Nicholas Lyndhurst: Glum blond

After years of cuddly comic TV roles, Lyndhurst is playing an embittered actor on stage. How very appropriate, says Rhoda Koenig
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The Independent Culture

Never having practiced dentistry, I can only guess how difficult it is to pull teeth, but the usual simile about a tricky enterprise keeps occurring to me as I talk to Nicholas Lyndhurst. Not that, most of the time, I even see his teeth. The beanpole-built actor sprawls in a chair that's too small for him, answering each question in the fewest words possible, and then seals up his slit-like mouth and regards me with a combination of wariness and stoicism that holds firm against jokes, flattery, and flirting. I've seen more affable blokes being photographed with numbers under their chins.

Never having practiced dentistry, I can only guess how difficult it is to pull teeth, but the usual simile about a tricky enterprise keeps occurring to me as I talk to Nicholas Lyndhurst. Not that, most of the time, I even see his teeth. The beanpole-built actor sprawls in a chair that's too small for him, answering each question in the fewest words possible, and then seals up his slit-like mouth and regards me with a combination of wariness and stoicism that holds firm against jokes, flattery, and flirting. I've seen more affable blokes being photographed with numbers under their chins.

Not, of course, that I'm greatly surprised. Lyndhurst has so assiduously avoided interviews that the only previous one I've found is a brief chat in a 14-year-old TV Times. This and an Only Fools and Horses paperback are the only sources of facts about Lyndhurst's past. He grew up near the Sussex coast (where he still lives) with only his mother, and was the product of her youthful affair with a married man who had little further interest in their son. At eight, Lyndhurst badgered his mother to send him to acting school, and, two years later, she finally gave in. A childhood career led to his being cast as the teenage son in Butterflies in 1978, and then, when he was 19, in his long-time role of Rodney, the brother of David Jason's Del Boy.

While he has profited hugely from Only Fools and Horses, it has hung a chain on him that, even now, pedestrians delight in jerking, calling out, "Oi, you plonker!" (Only once did this salutation gratify him: the fan, at the wheel of a lorry, laughed so much at his own wit that he crashed into the car ahead.) He has since appeared in other series - The Two of Us, Goodnight Sweetheart and The Piglet Files - as well as in a television film of David Copperfield (as Uriah Heep) and the infamous royal version of It's a Knockout. An engagement at 29 did not lead to marriage, but five years ago, at 38, Lyndhurst married Lucy Smith, a ballet dancer, whom he met after she saw him twice in Straight and Narrow in the West End in 1992 and left a him bottle of champagne and a message. (Smith dances no longer. "Oh, no," says Lyndhurst when asked about her career. "I wasn't having any of that. Dancers - they only get to change their shoes when the audience can see the blood.") The couple have one son. ("He saw me once as Rodney, for just a minute," says Lyndhurst when I ask if Archie is a fan of the show. "I switched on the television, Fools came on, and I couldn't change it fast enough.") He loves deep-sea diving and flying, and has called his private pilot's licence, rather than any of his acting, his greatest source of pride, though the excitement of being in the air is not one he can convey in words.

Audiences for Peter Hall's latest production, though, will be faced with a loquacious Lyndhurst. In the name part of Ronald Harwood's 1980 slice of backstage life, The Dresser, Lyndhurst is on stage for nearly every minute of the play as Norman, the gay former actor who has devoted his life to Sir (played by Julian Glover), the head of a touring company. As air-raid sirens scream and the Luftwaffe's bombs fall near the provincial theatre where Sir is playing Lear, the old man starts to go mad in earnest.

Lyndhurst has acted in only two plays before this, both of them comedies. "I've been trying to get him on to the stage for years," says Hall. "He has the ability to be extremely funny while being extremely grave. There are plenty of actors with funny faces, but he's utterly, quote, real, unquote."

Lyndhurst says that the length of time involved in putting on a play and the uncertainty of runs are the reasons for his not doing much theatre. "Archie hadn't even been conceived when I agreed to do this - and he's four now. It takes a long time to organise a play. You rehearse for a month, and then tour for nine or 10 months, and then it may or may not go into the West End."

Most actors would see that as a good stretch of continuous employment, but Lyndhurst, financially independent after his TV success, says: "Since I got married, and especially since my son was born, I drive everybody nuts by looking at everything I'm offered and saying, 'It's quite good, but...' I'm just so happy being married I don't want to be away from home." For five years, Lyndhurst has played married men; with this new role, the platinum band will, he says, touching it wistfully, have to leave his finger for the first time.

The Dresser has a lot of laughs for a serious play, but, says Lyndhurst, "I don't think anyone's going to leave the theatre with their ribs taped up." The middle-aged Norman, though a backstage Fool, brimming with camp phrases and tart jokes, is lonely and embittered, and has himself suffered a breakdown. "I think Norman would have been aware of his sexuality some 20 or 30 years earlier, around the First World War - not a good time for somebody who's worried about it. I think he got abuse from his father for it, left home as soon as he could, and, by happy chance, found himself in the theatre. I think somewhere along the line there was a 'friend' and a massive heartbreak."

Harwood leaves open the question of whether Sir is a great actor fallen on hard times, or whether he was never anything but a barnstorming old ham. "I think that, 25 or 30 years ago, he was a superb actor. He didn't get the break, the recognition that he thought he deserved, and became bitter. There's bitterness in a lot of the characters - it's not just Sir who is falling apart, but the whole system of the actor-manager, of provincial rep."

Only one of the characters seems to be starting rather than ending his career in Sir's company - ironically, the most unpleasant one. Oxenby, the pushy, bolshy playwright who disdains the other actors, would do well after the War at the BBC, I suggest. Lyndhurst snorts. "Yes, he'd be welcomed with open arms at the BBC of the late Forties, I'm sure."

Lyndhurst can't explain the intensity of his early desire to become an actor ("It was just a bubble I had in my head"), any more than he can his love of flying. "When I was a child I loved to fly balloons, throw a Frisbee, a boomerang. Anything I could get up into the air was tremendous for me." Dr Freud might have something to say about that, I comment, to which Lyndhurst replies, in a tone not just dry but desiccated, "Would he really?"

Lyndhurst started learning to fly "when I was 17. The lessons cost £17.50 an hour. That was an astral amount of money back then. People ask if what attracts me is the view of the landscape from up there, or the peace and serenity, but that's not really it. Actually, it's not very peaceful up there at all. You have to follow instructions from the ground. But, until the birth of my son, I did consider my pilot's licence my finest achievement. I don't get a tremendous sense of achievement from acting. If I see myself on film, I'm far more likely to watch a performance like this" - he peeps through a screen of fingers - "than any other way."

The tremendous success of Only Fools and Horses has increased the likelihood, already strong because of Lyndhurst's looks, of his being typecast. "If there's a script that calls for a tall, lugubrious comic, I assume my name would be in the top five." He wishes the casting directors would think again. "I quite like playing nasty people - creepy people and murderers. That's good fun." But he doesn't go looking for them. "I've always been one of those people who likes to just wait and see what happens."

Anyone who thinks that Lyndhurst, while waiting, might show a fellow actor the blend of cajoling, chivvying and nannying that Norman shows the flamboyantly dishevelled Sir, however, would be much mistaken.

"Oh, no," he says. "I'd just say, 'Pull yourself together!'"

'The Dresser' is at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (01483 440000; www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk) from today to 20 November, and at Richmond Theatre, Surrey (0870 060 6651) from 29 November to 4 December

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