Actor Martin Jarvis OBE tells us about life, love and turning 80 as he prepares to star as Ted Heath in Michael McManus’ smash hit play Maggie & Ted at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud this month
Q. Maggie & Ted sounds a wonderful play. Has playing Ted changed your understanding of Sir Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher? And do you think Ted was entitled to his “Incredible Sulk”? “Yes, it’s an extraordinary play. Brilliantly observant. Very funny! Surprisingly moving at times. The author Michael McManus was Ted’s Private Secretary. He has based so much of his play on personal recollections. So if, as ‘Ted’ I ever wanted to question a line or speech in the drama, ie ‘Would Heath ever say this? Michael is likely to reply ‘Well he did, I was there!’ Haha!
I once had the pleasure of actually meeting him. He suddenly arrived at a wine-bar/restaurant where my wife [Rosalind Ayres] and I were dining. He hadn’t booked and he and his eight young musician companions needed a table. With the help of the manageress, Ros and I relinquished ours. As we withdrew to park ourselves near the door he turned to us and, with immense charm and his familiar widening smile, announced: ‘Thank you so much. Very grateful.’
So that’s where I have begun in inhabiting the fascinating, and as I learnt, complex character of Edward Heath. Unexpected charm. I’ve much enjoyed discovering, too, how amusing he was. His comments about Maggie are often extremely funny, though sometimes with an undertow of misogyny and deep disapproval. I don’t think he ever quite recognised how very alike they were. Their backgrounds were oddly similar. I hadn’t appreciated how lonely a person he was, even early in his political career. And how cool and comedic he could be – his television encounter with Dame Edna (which occurs in the play) is a classic. When he lost office others termed him The Incredible Sulk. Really this came from the popular television character ‘The Incredible Hulk’. I sense he quite enjoyed the pun, even using it himself in public.”
Q. Do you follow British politics now? And how do you think this Conservative government compares to the times when Maggie & Ted is set? “How could I not follow current events and policies? Some things never change. Only perhaps ways of demonstrating attitudes and disunity. Perhaps there was more apparent courtesy offered in political exchanges in those older days. But in private, the attitudes of differing personalities, points of view, mindsets, jealousies were probably just as bitter, vitriolic, corrosive. Fortunately they didn’t have to deal with the pitfalls of social media.”
Q. You are renowned for your acting, and mellifluous voice – how do you take care of it? Anything you don’t eat or drink? “Well, thanks. I gave up smoking when I was 16, which I presume helped a bit! I’m told singers have a glass of warm water standing by in the recording studio for the occasional sip, to keep the throat open and relaxed. And an apple ready for the odd bite to prevent the sound of ‘lip-smacks’ on the microphone. I prefer cold water and a banana! Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been a great singer!”
Q. When did you know acting was for you? Were there any actors you remember being dazzled by growing up? “When I was selected for the school Shakespeare plays (Whitgift, Croydon, Surrey) I found I had an instinctual understanding of some of the verse and characters. Thanks to an inspirational English teacher, Maurice Etherington, I discovered I could speak the text believably and make it sound natural.
Actors that dazzled me ranged from Terry-Thomas the great comic performer and the superb actor Alan Badel. And on stage and film: John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson. Later I was lucky enough to work with many of them. Not Olivier. Though I did speak to him on the phone when he rang-up to offer Ros Ayres a role. It seemed almost surreal when I asked: ‘Who’s calling?’ and he said in those recognisably crisp tones, ‘Larry Olivier!’
Gielgud gave me some wonderful advice when I was embarking on Peter Hall’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the National Theatre, with Judi Dench. ‘Acting in Wilde’ (said Sir John) is best approached with all the seriousness of taking part in an elaborate practical joke’? He was right. We found that the more deadpan and ‘earnest’ you were, how much the comedy increased.”
Q. I laughed at an interview in which you say you almost trod on the Queen… is this still your most embarrassing moment?“Ah yes, it was fairly embarrassing. At a Windsor reception I hadn’t realised that Her Majesty had suddenly arrived and was standing just behind me. I had backed, laughing at something one of our group had said – oh dear – I then turned and apologised to the queen profusely. Absurdly it didn’t end there. Some years later at a party given by Jeffrey Archer I had to edge along a row of seats in order to get to my own. Unfortunately I had, in passing, trodden on Margaret Thatcher’s toe. Again an apology. In Maggie and Ted I haven’t yet trodden on the wonderful Clare Bloomer’s foot, either by accident or design. She plays Maggie superbly and would no doubt improvise a characterful response. When I was fortunate enough to be awarded the OBE for services to Drama a friend suggested it should really have been for services to Apology.”
Q. What’s your first memory of music? And your favourite song? “My first music memory (if I could call it that) was my attempt at the age of five to play the xylophone in the school carol service. I hit the wood more times than the metal bars.
My favourite song? It changes all the time. Sometimes it’s Schubert’s The Trout. Sometimes, especially now that we hope the world is opening up, the emotional and rhythmic After Hours by Weeknd.
Sometimes it’s Half a Moment from Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves. I listened to it from the wings every night when I played Jeeves on Broadway. A genuinely moving ‘relationship’ song that gradually turns into a supremely comic rendition because of Alan’s brilliant staging.”
Q. What’s the most surprising lesson fatherhood has taught you? “That the fun and laughter goes on forever. Toby Jarvis is composer of everything from popular game show music to television ads, and the scores for plays by Ibsen, Sheridan and Wilde.
Olly Jarvis, criminal barrister, is also a best-selling author of legal thrillers, (his latest: The Genesis Inquiry.)”
Q. Having voiced so many great stories – do you read a lot for pleasure and if so who is your favourite author and why?“I read for pleasure, though very often it’s also for professional reasons. PG. Wodehouse, Michael Frayn, Christopher Matthew, Gyles Brandreth, Olly Jarvis are all authors who can make me laugh aloud – and also make me think. I’m grateful for my long association with Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories. Have just recorded five more for Radio 4 to be broadcast this Christmas. My favourite biographer is Claire Tomalin. I’m proud to have recorded so much of these remarkable writers’ work, either as a performer or as producer/director for BBC radio or audiobook.”
Q. Many happy belated returns on your 80th birthday. How do you feel in your ninth decade and how did you & will you celebrate?“Ros arranged two ‘celebrations’- a family dinner the weekend before, and a ‘friends’ dinner the weekend after. In between, business as usual. On the actual day I visited the dentist, and then recorded a voiceover for an American company. Should perhaps have been the other way round? Cold water and a banana saw me through.”
Q. If you could make one wish for the world, what would it be? “One wish can never be enough – we desperately need an end to all the various horrors that are currently being visited upon us. This short piece, A Soldier’s Dream from the 1st World War poet Wilfred Owen comes to mind. He was 24 when he wrote it, in 1917. Killed in action the next year, a week before the armistice was declared.
‘I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big guns gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.’
Q: We look forward to the play in Guildford & lots of best wishes & thank you for your time. “Thank you, Liz. I’ve always appreciated Guildford. I came here in the 1960s to audition for the Surrey Scholarship that, somehow, I was awarded. Which meant I could go to RADA and begin to really understand what it might be like to be an actor. I’m thrilled to be back.”
Martin Jarvis OBE & Clare Bloomer star in Maggie and Ted at the Yvonne Arnaud, 12th-16th October. Visit yvonne-arnaud.co.uk or call 01483 44 00 00 to book.
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