Robert Powell: perfectionist
Robert Powell declines a fresh cup of coffee and instead drinks the one that’s gone cold. He’s been speaking for more than half an hour almost non-stop, telling stories about his glittering career which are often punctuated by uncontrollable laughter.
Robert, wearing an open-necked shirt, jacket and jeans, is 71 but looks ten years younger. We get together in a meeting room at Birmingham Repertory Theatre where he’s playing the lead in Mike Bartlett’s new play, King Charles III. The previous evening the theatre held the production’s press night.
When I ask Robert how it went, he replies: “As well as can be expected.” It soon becomes apparent that Robert is a perfectionist; he’s not satisfied unless he’s put absolutely everything into a performance.
He comes out with some surprising remarks. He describes playing King Charles III as “the hardest job I’ve ever done”, reckons that playing Hercule Poirot on stage last year was easy because it didn’t stretch him emotionally, thinks touring is “terrible” and says the TV series Jesus of Nazareth changed his life – but not in the way he expected.
King Charles III, described as a “future history play”, premiered at the Almeida in Islington, with Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role, before transferring to the West End. Robert Powell has taken over for the UK tour which will visit Nottingham. So why did he want to play the part of the future king?
“I was sent the script and read it. I knew of the play’s existence because Tim Pigott-Smith is a friend of mine. It’s a great part – that’s the simple reason.”
Harder than Hamlet
He reveals he didn’t have to do extensive research for the role and actually knows Prince Charles. “We’ve met socially many times and we’re members of the same club, the Saints and Sinners Club. I also work as an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust. We are familiar with each other. When I say that I mean he’s not a friend but he knows who I am. And socially we chat, let’s put it like that.”
King Charles III is about Charles’s accession to the throne after the death of his mother. He wants to make his mark and takes exception to a new Bill going through Parliament about the freedom of the press. This leads to a constitutional crisis which results in a thrilling ending to the play.
“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done,” says Robert. “I’ve actually been acting for 50 years. I played King Lear but I was only 18 at the time, at school. I’ve played Hamlet – but this is harder than all of them. It’s not just the physical thing of being on stage for a not inconsiderable time, but it is emotionally very tiring.”
Robert Powell was born in Salford, Lancashire in 1944, five days before D-Day. He took up acting while he was an undergraduate and had a small role in the film The Italian Job in 1969. His first real success came the following year when he played scientist Toby Wren in the BBC science fiction series Doomwatch.
“Whenever you take on a role your ambition is to reach the absolute peak, the pinnacle, with that part. You can’t do that but every now and again you get sort of close-ish.”
He became a worldwide star when playing Jesus Christ in Jesus of Nazareth, a television film which featured Laurence Olivier, Ernest Borgnine, Rod Steiger and James Mason. It was directed by Franco Zeffirelli.
Robert admits he didn’t accept the role immediately. “I prevaricated for a good week. My definition of ambition is something you can never achieve; an achievable ambition is pointless. So you set yourself a target as an ambition that you can’t do.
“Whenever you take on a role your ambition is to reach the absolute peak, the pinnacle, with that part. You can’t do that but every now and again you get sort of close-ish.
“You can’t play Jesus; nobody can play Jesus. You can’t win, let’s put it like that. It is an unplayable part. The most you can hope for is to get away with it. Now that’s not really enough to feed an actor’s ego. I don’t want to get away with it, I want to really hit the heights.
“We found a way of doing it – it was almost accidental. We filmed for about two weeks, then Franco and I sat down and looked at the rushes (unedited material) and it didn’t work.”
He continues: “Before we started, we’d discussed that we were going to try to play not only the divine Christ but also the human Christ. It doesn’t work. The moment you play the human Christ He ceases to be divine, so no actor can do it. So what we devised by accident was to let the audience do the work for me.
“I didn’t imprint my own personality on it which you would do with any other part. By doing nothing, by just providing the face, the voice, the shape and the energy of Christ, I ended up getting tens of thousands of letters saying ‘it is exactly how I imagine my Christ to be’ and the audience have done the work.
“We had to find something that suited everybody. That, I think, was our achievement.”
People still associate Robert with that role all these years later and he has no regrets about taking the part. “To have a piece of work I did 40 years ago remembered now is immensely flattering. The longer it goes on the more flattered I get.”
Robert explains that playing Jesus did not prevent him getting other work. But “the general short-sightedness of the American approach to casting” meant people in the film industry in the States couldn’t see him in a different type of role.
“There’s absolutely no bitterness at all because I did go over there, I spent some time in LA and I hated it. I hated Los Angeles. I found it oppressive and I hated being surrounded by only people in my own profession.
“Here in England a lot of my friends are nothing to do with my profession. There are lots of sportsmen because I’m addicted to sport. So I have lots of cricketers who are mates.”
After Jesus of Nazareth, work came flooding in from all over the world. Robert went to Germany, Australia and South America and made 20 films.
“They were interesting to me but not terribly commercial in universal terms. I won a couple of fairly prestigious awards for films that nobody’s ever heard of. It doesn’t worry me – I’ve got the award. Not many actors get to win best actor at the Venice Film Festival, for example, and I got that for a really weird film (Imperativ in 1982). It was a wonderful film. I loved it. But I don’t think anybody ever saw it.”
More recently Robert spent six years as Mark Williams in the TV series Holby City – longer than he has played any other character. His agent rang with the offer and Robert had never seen the show – “it’s not my cup of tea”. It was when the BBC said they wanted him to play a nurse rather than a surgeon that he became interested.
“At that moment my eyes lit up. My agent said the first contract was for a year. I’d never done anything for a year! Jesus of Nazareth took nine months to make and I had worked in the theatre, but even then I’d not done a six-month run of anything – I’d done three or four months. So I said no.
“I thought about it and they sent me the scripts and it was a wonderful outline. I recognised something in the character that put him apart from your normal nurse. So I said yes. I had so much fun! With the help of the writers, we had a really great character going there – he was just the flakiest, saddest rogue if you like but with an absolute understanding of black and white. So he was a bit like (King) Charles.”
It was when the producers started to change Holby’s format that Robert felt it was time to leave.
“We had always been proud of the fact that we did grown-up stories. And they just tilted it the other way and it suddenly became a show about who’s bonking who and I decided it was time to go.”
Robert says television doesn’t scare him but he is constantly frightened by theatre. Stepping out in front of at least 800 people every night as King Charles is “just so breathtakingly huge”.
That was not what he experienced when playing Belgian detective Hercule Poirot on tour last year in Black Coffee, the only stage play Agatha Christie wrote.
“Bizarrely Poirot is one of the easiest parts I’ve ever done. Emotionally you don’t get stretched in that. Sometimes the parts with accents or limps or false noses are the easiest things to do. It’s like falling off a log for a professional actor. Poirot was very straightforward.”
Some people also remember Robert Powell as a comedy actor from the TV series The Detectives which he made with his old friend Jasper Carrott. Robert hasn’t ruled out working with the Birmingham funny man again but has to concentrate for the moment on King Charles III.
However, touring is, he maintains, “terrible”. He’s found the last few tours “desperately lonely” and misses his family.
He’s been married for 40 years to former Pan’s People dancer Babs Lord and Robert became a grandfather in August. He says a stable relationship means everything to him.
“My grandson is absolutely divine and I don’t see enough of him, which is a great shame.”
“My family is the centre of my universe. People say what are your three priorities and they’re family, work and sport – please don’t ask me to put them in any order, because it can change depending on who’s playing who and what work I’m doing!
“I love going home. I’ve got a very lovely house and when I’m home I become a hermit because I don’t see any point in going anywhere else. My grandson is absolutely divine and I don’t see enough of him, which is a great shame.”
The King Charles III tour ends in December, then Robert will take some time off. He’ll be going with the production to Australia in the spring and more work will be coming his way next autumn: he has virtually agreed to appear in Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking.
“It’ll be such a nice change to do that. It will seem like an absolute breeze. It won’t – it’ll be difficult in a different way but it’ll seem like a breeze!”
Robert reckons he doesn’t relax into a part until he’s played it 15 times. Nottingham is the fourth venue on the tour; audiences at the Theatre Royal should be able to see perfectionist Robert Powell at his regal best.
* This article appeared in the October 2015 edition of Country Images magazine.
To hear a full interview with Robert Powell on playing King Charles III and his 50-year career, go to the British Theatre Guide website.