Derek Jacobi: The emperor's new role

Four decades at the top of his profession have done nothing to curb Derek Jacobi's dramatic ambitions.
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The Independent Online

Heaven knows, it seems absurd to pigeonhole Sir Derek Jacobi, who, in that time-honoured phrase, is one of the finest actors of his generation. Yet whenever I think of him, he is wearing a toga and fighting a stammer. I ask whether he has ever thought of the 1976 television series I, Claudius as a burden.

"No, I think most actors rather enjoy having a role they are identified with," he says. A twinkle enters his eye. "And it's not as if I could get typecast. There are not too many stuttering, limping, twitching emperors around."

We are talking in the handsome offices of London Weekend Television. In an adjacent screening-room, others are being shown the first two episodes of The Jury, a six-part drama in which Jacobi plays the barrister defending a 15-year-old Sikh boy accused of murder. Needless to say, he gives a riveting performance, as does Antony Sher for the prosecution. But he is glad not to be watching himself on screen, which he avoids whenever possible.

"I hate it," he says. "They say the camera never lies, but I think the camera does a lot of lying. On stage, actors are much more in control. On the screen, it is someone else's decision as to which bits are shown, in what order they're shown. That can change your rhythm."

Unusually for a classical actor, Jacobi has enjoyed great success in popular television – for example as Cadfael, the sleuth with the abbey habit. In cinema, he has been less prominent, although he did don a toga again to play a senator in Gladiator. At the end, he was one of those who bore the dead body of the heroic Maximus out of the Colosseum. "And last June," he recalls, "a woman asked for my autograph. As I was signing, she kissed my shoulder. She said, 'That's 'ad Russell Crowe's bum on it, that 'as.'"

Jacobi chuckles. I have heard that he can be a little precious, and doubtless it is sometimes so. But today, he is charming, funny and self-deprecating. And his anecdotes are enlivened by a huge talent for mimicry. The Russell Crowe fan is given a lower-middle-class London accent, which must come easily, for Jacobi was brought up in Leytonstone: "Me and David Beckham." Both parents worked in a department store on Walthamstow High Street.

I don't know much about his childhood, I tell him. "That's probably because it was very happy. Only child, loved school, adored my parents. My father died last year. He got to 90, bless him. My mother died in 1980. I was in a play on Broadway, and brought them over to New York on Concorde. The producer was a very rich woman who put a private plane at their disposal, so they jetted down to Washington and had a fantastic time. They'd never been to the US; it was if they were on the moon. And it was three weeks later, when she was still bubbling with excitement, that she died."

A deep breath. "She had a brain haemorrhage cooking Sunday lunch. It was terrible for my father. I often think about him... a very ordinary couple, she's cooking Sunday lunch, he's pottering around in the garden, she suddenly says she's got a terrible headache, calls out for him to get an aspirin out of her bag, he comes back in, and she's gone. He calls an ambulance, she's dead. He goes to the hospital, comes back, it's now three in the afternoon, he's got her watch and her rings, and that's it."

Jacobi by now has tears filling his eyes, and so do I. I ask whether he thinks about his own mortality? "Oh, I do. Anything to do with death and I'm a rag immediately. I get very emotional. And, of course, I'm way past the interval."

But still too young, at 62, to play King Lear? "I think so. I have seen too many Lears who are too young. He is 84, after all. But it is a sort of hoop, you know. If you have any aspirations to be a classical actor then when you're young, you have to go through the Hamlet hoop. Doesn't matter what else you've done, what's his Hamlet like? Then, what's his Lear like? And audiences and critics collect performances. It's always comparative. You're the fattest, thinnest, loudest, softest, of the decade, of your generation, of the century."

Jacobi's career began in 1960, with Birmingham Rep. His big break came in1963. "In 1962, we did She Stoops To Conquer – I was young Marlow. And someone decided to televise it, in the Aston studios in Birmingham. Those were the days of live TV, and we followed What's My Line?, which overran that night, I remember.

"Anyway, unbeknown to me, down in Brighton, Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan [Plowright] had got locked out of their house, so they checked into the Royal Crescent Hotel, went to their room, and switched on the TV. And they saw She Stoops To Conquer.

"Then, at the beginning of 1963, Olivier was on a scouting mission round the reps to find young actors for his Chichester season, which would become the National Theatre. I was playing Henry VIII, sharing a dressing-room with Wolsey. And Olivier was in for a Wednesday matinée. Afterwards, he comes to the dressing-room. I had changed, but Wolsey was sitting there in his under-dress. And to Wolsey, he goes on alarmingly about how wonderful he was. And then he left. But 10 seconds later, he came back, looked at me, and said [here Jacobi imitates to perfection Olivier's high-pitched incredulity] 'You ... were ... Henry?' A week later, by which time he had connected me with young Marlow, I got a letter..."

With the National Theatre, Jacobi gave any number of critically acclaimed performances. Yet it was I, Claudius that turned him into a household name. "For my parents, although I had been with the National Theatre, it really could have been the National Coal Board. But to be on the telly... Derek's made it! They'd tried everybody for Claudius before they tried me, though. Charlton Heston, even Ronnie Barker."

I want to ask Jacobi whether he agrees with me that the Ronnie Barker Claudius is one of the great missed opportunities of our time. Instead, I ask him whether Robert Graves, who wrote I, Claudius, was a presence on the set.

"He did come to the studio, but he was more than a bit gaga by then. I sat next to him at lunch, and at one point he turned to me and said 'I've always had a great deal of trouble with the Scots, I suppose because I've reached the grand old age of 130.' Later, he sent the Beeb a telegram saying 'Claudius is very pleased.' He thought he had a hotline to Claudius."

The performance propelled Jacobi to stardom, and there he has remained. Not only was he in Gladiator, last year's Oscar success, he also pops up in Gosford Park, which could be this year's. But he has stayed resolutely faithful to the theatre, even though he was blighted for three years by appalling stage fright – "I would go absolutely rigid with nerves, but I don't talk about it too much in case I talk myself back into it," he says.

Of his recent stage roles, his tour de force was as the tormented Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing, in Hugh Whitemore's Breaking the Code. It was a script that he at first rejected. "I thought it was so undramatic, that it would send people screaming out of the theatre.

"I met Hugh and said 'I'm afraid I don't find it theatrical. I can understand the homosexuality side of it, but not the mathematics.' And Hugh, God bless him, explained to me how it could be theatre rather than a lecture.

"He said, 'What was the last play you did?' I said, 'Cyrano de Bergerac.' He said, 'Well, you must believe that when Alan Turing talks about numbers, it is Cyrano talking about Roxane. You don't have to understand what he says, you just have to thrill to his passion.' I said, 'Say no more.' It was such a clever thing to say, and of course, so true."

'The Jury' starts on ITV1 on Sunday, at 9.30pm