Robert Lindsay: from Citizen Smith to Shakespeare
When Robert Lindsay was thinking about becoming an actor, the young lad from a working-class background in Ilkeston could hardly have imagined what lay in store.
He felt totally insecure when meeting talented and brilliant people who had been to Oxford or Cambridge – but he overcame that insecurity to become one of the finest actors ever to come out of Derbyshire.
He has won a BAFTA, a Tony Award and three Olivier Awards for his work. Not only that, at one stage he was the equivalent of a pop star, with 24million people tuning in to watch him in the television series Citizen Smith.
Yet when he was holding a master class at his old college, Clarendon in Nottingham, and drama students asked him what his greatest achievement was, it wasn’t appearing on Broadway or working with the Royal Shakespeare Company – it was still to be working at the age of 66.
Robert was speaking to me from his home in Buckinghamshire. It’s evident that he’s modest about his achievements as well as being grateful for everything he has. He’s never forgotten his roots and still comes back to Derbyshire to visit family and friends.
In a telephone call lasting well over half an hour, he covered a wide range of subjects including how his careers master advised him to go into hairdressing; how he was frightened of fame; what it was like working with one of the giants of English theatre Sir Lawrence Olivier; and why he might perform at Nottingham Playhouse.
Days before our chat Robert had been in the East Midlands to film a documentary for BBC TV celebrating 50 years since England won the World Cup.
“It seems to be more about me than the 1960s, unfortunately,” says Robert about the programme which is due to air in June.
“I got very confused when I got this invitation to have the freedom of the borough of Erewash”
During the filming he met up with some old friends he hadn’t seen for 48 years, went to the Paul Smith shop in Nottingham where he had bought his first pair of flared trousers and then watched Derby County lose a Championship game at the iPro Stadium.
Robert is a big football fan. You can hear him singing the Rams’ anthem Steve Bloomer’s Watchin’ which he recorded with his dad. He used to be vice-president of Ilkeston’s football club and goes to the New Manor Ground as often as possible.
He is so revered in the town that a resident led a campaign to get the freedom of the borough of Erewash conferred on him. Only one other individual has been honoured in such a way: the cycling coach, Sir Dave Brailsford.
“I’m a little confused,” says Robert, “because when I left it was the royal borough of Ilkeston. I got very confused when I got this invitation to have the freedom of the borough of Erewash. I didn’t realise that all the boroughs had changed.
“I have an American friend who saw it on Twitter and he’s convinced I’m having some kind of ear wash ceremony!”
Robert Lindsay Stevenson was born on 13th December 1949. His father Norman, a carpenter, fought in World War II and served in the Royal Navy on one of the first boats to reach Normandy on D-Day.
Robert’s mother Joyce was a well-liked member of the community. “She was a wonderful mother to her three children – a life-force, incredibly vital,” says Robert. “She saw all my work many times and would be very honest when there were parts of it she didn’t like.”
He went to Gladstone Boys where D H Lawrence taught. It no longer exists “because the council decided to take it down and put a ring road through it which broke my heart.”
About 85% of the boys in Robert’s year left to go Rolls-Royce, the mines or Stanton Ironworks. But Robert enrolled on a drama course at Clarendon College in Nottingham.
He pays tribute to John Lally, a teacher at Gladstone who noticed Robert’s capabilities as an actor. The teenager had to perform two pieces, one Shakespeare, the other modern, to get into Clarendon. He chose the rousing speech to the soldiers – “Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’” from Henry V and was practising it in the school hall one cold, February morning.
“The school bell went and all the kids started to come out to go to their different classes or go out to the bike shed and have a fag or whatever. John Lally stopped the kids, made them all stand up in front of me and he said ‘get up and do the speech’. I was absolutely petrified but at the very end of it, when I got to the rallying cry, they all cheered. And at that moment I went ‘maybe I could be rather good at this’. That’s when it went into my head that I was going to be an actor.”
But Robert had to disguise his intentions: he had a tough time at school convincing people that acting was a proper profession.
“They thought it was namby-pamby. My careers master said I should take up a career in hairdressing. That was how everyone thought about the theatre and films. It was for eccentrics and didn’t have a place for anyone in Ilkeston.
“When Citizen Smith took off I couldn’t go anywhere. It was unbelievable, the fame”
“So I told everyone I was going to be a teacher, which seemed to go down rather well. But I knew all the time I was going to be an actor. And then an actress friend of mine, Clare Monk, loaned me the money to go to London. I applied for RADA without telling anyone and I got in.”
After RADA his career soon took off. In 1973 he had a part in the film That’ll Be The Day which starred David Essex and a couple of years later got his first big television break as cockney layabout Jakey Smith in the ITV comedy series Get Some In. That led to the starring role in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith.
It affected him in an unexpected way: “I was very young and fame wasn’t my remit really. I just wanted to be an actor, do theatre, play great roles.
“When I was offered Citizen Smith, I was brassic. I literally had no money. I had a massive electric bill when I was doing Citizen Smith and I couldn’t pay it. I kept writing to the bank manager to see if he’d loan it to me.
“When Citizen Smith took off I couldn’t go anywhere. It was unbelievable, the fame. I got frightened and I left. They were supposed to go into series three, four, five, six, whatever – it could have gone on for years like Only Fools and Horses. But I pulled out.”
Robert then became known for playing Shakespearean roles. He played Edmund in the Granada Television production of King Lear – and couldn’t believe how Lawrence Olivier really was.
“It was the starriest Shakespeare ever mounted, from Leo McKern to John Hurt, Diana Rigg, Dorothy Tutin, Colin Blakeley, David Threlfall – the list went on and on and on.
“We were really excited to be working with Olivier. We had dinner with him one night and we discovered that this great lord of the British theatre was just as insecure as we were.
“No matter how successful you are you’re only as good as your last job.”
Robert then played unrefined cockney Bill Snibston in the 1984 London revival of the musical Me and My Girl which earned him an Olivier Award. The show transferred to Broadway where he won a Tony Award.
His other Oliviers came for the lead in Jean Anouilh’s Becket opposite Derek Jacobi as King Henry II; and as Fagin in Oliver! at the London Palladium.
His longest-running role was as Ben Harper in the BBC sitcom My Family which ran for 11 years.
But his favourite role was in Alan Bleasdale’s GBH which won him a BAFTA. “It made front-page news all over the country. It was so powerfully written and it’s also one of the greatest parts I’ve ever played.”
” It was great for me, great for Derby and great for the play”
In 2010 theatregoers had a treat when Robert played the title role of Onassis at Derby Playhouse. It was almost impossible to believe that a star of his standing would perform locally.
“I’d already done it in Chichester and it was due to go straight into the West End. But my friend Jonathan Church who is now the artistic director at Chichester and also a Nottingham boy who went to Clarendon, pleaded with me to do it at Derby first.
“Derby was having financial problems as a theatre and was in the throes of being taken over by the university. Jonathan thought it might do its profile some good which it did because we sold out. It was great for me, great for Derby and great for the play.”
Robert hasn’t ruled out taking to the stage in the East Midlands again. He recounts a story about taking his dad shopping before he died. They went for a coffee at Nottingham Playhouse.
“My dad said, ‘you’ve never worked here, have you?’ And I said ‘no, I haven’t’ and he said ‘why not?’ I said ‘they’ve never asked me, dad.’ He said, ‘well, go in and ask them.’ I said, ‘dad, it doesn’t work like that, I can’t just go into a theatre and say ‘can you give me a job?’ I’ve got plenty of work in London.’ He said ‘I think you should come up here.’
“I told that story to Giles Croft who’s the artistic director at the Playhouse and he said ‘why don’t you come and work here?’”
Robert hasn’t ruled it out, although he says it ought to have happened years ago.
“Now obviously I live just outside London, I’ve got a family, three children – I have other priorities other than my career.”
Robert’s first marriage, to Cheryl Hall who appeared with him in Citizen Smith, ended in divorce when he started a long-term relationship with actress Diana Weston. They have a daughter Sydney Laura who has followed them into the profession; she is writing as well as acting.
Robert then married actress, dancer and singer Rosemarie Ford, best known for co-hosting the BBC TV game show The Generation Game with Bruce Forsyth. They have two sons, Samuel and Jamie.
“Rosemarie literally had to give up work to support me, which sometimes breaks my heart because she’s an extremely talented performer”
Robert has changed as he has got older: “I’ve lost some very close friends and some very great relationships because of my ambition.
“In many ways you have to be very singular in your attitude towards this business. Friendships and relationships sometimes take second place.
“When I was in my twenties and thirties I was literally all over the world. I was on Broadway doing Me and My Girl, I was working in Australia and America. It’s very difficult to keep a relationship when you’re doing that.
“Rosemarie literally had to give up work to support me, which sometimes breaks my heart because she’s an extremely talented performer. But when she had the boys she said ‘I want to look after them, you go out and earn the money,’ which in this day and age is quite a thing for a woman to say.”
The programme My Family gave Robert financial stability and also enabled him to choose the work he wants to do. Even so, he is still busy.
All last summer he filmed a Disney fantasy musical comedy called Galavant for ABC America which is expected to be shown in Britain later this year.
“It was a monster success in the States and it’s got a massive cult following now. I play a wonderful character called Chester Wormwood who’s the evil villain.”
He is playing William Shakespeare in A Play at the Heart, a drama for Radios 3 and 4,; he is the new voice of Classic FM after recording the radio station’s jingles and promotional trails; he is doing a reading of a play by his daughter for a producer who is interested in putting it on; and he is appearing at a literary festival in Dubai.
After that he’s not sure where his work will take him, although he’s determined not to do another series that will tie him up for a long time.
If Giles Croft at Nottingham Playhouse or Sarah Brigham at Derby Theatre can come up with a role that really excites him, we could well be seeing Robert Lindsay on stage in the East Midlands again before too long.
* This article appeared in the April 2016 edition of Country Images magazine