Since making his professional debut at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre in a production of The Roving Boy, actor Tom Conti has forged a highly successful career across both stage and screen.
Amongst his many theatre credits are The Black and White Minstrels Show, Savages, The Devil's Disciples, They're Playing Our Song, Two into One, Romantic Comedy, The Ride Down Mount Morgan, Chapter Two, Jesus My Boy, Art, The Real Thing, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Dog Days, One Helluva Life and Whose Life Is It Anyway? for which he won the Olivier, Tony and Variety Club awards for Best Actor.
On screen, Conti has starred in films such as Shirley Valentine, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, American Dreamer, Saving Grace, Beyond Therapy, The Dumb Waiter, Heavenly Pursuits, The Quick and the Dead and Reuben, Reuben, for which he was Oscar-nominated; while his television credits include Glittering Prizes, Madame Bovary, The Norman Conquests, Treats, The Wright Verdicts and guest appearances on the American sitcom Friends.
Conti has also assumed the director's chair on stage productions including Before the Party, The Housekeeper and Present Laughter, in which he also starred.
The actor is currently back on stage in the West End in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. It’s his third time playing the eponymous journalist and famous Soho drinker since having taken over from Peter O'Toole in the original 1989 production at the Apollo Theatre. Once again, Ned Sherrin directs.
Date & place of birth
Born 22 November 1941 in Paisley, Scotland.
Lives now in
Hampstead, north London.
The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
First big break
It’s difficult to know what it was. I did a play, The Black and White Minstrels by CP Taylor, at the Traverse Theatre for the Edinburgh Festival. The Traverse held 70 or so people, it was just a big room with benches around it. The play then came to the Hampstead Theatre. Michael Rudman, who then ran the Traverse, gave me that job after seeing me on a television series called Adam Smith, about a Scottish minister which was on the God slot on a Sunday night. And from that I then got Christopher Hampton’s play Savages in the West End. If you're lucky you go from one talented writer to another. That’s how we all exist: the actor needs the talent of the writer, and the writer needs the talent of the actor to show off his own talent. It’s stepping stones like that which lead you eventually to a career.
Career highlights to date
So many! There have only been a couple of plays in London which I didn’t enjoy doing. One was An Italian Straw Hat, which was weird because it turned out the audience really liked it, but it was absolute hell to do. And there was a new Arthur Miller play called The Ride Down Mount Morgan, which was just a nightmare for all sorts of reasons, it was a catastrophe really. Everything else has been really good fun.
I love working with Pauline Collins. We’ve done a couple of things together and I hope to do more things. I don’t know why we haven’t done more already. There are only one or two people I haven’t enjoyed working with – but I won’t name them!
Michael Lyndsey-Hogg who directed Whose Life Is It Anyway?. A lot of stuff recently I’ve directed myself. If you’re in it and directing it, it’s much easier, unless it’s very complicated technically. What makes a successful director? All sorts of things, but successful isn’t necessarily the same thing as good. As with actors, there are lots of successful directors who are not actually very good. There’s no logic to who succeeds. Some are very clever politically, and some are very good with actors. Robert Altman is completely wonderful. It’s such fun to go on the set in the morning with Altman, because he gives you your head. He’s hired you because he trusts you to know what you’re doing and get on with it so he doesn’t want to tell you what to do, which is what I love.
Christopher Hampton, Noel Coward, Neil Simon, Simon Gray, Michael Frayn…. The great tragedy is that people aren’t writing for the theatre any more. That’s because there’s no training ground since the reps have gone. It used to be there wasn’t much opportunity in television so writers naturally wrote for the theatre. You’d write a play, send it to all the rep companies and, if one of them did it, that started a chain reaction. You only needed one to pick it up and others would follow. So, if you were a writer, you could go round all the rep companies and see however many different productions of your play in the space of five or six months. You were welcomed in by the theatres, you could sit in on rehearsals and learn the whole business of construction. You’d see the parts where the script didn’t quite work and you could do re-writes, you could establish a technique. Nowadays that doesn’t happen. People try to write for the National or somewhere. The play goes on and if it fails, it fails. That’s it. It’s goodbye forever.
Why do you like to return to the stage?
It’s the best fun. It’s all good fun - television and movies and so on - but the good thing in theatre is there’s nothing and no one between you and the audience so you can do what you want really. You don’t have producers and executives saying this has to be this way or that way, you don’t have editors, you don’t really have a director once it’s open. There are so many people in film and television that get between a performer and the audience, and that’s frustrating.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I don’t really have any. The so-called great roles don’t interest me all that much. I suppose I would like to do a Shakespeare. I don’t know which one, but I’m getting old now so the field narrows a bit. I might just scrape in as a kind of older Macbeth. I’d quite like to do that with Pauline (Collins) actually, because I’ve got an idea about the play which I’d like to do. I don’t think I’d direct it because it’s technically awkward, but that might be fun. Then again it might not. People say, what about giving your Lear, and I groan. In fact, I think playing Jeff Bernard is harder than playing Lear. A strange thing happens in Shakespeare. When watching Shakespeare, people close down about 80 percent of their critical faculties. As soon as you know it’s Shakespeare, they forgive any bad acting, bad direction, stupid lighting and stupid settings. Because it’s Shakespeare, people think “oh well, they’re entitled to do anything they like”. Because it’s Shakespeare, they can say their lines in a stupid fashion and people say, “ah well it’s Shakespeare, isn’t it marvellous acting?” You can’t fool people with Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, there’s no getting round it. Maybe Jeff Bernard will become the role that actors want to do toward the end of their career instead of doing Lear.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I think it would be a musician, someone like Horowitz or Toscanini or Caruso. It would be wonderful to know what it’s like to sing with that wonderful instrument in your throat.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I didn’t actually want to be an actor. I was going to be a musician I thought, and it just turned out this way. I couldn’t have been a Caruso because, you know, it’s an accident at birth to sound like that. I suppose I would have enjoyed the life of a conductor, there’s something glorious in that. When Cara was pregnant with Nina, I wasn’t getting any work at all, it was really terrible. I almost gave up the business and went to be a late student of medicine just so I could earn a living. Then Christopher Hampton’s Savages suddenly came up. It was a fantastic part and it was with Paul Scofield. I thought, “if I get this, things might change”, and I got it. But if I hadn’t got it, I was going to go back to Scotland and get out the books. So, as a result of me not being a doctor, thousands of lives have been spared.
Favourite holiday destinations
Work takes me away so much I tend to like holidays at home. I would like to go to Italy more.
I’ve just read Light on Snow by Anita Shreve. I like her writing a lot, it does grip me and move me.
I don’t search the web for entertainment, I only use it as a research tool really. I was thinking this morning about the way society has changed since the Internet and wondering if we wouldn’t be better off without it. If you talk to doctors, they say they don’t know how we managed without this extraordinary research tool, but then you also get terrorism and this huge global collection of paedophiles. I wonder also if it makes us lazy, that’s not good.
Why did you want to reprise your role as Jeffrey Bernard?
It came about in a curious way. The Old Vic announced that it was going dark, and when that happens, people in the business suddenly think, “hmm, I wonder if there’s an opportunity to do something here?”. The producer with whom I have worked a great deal over the years, Tom Kinninmont, said, “how about offering them Jeffrey Bernard through the summer?” I thought it would be such fun to do again. I’d done it twice before. Peter O'Toole did it three times, too. We’re attracted to it because it’s such fun for us as well as for the audience. There’s no point you having fun if the audience isn’t. So we approached the Old Vic and they said, yes that’s a terrific idea, and so we started negotiations. Suddenly the negotiations foundered, which we didn’t understand, and the reasons they gave were peculiar. By that time, we’d quickly raised all the money for it, and we thought, “well heavens above, the production’s ready, the set’s there in storage from the last time, we’re all committed, let’s just get another theatre”. So we got another theatre within hours, and here we are. We threw ourselves into it with the most ridiculous abandon. Hearing the audience shriek with laughter every night tells us that we were right.
What makes doing this play so much fun?
It’s just enjoyable doing such good, such funny material. Of course, at the core of this material is a tragedy and that’s what makes it interesting. Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell is about a man who drank himself into oblivion, his whole life was a long suicide. To many, that’s tragic. But it’s been woven into this terrific entertainment by Keith Waterhouse. You meet all the weird characters that Jeff Bernard knew throughout his life, people with the most wonderful names such as Sid the Swimmer and No Knickers Joyce. One of the reasons that people like this play so much, I think, is because they’re slightly seduced by Jeff’s lifestyle. Those of us who pay the bills and behave responsibly are tinged with a little envy at the sight of this man who’s abandoned all of that. He doesn’t care about the tax man. He goes out every morning to the pub, he meets these tremendous people like Francis Bacon and constantly seeks convivial company. He drinks all morning, goes to the races, drinks more vodka, picks up some woman and takes her to bed – probably falls asleep on her, though, which isn’t too enviable – wakes up and begins the whole process again. Not a care in the world.
Did you ever meet the real Jeffrey Bernard?
I met him twice. Once was in the Seventies when he was still pretty well a whole person. He was really charming and terrifically good company. He just had a way of looking at things which was amusing. Of course, he employed that in his Low Life columns in the Spectator, which were accounts of his kind of miserable Soho existence – I think it was Jonathan Meads who said it was a weekly suicide note. Then I didn’t see Jeff for maybe ten or 12 years until one day when I was in Wheeler’s in Old Compton Street. There was a guy sitting in there who looked as though he wasn’t going to live to the end of lunch. I said to whoever I was with, “do you know who that is over there?”. And he said, “that’s a journalist called Jeffrey Bernard”. I was horrified. I could see nothing of the man I once knew. His face had completely collapsed. That’s what happens when you drink vodka unceasingly and smoke 60 fags a day.
The play is set in Bernard’s favourite Soho pub, the Coach & Horses. Do you have a favourite pub?
I’ve never liked pubs, which is probably due to having been brought up in Glasgow. I just don’t enjoy smoky smelly places. They won’t be smoky much longer, of course, which might make them nicer. I’ve just come back from Scotland where it’s all non-smoking now and even the smokers like it better, which is interesting. So no, I don’t have a favourite pub. Jeffrey Bernard was attracted to all of that. I think sometimes the seedier the joint, the more he enjoyed it.
You played another famous drinker, the actor John Barrymore, on stage four years ago. Do you think there are parallels between Barrymore & Jeffrey Bernard?
Inevitably. People said of Barrymore that he was always delightful. There may have been moments at home with his wife when he may have been less than delightful, we’ll never know, but on the whole, he was a really nice, kind and decent man. People didn’t always say that about Jeffrey Bernard. There was a point where he clicked over from being a good fun drunk to a no fun drunk.
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that has happened in the run to date?
On the first or second preview, I changed something at the beginning which involved pulling a table over at the back of the stage. The stage is very strongly raked, and the table suddenly took off and headed for the stalls at a tremendous rate. I couldn’t catch it - a man in the stalls actually had to put his hands out to stop it falling into his lap! It was quite a scary moment. But, of course, it set the audience off on an absolute high. They loved it. The next morning I discovered a huge black bruise on my arm. It must have happened during the incident, but my mind was so concentrated that I didn’t notice what was evidently a severe blow.
What are your future plans?
One of the problems with a theatre run is it’s sort of open-ended. Even if the booking is for three months, you have to give producers and investors the opportunity to make a reasonable profit – or you will in not time have no producers or investors – so if you’re old-fashioned like me, so you won’t make a solid plan for week 13 or 14 just in case the run is extended. It’s frustrating but that’s the business. Scheduling has always been a nightmare.
- Tom Conti was speaking to Terri Paddock
Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell is at the West End’s Garrick Theatre.