‘I live completely anonymously,’ whispers Jim Broadbent down the phone from Lincolnshire. Nonsense, I counter. You’re one of the most recognisable actors in this united luvviedom. ‘Am I?’ he asks gently.
Oh come on. You’re Bridget Jones’s dad, Del Boy’s arch-enemy Roy Slater, Lord Longford campaigning for Myra Hindley’s parole, dotty antiques-shop owner Samuel Gruber in the Paddington films, Game of Thrones’s Archmaester Ebrose, testy but lovable W.S. Gilbert in Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, and the blackmailer who unacceptably shakes down Maggie Smith’s eponymous Lady in the Van.
I best know Broadbent as Prince Albert in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol (1988), trying to go incognito among the commoners by passing himself off as Glaswegian. ‘Ah, fine city,’ says Blackadder of Glasgow. ‘I love the Gorbals.’ ‘Yes, the Gorbals,’ retorts Broadbent, as Albert, uncertainly in an unmistakably German accent. ‘I love them, too. A lovely couple, lots of fun.’
The literati recall him fondly opposite Judi Dench as decrepit Oxford don John Bayley in Iris (2001), a performance that earned Broadbent an Oscar. Others will know him as the ghost of Denis Thatcher haunting Meryl Streep’s Maggie in The Iron Lady (2011). And those who saw him as blinded Gloucester in the BBC’s King Lear on the BBC last year may well have wondered when Broadbent, now 70, was going to get to play the title role.
Surely, I suggest, you’re so recognisable that if you slackened your pace as you strode through King’s Cross Station you’d be mobbed by Pottermaniacs demanding selfies with Professor Horace Slughorn? ‘But I wouldn’t slacken,’ he laughs. ‘I’ve never been spotted.’ Never? ‘Well, not there. I do get stopped but not often. People are generally totally pleasant.’
He’s certainly better at going incognito than Prince Albert. A colleague of mine once nipped to the loo during an interview with Broadbent. Returning, he thought the actor had done a runner, but no. Some bloke in a woolly hat tapped his arm. ‘You didn’t recognise me, did you?’ said Broadbent. ‘I merge into the background, me.’
Am I sure the voice on the other end of the line belongs to the man born in 1949 in Holton cum Beckering to pacifist parents, Doreen and Roy, both sculptors and amateur actors who gave their son his acting debut as one of the children in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in a prisoner-of-war Nissen hut? Not entirely.
Broadbent’s celebrity will be tested later this month when he enters stage left at London’s Park Theatre unrehearsed. Dressed as a 1950s detective, he’ll find himself amid a scripted ensemble of actors and tasked with solving a murder. ‘I won’t have a clue what’s going on,’ says Broadbent.
Clive Anderson, Gillian Anderson, John Bishop, Gyles Brandreth, Marcus Brigstocke, Broadbent, Simon Callow, Ronan Keating, Damian Lewis, Maureen Lipman, Joanna Lumley, Juliet Stevenson, Meera Syal, Catherine Tate, Tim Vine and Ruby Wax will all have their lines fed to them live on stage via an earpiece as they attempt to crack the case. ‘There’s a roster of the glitterati — and me,’ says Broadbent.
Audiences won’t know which guest performer will take the role each night. What if I come to see you only to find Gyles Brandreth strutting and fretting on stage‚ can I get my money back? ‘I wouldn’t have thought so. More likely Gillian Anderson fans will want their money back once I turn up.’
The show, called Whodunnit, could be a disaster, I suggest with improper glee. ‘It could,’ he says, possibly rolling his eyes in exasperation. ‘But what a relief not to have to rehearse!’ What in your career prepared you for this role? ‘I suppose working with Mike Leigh because we improvised our way into roles — though there was always a script before we shot.’
Broadbent and the glitterati are offering their services to this tiny theatre because it gets no Arts Council funding. ‘Its budget is £300,000 and it’s earning only £200,000.’
He knows how difficult it is to run an unsubsidised theatre. His parents co-founded a troupe called the Holton Players who eventually found a home in 1970 in a Methodist chapel his dad converted in the Lincolnshire village of Wickenby. It’s now called the Broadbent Theatre (in honour of Roy, not Jim) and last year saw a production of Ian Sharp’s play called Conchies — about his parents’ community of artists, accountants, teachers, journalists and architects (one of the latter was the grandfather of Blur’s Damon Albarn) who came to Lincolnshire to farm rather than fight in the second world war.
He graduated from acting school in London in 1972 and gave himself a decade to make it as an actor. In 1976 he appeared in Illuminatus! alongside Bill Nighy, a nine-hour production by the maverick theatre director Ken Campbell in which he played a dozen roles. In the 1980s, he was one half of the double act the National Theatre of Brent, hamming it up as Marie Antoinette or the Virgin Mary in hilarious re-enactments of the Bible and the French revolution.
Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway (1994) fired him into the mainstream, though. Allen’s wife Mia Farrow, going through divorce at the time, offered Broadbent her congratulations when he got the part, adding: ‘He’s a great director, just don’t have babies by him.’
Regrets? ‘Not really. Anything I should regret?’ Perhaps Game of Thrones a couple of years ago was a misstep? After all, another seasoned actor sucked into its orbit, Ian McShane, called it ‘just tits and dragons’. ‘A lot of actors of my generation took that route. I quite like these big productions like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. And I played a good character. So no regrets.’
The only real regret he will admit to is Martin McDonagh’s play A Very Very Very Dark Matter last year in which he played Hans Christian Andersen. It suggested the Dane’s fictions were written by Marjory, a small Congolese woman he kept imprisoned for 16 years in a 3ft cage. ‘I thought it was hysterically funny. Not everybody agreed, which was a shame.’
The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree (they rarely do in Lincolnshire: not far from Broadbent’s cottage Isaac Newton encountered one that spurred his thinking about gravity). Not only does Broadbent share his parents’ anti-war views, having attended a Quaker boarding school, but he’s also turned, late in life, sculptor. As has his brother, a retired architect. I suspect he’d rather put down the receiver at the cottage he shares with his wife, the painter Anastasia Lewis, and go off to the garden shed to whittle.
Broadbent’s human figures, roughly carved in wood, then painted and clad in charity-shop children’s clothes, went on show four years ago at the Royal Festival Hall. After gazing at them for a while, visitors found that the anonymous figures started to resemble Broadbent’s directors. There was Campbell, there Leigh. Could that be Woody Allen? Maybe.
I imagine him carving contentedly in Lincolnshire — soulmate to the working-class London chef Andy he plays in Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet (1990), who also found solace in his shed. ‘I’ve started working in clay. I’m getting better. I get a great thrill from all the creative stuff I do.’
Last year he published a graphic novel called Dull Margaret, based on Bruegel’s 1563 painting ‘Dulle Griet’ in which the anti-heroine (aka Mad Meg) leads an army of women to pillage Hell. In Broadbent’s version, drawn by the Welsh cartoonist Dix, the heroine is a potato-faced wraith on a mission to restore her worldly status. ‘I love her. She’s struggling, flawed and bulky, a victim of her own predicament. And her tragedy is to look just like me, poor thing.’ How very Broadbent — the actor who hides behind his roles and disappears from view in real life — to disclose himself unflatteringly in the form of a barmy, ugly woman drawn by someone else.
Are you winding down? ‘Nah. It’s just delightful when things come up that excite me. And they do.’ He’s soon to head off to Belgium to film with Lesley Manville in what he calls a ‘noirish thriller’ called The Tutor about which he will tell me nothing, except that he won’t be playing a detective. ‘I’ll never retire,’ vows Broadbent. If indeed that was him on the other end of the line.
Whodunnit [Unrehearsed] is at Park Theatre from 15 to 27 July and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 31 July to 26 August.