Veteran stage actor David Bradley is a heavyweight with myriad credits at some of the country’s most influential theatres, including the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Donmar Warehouse, amongst others.
His more recent stage credits include The Homecoming, The Mysteries, King Lear (for which he won an Olivier) and last year’s award-winning premiere of Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s The Night Season (all at the National), Titus Andronicus (RSC), and Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya, former artistic director Sam Mendes’ farewell Donmar Warehouse double which also transferred to New York.
On the big screen, Bradley is now best known to younger fans as the grumpy Caretaker Filch in the Harry Potter films. His other film credits include Nicholas Nickleby, This Is Not a Love Song and The King Is Alive. On the small screen, he’s been seen in Mr Harvey Lights a Candle, Blackpool, Midsomer Murders, Vanity Fair, Our Mutual Friend and Our Friends in the North.
Bradley is currently playing the part of the King alongside Michael Gambon’s Falstaff in Nicholas Hytner’s new productions of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I & II, which open this week in the National’s Olivier Theatre as part of the Travelex £10 season.
Date & place of birth
Born 17 April 1942 in York.
Lives now in…
My home is in Stratford-upon-Avon. I’ve lived there for 20 years now. I’d done a couple of seasons with the RSC in the late 1970s and early 80s, and it just seemed a sensible place to move, with one small boy and another on the way. But when I’m in London, I stay with my friend Maggie Steed.
I trained at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). I was there in 1966, with Richard Beckinsale, Lisa Harrow, Tim Dalton and others. I had no acting background in my family, so it wasn’t on the agenda – if I’d mentioned this to a careers officer at school, I would have probably got a kick up the arse. I went to a Catholic secondary modern school in York, and we just didn’t do drama. So I got a job as an engineer, working in precision instruments. I had no thoughts of going to drama school at all, until I got involved in amateur dramatics, which was something to do after work. We would have a few drinks and rehearse and I was very happy. It was only a really dogged teacher of mine who said, “you’re not going to be an engineer are you?” He pushed me and eventually I got into RADA after several go’s. I was 24 by that time.
First big break
Even when I was at RADA, I never thought I’d do films or anything like that! My first job was at the Crucible in Sheffield, it was the best training you could get. My first part was Dr Pinch in The Comedy of Errors, then we did Henry IV. It says a lot about a regional theatre that it was able to support two Shakespeare plays in a row.
Career highlights to date
There are quite a lot of moments! Having left Sheffield, I joined Laurence Olivier’s company at the Old Vic in 1971, and then a few years later got into the RSC. In between, I went up to York and played Christ in The Mystery Plays. Having come from York and been in The Mystery Plays as an amateur, it was quite something to be Christ on the cross. That was in the very hot summer of 1976, when we played in the open air. One of my RSC highlights was Henry IV again – with Robert Stephens as Falstaff. But there are so many things with the RSC that I loved. Working with Sam Mendes on Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse was another highlight, and going on to New York with it for ten weeks. They put us up in Chelsea and we performed it at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), a lovely theatre. The Mystery Plays here at the National was also wonderful, playing Brian Glover’s part of God.
I find it very hard to pick them. They’re all great for different reasons. Doing the tour in 1990 of King Lear and Richard III from the National was a wonderful job – we went all around the world. It was the right group of people and we had two really successful productions, so it was fantastic. More recently, the last thing I did here, The Night Season was another favourite – probably because it was the most recent thing I’ve done!
That’s a tough one. There are so many people I have enjoyed working with. All I can say is that there are a couple of people I’ve never worked with who I would love to work with. They are Judi Dench and Albert Finney.
Again, there are quite a few of those. At the moment, I’m working with Nicholas Hytner, whose work I have seen and enjoyed. I’m enjoying working with him enormously. He’s so tremendous at seeing the big picture but also working very closely with actors. Few directors have this ability to combine both at the same time – having vision but also being able to work on detail. The director I’ve worked with most often is Bill Alexander – we’ve worked together seven times - and it has produced several highlights. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Bill lose his rag. He works very hard, but in a very calm way. You can always have a laugh with him – like you can with Sam Mendes as well. It makes a difference. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many of the best directors around, including Roger Michell, Deborah Warner, Howard Davies and Lucy Bailey.
For me, it’s always going to be a mixture of Chekhov and Shakespeare.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I’m sure there must be some, and maybe they aren’t written yet, but there’s nothing in particular, no. I’ve mostly done classics, but then having a new play like The Night Season was great. When nobody has ever done a piece before, you’re not wondering how other people would have been in it.
What's the first thing you saw on stage that had an impact on you? And the last?
On stage, probably the first thing was Laurel and Hardy in 1954 at the old York Empire, a variety theatre where my father used to work as a stagehand. I was 12. Having always embraced them on screen, it was amazing to see these two legends on stage. They revived sketches and things they’d done before – they were getting on a bit then, but it was just the fact that they were there!
I caught His Dark Materials a few weeks ago. I’ve never seen so much put on a stage. It could make a film almost. It was the best use of that space (the NT Olivier) I’ve ever seen. It worked so well as a spectacular, but also in terms of the richness of the characters and the acting. I’ve also just seen Tristan and Yseult (at the NT Cottesloe), which was wonderful. The cast looked to be having such a great time, and played with such energy and commitment, that I thought I’d like to be a part of it! It’s nice to come into a building (like the National) where you know everything is doing really well and selling out. There’s a real buzz about. I suppose we’ll find out soon if we’re a part of that!
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Funding – it pays itself back many times over.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Eric Cantona in his heyday, but not now! I used to play football a lot, and I still support Aston Villa.
Favourite holiday destinations
My wife is Italian so we go away to Italy quite a lot – up to the Dolomite mountains.
I’m sure I can think of several, but An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan comes to mind. It’s about his captivity (as a political hostage in the Lebanon) and his understanding of human nature that came out of it. It’s astonishing.
Favourite after-show haunts
I am easily led. I just find the bar here at the National when I’m working down here or the Dirty Duck in Stratford. It’s a good place to meet up with actors who are in the company, whether you’re in it at the time or not. If I go to see a show there, I go to the Dirty Duck after. When my kids are home from University, they’re working behind the bar or serving in the restaurant.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I don’t know – I would probably have carried on being a crap engineer!
Why did you want to accept your part in Henry IV Parts I & II?
Nick Hytner dropped me a card during The Night Season run. He said he’d seen my Shallow in the RSC Henry IV and wondered if I’d like to have a go at the King this time. It’s the first time the National has ever done these plays. It’s great to be in a company with Michael Gambon, though we don’t have any scenes together. We see each other down on the Harry Potter set! The King is a very complex man, as I discover the more I’ve read it – he’s not the same creature he was in Richard II. In between the end of that play and the start of these two, not only does he have the guilt of his deposing of Richard II and realising that he will never get his place in history, but he’s also troubled with rebels in the north closing in on him. On top of that, he’s got a son he’s never quite understood or had a proper relationship with, who is the heir to the throne. He desperately wants him to be a success because it’s the only way he can justify his title. He’s got these terrible burdens. But he’s also got lots of introspection and self-knowledge.
How important do you think it is that these plays are part of the Travelex £10 season?
I’ve sat amongst the audience for the season before and I was surrounded by young people who were at the theatre for the first time. Not everyone can afford West End ticket prices. So when we can do something like this, it opens a door. Perhaps if someone sees something and really likes it, they will come back.
How challenging is it rehearsing two major plays at once?
This is the third time I’ve done these plays – at Stratford we did both parts, and at Sheffield Part One. As long as you keep an eye on both plays at the same time, it’s fine. You have to keep an eye on the ball and make sure that you don’t neglect one for too long. They’re like rival siblings – you have to give them equal attention.
What are your plans for the future? Is there another Harry Potter film on the way?
I have no idea about Harry Potter. I was contracted for the first four - I hope they make more! One actor I know is starting a helpline on his website for actors who aren’t in Harry Potter because they’re getting so much gip from their kids for not being in it!
- David Bradley was speaking to Mark Shenton