Nicholas Lyndhurst: 'I wanted to be an actor from the age of eight'

Nicholas Lyndhurst has a bit of a reputation for being private. Just about any tabloid story about him – and there have been a few, given he started acting at the age of 13 – will describe him as "secretive" or "publicity shy". This is what the red-tops would have us believe: that in 1999 he changed his own wedding date in a bid to keep it secret; that he doesn't attend premieres; that he keeps bees – a suitably solitary sort of pastime; that he didn't tell friends and colleagues when his wife Lucy, a former dancer with the English National Ballet, fell pregnant. When his child was eventually born, in 2000, the Lyndhursts wouldn't confirm its gender – and on one early outing, even smuggled the baby out of the house and into a car, completely covered with a blanket. Nicholas Lyndhurst? Oh, very private. Almost obsessively so. Given his reputation, it's a wonder that I'm even allowed to meet him, in person, for an interview. And yet, here he is, in the long, high-ceilinged rehearsal room in London's Dominion Theatre, compliantly turning this way and that for photographs, during a break from rehearsals for Trevor Nunn's production of The Tempest.

Lyndhurst is a rangy figure (of course he is; he's Rodney Trotter!) and youthful-looking for 50, but when he folds himself onto a chair for the interview, it turns out that he's not actually that private at all. It's just that journalists could never quite get the story out of him that they wanted, he says. And since they had to write something, 'no story' soon became the story. Yes, he says, he did change his wedding date, but only after the vicar told the press when and where he was getting married ("Astoundingly enough," he says, "there isn't a sort of vicar disciplinary hearing"). When Lucy was pregnant with their son, he was filming those WHSmith adverts that went down so well (Lyndhurst played the whole family, and won a nomination at the National Television Awards for it), and the director kindly, he says, wrote in a clause in the crew's contract stipulating that they weren't allowed to spill the beans about the pregnancy until he did. So he was telling people, just not the general public. Premieres? The papers got that one right. There have been times when he fancies going to big events, just to meet people he admires. "But then," he says, "what's going to happen is someone's going to try and take a picture of your wife's arse as she gets out of the car." Instead, he just writes to people he wants to compliment. He doesn't keep bees, never has. And on the day when the papers ran the 'hidden baby' story, the only reason newborn Archie was covered up was because it was winter. "They didn't get the picture, so they said, 'Why are you covering him up? They're hiding that baby!'. It was February, it was pissing down with rain, and we were carrying the carrycot from the car to the supermarket." He rolls his eyes. "It wasn't a sort of Jacko moment." In the early Noughties, he did disappear from TV screens for three years, he admits – but it was a planned, extended paternity leave.

All this he tells me, by the way, in an actorly, Received Pronunciation tone of voice. It is frequently disappointing for fans of Only Fools and Horses to learn that Lyndhurst is not actually from Peckham, but a little village in West Sussex – and that he does not travel around in a three-wheeled car, but can actually fly his own plane. Although Lyndhurst has done plenty of serious theatre, and, indeed, serious television – most notably the BBC's David Copperfield and in 2000, Thin Ice, when he played the chillingly amoral Dr Graham Moss – people are still surprised to hear that he's departing from the comedic role he played as Rodney Trotter. Some people go further, and are offended. After a performance of The Dresser, in which he was directed by Sir Peter Hall, one man confronted Lyndhurst, saying he'd brought his wife to the theatre because she was a fan, only to discover Lyndhurst was playing a northern alcoholic gay man with mental health problems. "He said, 'You've upset my wife. I brought her out for a good night because she likes your programmes and look what you've done! She's in bits!'," Lyndhurst recalls, adding with just a flash of delight in his eyes: "Yes. Good."

Lyndhurst is very gracious about the benign spectre of 'plonker' Rodney, hapless younger brother to David Jason's Del Boy, which hovers over his career. "To be anything to do with this country's most popular show is a stripe, it has to be a stripe, and we had such fun doing it," he says, marking his sleeve with one finger. The final episode of Only Fools and Horses, which ran from 1981 to 1991, drew in an audience of 24.35 million – half the country. Since then, Christmas specials have lured yet more huge viewing figures, and when a prequel, Rock and Chips, aired in 2010, it won critical acclaim.

Lyndhurst had been reticent about doing the prequel, in which he'd play Rodney's father, a charming but violent man. But as soon as he read John Sullivan's script, he signed the dotted line. Lyndhurst is visibly emotional when he talks about Sullivan's death earlier this year. "Viral pneumonia. Don't know much about it," he says, voice lowered, "other than it kills your friends sometimes." Sullivan, who single-handedly wrote the scripts for Only Fools and Horses for 30 years, died in the process of putting together another prequel special, due to be shot this winter. "John just used to write these masterpieces and I would wait in the hallway if I knew the script was due that day. I would be like a terrier, ripping it apart, to read it in one go in complete silence," Lyndhurst says sadly. "I don't get any more John Sullivan scripts now. I've got nothing to wait in the hallway for."

The legacy of the sitcom still stands, though, even internationally – and this despite the BBC's initial fears that Only Fools and Horses would only appeal to London viewers. Lyndhurst was in Uganda recently (Why? "Oh saving chimpanzees," he says as an aside; the actor has maintained a long connection with the cause), when he got a tap on the shoulder from a fan, telling him he liked his work. In Rome, he was stopped near the Vatican by a group of boys from the former Yugoslavia, who approached him as if he was the Pope himself. They learnt "real English" from him, they said. "Christ, you didn't, did you?" he laughs. He admits that he didn't let his own son watch the episodes until he was old enough to hear words like "plonker" and "dipstick". "He's 10 now – and he likes being rude."

In fact, Lyndhurst junior has picked up much from his father; in September, young Archie will start at Corona, the theatre school in Kew that Lyndhurst himself attended as a child. Lyndhurst jokingly claims he tried to get Archie to join the RAF, the only chance he'll ever get to hitch a ride with the Red Arrows. But Archie is determined to act, just like his father.

Lyndhurst's own childhood background was rather different. His father left his mother, a dancer, when he was just a baby. A few years later, he was hassling his mother to send him to theatre school. He still marvels somewhat at his own temerity: "I was badgering my mother from the age of eight." It was two years before she agreed, and he has no idea where his ambition sprang from. There was no family precedent, he had no mentor, and he came from a small village where such aspirations were as outlandish "as travelling to Jupiter", but he just knew that he wanted to act. His mother finally agreed, and when he was 10, brought him to the boarding school with all she could afford – half a term's fees – in the hope he'd get it out of his system.

"I know it was very hard," he says. "My mum's best friend drove us up to the school, and very quietly, as we went up the stairs, she whispered 'Don't cry otherwise mummy will cry'. And that's how it went." He was so excited, he had no intention of crying, and he stayed there for the rest of his education. It was fun, but the school was strict, with a no-nonsense sensibility towards uniform and deportment. Even while studying, he became a professional child actor and in a short space of time, he appeared in an assortment of television series, including Anne of Avonlea, Heidi, and Peter Pan, before landing a part in the sitcom Butterflies in 1978. This angular youth suddenly became a face to watch.

This year, Lyndhurst donated a bursary of £10,000 to his old school, which pupils – probably coming from situations more similar to his than his son – can audition for. Lyndhurst knows it's a tough career, and harks back gratefully to his old teachers, who didn't dish out any illusions. "We were told on a very regular basis, 'The chances of you making a living at this are zero'," he says. "Which was great. It's almost exactly the opposite of what we find ourselves doing now – 'Come up here, sing a song, and you'll be made'."

Lyndhurst's latest project is something that only a classical actor who'd really earnt his chops would land. Trevor Nunn's The Tempest starts previewing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket tonight, and Lyndhurst says he is blown away by the promises the production holds. "Shakespeare wrote The Tempest as this magical island and Trevor has taken that at its word," he enthuses. "He's making it incredible. I mean, if we can get 40 per cent of what's in his brain on stage, its going to look fantastic." It's going to be a very physical show, he says; Nunn has brought in world-class illusionists to teach the actors the type of skills that mean audiences will disbelieve their own eyes, and that it's going to be a spectacle. "It's going to be gobsmacking." Lyndhurst plays the jester Trinculo, who finds himself as one of a group shipwrecked on an island ruled by Prospero, played by Ralph Fiennes. "He [Ralph] is knocking out a fantastic performance. He's got such an intensity. I'm not going to give anything away, but there are many moments in it when you just think: fantastic."

Trinculo starts the play scared out of his wits by being in such a surreal and enchanted place, but thanks to a barrel of wine, becomes increasingly more and more drunk, so by the end he's paralytic, and couldn't care less where he is. "To make it harmless and real and funny is more of a challenge than I thought it was going to be," he admits, joking that he's been practising the drunken bit for the past 30 years. Although self-deprecating about the part – "I drib in and out really. I think Shakespeare put Trinculo in just as a little light relief and probably as they changed the scenery somewhere" – he is reverential about the process of rehearsal that has brought him to this point. "Trevor gave us two and a half days of the life of Shakespeare before we picked up a script and when you've got someone like Sir Trevor who is so knowledgeable and can explain not just every syllable but every nuance of what it meant." He shakes his head.

This isn't the first time that Lyndhurst has been directed by Nunn. "Funnily enough, I have worked with [him] before, on what I consider to be the ultimate laxative – a live broadcast from the grounds of Buckingham Palace on the Queen's 80th birthday, thank you very much. Ha ha!" The royal family hosted a picnic for 2,000 children, while on the stage a collection of actors performed, dressed up as children's literary characters. "I was Cruella De Vil's chauffeur and I was in charge of the corgis, so I not only had this live broadcast in front of the entire royal family, in their house, I also had eight dogs who weren't actors and didn't know anything about stage craft." The memory makes him a little hysterical. "When the dogs weren't fighting with each other they were trying to get off with the royal family there, right there!" He jabs his finger a couple of inches from his face, and shakes his head.

Nunn, for his part, describes "Nick" as an actor "with funny bones. He has a comic instinct that can't be taught. As Trinculo, it's priceless." Expect to read the theatre critics echoing those sentiments over the coming weeks, possibly to the surprise of the eight Facebook members who joined the group 'Whatever Happened To Nicholas Lyndhurst': just because you don't see pictures of him on the red carpet, it doesn't mean he's disappeared.

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