When it came to casting Mr Wroe's Virgins, an intriguing new BBC2 serial, there was really only one contender for Wroe. Whether preaching mesmerically from a cart or up to his waist in a river baptising followers, Jonathan Pryce's presence glowers out from this true story of a man who was a televangelist before TV was a twinkle in John Logie Baird's eye.
Pryce has got used to being described as 'dangerous'. Irving Wardle, theatre critic of this paper, remembers the menace he exuded in Hare and Brenton's Brassneck in 1973. 'He has a snake-like quality. When he strikes, it is sudden and deadly.' Richard Eyre, director of the National Theatre, who has directed Pryce in many plays, including Comedians and Hamlet, and the film The Ploughman's Lunch, underlines his 'sense of terrific, contained wilfulness and knife-edge wit . . . he's very mercurial'. He is one of the few straight actors to shine on the improvisation show Whose Line Is It Anyway? As a further tribute to his dangerousness, he has been offered the parts of Hitler and Eichmann.
Pryce was born in Holywell, north Wales, in 1947 to shopkeeping parents. After school, a scholarship at Rada, and rep in Liverpool and Nottingham, Pryce announced his arrival at the Old Vic in 1975 with a coruscating performance as the skinhead stand-up in Trevor Griffiths's Comedians. His 1980 Hamlet at the Royal Court was seen by many as the definitive interpretation of his generation. Deeply affected by the recent death of his own father, Pryce decided to play both the Prince and the Ghost. I saw the performance on a school trip and still remember the shock of watching Hamlet vomit forth the words of his father. Pryce now recalls it as a cross between The Exorcist and Olivier. Even in Miss Saigon in 1989, where he played an all-singing, all- dancing Engineer, Pryce exhibited so much power 'he unbalanced the whole show', according to Wardle.
Some of these performances have been captured on film, but not to the exacting Pryce's satisfaction. 'The danger that you get when you're in the same room as someone is lost,' he reckons. 'You intellectualise the danger.' And you miss the frisson of being in close proximity to a snake.
All the evidence of Pryce's past suggests a 'difficult' character. This is a man who broke down in tears on Desert Island Discs, who refused to appear in an RSC Macbeth sponsored by Barclays Bank (then involved in South Africa), who famously stood his ground in the dispute with American Equity over his appearance in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon, and who after two days' work with Martin Scorsese decided against taking the lead in The Last Temptation of Christ.
What a surprise, then, to be greeted by a shy, nervous 45-year-old man with a wife and children, politely offering me home-made mince pies and coffee in his north-London drawing-room. The storm on stage is matched by the calm off it. He leans forward intently, his fingers pressed to his lips, his eyes glowing beneath that distinctive domed forehead, carefully considering each question before giving his reply. Sometimes he speaks too softly for my tape-
recorder to make out his words.
Pryce waxes particularly earnest about Mr Wroe's Virgins, enthusing about the 'multi-viewpoint' storytelling (each episode is told from the stance of a different virgin). 'It's very like life,' he says. 'Wroe becomes whatever each individual sees in him.' He also draws parallels between Wroe, brought down by charges of indecency, and more recent examples of flawed evangelists such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. 'They may have started off honest, but as more power was given to them they proceeded to abuse it.'
Mr Wroe's Virgins is the first breaker in a tidal wave of screen appearances by Pryce. There is another BBC serial, Thicker Than Water, and no fewer than four feature films in the pipeline - ranging from the lead role in Barbarians at the Gate, about the leveraged buyout of Nabisco, to the smaller part of a Frenchman in Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence.
Pryce's last year sounds like a shaggy-dog story: 'I've played an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman, a Frenchman, an American.' But the suspicion remains that he is spreading himself too thinly. Perhaps this explains why a man once hailed as 'the new Brando' has scored so few cinema hits. Eyre reckons that, for all his stage and television successes (The Man from the Pru, Selling Hitler), Pryce has never 'quite had the part on film that makes his talent resonate'.
The actor longs for such a part again in the theatre, but he is very choosy. Pryce enjoys 'being on stage, showing off, but the problem is finding a part you want to do eight times a week'. Tantalisingly, he says he'd love to play King Lear: West End angels, take note.
As I wipe the crumbs from my mouth and make to leave, Pryce's serious veneer cracks for a moment to give a hint of the spirit that so enlivens his acting. Fired up by the subject of critics, he recalls a savage review by the Village Voice of his performance in Miss Saigon. 'I could recite it word for word. It said: 'He can't sing or dance, he's just a 40- year-old, balding Welsh ham.' Distraught, I recited it to a sympathetic American doorman, who replied, 'That's extraordinary. (Several seconds' pause as Pryce's eyes sparkle.) I didn't know you were Welsh'. '
'Mr Wroe's Virgins' starts on Wednesday on BBC2 at 9.25pm.
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