Victorious Albert

At 60, strikingly back on stage in 'Art' and soon to be seen on TV in 'Nostromo', the man who might have been today's Olivier prefers to suit himself
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Albert Finney is one of the few actors who can make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, which he is doing twice nightly in Art, one of the hottest tickets in the West End. He suddenly demands that a friend shall take back the words he has just said. The climate of the play freezes. This is rare. Finney is also in the great line of larger-than-life actor- managers, the line of Wolfit and Olivier. This is rarer still. It is extinct. He could have followed in that line, but partly history was against him and partly he didn't fancy it. He has always pleased himself, and why not?

So what is one of the great naturals of the English theatre doing, now that he's 60? Well, there is Art. And on 1 February, BBC2 shows the first weekly episode of a four-part adaptation of Conrad's Nostromo, in which he plays Monygham, a broken-down doctor in Costaguana, a South American chaos of humidity, bloody revolution, silver mines and corruption. Such is Finney's power that the central thread of a complex story very nearly becomes Monygham's devotion to the young wife of the Englishman who has come to reopen the silver mine. Dr Monygham shambles in to warn her and her husband to go home. She receives him alone, gives him tea in a shaded courtyard, and his adoration is instant.

"Yes," says Finney. "This vision comes before him, and he falls in love. And that leads him into corruption too. He's right: silver's going to bring trouble and death. But he's obsessed, so enjoys the sight of her he doesn't warn her husband. Love's a great corrupter. One of the best."

Wolfit when you met him off stage was still three parts Lear. Olivier's stage charm never left him. Finney is a big man, sure, with the head of a lion, but he wears jeans, has no side at all, and loves to talk about horses.

In the early Seventies Olivier had seen Finney as his successor as director of the National Theatre. "I suppose, you see, the tradition was still for an actor to run the place. It's impossible now." Why? "Well, because of all those bloody meetings." He remembered one night at the Old Vic seeing Olivier, still blacked up for Othello, and exhausted. He'd had a board meeting earlier, then played Othello, and still had another meeting to get through.

One could scrap the meetings? "That's got harder. Like the National Health Service, there are more people running these places than there used to be." Nor does he like the National's auditoriums, not trusting the Olivier's acoustics and saying the Lyttelton stage is too wide, like Cinemascope, and that you can't feel the house. It's like reaching with your arm into a paper bag without ever being sure you get to the bottom.

All that concrete? "Yes. Not a natural soundbox, is it? You don't make musical instruments out of it, do you?"

He'd opened the National in 1976 with Hamlet and Tamburlaine, and had said an actor ought to do all the big roles, such as Othello and Lear, before he was 55. Why hadn't he? "I didn't fancy them. Iago perhaps, not Othello."

When he was 40 he used to say, don't push him, because Julius Caesar had never won a battle at that age. "True. He was 45." And his other hero, Captain Cook, hadn't got his lieutenant's commission until he was 39? "Exactly." Well, it was all right for him to say such things 20 years ago, but both Julius Caesar and Captain Cook had got knocked off in their fifties, hadn't they? "A salutary lesson to me. [Laughter.] Charles Laughton was 60 when he played Lear. I'm not saying I'm in peak condition, but Charles certainly wasn't, and it wasn't a great success."

So he wasn't going to do it now? "Probably not." If he waited much longer, I supposed the question would be: Could an 80-year-old actor play an 80- year-old king? "No. He's got to pick up Cordelia at the end. I think it was Charles who called John [Gielgud] for a tip, and he said, 'Get a very light Cordelia.' In fact Charles had Di Rigg - quite a bundle."

Finney still lives in Chelsea, but no longer in his former Great Gatsby style, with venison for dinner. "I used to have a couple living in, and there was a button under the carpet you could press with your foot so they'd come in with the next course. Everybody thought it was a miracle." [More laughter.] And he had a Rolls-Royce Phantom which could take five in the back, great for going to the races. But he couldn't get insurance to drive it, had to have a chauffeur, and sold it. His last car was a Mercedes convertible, but he did only 3,000 miles a year, so he sold that too and now takes taxis. "As this wonderful Jewish fellow once told me in New York, 'If it flies, floats or fucks, rent it.' He was right. He was against buying planes, boats and all those silly things people do with their money. So here I am - servantless and carless, but not horseless... It's important to live as you want to. Which I have, you know."

Now he told me how the television Nostromo came about. It's an Italian, Spanish, American and British co-production, and the story for him goes back 30 years, when he met its Italian producer (Fernando Ghia) in Rome and stayed with Claudia Cardinale, who also has a part. That was just after Finney's famous circumnavigation. He'd done John Osborne's Luther on Broadway, his film of Tom Jones was a worldwide success, and suddenly he had no idea what he wanted. He drifted round the world in a westerly direction. On Pacific islands he stared at reefs, and one night lay under a palm tree soaking in the warmth and beauty of it all, for the sake of his ancestors. "True. For everyone who was in my DNA and had never had a chance to be in such a heavenly place. My grandfather was a brickie. My father was a bookie. But I didn't just enjoy it for them. I remember her fragrance. I remember her name."

Who was she? "A Hawaiian lady."

Some years later, in the same wandering tradition, he was reported lost up the Amazon. He and Diana Quick had toured the Galapagos islands, and decided to stay on. He sent a cable postponing a meeting with 20th Century Fox in Hollywood, but it never arrived. They ended up in Ecuador and were having breakfast in bed one morning when they saw the local paper had a picture of him on the front. Diana said: "Something awful has happened to you." Up the Amazon they were not, but in a five-star hotel in Quito.

The Finneys have always had instinctive good taste in hotels. When Albert was 17 he went from Salford up to London for his audition with Rada, with his mother. It was Coronation year so everywhere was booked. But his Dad looked in the guidebook and thought a place called the Dorchester would do, in Park Lane. A room was booked for Mrs Finney and son. It turned out to be a suite, with a cot for Albert. The cot was replaced with apologies. Then Mrs Finney, who had come up with pounds 37, pounds 10 of that in shillings rolled up in paper, sent Albert to ask what the rooms cost. It was pounds 6 15s (pounds 6.75) a night. So for dinner they sat in the lounge making do with crisps and nuts. By the third night the waiters had cottoned on and kept refilling the bowls for them.

He had done Nostromo, which wouldn't pay him as much as a feature film, because of his old friendship with Fernando, the producer. "And I liked the idea of going back to South America and being paid for it. And it's a lovely character."

But surely Colombia, where they had taken 20 weeks to film it, was ghastly and corrupt, and the corruption now was not silver but drugs. Finney said you had to look out for yourself. "And there's also the power struggle. It's a young country. They're still carving it up. Whereas our robber barons here carved us up a few hundred years ago."

What would he do now? He said he came out of Art on 9 March. And even if American Equity allowed an English cast to transfer to Broadway, he didn't think he'd want to go there. "I don't feel New York's a theatre town any more. It's a show town, like Las Vegas... So I'll take things easy for a while. Maybe I'll go racing."

What, I asked, about Seattle Slew? There is no way, in a talk with Finney, that horses are not going to come up. His father took him to the track as a boy, and he loved the atmosphere, the mixture of humanity, and the animals. Seattle Slew was a stallion which won the American triple crown. In 1986 Finney owned nine foals by him. There was a good filly called Embraceable Slew, but he came nearest to glory with Synastry, which was considered to have a chance in the Kentucky Derby until a knee gave way. Bang went Finney's Derby, but Synastry (meaning, as he explains, a coming together of stars) went on to become the best stud in Idaho. Now Finney keeps seven horses in Ireland. In training, each costs him pounds 25-pounds 40 a day. Horses don't come cheap, but over the years he thinks he's slightly ahead.

Then it was time to be photographed. He chatted while a clutter of tripod and lights was set up, and then posed with immense good humour. Some horses, he said, had become good friends. There was one who had lived to be 31, and at that age was still covering 15 mares between February and June.

A pretty, slender girl was holding a white sheet in front of a powerful lamp, to diffuse the light that fell on Finney. The lamp was hot. He saw this and turned to her: "Don't burn yourself, love. It's only make-believe."

The Finney File

1936: Born in Salford 1956: After Rada, began two years at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

1958: London debut in Jane Arden's The Party.

1959: At Stratford played Edgar to Charles Laughton's Lear and took over from Olivier as Coriolanus.

1960: Starred as working-class rebel in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and created the title role in Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall's Billy Liar.

1961: Title role in Osborne's Luther, which transferred to New York in 1963.

1963: Received an Oscar nomination for Tom Jones.

1965: Joined National Theatre company, starring in John Arden's Armstrong's Last Goodnight.

1972: Powerful performance in EA Whitehead's Alpha Beta at the Royal Court. Associate Artistic Director there, 1972-75.

1975-6: In first National Theatre season at the South Bank, played Hamlet, Macbeth and Tamburlaine.

1983: Oscar nomination for The Dresser.

1984: Oscar nomination for Under the Volcano.

1990-7: Multi-media success in A Man of No Importance, The Browning Version, Art, Reflected Glory, The Green Man, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus.