From Times Online
February 20, 2005
Though Rodney might pull the crowds, it’s Nicholas Lyndhurst who will wow them. By Lesley White.
In a messy dressing room at the Malvern Theatres complex, the very tall Nicholas Lyndhurst is standing on a chair, puffing smoke furiously out of a high window.
I am at his feet, firing questions up his trouser leg. He would rather this odd arrangement than risk making me cough. “Terrible habit — trying to give it up.” But not right now, if we don’t mind. Half an hour ago, he came offstage from his role in The Dresser, Ronald Harwood’s story of an old-style actor-manager in wartime Britain. Lyndhurst plays Norman, the devoted, embittered assistant to Sir (a histrionic Julian Glover), as spiky and indispensable as the “brooch” of safety pins he wears at all times. With his grey hair plastered down and his knitted waistcoat, he glides about the set like a camp undertaker, clucking and waspish by turns, his back poker-straight (playing havoc with the actor’s vertebrae) and his northern accent gathering strength as his hip flask empties.
Postperformance adrenaline is making the famously shy Lyndhurst unusually chatty — or perhaps it is the warm reception of an audience that came to see a telly treasure and got something more: a performance that exorcises the ghost of Tom Courtenay, who created the role and seemed to own it. “The hardest part was keeping it away from Tom,” says Lyndhurst in his genteel voice, an accent wrought from stage-school training, posh diction occasionally colliding with traces of whatever came before. “I saw five minutes of the film before realising I mustn’t watch it.” We know him mainly as a creature of cosy sitcoms (though not canned laughter: he reminds me sharply that the BBC’s charter forbids such fraudulence), but the humour here is dark, the jibes and scratches of a manipulative servant who has no future except the dreaded “boarding house in Westcliff-on-Sea” once the master dies.
As the hapless Rodney Trotter in Only Fools and Horses, Lyndhurst, now 43, entered the comedy hall of fame, eternally condemned to being called a “plonker” by a public that assumes it knows him and — one might suppose — to a quest to retrieve his artistic credibility. The subsequent success of Goodnight Sweetheart and the sitcom The Two of Us, in both of which he continued to look endearingly bemused, only reinforced our idea of him as a purveyor of durable archetypes rather than subtlety, of reassuring familiarity rather than challenging ideas.
Actually, Lyndhurst could not care less about all that. The Dresser might showcase an underrated talent, but any assumptions about his craving more prestigious work in general are unfounded. “I have a real soft spot for Rodney,” he says. “He never typecast me, and I never wanted to bury him. I would make another series of Fools if the script was good.” He has meanwhile been offered countless chances to prove his versatility and turned them all down, until he chanced upon the film of The Dresser, and, in a placatory gesture to Peter Hall, who had been pursuing him with offers (“Shakespeare, The Government Inspector, nothing I thought I’d be good enough in”), asked him if he knew the play. Five minutes later, Harwood was on the telephone, urging him to play Norman.
“It’s nice to take people off automatic pilot,” he says. “My face on a poster might bring people to the theatre, but once they’re there, it’s my job to make them believe that I’m an alcoholic, homosexual northerner with mental-health problems. What I love is that I can see them saying at the beginning of the show, ‘Ah, look, it’s that nice boy from television,’ and by the end, there’s a silence you could drive a bus through.”
That caution about widening his repertoire reflects two truths about Lyndhurst. First, he is a realist who is grateful to have gainful employment, a no-nonsense approach perhaps instilled in his competitive stage school. “You could say,” he laughs, “I have never been a slave to my art.” Second, he makes no snooty distinction between light entertainment and classic drama, stage and television. The classics he studied put him off Shakespeare: he auditioned for the RSC three times when he was 14, and was turned down, leaving a mild resentment of the elites of his profession. When he is sent a script, he always reads it first from the audience’s point of view, trying to imagine them watching the piece on screen or in an auditorium. Will it work, regardless of who is in it? Will they like it? “Only then do I read it as an actor.”
As for film, he laughs at his limited forays, which include the stinker Sky Bandits (1986), in which he played a first world war aircraft mechanic, “going round in my overalls, saluting, and earning a fortune. It went millions over budget, and we were shooting just outside Sutton”. Besides, he doesn’t have the pulling power of the pretty boys: it is the villains and “bastards” who interest him more than the male leads. His Uriah Heep in the BBC’s 1999 David Copperfield was malevolently unctuous and gave him a taste for monsters. “I want to do more — they are much easier to play.”
His straightforwardness is no surprise. Lyndhurst comes from a television tradition that has little patience with actorly vanity: lines are learnt fast, time is money, and technical dis-cipline respected. Sitting around in a rehearsal room in Clapham for months, questioning Norman’s motivation — “He was probably thrown out of his father’s house in Colwyn Bay at 14 for wearing his sister’s dress” — was both luxurious and frustrating. To research the role, he combed the streets for middle-aged gay men, hurrying — because Norman is never still — but didn’t find any. “The last thing I wanted was to be in any way cod, or panto camp: it has to be real.” More helpful was the outrageous Jack from Will & Grace, whose finger-flicking mannerisms Lyndhurst scaled down “by 400%”. He also thought Norman would treat himself to a chestnut rinse, but the dye turned his grey hair pink. “I looked like Mrs Slocombe all week. It was not a good look for taking my son to school.”
In conversation he is understated, one of those people who never laugh at their own jokes and ironies, a reticence that is at the heart of his careful, measured comic style, but can make you wonder if he is longing for you to disappear.
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, he was asked to play the naive younger brother of a market trader, and opposition to his casting was fierce. He had appeared in Carla Lane’s middle-class comedy Butterflies, with Wendy Craig, and was thought by some to be too well bred. Ratings for the first two series were poor, but with the backing of the BBC’s head of comedy, John Howard Davies, they ploughed on, repeats eventually picking up an audience. Lyndhurst, who gelled instantly with David Jason, discusses this like a veteran executive conversant with ratings, scheduling, the vagaries of primetime commissioning. He loves the business, but hates its intrusion into his privacy. “Children are like snipers,” he says. “They spot you from 700yd, and they’re small enough to see under the baseball cap. It’s ‘Got you’. They’re in packs, so you try to avoid the school run and rush hour. And it’s no good being on the street when the pubs chuck out.”
He was brought up in Hampshire by his mother, a former dancer, in a home where money was tight after his father (who was married to other women anyway) left for good, following years of on-off weekend appearances. There has been no reconciliation. “He walked out and, as far as I was concerned, that was it.” He decided as a child that he wanted to be an actor, for no reason he can fathom. He loved Batman and Monty Python, whose recordings he learnt by heart — “What for? I have no idea” — and at eight, begged his mother to let him go to stage school. Certain he would be homesick and give up, she allowed him to board at the Corona Stage Academy in London two years later, where he learnt fencing, dancing, elocution and stage make-up. Ray Winstone was in the year above. “I was in the playground when he let down the principal’s tyres and got expelled,” Lyndhurst says. “I wasn’t a boffin, but I wasn’t slashing tyres, either.” At 13, having never been abroad, he flew to St Moritz to play Peter in Heidi. “You think I sound posh now,” he laughs. “In Heidi I sound like Celia Johnson.”
Success as a child actor stalled with puberty. At 15, he was growing an inch a month. “If there’d been a part for a spotty, gawky, greasy-haired child, I’d have been fine.” When parts dried up, he worked in a chemist in Shepherd’s Bush, mesmerised by the man who bought a 12-pack of condoms every Saturday afternoon. He was rescued by his sitcom hero, Ronnie Barker: he played his son in the Porridge sequel Going Straight and used the opportunity to study the master. “I came in, said something off the wall, and the laugh came from Ronnie’s reaction to it. I watched him like a hawk.” He got Butterflies by claiming he could drive, play guitar and roller-skate, when he could do none of them — all three skills were required in the first week of shooting, so he learnt in situ. “The moral of the story is: lie when you have to.”
Lyndhurst is an unusual mixture of humility and knowing his value as a name. He no longer needs to work, but is quick to recognise what he sees as his limitations. His real life is lived away from the business. Press cuttings tell you he flies (he has a pilot’s licence) and dives off the murky British coast, but reality is much closer to his Sussex home: he is an evangelical family man who hates being parted from his wife, Lucy, and their son. He met the former, then a ballet dancer, when she came to see him in Straight and Narrow, in which he was the narrator. “By the end, I was narrating to this huge pair of blue eyes,” he says. He returned the favour by attending her matinée of The Nutcracker across the road. Their angelic-looking four-year-old son, Archie, is now the immovable centre of his life.
When I ask Lyndhurst if his safe, user-friendly remit has left him wanting to amaze and appal his audience for a change, he nods unconvincingly, and then confesses his real ambition. “I’d like to narrate a children’s show or do the voices to some puppets, because my little boy would love that. But that’s selfish. I’m open to all offers.”