the nation’s most loved comedies at a time when the phrase sitcom is too often seen as an insult. The fact that it is so well loved in a genre so prone to failure and public derision is testament to just how good the writing and acting actually is. Surely when a show has this much success the last thing anyone would want to do is get away from it. “TV is so terribly easy. It doesn’t flex any muscles at all. In a situation comedy which is basically six people around a breakfast table you’re limited in what you’re going to be asked to do. I don’t like situation comedy myself, but what I do enjoy is the wit of the scripts; they’re really very funny and original scripts that do go out there sometimes.”
"And you say videoing ourselves in the bedroom is supposed to be fun?"
At first glance Lindsay’s TV life bears a remarkably close resemblance to its off-screen counterpart. Not only does he look incredibly like his TV character Ben Harper, but his own marriage to ex-television presenter now full time mother Rosemary ‘what’s on the board Miss’ Ford also has three children, two boys and a girl. The youngest of the Lindsay clan, James, is only a wee thing of three months old and is still “feeding, farting and doing everything babies do.” It can’t be easy rehearsing and performing before returning home knowing that your night is likely to be interrupted on more than a couple of occasions by a little bundle of joy with more bodily functions to experiment with than he can shake a rattle at. “You can’t just go back and nurse babies. It’s not good for them if you fall asleep. Fortunately Rosie’s taking a huge responsibility off me at the moment because she knows how committed I am.” It is a relief to Lindsay that Power’s run in the Cottesloe is being played in rep with first The repertoire system gives him that little more flexibility allowing him time to spend with his newborn and the rest of the family, a luxury that he hasn’t had in the past. “I’ve done shows in the West End that have been incredibly successful and I’ve been doing it for 18 months; 8 shows a week. You don’t have any family life.”
"If I heard the words celebrity couple I think I’d die."
“The sole importance in my life is being a good father because it’s really hard. You realise that you can’t be self-absorbed in your career and your profession at the neglect of your family. They must be number one.” Lindsay’s life priorities seem pretty clear and although his career goes from strength to strength it is never done at the expense of his family life. In fact, for a couple who have both had prominent television jobs and have spent a good deal of time in the limelight, Robert Lindsay and Rosemary Ford very rarely turn up in the tabloids or celebrity magazines. This, it would seem, is no accident. “We’re not a celebrity couple. We couldn’t be further from a celebrity couple at all. We don’t have Hello! magazine in our homes. We’ve not had any pictures taken with our children. If I heard the words celebrity couple I think I’d die.”
The term ‘celebrity’ clearly does not sit well with Lindsay. It actually strikes the rawest of nerves. “Being well known is not a sign of success, I think the more people that learn that the better. The celebrity system that we’ve got into just seems so sad. You see, they’re professional celebrities, the people who love it, and I’m not knocking them but I wouldn’t want that lifestyle.” His real concern is for the younger generation growing up in this age of fame worship. “Everything’s about fame, you’ve got to keep telling kids ‘It’s not about being famous it’s about being talented and having a talent that you want to show off. Not because you’ve got long legs or because you’re good in bed. I just find the whole thing quite shocking now.”
With a twist of his musketeer-esque moustache, a stroke of his neatly coiffured goatee and a swig from his bottle of the finest French mineral water, he’s off to buy himself a cheap sandwich for lunch before putting his own talent to good use and getting stuck into rehearsals again.