“I act to live, I don’t live to act”
Larry Lamb is one of the most honest people I have met. The man known to millions as Archie Mitchell in EastEnders and Mick Shipman in Gavin and Stacey has been one of our finest actors for decades – but he admits luck has played a big part in his success.
We meet in the reception suite at Derby’s Assembly Rooms shortly before he takes part in the Christmas lights switch-on in the Market Place.
This year he is Captain Hook in Peter Pan, reprising the role he played in what was his first panto two years ago in St Albans. It should pose few problems for the actor voted Villain of the Year at the British Soap Awards in 2010.
As we chat 65-year-old Larry often mentions how lucky he has been, how he used to take so much for granted and how he would give it all up if he could afford to.
As part of my research, I read Larry’s autobiography Mummy’s Boy which came out a couple of years ago. It was in a list of the Sunday Times top ten bestsellers. It was such a gripping read that I finished it in two days.
In the book he holds nothing back. When he became a professional actor he admitted he was “out of his depth” some of the time, he “squandered opportunities” and he was so screwed up because of his difficult upbringing that he twice visited a psychoanalyst.
I ask Larry why in the book he holds nothing back about his troubled childhood as well as his fluctuating career.
“Unless you’re on some sort of weird ego trip and you’re telling yourself lies, what’s the point of writing a book? It’s a cathartic thing, it’s all about telling the real story.
“If you’ve been fortunate enough to stumble across a lot of work and be lucky enough to keep going, you’re going to run into people who have had it a lot harder and appreciate what they’ve got a lot more.
“I’ve certainly taken things for granted over the years because, particularly at the beginning, they seemed to come rather easily to me.
“As you work alongside people who have fought their way up, you realise how silly you were to be that way.
“Writing a book about your life is as much for yourself as for anybody who’s going to read it. There’s no point doing it unless you’re going to be honest.”
Lawrence Douglas Lamb was born on 10 October 1947 in Edmonton, London – the eldest of four children. He was treated abominably by his father and often had to keep his parents from fighting.
After leaving school he had jobs as a salesman and in the oil industry, working in Germany, Libya and Canada before deciding that his future lay in acting.
His first professional part, when he was 28, was with a company in Halifax, Nova Scotia before he joined the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario which was performing Hamlet.
“I started off in classical theatre although I have to say I didn’t hang around in it long – a couple of years and I was on my way.
“Thirty years later (in 2001) I was back in Hamlet again, playing the king (Claudius) for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, then at the Barbican in London.”
In the intervening period he appeared in TV shows including The New Avengers, The Professionals, Minder, A Touch of Frost, Midsomer Murders and The Bill.
On film he played great train robber Bruce Reynolds alongside Phil Collins in Buster and also had a small part in Superman III.
But he admits he had to tackle the Bard again if he wanted to prove himself as a serious actor.
“I’d done a lot of theatre work – I’d certainly paid my dues by then. I figured by the time I went to the RSC I was ready for it.
“It was a bit daunting but I’d done a lot of work that prepared me for that. I’d been on a bit of a run of doing theatre anyway and I knew it was the next hurdle, really.”
He describes his roles in EastEnders and Gavin and Stacey as “dream” parts. “I was lucky, very lucky.”
Larry was, of course, able to bring a wealth of experience to those two television jobs.
“Once you’ve been knocking around for years as a working actor – and I’ve been really lucky because I’ve been working for 37 years – you’ve played a hell of a lot of people. What you’re doing is giving a performance which is basically you being that person.
“If you’ve been working you’ve developed all sorts of characters, all sorts of sides to yourself. You’ve played villains and goodies, you’ve played doctors, priests, surgeons, airline pilots, captains of ships, construction engineers.
“When a baddie comes along, they’re usually more interesting because they’re more complicated. But so much is dependent on the writing. If the writing is good, if it’s a believable character on paper, basically all you’re doing is joining up the dots, frankly.
“The Gavin and Stacey character was the nicer side of me and the EastEnders guy was the nasty side of me.”
His honesty is again evident in his book where he talks about turning professional. He confesses: “What I thought I wanted to do was win the lottery of stardom but all I’d done was buy a ticket.”
He admits he was hooked on the acting bug “but the thing about getting into it is you realise that you get a big reality check on what it’s actually about.
“I was like a lot of other people. I figured that actors had a wonderful time and made lots of money – until you realise that the majority of actors don’t even get a job.”
Larry’s role in Peter Pan brings him back to Derbyshire where “an interesting episode” of his life took place.
He was contracted by Central Television to appear in the ITV drama Peak Practice. But Carlton TV bought Central and Larry was axed from the series. The consolation was that his agent negotiated a £250,000 fee for his non-appearance!
Larry spent some time at Longnor preparing for Peak Practice.
“I’ve certainly walked the hills of Derbyshire. I really love the Peak District but I don’t know whether I’m going to have the time to explore it. I might be able to get out and have a walk on my day off.”
He will spend Christmas Day with his family in north London – son George is a DJ and television presenter – before returning to the Assembly Rooms.
Some people might be wondering why he is still performing at 65 and dashing around like an actor 40 years younger.
“I’ve still got to work. You can’t retire – you’ve got to go on. It would be nice to be one of these people who’s made loads of money and could say ‘right, I’ve had enough of this, I’m out of it’. I can’t – I’ve got to carry on working. Probably until I die.”
I get the feeling that if he had the chance he would not retire altogether.
“I’d certainly retire from this business! I’ve been in it 37 years – I act to live, I don’t live to act.”
After Peter Pan, Larry is aiming to start writing again. He intends to go to Spain where he worked in the 1980s and pen his first novel.
Before I leave, Larry dons his panto outfit and immediately turns into the evil Captain Hook. He may have been lucky in his career – Derby audiences are lucky that they will be able to see someone as talented and honest as Larry Lamb performing in the city this Christmas.
* This article appeared in the December 2012 issue of Country Images magazine