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Nottingham Castle

Robert Lindsay on His New Show, The Golden Age of Hollywood, and Singing at Derby County

18 October 19 interview: Ashley Carter

From studying drama at Nottingham College – then known as Clarendon College – in the sixties, Robert Lindsay has gone on to become one of the most respected and well-loved stage and screen actors of his generation, picking up a BAFTA, a Tony Award and three Olivier Awards along the way. Not too shabby for the boy from Ilkeston. We caught up with the actor as he prepares to head back to the local stage with a starring role in Prism, the story of legendary Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff…

You’re bringing Prism to the Theatre Royal this month, having previously starred in the 2017 London run. Are you looking forward to getting back into the role of Jack Cardiff?
Yes, I am. It’s with a new cast, which is always exciting and really freshens the whole thing up. I’m also working with my lovely friend Tara Fitzgerald, who I’ve worked with before – we are very simpatico with each other. It feels like starting afresh really. I'm really proud of Prism, I think it's one of the best things I've ever been involved with.

How did you find the process of getting back into a character you’ve played previously?
I thought it was going to be a little easier than it is, because I thought I just had to relearn it. I didn’t realise I had to rethink it, and there have been a few changes. When we first did it in Hampstead in 2017 we discovered so much more that we started to freshen up. It was a bit of a trial, because we had originally conceived it as a movie. I said to Mason Cardiff – who is Jack’s son and a close friend of mine – that we needed to get it on its feet as a stage production. And the writer, Terry Johnson, is the perfect person to get it right for both the film world and the theatre world.

I wouldn't even call it a play; I would call it an event, because it's filmic as well. As it's about a cinematographer, the audience isn't just going to sit and watch a play, they'll see bits of movies and various other extraordinary things that happen in Jack's mind, because it's a point in his life where he's got Alzheimer's and he prefers to live in his head than in real life.

What level of pressure comes with portraying one of the most innovative and influential cinematographers in the history of film?
I didn’t feel very much pressure at all because I’ve become good friends with his son, Mason, and he and I had been working on this project for eight years. I knew Jack briefly at the end of his life, and actually read a eulogy at his funeral, which is where Mason and I met. We had a few drinks together, as you do at a wake, and started discussing a photograph of Marilyn Monroe, which she had signed and inscribed to him. It said, “Dearest Jack, if only I could be the way you have created me. I love you, Marilyn.” 

After his father had died, Mason took all of the artefacts, photographs, cameras and Oscars and built a shrine to his Dad’s memory in a garage. When we found Terry, we took him there, and decided to set the play there. So the play actually takes place in the garage, and transforms into all the sets that Jack created. 

What was it that made Jack Cardiff so special as a cinematographer?
He was a theatre man – his Mum and Dad were musical performers and he understood and loved the stage very much. And you can see in his movies, whether it was The Red Shoes or the African Queen, that he was inventive. He didn’t have CGI or special effects, but his knowledge of lights and cameras was second to none. That’s why Martin Scorsese still rates him as the greatest cinematographer of all time. 

I'm really proud of Prism, I think it's one of the best things I've ever been involved with

Did writing your own autobiography affect how you approached playing a character who is reflecting back on his life?
Yes, in many ways. I was approached to do that at a time where I’d lost both of my parents, and was in a bit of a panic because they were my memories. I felt like I owed it to my kids to start giving them a sense of my background, because they’re growing up in a very different way to my own childhood in a council house in Ilkeston.  

You seem to have a reverie for that Golden Age of Hollywood, and I remember a beautiful passage in your book in which you describe meeting and dancing with Katherine Hepburn…
It’s really strange that you should mention that, because I’ve just been talking to Tara Fitzgerald, who plays Katherine in the play, and she asked if I knew her! It’s very surreal. But then the business is surreal. So very surreal. 

Having already performed Prism in London, do you expect a different reaction from Nottingham audiences considering your local connection?
I haven’t toured for a long, long time. We bought Onassis to Derby, because I wanted to help save the theatre, which was ailing at the time. I realised that, being a local, I was attracting a bigger audience than they would normally get, which was great. There was so much warmth. Onassis was not received very well in London because of its subject matter, but the reaction in Derby was extraordinary. People up there don’t tend to stand up; “I’ve paid for this bloody seat and I’m sitting in it” is the kind of attitude! So when we came to tour Prism, I rang up the tour organisers and said we had to do Nottingham. It’s nice to come home and feel the city again. 

Derby keep asking me to go on to the pitch and sing the song live before a Forest game. Are you totally insane? I don’t fancy getting torn apart. No, thank you. Just play the record

This issue is comedy-themed, and you have an eclectic career in both comedy and drama. Do you prefer performing one over the other?
I like combining both if I’m honest. I think G.B.H. was one of the greatest things I’ve ever been involved with in terms of drama and comedy together. I think Prism has that quality too. It’s terribly tragic in many ways, because you see a man losing both his mind and his sight, which is awful for a cinematographer. But he’s also brilliantly witty and funny, because he says such outrageous things. We found that the audiences in Hampstead were reluctant to laugh because it was about a man with Alzheimer’s, and we discussed that perhaps we should let the audience in on that fact when we take the play on tour. I’ve spoken to many families with elderly parents who have Alzheimer’s, and they’ve said that the only thing that has kept them going is having a sense of humour. 

Do you ever manage to get back to Ilkeston?
When you’ve lost both of your parents, and have a family of your own, including grown-up kids, it’s very difficult. But my brother still lives there in the house my parents used to live in, so I do go up as much as I can. But people of my generation are sadly moving on, so it’s always a bit strange. I find it very emotional now. My son is about to go to university in the area, so I took him up last year to show him where I grew up and where his roots come from. 

As this is a Nottingham publication, and we are both Derby County fans, it would be remiss of us not to discuss the Rams for a minute…
Careful where you go… I sang the Derby anthem [Steve Bloomer’s Watching] back in the Jim Smith days, and we had such a blast. The next thing I know they’re playing it before every match. In fact, I took my kids to the Play-Off Final last year, and they were over-the-moon when they heard it. It’s a very personal thing to me, as my Dad sang on it too, and passed away not long after. I got to take him to Pride Park and hear it before a game, which was great. 

Derby keep asking me to go on to the pitch and sing the song live before a Forest game. Are you totally insane? I don’t fancy getting torn apart. No, thank you. Just play the record. 

You can see Prism at Nottingham Theatre Royal from Monday 21 October – Saturday 26 October
Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall website

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