Julian Sands: Shifting Sands

After 20 years in Hollywood, Julian Sands returns to our screens as Laurence Olivier, no less, in a drama on the critic Kenneth Tynan, writes Gerard Gilbert

Tomorrow night, BBC4 is screening
Kenneth Tynan: In Praise of Hardcore, Chris Durlacher's play about the relationship between the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan and Sir Laurence Olivier during the formative years of the National Theatre, and it will showcase a bold piece of miscasting. The comedian Rob Brydon, the cuckold taxi driver Keith Barret in BBC2's
Marion and Geoff, plays Tynan. Though you can't blame Brydon for such an audacious escape from Keith Barret, a character in danger of defining him, the comedian is wrong as the brilliant, quicksilver, chain-smoking Tynan - too lugubrious and too stolid. Far more Keith Barret than Ken Tynan, in fact.

Tomorrow night, BBC4 is screening Kenneth Tynan: In Praise of Hardcore, Chris Durlacher's play about the relationship between the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan and Sir Laurence Olivier during the formative years of the National Theatre, and it will showcase a bold piece of miscasting. The comedian Rob Brydon, the cuckold taxi driver Keith Barret in BBC2's Marion and Geoff, plays Tynan. Though you can't blame Brydon for such an audacious escape from Keith Barret, a character in danger of defining him, the comedian is wrong as the brilliant, quicksilver, chain-smoking Tynan - too lugubrious and too stolid. Far more Keith Barret than Ken Tynan, in fact.

Comparisons may be invidious, but the portrayal of Laurence Olivier, on the other hand, is a small miracle. And what comes as a pleasant surprise is that the man behind this well-judged portrait of Olivier in his later years is Julian Sands, an actor missing from British television for over two decades, presumed lost to Hollywood.

"If one is reported as having set up camp overseas, it's as if one has made oneself unavailable," says Sands, who went to America in 1987 after the global success of A Room with a View, and who made his last appearance on British television in 1982. When Sands was offered the part of Olivier, however, he suggested that he'd make a better Tynan. "Olivier is such an icon, and I didn't want the responsibility. Tynan is a largely unknown creature, so one has more freedom to play him. Also, the age Olivier is in the piece is much older than I am," says Sands, who is 46. But Durlacher, who wrote and directed the International Emmy-winning George Orwell: A Life in Pictures, didn't want an older actor playing Olivier. "He talked about Olivier's martial presence... his vigour," says Sands.

Kenneth Tynan: In Praise of Hardcore documents the machinations during the early years of the National Theatre, with Tynan's battling credo of "goad, lacerate and raise whirlwinds" conflicting with Olivier's more cautious and enigmatic administrator. Their unlikely relationship began on Olivier's appointment, in 1962, as the National's artistic director. Tynan, a theatre critic of colossal repute, wrote to Olivier offering his services as literary manager.

"Olivier was dismissive at first. I think it was his wife Joan Plowright who urged him to reconsider," says Sands. "On Olivier's side, initially, there was great resentment because Tynan had been unkind about Vivien Leigh in his reviews. But he had a respect for Tynan's intellect.

"If Olivier's camp considered Tynan a bit of an Iago, then Olivier was a Mark Anthony. He was all soldier. He wasn't brainy; he was all heart and blood. Tynan, in turn, was enamoured of Olivier's majestic presence, his startling physicality. And, unlike some, he believed him to be a great artist."

This mutual admiration didn't extend to bisexuality, believes Sands, although there is a homo-erotic charge in Olivier's scenes with Tynan, and despite the rumours that Olivier had affairs with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Noël Coward (who was, apparently, madly in love with Olivier) and Danny Kaye. "I'm certain there was no sexual relationship between them," says Sands. "I'm equally sure that Olivier enjoyed whatever frisson he could create. It boils down to his desire to dominate, and one of the quickest ways to dominate, or gain approbation, is to flirt. Olivier was a great flirt."

Olivier has rarely been portrayed by other actors. He was played in walk-on parts in a couple of cheesy American TV mini-series about Marilyn Monroe, while Anthony Higgins played him in 1989, in a soupy dramatisation of his relationship with Vivien Leigh. In Kenneth Tynan: In Praise of Hardcore, Julian Sands gives such a clever, minimalist performance that it comes as a surprise to learn of the depth of his research, watching interviews with Olivier and talking to those who knew him. "I had a long lunch at the Garrick with his son Tarquin. A lot of what he said is actually in his book, My Father Laurence Olivier, but hearing him say it was extraordinary because he is physically very similar to his father, and about the same age as the Olivier that I am playing. His impersonations were extraordinary, but it was more useful to me when Tarquin was just being himself. The spirit of his father hovered like King Hamlet's ghost."

Sands describes playing Olivier as "osmosis", of doing the research and then forgetting about it. Copying mannerisms is a "cul-de-sac", he says. "If you watch Olivier's interviews, he has this reptilian tongue; it seems too big for his mouth. My pursuit of that became distracting, so I let it go. The thrill was finding the right pair of glasses. They became totemic."

Above all, he didn't want to "impersonate" Olivier. "As soon as you say that you're playing Olivier, people do their impersonations - all based on his film of Richard III," he says. "And they all sound like demented Daleks." In fact, it was being taken to see Olivier in Richard III at the age of eight, by his mother, a stalwart of the amateur dramatics society in the Yorkshire village where Sands and his four brothers grew up, that first inspired his thespian longings. A scholarship to an arts-friendly school further fostered it. And theatre remains his first love, although it is in movies - in particular, European art movies - that the peripatetic Sands has made his home.

He moved to the States in the wake of his dissolving first marriage - to Sarah Sands, now deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph and a novelist ("I turn up as a juggler in her first book," he says). He is on record as having described his relationship with her (he was 18 when they met, and they have a 19-year-old-son), as being like the relationship one has with the postman or milkman. "Neighbourly without being friendly, is what I was trying to say; you know, you see the postman or milkman and there is goodwill but there's no real connection."

Soon after arriving in Hollywood (where he roomed with his friend John Malkovich and struck up a profitable relationship with the British director Mike Figgis), he fell in love with and married Evgenia Citkowitz, daughter of Lady Caroline Blackwood and a former model who is always referred to as a "Guinness heiress". "It evokes some sort of 19th-century industrial wealth, of millions of pounds," says Sands."Would that it were so!" They have two daughters and are based in the West Hollywood hills, although Sands spends every summer here and is keen to do more British television.

"The gauntlet is down. You can print my phone number. As a fortysomething actor, you reach a plateau of maturity from which you can really get stuck in. I'm more enthusiastic and excited about work than ever. I know now what I'm about."

' Kenneth Tynan: In Praise of Hardcore' is on BBC4 tomorrow at 9pm

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