Sam West: 'I'm cheap and available – tell your friends!'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

He may be theatre royalty – and he observes the fashion for class – but the actor/director is more political than posh

On the most cursory of glances, it seems an unlikely fit. Actor-director Samuel West, owner of some of the nicest vowel sounds on our stage and Oxford-educated scion of famous acting parents, is off to Newcastle to direct Alan Plater's fierce modern classic about mining, Close the Coalhouse Door. Yet after just a few minutes' conversation, West, eloquent and personable, leaves one in no doubt as to his passionately held political and ideological convictions. He's clear what he would say to any who question his suitability for this job. "Their point would be? That I'm not authentic? I didn't believe in talking mice either, but I was still allowed to be in Narnia [as King Caspian in the television adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader]. You can't tell the story of mines without believing that most of the time progress was made at the expense of the people who were at the bottom and got paid the least. I believe that, so that means I'm allowed to direct the play!"

Belief in the project, for which Lee Hall has supplied additional material to Plater's blazing 1968 script, is something that West, 45, possesses in abundance. He's certainly done his homework, quoting frightening statistics about safety standards in Chilean mines, and providing staunch defence of the union movement, whose struggles and occasional triumphs down the decades provide the beating heart of the play. "If you want to use Conservative rhetoric, unions are the Big Society in action, people getting together to help each other for not very much money," he says pointedly. As a council member for the actors' union, Equity, and vice-chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, it's a point that matters dearly to him.

Lee Hall has provided staunch advocacy of mining before, in Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters, and I wonder aloud whether mining has, for us now, somehow come to symbolise something greater than itself, namely the death of a manufacturing and unionised Britain. "I think it does stand for something we fear we might have lost," West agrees sadly. "Part-time jobs, itinerant workplaces or service jobs don't breed unionisation – or community, or community spirit – in the same way."

All of which seems a good juncture to ask him for his views on the "actors and class" debate that has been rumbling in the media for some weeks, ignited by Downton Abbey's Rob James-Collier saying that it's harder for working-class actors and Dominic West (no relation to Sam) adding fuel to the flames by claiming "Old Etonian" is a label that provokes hatred. Sam West starts off by sidestepping the question. "Speaking personally, as somebody who does a reasonably good RP, I wish I was 10 years younger. When I came out of university, from about 1989 to 2002 nobody made anything but East End gangster movies. And now everybody's doing posh stuff and I haven't got any cheekbones any more! I've got my career in completely the wrong order!"

I suspect this won't be West's last word on the subject, and it isn't. "Shameless is the new Boys from the Blackstuff: there's certainly a change in the way the working classes are being portrayed on television. In our last government we had a home secretary who used to be a postman and now we've got the 19th Eton-educated prime minister, so Dominic might reflect on that. I hasten to add that I'm an enormous fan of Dominic's and I get quite a lot of his fan mail, so I don't want to diss him in any way!"

West returns from time to time to the subject of social mobility. "I think it's really important that what it's like to live in this country doesn't just become an upper-class narrative," he says at one point, before concluding as we part, "I really do think the things that make our society what it is are under threat. It should be about everyone having the potential to be what they're going to be."

What, then, does he think about our current televisual fixation with the rigid class hierarchies of the past, in Downton and Upstairs Downstairs? He confesses that he doesn't watch the programmes but hopes they're not a reflection of an idea that this is the way things are supposed to be.

"I wonder whether we look back to a time of supposed certainty, where people knew their place, because we don't know our place at the moment and looking into the future is difficult. The really interesting thing about reviving a play written in 1968 is there's a much stronger feeling of potential and hope for the future. At the moment we are having to face the known possibility that we are passing on to our children a less good world than we inherited. I don't mind people being at the top of the ladder, I mind them pulling it up after them." Would he ever consider a role in period dramas like these? "Of course. I'm cheap and available – tell your friends!'

Despite fluctuating demand for cheekbones and RP, West has enjoyed a wonderfully varied career as an actor, director and voiceover artist. One of his earliest roles, as Leonard Bast in Merchant Ivory's exquisite film adaptation of E M Forster's Howards End, led to a Bafta nomination and with it the chance to try to crack Hollywood. However, after discussing the possibility with his parents, Prunella Scales and Timothy West, he chose to stay at home.

Does he regret that? "Only in so far as one regrets the things one hasn't done just because one hasn't done them. When people say, 'If I had my life over again I wouldn't do anything different', well, I'd do everything differently just for the variety'." This course of action, he says, meant he didn't have to "risk failure" in Los Angeles. Is he scared of failure? "Not as much as I'm scared of success," he replies emphatically.

Success happened over here anyway, with acclaimed turns as Richard II and Hamlet for the RSC and, latterly, with the "performance of his career", as one critic described it, as Jeffrey Skilling in the multi-award-winning Enron. He also had two years as artistic director at Sheffield, before disagreements with the board ended his tenure. Did he enjoy being at the helm? "Modified rapture," he says wryly. "It was awfully difficult and I messed up a lot of things about it." Nevertheless, he'd like to run another building some day and I suggest that the Almeida, just over the road from his Islington flat, might be the perfect fit.

West is disarmingly honest about the benefits of having parents well established in the family business. "It certainly got me auditions, but I don't think it ever got me jobs. People wanted to meet me because they knew my parents, yes." He claims that all his professional ambitions – "to be in Doctor Who, play Hamlet and read the shipping forecast" – have been fulfilled. So what about doing a Glenda Jackson and going into politics? "Being a frustrated idealist backbencher, like many of my favourite MPs, would sometimes be hell on earth," he says ruefully. Anyway, for now, Sam West is gloriously content with taking a play about coal-mining to Newcastle.

 

Close the Coalhouse Door is at Northern Stage, Newcastle, 13 April to 5 May (0191 230 5151, northern stage.co.uk), then tours nationwide until 30 June

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
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 iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal