Mary Wakefield talks to Roger Allam and discovers that he thinks acting is only a game
As I meet Roger Allam’s eye, in the bar area of Shakespeare’s Globe, I feel a lurch of dread. I love Roger Allam. I’ve held a torch for him since the mid-Eighties, when he starred in Les Mis as the original and best Inspector Javert — but the look in his eye today is one of profound boredom. It bodes badly.
You must be in the middle of rehearsals [for Henry IV Part 1] I say, brightly. ‘Yes.’ He looks out of the window at the glittering Thames. It must be difficult to do interviews then — do you still feel in character as Falstaff? ‘No. Not really.’ Roger Allam is, everyone says, a nice man. He’s certainly talented: one of the most versatile actors around. He’s played Hitler (‘It’s a matter of getting the eyebrows right’); a drag artist (for which he won an Olivier award); a royal retainer (in The Queen, opposite Helen Mirren). But he’s not putting on his best performance right now.
I start again, this time with his childhood. What sort of a schoolboy were you? Allam shakes the hair out of his eyes and thinks. He’s attractive, a little louche-looking — like Christopher Hitchens in his heyday, if he’d had a heyday.
‘My school was full of psychotic bastards,’ says Allam. ‘It was an eccentric school called Christ’s Hospital and it seemed a very hostile environment to me.’ Your nickname was ‘Zombie’, wasn’t it? I say. Why was that? He looks at me with cold dead eyes. Oh, Lord.
How do you deal with Zombies? The answer, in Allam’s case, turns out to be simple: just ask him about the theatre, and the light goes on.
‘The acting bug first bit when I went to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic,’ he says. ‘I went on my own and it seemed like the most extraordinary adventure, getting a ticket and all that stuff. I’d been studying Hamlet, so I understood the jokes and we all laughed together in the audience. I just got it.’ So that’s when you thought, ‘I want to be on stage?’ ‘The things that impress you when you’re a child have an incredible influence on your life.’ Allam’s eyes have finally lit up: ‘David Lean’s Great Expectations, The Third Man…I remember my early theatre experiences much more clearly than recent stuff. I can still hear David Waller and Alan Howard in Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream — I can actually hear them!’
Allam’s early career was diverse. In the mid-Seventies he joined a feminist theatre group; he was part of a jug band that played in clubs — ‘at one stage I wanted to be a folk singer’ — he joined the RSC and then along came Les Misérables. Did you have any inkling of how successful it was going to be? ‘No. It was my first time, so I just assumed the West End was always like that. How wrong I was.’ Did you enjoy Les Mis? (I suspect not, from the look in his eye.) ‘Well…no. Not really, I have to say. There’s no scope for your own interpretation, your own timing. You have these little head mikes, so if you decide to sing very, very loudly they turn them down at the controls. If you sing softly, they turn them up.’ So Allam turned his back on the glamour and cash to star in Arthur Miller’s The Archbishop’s Ceiling, a decision which Miller himself admired greatly. ‘This is part of what theatre culture means,’ he said of Allam’s choice. ‘And it is something few New York actors would have the sense of security to even dream of doing.’
You’ve played so many and such contrasting characters — do you worry that you’ll get typecast if you stay with one character too long? ‘Maybe it’s a form of running away,’ he says. ‘Maybe I’m fearful of being pinned down. It’s a pretty amateur approach, a bit of this, a bit of that, isn’t it?’ It’s a great English tradition, I say. He smiles, ‘Yes, I suppose it is.’
One of the most attractive things about Allam (when he’s warmed up) is that he takes acting so lightly: for him it’s fun; a challenge but not one to overdramatise. When I become embarrassingly over-earnest about the process of acting, he says in a kindly voice: ‘Listen, it’s only a game! Children do it all the time. When I watch my sons play, I think, God, acting’s the most natural thing in the world. They take the Star Wars characters and say, “Let’s pretend that I’m Hans and you’re Luke and that we’re on this planet,” etc. They direct themselves, too — they step outside their roles to decide the plot, then they’re right back into it.’ Acting — it’s child’s play.
Is it just as fun to act on TV? ‘Yes, it is, actually,’ says Allam, who was superb as the MP Peter Mannion in The Thick of It. ‘But the problem is, they haven’t got the budget for good drama. It’s all “reality” TV now.’ He rolls his eyes. I say: every time I turn on the TV it’s showing a medical show called Embarrassing Bodies. Allam become animated: ‘I know! Isn’t it extraordinary! I had to switch it off the other day because it was putting me off my dinner. There was this woman with a strange cat-flap over her arse. Everyone’s just desperate to be on TV — I mean, I know how they feel, but I hope I wouldn’t go that far!’ Roger Allam and I, we’re getting on! My ten-year-old self is thrilled.
So, perhaps it’s safe to return to Falstaff, to end where we began. What’s it like trying to inhabit the old rogue? ‘God, he talks a lot!’ says Allam,
How did you begin to research him? ‘I started to look around for people he might be a bit like, garrulous men, storytellers. I started thinking about Billy Connolly, actually; the way he tells shaggy-dog stories, captures an audience, his zest. And George Melly, he’s another one.’
But Falstaff is a tragic figure really, isn’t he? He’s not as jolly as he makes out? ‘Like many a heavy drinker, Falstaff can be absolutely the life and soul, then suddenly be in a dark, lonely place,’ says Allam. ‘Well, think about the world he lived in. London was chaos — death everywhere. Look.’ Allam points out of the window, down the glittering Thames. ‘There would have been 30 or 40 severed heads on London Bridge. Some traveller to Europe described it. It’s incredible. You’d need a drink in those dark times, wouldn’t you? Imagine the theatre-goers: “Shall we go and see a play, darling? Oh, look, someone new’s been executed! Perhaps we could stop off at Bedlam and have a laugh at the mad people on the way?”’ Allam laughs, darkly.
Is there anything of Falstaff in your character? ‘Me? Oh, I’m not a creature of excess,’ he says. ‘I’m half-hearted, an amateur compared with him!’ I’m not entirely sure I believe him.
Henry IV Part 1 is in rep at Shakespeare’s Globe from 6 June–2 October