Miles away from This Life; Interview
Deborah Ross talks to JACK DAVENPORT
Anyway, a few words here, I think, about This Life, because if you've never seen it, all this will be meaningless, and you might even be confusing it with That's Life, which was something very different, featuring as it did a mad woman in low-cut chiffon going on about amusing menu misprints and suggestive-looking parsnips. No, This Life is a series about a group of ex-law students who share a house somewhere in London. There's Miles and Anna, both barristers, and Milly, a solicitor, and Egg, who has given up law to run the aforementioned cafe, and Ferdy, a motorbike courier, who got mixed up in all this somewhere. The first series ambled along quite nicely but now, in the midst of the second series (Thursdays and Saturdays, BBC2), it has really taken off. True, ER and Animal Hospital are off for the summer while Friends has come back as rubbish, so there's not exactly a lot to watch on the telly at present. But I don't think this is the entire reason. The thing about This Life is that it is good, and more and more people are cottoning on to that. The scripts are sharp, the acting is sharp, the characters are sharp. As Jack says, "When I first got sent a script I thought, this is so fresh and good. I was gagging to do it. It was very exciting from the off." When Jack re-enters, he is wearing a white T-shirt and grey baggy trousers. He is very handsome and 24. What's the first film you ever remember seeing, Jack? I later ask him. "Star Wars," he replies. "My father fell asleep and snored next to me. I never forgave him because it was my birthday. He claimed it just couldn't hold his interest." Star Wars! That only came out last week, surely. God, I am so horribly old.
The house actually belongs to his mother, the actress Maria Aitken, who is popularly referred to as "the socialite actress Maria Aitken", which makes him laugh because, as he says, "I see her slopping about in her tracksuit." Jack has the basement. Maria and Jack's stepfather, the novelist Patrick McGrath, have the rest of it. Jack's actual father is Nigel Davenport, the actor who was married to Maria for seven years from 1973 and who has played a lot of great parts but will probably be best remembered for his Sir Edward Frere - the one who had the hots with Jan Howard - in Howard's Way. The series (which, if I recall rightly, also starred Kate O'Mara and an underwired bra) went out when Jack was 13. No, it wasn't embarrassing, he says. It was great. "I used to go down to where they were shooting. It was a good laugh, messing about on the boats." He is very close to his mother - "an absolute darling" - and his father - "a sweet old thing". But what, I naturally wonder, does he make of his uncle, Maria's brother, Jonathan Aitken. He's not a sweet old thing, surely. "It has," he says, "been a very difficult time for the family. In many ways, one's concerns are with his children and my grandmother [Lady Aitken]. Whatever difficulties he is in, which I guess are of his own making, my heart goes out to him because he is my uncle. One can only be sympathetic. Things will work out as they work out." Is Jack a Tory? "Ah, no. But the fact Jonathan is is immaterial. I don't see that as a reason to judge a member of one's family. Who cares about his political beliefs? They don't define him."
His family, he says, are well-chuffed with his success. And they watch This Life? Absolutely. "They love it." Miles is a great character to play, he continues, because while he's a shit he's not just a shit. "He's half monster and half misunderstood." OK, he's a regressed, pompous, careerist. He is always betraying someone or other to advance his own interests. But he has enough tenderness and self-knowledge also to be complicated and clever and attractive. Very attractive, in fact. Certainly, he does OK on the women front. He is meant to be engaged to Francesca, the clothes buyer, but just the other week he gave Anna (with whom he is actually in love, if you ask me) a seeing-to on a sofa while Francesca was asleep upstairs. Good fun for Miles, obviously, but not so much fun for Jack, as it turns out. "I've done hundreds of sex scenes now, and they're never fun. You're naked in a room full of people. As far as erotic experiences go, it is up there with being mugged." Although, that said, "it's even less fun when you aren't wearing clothes and you are on your own. I think I had to do a hideous scene in the bathroom looking at my bottom while singing a Sinitta song, which in many ways was even more embarrassing." Did he practice it at home at all. "Ah. No. That one I didn't practice." This is his first main acting part. He has been fantastically lucky, he says. He has never even done Rada or any of that stuff. He never even wanted to be an actor, frankly, because his parents always told him an actor's life was pretty crap. Too hard, they said. Too insecure. He just kind of fell into it, he continues, after finishing his film degree at university and writing to John Cleese to ask if he could be a runner on his next film. John passed his letter on to the casting department. The next thing he knows he's being called up to audition for Fierce Creatures, and is cast as a zoo keeper. Of course, his parents being who they are probably had a hand in it. But who cares? Jack's a good actor, from what I've seen.
The early part of Jack's childhood was wonderful, wholly idyllic, he says. There was a house in Ibiza plus a smallholding in Suffolk. His mother was never an absentee one. She commuted to the National from Suffolk. He was an only child, but never lonely. "The house was always stuffed to the gills with unemployed actors who would come for the weekend and stay for the month. And my grandmother lived there. And there was loads of room to play. And actors are generally good with kids anyway because they are all so bloomin' childish themselves and I was always the centre of attention, which was nice, and allowed to run wild, which was fantastic." Maria and Nigel aspired to self-sufficiency "in that latent, Seventies, hippyish way" but it never really came off. They would plough the fields and scatter, "but then no one tended the fields sufficiently". His mother couldn't bear sending the animals off to slaughter. "She'd cry as the turkeys were being stuffed in their cages. But they're only turkeys, I would say. The pigs I could understand. You could get very affectionate about pigs. I remember when the sows gave birth at 4am my dad would stagger in splattered in blood and say, `There were nine of them. Just the one runt.' It was always a terrible wrench when the pigs went."
His parents split when he was seven. Why they did is their business, he says. Yes, he was sad about it, but not devastated. "I was at primary school when it started and I'm ashamed to say I milked it a bit. The teachers had been told and I did a certain amount of sniffling over a cup of tea in the staff room because it would get me out of a maths test. Terribly shallow thing to admit to, I know, but kids can be quite manipulative at an early age." Perhaps he was just an actor from early on, I suggest. "Or a complete tosser," he suggests. Yes, possibly. But I don't think so. Mostly, he seems a very understanding and loving sort of person. With super legs.
As his parents hurtled towards their divorce, he was sent to The Dragon School, a boarding job in Oxford. He didn't mind, he says, because he trusted his parents and if they thought he was better of out of it, then he was. "There were some tricky times when my parents were splitting up and both of them, purely from motives of love, thought it would be better if I wasn't there. I was very small and we are talking about very complex adult emotions. Being an only child, I had always been included, but at this point they felt it was time for me not to be. And they were right. Although in terms of going to boarding school, I actually think it was harder for my mother than anyone else. She was guilt-racked." He is extremely close to his mother. "She is full of love and really good fun to be with. We are very similar at the deepest levels, emotionally. We don't do any of that `l love you' and `I love you, too' stuff because it's taken as a given. Once, when I was much younger, I asked her what she would do if I died. Nice question over breakfast. But she didn't miss a beat. She said: `I'd just never get out of bed again.' And I thought, `Right. Yes. OK. That's a good enough answer for me.'" His mother has had her problems. She had an underactive thyroid and, before it was diagnosed, lost a great deal of weight. Jack can remember looking at her one day and bursting into tears, because she was so skeletal. Then there was the cocaine business, those charges of importing cocaine which were later dropped. This was mortifying for his mother, he says, but not especially for him. It helped him to grow up, he says. But, still, he was pleased when she met Patrick and he could pass her care over to someone else. So he felt responsible for her, then? Yes, he says, he always did.
After The Dragon School he went to Cheltenham College - "where there were girls in the sixth form, and we all went completely mad ... my god, there are people with breasts here" - because his father and father's father had been there, and then to the University of East Anglia where he studied film and English. He did do a bit of acting in his first year there, but wasn't terribly swept away by it. "You think, do I really want to trudge to a church hall outside Norwich to rehearse a scene when I could be doing other things, like going out?" After the small part in Fierce Creatures he thought, yes, I like this acting lark, and got himself an agent, who put him up for This Life. He was desperate for the part of Miles, he says. He had to audition six times. After the sixth time, "I was turning into a complete pest, phoning the production office every hour to ask if there was any news". He was in his grandmother's garden when his agent finally phoned to say he'd got it. "Cue wild celebrations
Actually, I don't mind. This isn't because Jack isn't nice or bright or anything. He is very much both. I like his living room, too, because there's an empty, upturned scotch bottle in the wastepaper basket and crumpled fag packets everywhere and lots of John Updike on the bookcase. It is very much my sort of living room as it happens. I could make myself at home here, I tell him at one point. I'd rather you didn't, his horrified look says. No, it's time to go because I imagine his girlfriend's first film was probably Star Wars too and she and Jack might want to discuss it and knowing me I will embarrass myself hideously by whining pathetically: "Are you sure, when you say Star Wars, you don't mean The Wizard of Oz?" God, I'm so horribly old. A taxi home, I think, then a bit of telly with a blanket over my knee before a snooze and perhaps a gorgeous dream about glorious boys in short dressing gowns who don't dart from the room the moment I enter it.
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