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Past/Present/Future for ... Sweet Smell of Success star David Bamber

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Olivier Award-winner David Bamber stars in the UK professional premiere Marvin Hamlisch musical Sweet Smell of Success at the Arcola Theatre.

Based on the 1957 film of the same name, Sweet Smell of Success centres on the dealings of powerful Broadway gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker (Bamber), who uses his considerable influence to scupper his sister's relationship with an 'unsuitable' man.

Bamber won the Best Actor Olivier Award for My Night With Reg. His other West End roles include Betty Blue Eyes, Absurd Person Singular, The Glee Club and Otherwise Engaged. His TV credits include Psychoville, Rome and Pride and Prejudice.

Sweet Smell of Success, which is directed by Arcola artistic director Mehmet Ergen, runs from 14 November to 22 December 2012 (previews from 9 November).

Past: I was born in Walkden in 1954. My father was a coal miner and I had three elder brothers and sisters; we all failed our 11 plus and went to secondary school. In 1971 I auditioned for the Manchester Youth Theatre for a wonderful man called Geoffrey Sykes, and I did that for three years. Then I went to Bristol University in 1973 and studied drama.

I’m from a golden era when you got grants, so I’m indebted to my local education authority for paying for my University and then paying for one term at RADA, after which I got a scholarship from the Skinners’ Company for the remaining six terms. I was very lucky, as the idea of taking on a £25,000 debt would have scared the hell out of my family. It would have been completely alien to them - they didn’t even have a bank account. I was the first person in my family to go onto higher education, and it seems a shame that the fees these days are keeping people out of the profession. The likes of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay may not have come through if they were starting out today.

You had to have an Equity card back then, and I got mine in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Chris Durham - another wonderful man - and then I went to Nottingham Playhouse. Having always wanted to go to the RSC and be a classical actor, I seemed to get hijacked by new writing and did lots of work at the Bush, Royal Court, National and many other places. I never did get to the RSC.

My television work started with a series called Call Me Mister in 1986, but the role I still get recognised for is Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice (1995). It was hugely popular that series; it was like an almost religious experience and everybody remembers it. Just the other day on the train someone talked to me about it - it seems to produce such affection and warmth in people. They love it, and it was very lovely to be in. I was doing My Night with Reg at more or less the same time, so it was a great period. Funnily enough I think Julian Fellowes was up for the role of Mr Collins - no wonder he’s never cast me in Downton!

Present: JJ Hunsecker is just a fantastic part, and the score of Sweet Smell of Success is wonderful. I think Marvin Hamlisch is incredibly subtle as a composer - it’s very colourful music but it all seems to live in the same world. And Mehmet (Ergen) has found some sensational younger performers; I got home after the read through and thought ‘my god we could stand in a row and do it and we’d have a show’.

The Sweet Smell of Success at the Arcola. Photo: Francis Loney

I’m not a singer, I’m a bit more Rex Harrison, but I will have a go. Fortunately you don’t need to be Pavarotti to play JJ. He was played by John Lithgow on Broadway on 2002, and funnily he's here at the moment doing a play at the National Theatre (The Magistrate). But he won’t be able to criticise my American accent, because I'll just go and criticise his English one!

The show is interesting in a contemporary context; it’s set in the era when they were just starting to print salacious things about people in the press in America, whilst at the same time in this country you did not get these details. You could actually keep things out of the paper back then because there was a moral code. Over time of course we’ve caught up and we’ve now got the worst press in the world in terms of sensationalism.

It was also an extraordinary era when one journalist could boast of having so much control. It’s a recurrent theme throughout the show that JJ keeps saying “60 million people read me” - he even boasts to a senator about how he has more readers than he has voters.

We’re doing it in the largest space at the Arcola. It’s an open stage on three sides with a back wall; the band will be suspended in the air on a large platform. We have about 18 in the company, with six principles. We’re constricted slightly in what we can do and by the time we’ve had to do it because of the budgeting demands. But there is some excellent choreography and singing. It’s rather unusual as a musical, very play-like in fact. It’s not like going to another musical; it’s a somewhat adult theme. It’s serious but it’s great.

Future: I love doing theatre more than anything. I just like to play. It’s difficult, because you’re not necessarily always going to have the parts you want to play, but I just love being in the rehearsal room and I hope that will continue. I’ve frequently worked with Richard Eyre, who I think is fantastic and has been very kind to me. Likewise Roger Michell and Mike Leigh; I would love to have a project with each of one of those, that would be rather wonderful.

Whether or not Sweet Smell of Success will have a life after the Arcola I’m not entirely sure. It’s not been done in the West End before, probably because it wasn’t deemed a huge success on Broadway. But then they spend so much on a major production over there that it has to run for a few years for it to make its money back. I think it’s a wonderful show but for some reason the critics just didn’t grasp it correctly, despite it being a very good production. Hopefully people will see this show now and realise how great it really is.

- David Bamber was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Marvin Hamlisch is an amazing composer – perhaps his death earlier this year will cause a resurgence of interest in his work. I dearly hope so. His music is deceptively simple and it just creeps into your ear. He’s a true genius.


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