Rupert Penry-Jones: Still waiting for his Colin Firth moment

An acclaimed Captain Wentworth in the ITV adaptation of Jane Austen's 'Persuasion', the actor stars in Sir Terence Rattigan's wartime drama 'Flare Path' which airs on Radio 3 tonight. Susie Mesure meets Rupert Penry-Jones

Rupert Penry-Jones is standing in a sea: of daisies, admittedly, not water. And his shirt, generously unbuttoned, is flapping in the breeze rather than clinging, damp, to his torso. But that doesn't stop memories of that Mr Darcy moment, when Colin Firth emerged dripping from the lake, from flooding into my mind as I watch him gamely sniff away, ignoring his hayfever for the good of our photo-shoot.

The analogy is fitting: like Firth, Penry-Jones has swashbuckled his way through period dramas, playing, in his time, Captain Wentworth in ITV's Persuasion. We meet, for lunch in the pub garden next to the pollen-rich field, to talk about his most recent period piece, although sadly, for his female fans at least, it airs over the radio waves rather than on television. I can only suggest the IoS portrait might ease their disappointment.

There's a certain irony in watching Penry-Jones pull up to the pub in his soft-top Mercedes SL300. Everything about him shrieks film star, from the black shades firmly clamped to his face and the sun-bleached blond hair, ruffled by the breeze on the short drive from his Hampshire family home to Exton's watering hole, The Shoe.Yet for all of the actor's success – four series as Adam Carter in Spooks cemented his claim to household fame – his failure to make it big in the cinema remains his one sore point, the "constant niggle at my ego", as he later admits over a coffee.

This makes it somewhat poignant that his most recent role, Peter Kyle in Sir Terence Rattigan's wartime hit Flare Path, about a Bomber Command squadron, is a Hollywood hotshot who has returned to the UK to try and snare his one true love. "My desire to be on a film set is quite large," Penry-Jones says, adding that despite not regretting any of his previous roles, the six films he has done to date haven't quite cut it. "They've either been a good part in a terrible movie or a rubbish part in a good movie. Either way, I've not been noticed."

And Penry-Jones, 40, does like to be noticed: although, to be fair, he can't help being north of six foot and good looking with it. He readily admits that the adulation that comes with big parts was what got him into acting, aged 13, in a Dulwich College production of The Tempest. "A teacher, Jan Piggott, told me (he puts on deep voice): 'They're auditioning for The Tempest. If I don't see you there I'll be very disappointed.' I went along and got the part, and suddenly all these teachers, all these girls, everybody was just wanting to be my friend, and being lovely to me, and being nice to me and I thought: 'This is it. This is what I want to do.'"

His mother, the actress Angela Thorne (who played Marjory Frobisher in To the Manor Born), maintains she knew he would become an actor when, as a child, he stood in front of a mirror and declared: "I could look at myself all day." But when I bring this up, he claims not to remember. Either way, his parents (his father, Peter, was also an actor) would have preferred him to do something academic. Penry-Jones says this was never going to happen. Especially after he "sort of deliberately failed" one of his A-levels by not turning up to his economics exam. A course at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol followed, although he screwed that up as well, getting thrown out after two years. Some serious partying later, and aged 21, he was getting nowhere, so his mother stepped in, as they do, with a call to an agent she knew. Soon, the work was pouring in, although not, to date, in the film industry.

Like most actors, he made his name on the stage, although he was happy to swap the "few hundred quid a week" he made in the theatre for the bigger bucks of telly. "It's a no-brainer; especially when you're saving to try to put children through school." Which isn't to say he isn't keen on plays; he might not even have any children but for a part in Dangerous Corner at the Garrick back in 2001, where he met his now wife, the former Ballykissangel-cum-M&S voiceover star Dervla Kirwan. And this was despite initially considering turning down the job as he hadn't wanted to work with the actress. "I'd heard she was difficult. I said to my agent: "I don't want to do anything with Dervla. I don't think she and I would get on.' And he said: 'Don't be stupid, you can't turn down a job because of that.' And within a few weeks we were in love." Two children, Florence, seven, and Peter, five, followed, as did marriage, and their Hampshire house.

In fact, he misses doing plays and would like to do another one soon – hopefully next year when he's got the next series of Silk, the new BBC courtroom drama, and Whitechapel, an ITV cop show, out of the way. He tells me, in between mouthfuls of fish and chips, that he came out of watching Sir Trevor Nunn's current West End production of Flare Path – part of the Rattigan revival marking the centenary, this Friday, of the playwright's birth – wishing he had been in it. He had gone to watch his friend, James Purefoy, who also plays the part of Peter Kyle.

One week later, his agent rang, offering him the very same part in the Jeremy Harrin-directed BBC dramatisation that airs on Radio 3 tonight, kicking off the corporation's own Rattigan tribute.

It's a great listen, so I don't want to give too much away, but I can't resist probing on one of the play's main points about the frivolity of acting. "During a war, acting can probably seem frivolous. I mean, I think acting has its place, but I remember when I was doing Hamlet, the first play I ever did, I had a terrible car crash on the way to the theatre. I hit a motorcyclist. He was OK, but I think he broke his leg.

"It was awful. Bike under the car. And then I had to go to the theatre, and I remember standing on the stage thinking this is the most ridiculous thing in the world to be doing after I'd nearly killed someone."

He pauses. "The ability to suspend reality and go into a make-believe world can be really, really difficult if there's something really big going on. It's like when 9/11 happened, I was in a technical rehearsal for the play at the Garrick, and we were all watching it on the telly when it happened, then we had to go on stage that night. None of us wanted to. We all felt that it was idiotic, ridiculous. And the same with 7/7. We were filming Spooks at the time, pretending there were terrorists attacking England ..." he trails off, point made, before adding: "When things like that happen, acting can seem pretty frivolous, but so can many things in life. A lot of people's careers and jobs are. But I know one thing, if I didn't have TV and theatre and radio, the world would be a much more boring place."

Penry-Jones's ability to empathise with Kyle about a tough spot in which the character finds himself – standing in a love triangle with the woman he is chasing – speaks volumes about his playboy past, which includes three years stepping out on the arm of one Kylie Minogue. He later admits: "I've been in a room with somebody else's partner and that was horrible." Less horrible, presumably, are some of the perks of his trade, such as meeting beautiful partners such as Kirwan. Although even those can turn into pitfalls: "I can remember telling a girlfriend that I was so chuffed I'd got a job that was filming for three months and I was off to do it and I was playing a really good part. And she said: 'Where's it filming?' And I said: 'It's in Prague.' And she said: 'Oh great. So you're just going to be shagging the lead actress' – and put the phone down on me. And that was it."

What, the end of the relationship? Cue sheepish Penry-Jones grin: "No. It was afterwards, because then I did start sleeping with the lead actress."

By way of justification, he later adds: "It is a funny job. When you find yourself in a show, when you're doing love scenes with some beautiful girl, and you're there and you're miles away from home and you spend the day in bed together, and then you go home from work, and it's just you two and you go out for dinner that night, and yet you've been kissing all day ... The lines get very blurred. It's confusing. You just have to make sure that you're talking to your wife regularly. Dervla and I try not to spend more than a couple of weeks away from each other."

Although his Minogue days were eons ago, and he hates bringing them up out of deference to Kirwan, he does give me one clue as to why they might have split up. "I wasn't really into her music. And, once, I stupidly said to her, when she played me 'Can't get you out of my head': 'Yeah, it's good. But I'd rather hear you do some sort of rock, acoustic thing.' I was in the studio with her when she was recording it. And she got very annoyed with me. And then – obviously – it turned into this huge hit."

Whether the song would be one of his Desert Island picks, if he ever gets asked on the show, remains to be seen. Before that though, he is keen to chalk up a few more big roles. Given that even Colin Firth had to wait for his stratospheric success, it's hard to believe that Penry-Jones will wind up disappointed.

Curriculum vitae

1970 Born in West Norwood, south London, to Peter Penry-Jones, a Welsh actor, and Angela Thorne, an actress.

1982 Attends Dulwich College, south-east London, where he deliberately flunks his exams in favour of training for the stage at Bristol's Old Vic Theatre School. Gets thrown out after two years.

1991 Needs his mother to step in and help find him an agent after realising working as a runway fashion model in Milan isn't helping him to get on the stage.

1995 Makes his London stage debut at the Hackney Empire, playing Fortinbras to Ralph Fiennes' Hamlet.

1999 Joins the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing the lead in Don Carlos.

2001 Meets his now wife, Dervla Kirwan, in a play at the Garrick.

2004 Is cast as the lead in the third series of the BBC's Spooks, playing MI5's Adam Carter for four further series. Juggles work and fatherhood: Florence is born the same year, and Peter two years later.

2007 Marries Kirwan.

2009 Takes the lead in ITV's Whitechapel, about a series of murders by a copycat Jack the Ripper killer.

2010 Spends five weeks in Puerto Rico shooting Treasure Island for Sky – to air Christmas 2011.

2011 Stars opposite Maxine Peake in Silk, a new BBC legal drama by Peter Moffat. Gets recommissioned for a second series. Is set to star in a third series of Whitechapel.

Tawana Joseph

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