Interview: Citizen Lindsay turns megalomaniac

The actor best known for his TV comedies talks to Rachel Shields about his latest stage role – sinister tycoon Aristotle Onassis
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The Independent Culture

On the surface they couldn't be more different: divided by culture, half a century, and a vast ocean. But in the mind of actor Robert Lindsay, the golfer Tiger Woods and the Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis are almost the same: wealthy, and with the arrogance to believe the normal rules do not apply to them.

The 60-year-old actor sees much of our modern-day fallen idols in the character he will unveil to London theatregoers later this month: Onassis, whose skewed moral compass led him into a murky world featuring everything from smuggling to drug dealing and illegal whaling.

"I've met people like that," says Lindsay. "Just look at Tiger Woods and that confession, and the silly footballers. They think they can get away with it. It's awful. And in our capitalist society, they can, because it protects wealth and position."

The actor, known to many for his 10-year stint as dentist Ben Harper in the hugely popular BBC sitcom My Family, and to older viewers for his role in the classic show Citizen Smith, is unequivocal about his lead role in Martin Sherman's new play. "I am a villain; it is quite clear," he says. "People thought he was an uppity Greek, tasteless and vulgar. That's what appeals: the whole 'bling' thing". Publicity shots show the actor's lived-in face deeply tanned, a pair of Onassis's trademark glasses perched on his nose, fingers dripping with gold rings, and his hair painted a striking silver.

Sitting in his hotel in Derby, where the show is doing a short run before transferring to London's Novello Theatre, a dark tan is the only hint of "bling" about Lindsay, who is dressed casually in a dark blue shirt, loosened tie and jeans.

"It's wonderful to play such a megalomaniac. Friends who have seen the play said: 'You can't help but like him', and that comes across in the play."

Not everyone shares Lindsay's enthusiasm for his subject. He recounts the story of when the Queen came to visit the set of My Family at Pinewood Studios and asked him what his next project was. "I told her I was playing Onassis, and she said: 'Oh, no! Do you have to?'" His impersonation of the monarch's cut-glass vowels is brilliant. "Philip said something like: 'He is a rum bugger, a rum bugger.'"

Based on Peter Evans's book Nemesis, the play tells the story of the last seven years of Onassis's life, including his long-running affair with the opera singer Maria Callas and marriage to America's Queen, Jacqueline Kennedy.

The play begins with the tycoon seducing Kennedy – played by young British actress Lydia Leonard – aboard Onassis's famous yacht, Christina O, with a Greek song.

"It's probably the most seductive scene I've ever done," he says. "Onassis was an animal, a predator. I don't think I've ever been predatory with women. I love women but I don't have to possess them all the time."

While he may not share Onassis's attitude to women, he has enjoyed considerable success with the ladies. Married to the dancer Rosemarie Ford, with whom he has sons aged eight and 11, Lindsay also has a 22-year-old daughter from a 14-year relationship with the actress Diana Weston. He was also briefly married to Cheryl Hall, his co-star in Citizen Smith, and was once pursued by Katharine Hepburn, who was in her 80s at the time.

While Lindsay is no fan of the critics – who routinely pan My Family – he is fairly keen to win them over with his latest project. Well, sort of. "When you're there on the night getting a brilliant reaction from the audience, critics can only be jealous of that. I've become very cavalier now. I don't care what people think, but people say 'yes, you do'."

They might have a point. While Lindsay may claim to be indifferent to the reception his work gets, when he speaks of his 2009 autobiography Letting Go "sinking without a trace", of TV shows "buried" on More4, and of reviews "which hurt", there is a real sadness about him. A self-confessed "natural depressive", he has resolved to be more cheerful.

"I've started looking at the positives. I've been working since I was 20 and left Rada, travelled the world, raised a fantastic family, done some amazing roles, have run the gamut of the industry, from films to plays, comedies, tragedies, a fair amount of farce. You think about it like that and its quite a good CV."

This positive mental attitude quickly evaporates when the conversation turns to the state of the arts. "It's terribly sad – we're like a third world country artistically. People say 'why don't we do shows like they do in America?' But it is because they have got money. Everything here is done on a shoestring. We're losing talent all the time," he says.

While there is little danger of the British industry losing Lindsay to the bright lights of Hollywood, stage and screen may be mourning the loss of his talent before too long.

"I think I should direct, everyone keeps telling me to. I'm a big fan of restoration comedy, but there isn't one particular thing I want to direct. Something will turn up," he says, smiling.

Previews of Onassis begin at the Novello Theatre on 30 September