The actor Ed Stoppard is kicking off the year in some nice period costumes. One of our brightest young actors, he’s back at 165 Eaton Place in the new BBC Upstairs Downstairs (reviewed on page 60) playing the diplomat Sir Hallam Holland. It’s got gas masks, the Munich Crisis, cocktails, a dead pet monkey, the odd conchie servant and, not least from Ed’s point of view, some great clothes.
‘In this series I get to wear jodhpurs and hacking jacket, naval uniform, black tie, white tie and a dressing-gown that would make Hugh Hefner green with envy. It will look sumptuous — more so than the last series. So there will be more bang for your buck,’ says Stoppard, who is hardly ever off-screen in a show whose great blessing is that, unlike Downton Abbey, it doesn’t have adverts every three minutes.
In London, the 36-year-old actor is also about to open in a new play, opposite the gorgeous if atrociously spelt supermodel Agyness Deyn (formerly known as Laura Hollins). She made it on to the cover of Vogue, having been discovered while working in a Hull fish-and-chip shop. So can we expect some cod acting in this her stage debut in a tiny 80-seat theatre in the West End? ‘Listen, she can act. She can genuinely act,’ says Ed gallantly. ‘Like you, I didn’t know who she was. All I know is she’s a 28-year-old supermodel and what on earth must they earn? She certainly doesn’t need to be working in Trafalgar Studios 2. She’s doing it because she wants to. I think she’s incredibly brave.’
The play, by Québécois playwright François Archambault, is a sexually very frank comedy about self-obsessed, utterly ghastly East Coast yuppies who are keen to adopt a Chinese child largely because it’ll be good at maths. ‘It’s genuinely funny, it’s contemporary, very American. It’s really all about the cost of keeping up with the Joneses and the truth is that for me it’s a change. There are certain parts of the industry where you can have a bit more control. In theatre, that’s the fringe, where you can have a crack at different things. The fact is I have spent a considerable part of my career playing, for want of a better term, posh people in period roles.’
You can see what he means. He has recently been in Any Human Heart, Belle du Seigneur (as another diplomat) and he has played famous Euro-poshies Tchaikovsky and Hamlet. Posh, though, has its advantages. The actor Simon Williams, star of the original Upstairs Downstairs, once observed that the caterers and film crew treated the show’s upstairs cast much more deferentially than they did the downstairs skivvies, which is almost too good to be true. But Ed Stoppard feels he needs a break from posh. ‘Honestly, look at my CV and they go on and fucking on! They are fantastic roles and I had a great time playing them. But there’s a risk of being pigeonholed. I have woken up and thought, “Shit, I have just played five characters in the 1930s.” The fact is, I don’t play many drug dealers who talk li’that,’ he says in his best mockney.
Edmund Stoppard is the son of Tom Stoppard by his second marriage to Miriam Stoppard, whom he left for Felicity Kendal. Ed has got his father’s cheekbones, jawline and full lips. He cuts a very similar dash. Perhaps the most endearing thing about Ed is that he clearly adores his witty father, though in showbiz having a famous pater is a mixed blessing. ‘Starting out it was intimidating enough to have a writer as a parent; how people whose parents are successful actors manage I don’t know.’
Is his father any good at acting? Ed roars with laughter. ‘God, no. Dad can’t act for toffee! Acting is not what he does. He’s totally a writer. He’s sometimes given the label of quintessential English dramatist — erudite and intellectual and witty. But I suppose it all depends on your definition of English.’ There is nothing more English than a speech in Stoppard’s The Real Thing, in which the sound of a well-struck cricket ball is likened to the sound of a trout taking a fly. Perhaps Ed acts as English as his father writes,which is why he’s so in demand in period dramas.
The vile Rex Harrison once said to his performer son that he would never attend one of his shows because he couldn’t bear being bored. Sir Tom is kinder and presumably more useful? ‘Holy shit, yes! He is always saying useful things. He’s a proper touchstone for me. One of his favourite phrases is you are over-revving — he means demonstrating a part rather than, you know, being it. He is always, always generous, though, and he has superlative instincts; his barometer is very rarely off.’
Ed’s father-in-law is Chris Stamp, co-manager of The Who in their late-Sixties hotel-trashing heyday. Ed’s chat-up line when he met Stamp’s daughter was that he had loved Terence Stamp, her film star uncle, in the film The Hit. It worked; they married and now have three daughters. As for acting, he says it beats sitting in front of a computer screen all day.
Upstairs Downstairs will bump Ed into the front rank of TV drama celebdom. But the show has been somewhat cursed during filming: Jean Marsh had a stroke and Eileen Atkins (both actors created together the 1970s original) quit, muttering darkly about the scripts. Actually, the scripts by Heidi Thomas (the Cranford writer who is basking in the glow of the hit series Call the Midwife) have their moments. When asked by his wife why he didn’t stand up to his negligent mother, Ed’s character, Sir Hallam, memorably replied: ‘I was brought up to be polite to strangers.’
Sensibly, the cast is stuffed with good-looking women and there’s a hopefully torrid romance between Lady Alresford and Hallam’s aunt (Emilia Fox and Alex Kingston) to look forward to. ‘They are lesbians in the 1930s, which is interesting. You can’t just have stories about people pushing bits of poached salmon around dinner plates.’
It is ironic that Ed should be playing the male lead in a storyline set during the Munich sell-out, at exactly the time when in real life the Straüssler family of Zlin, Czechoslovakia, fled to Singapore, Raj India and eventually England where the tiny tot Tomas evolved into Tom Stoppard. One day Ed must surely play his father in a docudrama about that journey. ‘You’re not the first to suggest it,’ smiles Ed. ‘But that’s never going to happen. My dad wouldn’t be interested and I am not sure I would either — I get called “Tom” quite enough as it is.’
The Leisure Society is previewing at the Trafalgar Studios 2, Whitehall, from Tuesday 28 February and runs until Saturday 24 March.