`The Duchess of Malfi' opens at the Greenwich Theatre on Monday. Telephone 0181-858 7755
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"I'm so diffident. I'm almost Japanese in my politeness." These are virtues rare in actors, and even more so in directors. Philip Franks is both. Last seen as Tom Pinch in the BBC's Martin Chuzzlewit, Franks is now back directing Webster's Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi. How does he dovetail two careers? "Actors get to a certain stage where they want to take more responsibility,'' he replies. ``There are very few parts which are entirely fulfilling. I've been lucky enough to have done a few of them - Hamlet, Tom Pinch - but you get that feeling of fulfilment directing any play." Franks insists that he was pushed into directing by Matthew Francis, artistic director of the Greenwich Theatre. He made a highly successful debut there with Dr Faustus and then returned with The Browning Version, one of the best of the recent Rattigan revivals. "With Dr Faustus, most of the rehearsal time is spent asking questions like `What's hell like?' Looking for a character's interior life is ridiculous. I just flung all my ideas at it. But you can't do that with The Browning Version, you have to listen to the voice of the play. It's about a couple sitting down to the fish pie dinner from hell, for ever and ever. Much more difficult." Beneath Philip Franks's nervy shyness, there is a distinct and endearing self-confidence. Would he ever direct himself? The thought fills him with horror. "It would be disastrous. I don't know how you could." He already worries that directing will damagehis acting. "Actors do sometimes lose it...like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan, the innocence fades." Yet he believes that his acting feeds his directing. "I can understand when and why people are going down blind alleys, and maybe stop them or help them. That's what all really good directors know." Franks wanted to do TS Eliot's The Cocktail Party next, as much for its examination of good, evil and redemption as anything else, but he realised that what would be considered chic at somewhere like the Almeida would look staid at Greenwich. Scouting around for an alternative, he hit upon Malfi, and persuaded his old friend Juliet Stevenson to play the lead. "The duchess is a fully rounded woman. There's something very wilful and headstrong about her, but she has this immense goodness. It's also a portrait of motherhood. Juliet is perfect casting" As Franks warms to his theme, the anxiety begins to ebb away from his breathy, precise voice and his hands appear to take up the conversation. "We first worked together on A Midsummer Night's Dream at the RSC in 1980. In those days we both smoked, and she remembers me as this weird actor who demanded cigarettes from her and then scuttled back across the rehearsal room." Franks is keen to spare The Duchess of Malfi from the fate of recent Jacobean productions which have been buried under a sarcophagus of style. "Don McCullin was once asked why his photographs were so dark. He replied, `If they weren't so dark you wouldn't be able to see where the light was coming from.' That's what it's all about." Franks should know. He was in the play at Oxford, and has done an enviable amount of Elizabethan and Jacobean work across the country. He is better known, however, for having played Catherine Zeta Jones's husband in The Darling Buds of May. How did this shy man cope? "People recognised me in the street. Occasionally a drunk would talk dirty about Catherine, which was horrible, but most of the time it was fine. There wasn't any threat as I played a nice character, but it gave me a taste of what real fame would be like. I also did massive amounts of daytime television - I'm no stranger to Richard and Judy. But between the two series of Buds, I did a Howard Barker play, the Wrestling School. That put it all into perspective." Most recently, he became television's most famous bald man when he played the painfully loyal Tom Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit. Was it, I inevitably ask him, a bald wig? Franks sighs and shakes his head (happily repopulated with real live follicles). "No. That was me. Even the long wispy bits." That really is suffering for your art. He agrees, ruefully. "It's not good for your vanity. One or two strangers came up to me and asked if it was for religious reasons. I never had the nerve to say yes. I wish I had." I ask if he had ever succumbed to a wig to get through the days off. He pulls a terribly serious face. "There's no such thing in the world as a good wig." A grin bursts through. "I wore a lot of hats."