Jim Broadbent: A topsy-turvy life

Slowly, and apparently effortlessly, Jim Broadbent has earnt a reputation as one of our most accomplished, versatile actors - playing everyone from WS Gilbert to Brian the snail in The Magic Roundabout. But, Richard Barber discovers, beneath a mild exterior burns a restless ambition
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That gifted emotional pygmy W S Gilbert, in Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy. The flamboyant impresario Harold Zidler, in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge!. John Bayley, the quintessence, as one critic put it, of tragic bafflement in Richard Eyre's Iris.

But Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses? Some mistake, surely.

"Actually, no," says Jim Broadbent, in his characteristically meandering mumble. He was, indeed, offered the lead role in the small-screen classic. "But I couldn't do it because I was appearing in a West End play at the time." And anyway, he adds, it would never have become a small-screen classic in the first place if he'd been cast as Peckham's perpetual loser.

It might have altered the direction of his career, though. Again, he demurs. "I could never have been as good as David Jason. I could never have achieved that perfect chemistry with Nick [Lyndhurst]. So it wouldn't have been so successful and I wouldn't have stuck with it." As it was, Broadbent played a minor recurring character called Slater in Fools and Horses, which only confirmed his view that Del Boy was in the best possible hands.

In the meantime - this was 1981 - the career of Jim Broadbent has crept up on us like grandmother's footsteps, carefully orchestrated success by stealth. The latest jewel in an increasingly weighty crown will be seen on Boxing Day on BBC1, in a pitch-perfect adaptation of Daisy Ashford's little gem, The Young Visiters.

The young Daisy wrote her astonishingly acute dissection of horrid ambitions and human frailties in 1890, when she was just nine. Its eventual publication, just after the Great War, became a succès fou, a timeless classic that has never once gone out of print.

Broadbent plays Alfred Salteena, "an elderly man of 42", who hopes to win the hand of the ruthlessly ambitious Ethel (Lyndsey Marshal) by introducing her to Lord Bernard Clark (Hugh Laurie), the only belted earl of his acquaintance. As poor Alf is put through a rigorous programme of self-improvement under the gimlet gaze of the peerless Bill Nighy, it becomes clear to us (though not to him) that Ethel prefers the cut of Bernard's jib.

Broadbent is also the show's executive producer. Patrick Barlow, his old friend and co-founder of the National Theatre of Brent, adapted The Young Visiters for television. "We know each other so well. Patrick wrote the screenplay with me in mind. I could recognise exactly what he wanted. He knew exactly what I was capable of. I was keen to protect his vision, to preserve the integrity of the piece."

Jim Broadbent was born in Lincolnshire in 1949, the youngest of the three children of a furniture maker (who also ran an amateur-dramatics society in a disused church), and a sculptress. It was always going to be art or acting, he says. But a short stint at art school quickly convinced him that he lacked the talent, and he won a place at Lamda. "As soon as I arrived there, I felt at home."

The apparently mild exterior and guileless blue eyes mask a single-minded determination to carve out a successful career, the constituent parts of which it is impossible to pigeonhole. "It's why I didn't marry until my late thirties," he says, by way of explaining his ambition. He met his future wife, the abstract artist Anastasia Lewis, when he was 34. The mother of two sons from a previous marriage, she and Broadbent finally wed in 1987, something that he has subsequently described as "a great union".

His big break came in 1976, when he played a dozen different parts in Ken Campbell's 12-hour extravaganza, Illuminatus. The list of professional hits in the ensuing quarter-century and more is almost embarrassingly rich: The Crying Game, Bullets Over Broadway, Little Voice, Gangs of New York. And so it goes on.

Impossible question, but which would he single out as milestones? "I loved impersonating Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy," he says. "It may have been set more than a century earlier, but essentially it was rooted in show business and, therefore, terribly familiar." He liked, too, playing the 23rd Earl of Leete in a self-written short called A Sense of History. And his portrayal of Iris Murdoch's husband, John Bayley, struggling to cope with her advancing Alzheimer's, was a career landmark.

He first met Bayley at the film's premiere. So, how did he achieve what is regarded as so uncanny a likeness of the man of letters? "I listened to a tape, over and over again, of him being interviewed by Dr Anthony Clare for his Radio 4 programme, In the Psychiatrist's Chair. That provided a huge insight. His character was revealed through his vocal mannerisms: the light voice, the slight stutter, the humour, the diffidence, the strength."

And Bayley's verdict? "He was rather startled, I think, the first time he saw the film. But, the second time, he began to appreciate it for what it was. He sent me a lovely letter." It was a view shared by the Academy. Broadbent picked up a Best Supporting Oscar at his first nomination. The award also upped his asking price, supposes Broadbent, "although, if you're intent upon doing good work, producers know that they have you over a barrel".

He's not complaining. The roles now offered could not be more diverse, more delicious. He has just finished voicing Brian the snail, in a full-length animated version of The Magic Roundabout. We have yet to see him as the wicked Lord Kelvin ("much metaphorical moustache-twirling") in a slightly unlikely-sounding remake of Around the World in Eighty Days with Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan. He'll be the equally reprehensible old Mr Osborne ("dark, brittle, unforgiving") in Vanity Fair, with Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp.

And don't start him on Bridget Jones. Why, he talks in whole sentences on the subject. As Bridget's slightly bewildered father, he will recur in the sequel, The Edge of Reason. Hugh Grant, who was also in the original, had to be persuaded, it is said, to recreate his role as the caddish Daniel. It was, according to Grant, a bit like contemplating climbing back into a pair of wet swimming-trunks. Broadbent giggles. "Oh, they warmed up quickly enough."

Certainly, he has nothing but unstinting praise for the Texan Renée Zellweger in the title role. "She's quite wonderful. From day one of rehearsals of the first film, her accent was seamless. She's not just English. She has pinpointed a particular tiny, focused stratum of London. Indeed, she so utterly inhabited the role, it was as though she was English the whole time she was here, both on-set and off."

Broadbent is currently to be found in The Pillowman, the blackest of comedies, at the National Theatre (his reviews were ecstatic, but of course), in repertory until the end of March. Then there's the film to be made of Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever, in which he'll play the much older Cornelius Sandvoort, a Dutch merchant whose beautiful younger wife (Keira Knightley) falls in love with the artist (Jude Law) commissioned by her husband to paint her portrait. John Madden (Mrs Brown, Shakespeare in Love) will direct. Tom Stoppard has written the screenplay.

Then there's the advert for haemorrhoid cream, recently heard on Classic FM, in which Broadbent featured and about which he makes no apology. "I played a grumpy bottom," he says, trying to keep a lid on his evident glee. It neatly illustrates what makes him tick. "I have a low boredom threshold. I've always enjoyed doing a succession of different things. I'm not obviously any particular type, so I try to spread my net as widely as possible."

Stupid, then, to ask him to reveal his game plan. A hopeless smile flickers across the benign features. "Well, I never had an ambition, for example, to play the man who ran the Moulin Rouge in a big-screen musical. How could I have done?

"No, my only game plan," says the deceptively canny Jim Broadbent, "is to keep the options open and seize the surprises when they present themselves."

'The Young Visiters' is on BBC1 at 6pm on Boxing Day