Peter Vaughan has been delivering fine performances for decades — Grouty in Porridge and Robert Lindsay’s prospective father-in-law in Citizen Smith, among many others — but it is only lately, since he became a pensioner, that a large swath of the population has finally put his name to his face.
His performance as the Alzheimer’s sufferer Felix Hutchinson in Our Friends in the North and his wonderful turn as Anthony Hopkins’s father in The Remains of the Day were the parts that finally did it for him. ‘They were my favourites,’ says the 84-year-old actor. He adds, however, that he has another film now that is every bit as special to him — Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral, which opens this week. He plays Uncle Alfie, the elder statesman of a feuding family which gathers to bury a relative.
Matthew Macfadyen, one of his co-stars, told him that he could quite happily have kept on working on the film for a couple of years because there was such a great atmosphere on the set. I ask Vaughan if, with so much bonhomie, he ever corpsed. Bad move.
‘I don’t do that,’ he says, his flinty, pale blue eyes suddenly narrowing. ‘I remember when I was making Straw Dogs the director, Sam Peckinpah, said he never wanted to see actors laughing at each other because when they are conscious that they are funny they cease to be funny. I can’t bear it when I pay good money to go to the theatre with my wife and we see actors on stage giggling with each other when they shouldn’t be. It is unprofessional.’
Some actors can cry on cue but Vaughan, the consummate pro, can do one better than that. One thinks of the droplet that fell from his nose into a bowl of soup as he served Lord Darlington’s guests in The Remains of the Day. How many takes did he need for that? ‘One, fortuitously. I did not have a cold at the time. The make-up girls gave me a solution to put up my nostril. I am not sure what it was, but it caused a reaction of some kind in my nose, and the required droplet fell at precisely the right moment.’
It is not hard to see why the director James Ivory cast him as Mr Stevens Snr. That old retainer’s professionalism — his desire to see that ‘everything is in hand’ — is every bit as much of an obsession of Vaughan. Typically, before he started work on Our Friends in the North he spent many hours at a home that cared for Alzheimer’s sufferers. ‘One wants to be real, above all things,’ he says.
He has come up the traditional way — years in rep and then the West End stage and small parts in films and on television — and, as he says, no part has ever fallen into his lap. Even as Mr Stevens Snr — a part it now seems inconceivable that anyone else could have played — he says he was up against strong opposition. ‘There are unfortunately a lot of us old guys around.’
His first big break was playing Ed in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane at Wyndham’s Theatre in 1964. ‘Joe was a one-off. He would always wear army boots, a Chairman Mao jacket and an old War Department gas mask over his shoulder in which he had his meat pie for lunch and his copy of the script. If I asked him about a line, he’d tell me it means whatever I want it to mean. Pinter would say the same thing and, years later, when I was making the film The Crucible, so, too, did Arthur Miller.’
Vaughan was married for more than a decade to the actress Billie Whitelaw. He affects to remember little, if anything, of the union, but some years ago he told a journalist he wondered if he had been much good at communicating his emotions in those days. His parents — father was a bank clerk and mother a nurse — were unhappily married. He was a loner during his childhood and early adolescence.
A difficult war had followed. He served in Normandy and Belgium as an officer, which he says was ‘terrifying’. Later, in the Far East, he was at the liberation of Changi jail. He saw things that he still cannot talk about. ‘It was a strange way, between the ages of 18 and 24, to form a character. I think I was in a daze when I came back to Britain. It took me a while to come to terms with it.’
A critic once said that Vaughan could convey menace reading a weather forecast. One wonders if his early life made him the kind of actor that he is. ‘Obviously one’s experiences inform one’s acting. I think the more experience you have of life, the better it is for an actor. In terms of the parts I played, I think my face had more to do with it. Clearly I wasn’t ever going to play romantic leads.’
He tackles every job with relish — ‘I have always approached every one I have done as if it will be my last and that it’s the one I will be judged by’ — and he has affection, too, even for his less than successful ventures, such as Fatherland, the film version of Robert Harris’s thriller. ‘I enjoyed that because of the part — I was playing a Nazi. Obviously some of the things I have done have been better than others, but I have always tried my best. That’s what counts. Arthur Lowe once said to me that it is our job not only to do the classics but also to disguise, where necessary, bad scripts.’
If he has a ‘career guru,’ it is, he says, Lilias, his wife of the past 40 years. ‘She was a much finer actor than me, but she gave it up to raise the family. I owe her everything.’ He has lately welcomed Gregor Fisher — better known as Rab C. Nesbitt — to the family as his son-in-law. He laughs at the mention of his name. Clearly nothing daunts this man.
He is in good nick for an octogenarian, which is just as well as he is seldom, if ever, not working these days. He has just completed filming a one-off drama called Christmas at the Riviera which will be broadcast by ITV1 over Christmas. The day after we met he was about to start work on a new film with Michael Caine about life in a nursing home. ‘This is no time to take it easy — I am in my prime,’ he says, quite seriously.
Tim Walker is the Sunday Telegraph’s Mandrake editor and theatre critic.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 3, 2007