Master of disguise

A tricky customer, Alan Bates. He has a show to plug, 'The Master Builder', but that doesn't stop him playing hard to get. Interview by Georgina Brown

It's an odd thing how real life shrinks an actor. And it's not just a matter of an inch or two. I'm no giraffe (5ft 51/2in) but, unlike Julie Christie in Far From the Madding Crowd, I wouldn't have to stand on tiptoes to kiss Alan Bates.

The surprisingly slight and - I'll come clean - disappointingly unhunky Alan Bates (the grey Spanish guitarist moustache doesn't help) sighs hugely as he flops into his deep squidgy sofa. "Mmmmm, ooowah," he grunts, with a look of only vaguely benevolent resignation about what he's putting himself through. The length and breadth of that sigh suggests something else too. At 61, Bates is almost passed caring what anybody might or might not make of him. That he doesn't care all that much may be illustrated by his letting the dishwasher rudely gurgle its way through our meeting; that he still cares a little is evident in his habit of pulling his shirt collar up to his chin, eager to hide any hint that his cheeks have begun to flop down his neck.

Bates hates being interviewed chez lui,but there's packing to be done and a plane to be caught and no time to drag me out to a nice impersonal coffee bar. So all around us are clues, including paintings, photographs of Bates's late wife Victoria and the twins - Benedick, a promising young actor, and Tristan, who died of a freak asthma attack five years ago. If you ask Bates how he is bearing up, he gives a practiced response: "You have to reckon with the mysteries of life."

Eventually he forgets he's being photographed and settles down and fidgets less, the busy-busy eyes get quite twinkly, but he remains impenetrable. The rather camp way he talks and tosses his lustrous mop of thick black floppy curls makes you glance surreptitiously behind the door for the cape and cane that he must surely have just cast off. Still, he's content to chat about playing the lead in one of the actor's greatest challenges, The Master Builder, his first Ibsen and a marvellously complex interweaving of love, guilt and fantasy for Peter Hall. "He [Solness] knows this is a relationship in which he can't be fulfilled and she [Hilde], 20 years younger, is full of euphoria and illusion about what can happen, full of that fire of youth. It's a relationship ruined by hideous timing. It's not easy but I love it. Peter lets everyone find out what their instincts are making them do [Bates is big on acting as instinct]. I do love directors who can say 'I was absolutely wrong about that, you were right' - it's very shared and you can function that way."

Hall worked with Bates once before, when it was generally agreed that his performance went some way to salvaging Peter Shaffer's ill-fated revamping of the Old Testament, Yonadab (which, in Bates's opinion was a chamber piece mistaken for an epic and swallowed up by the Olivier stage). "He's the softest hardest actor," says Hall "which makes him great for The Master Builder. It's not a self-portrait of Ibsen but it takes elements of his character - ambition, sexual guilt, guilt at being an artist, the loneliness of it, the doubt about whether you are as good as the world says you are." Elements shared by Bates, perhaps? "I'm not Solness," he says. "Acting is acting."

Alan Bates was "fascinated" by acting from the age of 11 when his mother began taking him to the Derby Little Theatre Club where John Osborne and John Dexter were the leading actors. "And much better as writer and director they proved to be," he giggles. Bates's father was a musician forced to earn his living as an insurance clerk. "I think he could have been something but he didn't push hard enough," Bates reflects. But when young Alan set his sights on RADA, his parents made sure he had the best voice coaching.

Once there his determination was sharpened by the fierce competition from fellow students. His was a phenomenal year: John Stride, Brian Bedford, Rosemary Leach, Roy Kinnear, Keith Baxter, Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Peter Bowles, Richard Briars, James Booth. Rarely do so many go so far and for so long, carried initially by the wave of new writers bringing kitchen sinks, social awareness and lot of parts for younger people to the stage.

Bates spent just six months with the Midland Theatre Company before being snapped up to join the English Stage Company as a founder member. In their fourth production he played the passive Cliff to Kenneth Haigh's vitriolic Jimmy Porter in the premiere of Look Back in Anger. ("A fresh unforced performance," wrote Kenneth Tynan.) Here Bates displayed his capacity for taut stillness, an eloquent calm, an emotional economy which has stayed with him. But as the master exponent of Simon Gray's work, Bates also found a flamboyance and a biting invective matched by fewBritish actors.

He and Gray have a developed a tremendous rapport. Gray adores Bates the man ("He's the nicest, kindest, most generous..." etc) and rates Bates the actor ("His wit is always present in his acting. He has a great sense of the comedy of life. He has the most alert, sometimes wicked, always expressive eyes - he's one of those lucky actors who constantly draws your attention"). Bates's most memorable performances have been in contemporary drama by Gray, David Storey and Harold Pinter and in some of the best television of the decade, Alan Bennett's An Englishman Abroad, Gray's Unnatural Pursuits, the adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge. It takes courage to do the new, untested stuff, but it offers the chance to create a role rather than tread a well-worn path (and, as in the case of The Master Builder, invite comparison with the big boys Olivier, Michael Redgrave, John Wood and Brian Cox). Bates says he enjoys the risk of the unproven. "There is often something wrong with a new play, but I like so many elements of it that I want to take a chance."

The real gaps in his c.v. are classical roles. In a career in which Bates has scarcely stopped working, he has fitted in only the odd Shakespeare, Petruchio to Susan Fleetwood's Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo when he was 19 ("I was terrific"), Benedick opposite Felicity Kendal in a rather middle-aged but excellent Much Ado. While others carried spears for the RSC and worked up to their Macbeths and Antonys, Bates was making movies, first The Entertainer, Whistle Down the Wind and A Kind of Loving, then Zorba the Greek, Women in Love and The Go-Between (all good stuff which arguably exploited rather than challenged his talents). "I'd got this other life going but I never left the theatre at all - I've never been away from it for more than 18 months." Film work jogged along - The Rose, Nijinsky, The Fixer, An Unmarried Woman - but it was never major major league. "I had lots of offers in Hollywood and I read the scripts and felt they weren't very good. I don't quite see the point except for the money. You can get trapped there and I don't think as an English actor you are ever number one."

Is it easier to be number one over here? "It's not the same thing," he says, avoiding the question and looking at his watch. "I've reached a time in my life when it's no longer about doing what you ought to do. I just do the scripts I like." So they all say.

It's been a profoundly unsatisfying meeting. But as I wander away into a St John's Wood avenue, I find myself wondering if deeply private people are the best actors because they reserve their personalities so that other characters can occupy then. Suddenly I forgive Bates's blank mask and look forward to its illumination by Solness.

n 'The Master Builder' opens tomorrow, Theatre Royal, Haymarket (0171- 930 8800)

Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor