Profile: Acting the fool - Jim Broadbent

Actor Jim Broadbent talks with James Rampton

Jim Broadbent is a bigger plonker than Rodney in Only Fools and Horses. At least that's how he's often cast. Whether playing the dorkish father in Mike Leigh's Life Is Sweet or the compulsive-eating lothario in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, Broadbent could wally for Britain.

And he knows it. A tall, slightly dishevelled figure in rumpled blue anorak and white trainers, who shambles unrecognised into a smart Hampstead cafe, he laughs about his high quotient of screen village idiots. "Timothy Spall once said to me, `I wonder what it's like to play a character who isn't a wanker?' I told him, `You're asking the wrong man, because that's all I play.' "

Not that he minds. "Those roles are great fun to play," he observes. "As an actor, I'm quite prepared to look silly. I don't mind looking like a complete berk. It's a vital part of an actor's repertoire to be prepared to fall flat on your face. You've got to take risks, or you don't surprise anyone."

Broadbent certainly takes risks. The latest manifestation of this is his role as Peter Duffley, an incompetent bank manager in The Peter Principle, a new BBC1 sitcom. Any fears that the show would slip into a cosy, canned- laughter atmosphere are allayed by Broadbent's marvellously unhinged performance.

In the first episode, he is freaked out by a gay couple asking him for a mortgage. "The problem is," he flounders wildly, "we've completely run out of money." Eager thereafter to assert his macho credentials, he struts exaggeratedly round the office asking staff, "Did you see Top Gear last night?"

In creating his characters, Broadbent is not afraid to improvise. David Schneider, from Friday Night Armistice, plays a dim clerk in The Peter Principle. He praises Broadbent's ability to think on his feet. "Jim is instinctively in the moment," he reckons. "You don't feel he comes to rehearsals with a bag of ideas that he then hammers roughly onto the script. He tries things, and because his instinct is so good, they normally work. He makes you laugh each time he does a line and that's rare. On one hand, you're impressed, on the other, you're jealous."

Such off-the-cuff talents can push an actor over the top. Broadbent, though, is careful to remain within the realms of the feasible. "I'm always wary of going over the top. In rehearsals, I'll start off doing far too much and trust the director to say `Bring that back'. You try everything in rehearsal - that's when you can make mistakes. With something like The Peter Principle, it's a question of getting as close as you can to the line that's exciting without going over it. If it's not plausible, the audience don't care."

A consummate comedian, Broadbent is able to make his screen monsters cuddly rather than scary. Schneider acknowledges that the character of Peter "could be horrid, but Jim is such a nice bloke, he makes Peter likeable. If Jim was playing Mussolini, you'd think, `What a lovely, misunderstood guy'."

Peter is Broadbent's first leading role in a sitcom (he has never been allowed to forget that he turned down the part of Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses because of other commitments). "I liked that classic sitcom thing of the pompous oaf," he affirms. "Peter has a very grandiose opinion of himself that gets cut down to size. There have been quite a few of these characters, but I thought, `These people run our lives'. They're white, middle-class, middle-aged. What the nation looks for is to have these people shown up."

The other factor in Peter's pulling-power is that we can all identify with him. "As a race, we boast about our wonderful sense of irony, which other nations lack," Broadbent continues. "Because we're ironic, we can see there's an element of Peter in all of us. I think, `There but for a degree of knowing how silly I'd look, go I.' These people are like us; they just don't have an edit button."

In his time, Broadbent has worked with some of the world's top directors - Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), Mike Newell (The Good Father, Enchanted April) and Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Time Bandits). He still treasures his period with Woody Allen on Bullets Over Broadway. "I learnt lots," he recalls. "No one else in the world writes and directs a film entirely on his own terms every year. What's interesting is how he has set that up in America where it's star and money-based. The billings for his films are alphabetical and everyone's on the same pay. It's a benevolent dictatorship."

But the person Broadbent has learnt most from is Mike Leigh, with whom he collaborated on Goosepimples and Life Is Sweet. "He guides and manipulates a work, but you're part of the creative process. You're not just doing your own research, you're involved in the nuts-and-bolts structure. It demystifies the business of making films and plays."

In the coming months, Broadbent will be seen in major roles in big-screen versions of The Borrowers and The Avengers. But don't expect mainstream performances. "There is nothing more dull than being straight-down-the- line and not bringing any other angle. Whatever that angle is, I bring it."

The Peter Principle starts on BBC1 on Monday 2 June

EYE TEST

Born in 1950, he was brought up in Lincoln, where his parents, keen amateur actors, often used to take him to the Theatre Royal. "I was aware of acting as an option from an early age," he recounts

After school, he went to art school for a year. "Then I thought, `If I'm honest, I might as well come out as an actor'." He studied at LAMDA

His first job was at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, playing "Sprite" and "Sailor" in The Tempest. He did rep in Stoke, Ipswich, York and Chichester, before teaming up with the theatrical experimenter Ken Campbell (The Illuminatus)

He went on to found the National Theatre of Brent with Patrick Barlow and performed such jokey classics as The Greatest Story Ever Told and The Complete Guide to Sex

Among his other successes in the theatre: Habeas Corpus, A Flea in Her Ear, Kafka's Dick, The Government Inspector, and Goosepimples

Films have included: Bullets Over Broadway, Life Is Sweet, The Crying Game, The Good Father, Enchanted April, Brazil and Time Bandits. On television, he has had major roles in: Heroes and Villains, Murder Most Horrid, Blackadder, The Comic Strip's Detectives on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, Gone to Seed, and Gone to the Dogs

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice