Times have changed since Tim Pigott-Smith, currently playing an alcoholic university professor in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, was a student himself, he tells Caroline Bishop.
It is appropriate that, shortly before the release of this year’s record-breaking A Level and GCSE results, I should be hearing the persuasive views of Tim Pigott-Smith on the subject of education.
The topic has arisen because the actor, known to many for 80s serial The Jewel In The Crown, is currently playing English professor and Open University tutor Frank in Willy Russell’s two-hander Educating Rita at Trafalgar Studios. “I think it’s a fantastic thing,” Pigott-Smith says of the OU, telling me about an actor friend of his who is in her final year of a course at the distance learning institution “and she’s absolutely loved it in just the way that Rita does.”
“No, my problem,” he adds, launching into a discourse from his chair in a backstage room at Trafalgar Studios, “is all those polytechnics that were turned into universities by Thatcher just to massage the statistics and you read of people coming out with inadequate learning. What’s happened now is that the notion of apprenticeship has died and actually the old polys used to encourage that, they were for people who weren’t academic. Why should everybody be academic? It didn’t seem to me to be demeaning for somebody to learn technical skills, but now it’s as though everybody’s got to have a degree.”
The scramble for university places this month seems to confirm his view. It is stating the obvious to say that education has changed hugely since Educating Rita premiered in 1980 – “the notion of a student having regular one-on-one tutorials with a Doctor!” laughs Pigott-Smith – and even more since the 64-year-old’s own student days, when he “worked his nuts off” to get the two Bs and an E demanded by Bristol University Drama department. “That in itself tells you it’s another era because everyone has to get 14 A*s now.”
“I like the notion of being able to hand something on, because it’s such a weird job”
Though Jeremy Sams’s revival of Educating Rita is set in a non-specific era, there remains an old-fashioned charm to Russell’s 30-year-old play in its emphasis on learning for self-improvement rather than grades. Rita, the sassy young working-class heroine who beguiles world-weary tutor Frank with her refreshingly honest approach to English literature, is hungry to learn for learning’s sake, to broaden her life. University-age young people these days, feels Pigott-Smith, ought to be allowed to go on a similar journey of exploration, free of the pressure to know at the age of 18 exactly what profession you want to go into. “If you know what you want to do I think you ought to be allowed to specialise, if you don’t then I think you ought to be allowed to play the field. Like Frank says half way through [the play], ‘have you never looked at doing a course in politics?’ because [Rita’s] beginning to think, to tie things up.”
For Rita – played by Laura Dos Santos – life is ahead, but for Frank, success is in the past. A hard-drinking former poet who stopped writing and fell into teaching after his wife left him, Pigott-Smith’s character briefly entertains the idealistic dream of turning his life around after meeting Rita, but his stubborn refusal to give up the drink results in the university offloading him to an obscure post in Australia. Does Pigott-Smith think he finds a happy ending after the play? “No I wouldn’t have thought so. Have you been to Australia?” he says, looking sceptical. “It’s a long way from anywhere isn’t it? From what he says about it I think he will spend a great deal of time drinking. It’s a great place to drink. And if you happen to like the open air life it’s a great place. But I don’t quite see Frank going out with his surfboard. He’ll be sitting in a bar having a lager watching the surfers.”
It is not the first time Pigott-Smith has taught on stage. In 2008 he came to the Old Vic with Theatre Royal Bath’s production of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, in which he played the dishevelled phonetics professor Henry Higgins. The story, in which Higgins takes on a bet to turn uncouth cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle into a well-spoken lady, is not unlike Russell’s tale, and the relationship between Frank and Rita is not dissimilar to that of Henry and Eliza. “I think that’s probably why they thought of me,” says Pigott-Smith of his casting as Frank, a role he took over from Larry Lamb who played opposite Dos Santos when the production opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Perhaps there is something of the teacher about him, I suggest. “I did quite like teaching,” he says, “I like the notion of being able to hand something on, because it’s such a weird job.”
“I think what makes a piece of theatre really take off like that is not how good it is but the moment at which it comes”
Mention of his own teaching – he has given talks to students at the Actors Centre – sets him off on another lengthy discourse, this time about today’s acting students’ perceived lack of interest in their profession’s history. “I blame Thatcher again. She created a sense of individualism which was justified in just tramping forward regardless of anybody or anything that was in your path. I think people stopped looking sideways and backwards and it’s staggering now how ignorant, disinterested, young actors are, in not even the distant past. Of course their heroes are different now. We wanted to be Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson and Guinness. They haven’t heard of them. I could have told you about the generation of actors that preceded them. I was interested, I used to look at books for ages and say ‘oh my God so-and-so did that in the ‘30s, wow’. I was just interested, and I think that interest has almost entirely gone.” But then he adds, softening the blow: “They [young actors] have fantastic skills, they are much better actors than we were.”
Pigott-Smith’s desire to learn about his profession’s history can only have been boosted by spending his late teenage years in Stratford-upon-Avon. The family moved there from Leicester in 1962, a year after the Royal Shakespeare Company was officially established in Stratford under Peter Hall. Having previously journeyed to the Warwickshire town to see plays on the stage where his mother once acted, the move gave the family “a sense of going home”.
“It was just thrilling,” he says of going to see plays in that era, of Hall’s War of the Roses season and the Shakespeare quadricentennial celebrations in 1964. “We just went all the time. I used to queue when we lived there; you could get a standing ticket for two bob, 10p. It was amazing, thrilling. In ‘62 there was a wonderful production of Julius Caesar which I saw six times.”
He says the move to Stratford was fate, as it set him on a course to acting that he would never deviate from. After a BA in drama at Bristol he joined the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for two years and subsequently got his first job as Acting ASM (Assistant Stage Manager) at Bristol Old Vic. “And suddenly you’re doing what you wanted to do without ever having to make a choice.”
“It’s staggering now how ignorant, disinterested, young actors are, in not even the distant past”
He then spent several years in repertory theatre – including at the RSC – a training he bemoans the lack of today. “That’s what’s missing now and it’s really sad. It makes it really, really tough. Kids come out, like Laura [Dos Santos], she’s been out for three years, she’s a fine young actress but she hasn’t had that experience of being on stage in a different play night after night after night. She’ll never have that experience of being in rep, doing 10 plays in a year, rehearsing one while you do another.”
For Pigott-Smith it was a grounding that led to an eminent career across stage and television, both as actor and director, as well as a stint running the touring theatre company Compass in the late 1980s. But he remains best known for playing corrupt policeman Merrick in Granada Television’s 1984 mini-series about the last days of British colonialism in India, The Jewel In The Crown. “When I emerged from my apprenticeship as an actor, it was a sort of golden age of English telly,” he says. “Every script that came through your letter box you thought ‘oh wow this is great’. It felt like doing really good theatre on television. In fact one of the things I did was a BBC Shakespeare series called the Bardathon, we recorded all the Shakespeare plays. That was in the late 80s. So you were doing stage plays on telly.”
“Breathtaking television, phenomenal. Wouldn’t happen now,” he adds of this television golden age. Maybe not, given the digital age has changed the way we watch television. But when it comes to stage, Pigott-Smith has not suffered from a lack of quality. Recent gems include The Iceman Cometh, in which he starred opposite Kevin Spacey in London and New York, while last year the actor took on the role of CEO Ken Lay in Enron, Lucy Prebble’s drama that unwrapped the financial crisis. Though it would later flop spectacularly on Broadway (with an American cast), Enron was the sensation of the West End and earned Pigott-Smith a Laurence Olivier Award nomination. “That was a fabulous experience,” he says of the play which began life in Chichester before transferring to the Royal Court and West End. “I think it took us a little bit by surprise that it took off quite so vertically.
“But I don’t quite see Frank going out with his surfboard. He’ll be sitting in a bar having a lager watching the surfers”
“I think what makes a piece of theatre really take off like that is not how good it is but the moment at which it comes, and that’s what made that play the hit it was, that at that moment in time people wanted to know about money, what had been done with their money. They were angry.”
Prebble’s piece was directed by West End wunderkind Rupert Goold, whom Pigott-Smith has known since he was young. “It’s a sign of his elegance and confidence that he doesn’t feel any compunction about directing me though I’ve known him since he was about 12 or 13. Theatre is a great leveller, but some people might not want you around because you know what they were like when they were gangly teenagers. Although,” he adds of Goold, “he was always rather handsome and collected.”
I can’t imagine why any director would not want someone of Pigott-Smith’s experience and knowledge around, and it can only be a bonus for the other actors he works with, too, especially those of Dos Santos’s generation. “It’s a sort of osmotic process, acting, you learn it by the people you’re with,” he says at one point. In which case, this experienced actor who seems to have theatre ingrained in his bones is teacher in life as well as art. After growing up watching Olivier and learning his trade in a golden age of stage and television, now others can learn from him. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” he says simply. “You hope it rubs off.”