The Bafta and two-time Olivier-winning star of Citizen Smith and My Family talks about his latest role and unexpected TV hits.
Is your new play, Prism, based on someone close to you?
It’s very personal and is set in the Buckinghamshire village where I live. I met Jack Cardiff (the Oscar-winning cinematographer adored by Hollywood’s leading ladies) towards the end of his life.
I did a eulogy at his funeral 10 years ago and befriended his son, Mason. He showed me around the garage that contained all of Jack’s artefacts, including a picture of Marilyn Monroe, on which she had written: “My darling Jack, if only I could be how you made me look.”
Mason told me about his dad’s dementia, and how he confused his carers for actresses from his films, like Marilyn and Katharine Hepburn. I felt it was a story we had to tell.
Have you been surprised by its success?
We showed writer Terry Johnson the memorabilia and, within two weeks, he came up with a script. We put it on at Hampstead Theatre and it was a huge success. Now we are touring it around some of the biggest theatres in the country.
What’s next for the show?
We have someone who wants to put it on Broadway. And Martin Scorsese, who was a huge fan of Jack’s, is very informed as to the play’s development. There is talk about making a film. It’s been a real journey for Mason and I.
You’ve taken a play from the UK to Broadway before in Me And My Girl?
It was a big success, but I remember being terrified taking it to Broadway. We opened in Los Angeles and the theatre was half-full with only OK reviews. I didn’t think it was going to work in America, but I was told to wait until it was in New York. I never unpacked, because I’d seen friends open shows and leave the next morning, but I ended up being there for two-and-a-half years.
Do you prefer stage to TV work?
A lot of TV work I’ve done has been to finance my stage career. I’m just surprised that some of them have been so successful. You think they will pay the bills and then go off and do something at The National, and then I realise a lot of the television has been successful.
Look at Citizen Smith, which had 20 million viewers, and My Family, which got 10 million every Friday. I thought it would last one series, so its popularity took me by surprise.
Are you looking forward to coming back to Edinburgh?
Yes. The only time I’ve ever worked in Edinburgh was in 1991 when I did Becket with Derek Jacobi at the King’s. I’ve been up for the festival and things since, but not in a working capacity.
Prism, also starring Tara Fitzgerald, is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Mon-Sat