Film: Drawn home by a labour of love

Actor Brian Cox is contemptuous of British television. That's why he has settled in Los Angeles. But he is back on our screens this Sunday with a drama about the socialist politician Nye Bevan. It is a role strong enough to bring him back to Britain, he tells Cameron Docherty.

"I am a very angry man," Brian Cox assures me. With a smile so ravishing it could melt a stone. "What would you like to drink?" He doesn't seem the least bit angry. In fact, he's so relaxed that even though it's mid- afternoon, he looks like he just rolled out of bed, with his bare feet, unshaven face and ruffled hair. A few minutes later, he emerges from the kitchen with a cup of coffee and leads the way to the balcony, overlooking the expansive wilderness behind the Hollywood Hills. He is absolutely gleeful about being here in Los Angeles. "Isn't this wonderful?" he exclaims. "There's a magical, dreamlike quality to it. You don't have to take anything too seriously here."

One thing he has taken seriously is work. In nine months Cox has completed three movies: Desperate Measures, a Barbet Schroeder thriller starring Michael Keaton; Jim Sheridan's drama, The Boxer, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson; and a BBC production, Food For Ravens, in which he plays the dynamic Welsh politician, Nye Bevan. More recently he's been consumed by David Hare's play, Skylight, for which he received rave reviews in LA.

Cox, 52, gazes around at the idyllic scene and draws a deep breath, as if trying to suck it all up. "It can't get better than this," he says. "All I ever wanted from acting was the chance to do good work, get well paid, and it all happened to me. I've got the sun on my back while it's cold and wet in England."

The weather is just one reason Cox finds himself here, an escapee from everything he found stifling in Britain - the theatre, television, poverty, and a lack of passion. "I think moving to LA has been very important to me," he muses. "I wanted it to heal some inner wound of some kind," he admits. "I wanted revenge; I wanted to prove people wrong - and I've done it. It's a pretty childish way to go through life - `I'll show them' - but I suppose it's what drives me on." Despite his bristling crew cut and weathered face, he looks at once shamefaced and defiant, like a rebellious schoolboy.

Cox also left because he got disillusioned with working in English theatre, an experience the two-time Olivier Award winner refers to as "deadening and disheartening". He continues: "I've never been comfortable working on the London stage. I've done it all, but I never enjoyed it. It's a curiously closed world to me. I find that the theatre in England has been dominated by the same people forever and ever and ever.

"The great thing here is the naivety of the audience. Oh, they behave atrociously - they get up and walk about - but what I like is the genuine enjoyment.

"I went to see Arcadia in the West End a while ago," he recalls. "And a woman went to sleep on my shoulder as soon as the lights went down. At the interval she woke up and said, `Let's go and get a nice drink at the bar.' She came back for the second act, fell asleep again, and woke up with the applause. And she said - honest to God - `That's what I call a wonderful afternoon at the theatre.'

"I thought, `Well at least we're providing some kind of a service and people can sleep."

After studying his craft at Dundee Rep and Lamda, Cox assembled a strong body of work in the theatre, from King Lear and Richard III at the National, to Rat in the Skull at the Royal Court and, in 1987, his tour de force performance in Titus Andronicus at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Yet despite the acclaim he always felt he wasn't accepted. "I still get uncomfortable around the theatre clique in London," he adds, almost shyly. "I feel like the outsider, the maverick. I can be a tyrant; I want what I want. I learned too late in life that it doesn't always do you good speaking your mind."

He sighs. "As I've gotten older, I think I've relaxed. When I was a young actor I turned a lot of work down because I wanted to stay true to my profession. I wanted to be a serious actor. My ex-wife used to take lodgers in to make ends meet, just so I could live with myself. I was really an arrogant young fool!

"If I had stopped being so idealistic and righteous then maybe my wife wouldn't have left me. I sacrificed relationships in pursuit of this goal. My advice is don't push so hard; if you do, you end up alone."

Cox seems more at home in the rough and tumble of Hollywood. Since he moved back to California in 1995 he has appeared in six features, including Braveheart, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Chain Reaction and The Glimmer Man.

"Most actors of my generation in Britain do not work enough," he says. "I came here because there's an opportunity to earn a living, which there isn't at home. A lot of actors do one or two jobs a year. They can't live off that. I think it's a profession.

"What I wanted to do was a television series. I thought I'd found the material when I did a pilot for the BBC in 1993 called The Negotiator. It had great potential, but it was also very dark and so they axed it, even though it attracted 10 million viewers. I realised there and then that I couldn't do the work I wanted to do in Britain."

Even today, as Cox and I bask in the afternoon sunshine, the BBC's lack of faith in the series still riles him. As he talks, it is clear that a great deal of anger lurks beneath his immense charm. "One of the big disappointments back home is television," he says. "It used to be the benchmark for the rest of the world, but now it's terrible. It's all populism for populism sake. When people started making drama programmes, it was an opportunity to bring rich drama to the masses. That was one of the great principles of television. Today, they cut their cloth accordingly. The drama is on the same level as the game show.

"I've always been a populist, and I know what populism is," he continues. "And populism isn't patronising, which is how it is practiced on British TV. Populism is taking an idea and making it so potent and passionate that people pick up on it immediately. It's why great plays like Hamlet and Richard III last, because everyone gets inflamed by it. It's got nothing to do with taste. It transcends that. It's theatre at its best or television at its best. In the '60s we had so many great writers. It was so vibrant then. It had a uniqueness, an energy. But now it's become so placid."

He shrugs. "Nowadays it's all run by suits," he adds brusquely. "At least in America they've given the power back to the writer. It's healthy to see so many writer-producers doing well; it's why American TV leads the world. In Britain ... it's all about safety. It's about covering your ass and not rocking the boat."

Why then did he return to British soil from working on $60m Hollywood productions to make Food For Ravens, a BBC Wales drama budgeted somewhere near $1.2m? "It was a throwback to the way things were; quality work performed in a quality working environment," he says. "It was too good to resist. The writer-director, Trevor Griffiths, gave me the script while I was in the West End last year and it was brilliant. It was a wonderfully poignant story about the final years of a remarkable man's life, and when you're drawn to it like I was, the money doesn't matter."

Nye Bevan, the charismatic Labour politician and leading light of the socialist movement from the Thirties to the Fifties was, among many other things, responsible for giving birth to the National Health Service. "He was probably the greatest British parliamentarian of the 20th century," states Cox.

"He was an amazing man, but he was tough. He always took the opposite view of things. He was very tenacious and stubborn, but intuitive too." Food For Ravens, which will be broadcast on BBC2 this Sunday, focuses not on the great political achievements of the Ebbw Vale MP's life, but on the last year, when he's bedridden and dying from cancer. "He doesn't know he's dying," says Cox. "While he's doped up on morphine, he lapses into the past and sees himself as a young man with his wife on the farm, and he relives memorable moments from his life. It's very enlightening and the first work I've done in Britain for ages that I'm particularly proud of."

He is being wooed for projects, but he says: "I used to be a great one for making plans, but now I don't bother. I'm learning how to live in the moment. `Just be here, Brian' I tell myself. `Feel the sun on your face and enjoy the spectacular view.' "

`Food for Ravens', BBC2, Sunday 16, 11.15pm.

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