In 1945, Denis Quilley took a day off school to audition for Barry Jackson at the Birmingham Rep. Taken on as an understudy and assistant stage manager at 17, his long and auspicious acting career was launched.

Over the past five and a half decades, Quilley has appeared in renowned stage productions - in the West End, on Broadway and elsewhere - of classics such as The Lady's Not for Burning, Candide, Long Day's Journey into Night, Privates on Parade, Sweeney Todd, La Cage aux Folles and Waiting for Godot. And, in these, he has worked alongside some of the century's greatest actors including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith and many more.

Quilley is now appearing with Diana Rigg and Simon Russell Beale in a new comedy, Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy. The play receives its premiere at the National, where Quilley has been a regular in recent years with acclaimed productions include Money, Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet.

Date & place of birth
Born in Islington, north London on Boxing Day, 1927.

Now lives in...
Hampstead, north London

First big break
When I came out of army, I understudied and eventually took over from Richard Burton in The Lady's Not for Burning. That got me back into the business in a big way. Sir John Gielgud starred in and also directed the production. It was delightful, a very nice return after three yrs serving Queen and country.

Career highlights
The three productions that I remember with the most affection are:

  • Privates on Parade (RSC and Piccadilly Theatre - Quilley won the SWET award for Comedy Performance of the Year for it)
  • Sweeney Todd (Theatre Royal Drury Lane - Quilley won another SWET award for Best Performance in a Musical)
  • La Cage aux Folles (London Palladium)

    Oh yes, and the entire season at the Old Vic with Larry Olivier. That was the last golden sunset of his reign as an actor/manager.

    Favourite production that you've worked on
    Long Day's Journey into Night at the Old Vic. I played Larry's son. I'd already done Coriolanus there, but I kept thinking, if I could do just one show with the old man himself, I could tell my grandchildren about it and die happy. It was a real pleasure and privilege.

    Favourite co-star
    I have two and I'm working with them both now on Humble Boy. Over the past 20 years or more, Diana Rigg and I have played a couple six times; that must be some kind of record. This is the fourth time I've worked with Simon Russell Beale in the past two years - after Candide, Money and Hamlet. Both are a delight to work with and they're huge fun to be with. They are never solemn or over-serious, but they are 100% serious with the work, completely dedicated.

    Favourite director
    Until a few years ago, I would have said Michael Blakemore. But I've now done three shows in a row with John Caird, and he's moved up into the same bracket as Michael. Both have that precious gift of keeping the rehearsal room happy, with lots of jokes and music and never ever putting anybody down in front of colleagues. They are both very good directors, too, and the results fabulous.

    Favourite playwright
    It may sound boring, but it's Shakespeare, isn't it? There's nothing else to say, he's incomparable. I have enjoyed hugely doing Chekhov, O'Neill and Shaw, but Shakespeare stands alone as far as I'm concerned.

    What role would you most like to play (if you haven't already)?
    King Lear but I'm too old already.

    How has the West End changed since you started your acting career?
    The main change is to do with rising costs. I dislike the idea of these megabuck musicals that go on running for year after year. It's not healthy to tie up one theatre for so many years. But the costs are so high - these days, those shows have to run for three or four years just to get their money back. It means that small to medium straight plays become increasingly difficult to finance because the returns aren't so big. It's very hard now for a serious new play to find an audience in the West End. Look at the list of what's on and you'll see there aren't a lot. When I was starting out, a year was considered a very good run, and 18 months to two years was a fantastic success. Now a "mere" year is seen as a failure.

    Which of today's stage actors do you believe will be considered the Gielgud or Olivier of their generation?
    It's got to be dear old Simon Russell Beale, my Simon. He's the best Hamlet I've seen since I saw Gielgud when I was 17. I think he's the one. Off the cuff, I can't think of anyone else I'd put in the same bracket.

    What's the best thing currently on stage (not including this production)?
    I've been so busy working these last few years, I've hardly had time to see anything. If I had friends visiting from America, though, I'd say hand on heart go to the National. If you go two or three times, you will always see something of the highest quality performed to the highest standard. It really is the safest bet.

    What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
    They should get the Arts Council to put the money in the right places instead of spending millions on buildings no one can afford to run or fill. Give relatively small subsidies - say £10,000 or £20,000 or £50,000 - to existing companies. I remember a few years back when Peter Hall was seeking £500,000 simply as a guarantee against loss at the Old Vic. He was refused and the Old Vic went dark. That was ludicrous and sinful. The King's Head lost £10,000 in annual funding - that's a teensy drop in the Arts Council bucket, but it means the difference between life and death. They should also fill the Arts Council with people who know what they're doing. One show at a time funding is useless.

    If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
    I would love to have been able to sing like Frank Sinatra or dance like Fred Astaire, but I wouldn't swap with anybody. I am that rare being, a happy man.

    Favourite book
    The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier. I first read it 25 years ago and reread it five years ago. It's a Secret Garden-like story set in South America. It's beautifully worked out.

    Favourite holiday destination
    We used to go to Barbados a lot. Lately, though, we've been going to Long Boat Key, in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida near Sarasota. It's 12 miles of unbroken silver sand, pelicans, herons and sandpipers.

    Favourite joke
    It's one from the old comedian Max Miller who was so rude they often used to fade him out on the radio. He slipped this one in before they realised what was happening, but it might be too crude for your readers. (Editor - Apologies, it is!)

    What do you enjoy about performing at the National?
    I was in the very first season here at the South Bank 25 years ago. I played in Hamlet with Albert Finney in the lead. Now at the time of the 25th anniversary, I've just played Hamlet again, with Simon. The National is my second home. It's the one place where you are always doing good material with excellent company, the best colleagues around - and that's all I want out of life. With every production, I ask myself, is the script good and will I like the people, will I enjoy it? I don't need grief and aggravation at my age. It may not always be a success at the National, but certainly I won't ever be ashamed of what we've done here, and usually I'm very proud.

    Why did you want to accept your part in Humble Boy?
    I've read lots and lots of new plays, and this is the most brilliant new play I've read in years, probably since Peter Nichols' Privates on Parade. It's also a super part for me and different from anything I've played at the National before. My character is a rough diamond, a rather vulgar hearty character who has more to him than you thought at first. Finally, it was a chance to work with my two favourite co-stars. It was an immediate yes, no contest.

    How does your approach to new writing differ from your approach to the classics?
    The approach is the same - it's always to find the emotional truth of the thing, to find how the character ticks and project the author's concept as thoroughly as you can. But with a classic, it's difficult to clear your mind of previous interpretations and to stop yourself from doing something different just for the sake of it. That's certainly the bane of directors with Shakespeare and it applies to actors, too. In wanting to do something different, they sometimes do something daft. If you try to come at in the same way as new work - is this really the way the man wanted me to play it? - you're safe.

    What are your favourite lines from Humble Boy and from Hamlet?

  • From Humble Boy: "You're a beautiful woman, Flora, but your problem is you disappeared up your own ass a long time ago."
  • From Hamlet: "This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

    What's the funniest thing that happened in rehearsals for Humble Boy?
    For one scene, we had to eat gazpacho about 19 times running for an entire morning. The smell of gazpacho at 10.30 in the morning is not a favourite. We had gazpacho coming out of our ears by lunchtime. Nobody could eat.

    Anything else you'd like to add?
    At 73, I'm as busy as ever. The further I get past retirement age, the harder I seem to work. It reminds me of that Robin Bailey quote: "I like being busy; I hope to be busy as long as I can stand up and remember the jokes."

    - Denis Quilley was speaking to Terri Paddock

    Humble Boy opens at the NT Cottesloe on 9 August 2001 (following previews from 3 August).