If you’re used to what Tim Pigott-Smith calls the “bam, bam, bam” of telly today – and let’s face it, who isn’t, brooding Scandi dramas aside – his latest small screen offering may come as something of a shock. “There are long, looooong Cabinet scenes in there,” he says of 37 Days, which chronicles the will-they-won’t-they diplomacy that preceded the First World War.
The BBC crunches the deliberations into three hours of docu-drama, which will air over three consecutive nights, so the Cabinet scenes are not as long as they might have been. But it’s all a far cry from The Musketeers: “See if you can count to five before a cut. Those things actually make me feel slightly weird.”
Perhaps it’s because the stakes are so high, but the agonising of the Cabinet in 37 Days makes for gripping drama. “I didn’t think it was boring for a minute,” the 67-year-old actor enthuses over an espresso. “What happens is you go, ‘I know what he’s thinking’. You need to give your audience time to say, ‘Oh, I don’t like him.’ Or, ‘I wonder what he’s up to now.’ Bam, bam, bam telly doesn’t give you that opportunity.”
He warms to his theme – the difference between today’s television and the sort of series that was made in the era of The Jewel in the Crown, the 13-hour, 1984 adaptation of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet: “Slower television actually credits the audience with a higher level of intelligence.” And as for playing around on Twitter at the same time as viewing: “You wouldn’t read Anna Karenina and try to work on the computer at the same time, would you? But it’s kind of the same thing. If it’s any good it’s worth investing time in.”
I sparked this by saying it felt high time for a Jewel rescreening. (The Pigott-Smith archive implies that seeing Jewel is almost obligatory for an interviewer, so I’m late to the task.) He’s immensely grateful for the series, or “mini-series” to use the correct terminology, that made his name – three people came up to him on the first night of his current play, Larry Belling’s black comedy Stroke of Luck, to say, ‘I’ve always loved your acting, ever since The Jewel in the Crown.’ Then they say, ‘Oh, sorry, maybe you don’t like that.’ And I say, ‘What a nice millstone to have hung round your neck!’” But he seems to be cautioning against a Jewelathon. “I think you’ll find, if you look at things made in that period, the rhythm appears to be slow.”
In 37 Days, Pigott-Smith makes an entirely plausible Lord Asquith, the Liberal prime minister presiding over those Cabinet meetings. Playing him is “not like doing Winston Churchill. The young Nicholas Asbury, whom I think is marvellous at Churchill, has a different brief because we”– here he adopts the obligatory Churchill growl – “all have expectations. You’ve got to do a bit of that.” In his normal voice, he adds: “With Asquith you don’t have to, because nobody knows.”
Although the show is fundamentally a documentary – the writer, Mark Hayhurst, is a historian – no one kept notes of the Cabinet meetings, whichmay be what makes them so watchable. Paradoxically, the odd line that grates tends to be genuine. “Quite often it would be the line that stuck out,” Pigott-Smith agrees.
Does the drama show that war was inevitable? “Well, the Kaiser was pretty certifiable. But Princip, the man who shot Archduke Ferdinand, only did it because something went wrong. [After a bomb failed to stop the car] He went to sulk in a café, and the chauffeur took the wrong turning and couldn’t get the car into reverse, so Princip thought, ‘Oh well ...’ [and had another go]. So a world war was caused by a chauffeur who couldn’t get his car into reverse.”
Despite the volume of commemorative programmes, Pigott-Smith thinks the impact of all the attention on the First World War will be to send people back to Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and HH Munro, who wrote as Saki, and was “shot in the trenches just after saying, ‘Put that cigarette out.’ I think that’s what people will remember – that’s what we as human beings identify with: what those men went through.”
Talk of the war puts him in a contemplative mood. He eschews my offer of lunch – he’s performing that evening at the new Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, opposite his wife of more than 40 years, Pamela Miles, and will eat with her later. “What a wonderful life I’ve had; absolutely amazing. I’ve never had to live through one of those wars.”
He doesn’t have any time for the current Cabinet. His criticisms start with its lack of women; something that leaps out of the screen from 37 Days is the complete absence of female politicians. “It wasn’t any different when I was young,” he laughs. “And I don’t think it is in this cabinet, is it? Because it’s all millionaires and Bullingham Club boys.
“We’re still living under the cosh of the class system and we haven’t really changed it much. And that divide, those inequalities get bigger and deeper. You don’t see a lot of it in 37 Days, but you get the smell of it. Those men playing cricket and saying, ‘Well, I couldn’t possibly miss a cricket match for a Cabinet meeting.’ I don’t think the present Cabinet knows what life on a bus is like.”
Pigott-Smith has had plenty of light relief playing a mischievous patient in Stroke of Luck, which ends its five-week run today. “It’s an absolutely archetypical American family drama with some naughty comedy. And it’s slightly politically incorrect, which I like. Because where else can you be politically incorrect except on stage?” He has a cheeky snigger. After turning down role after role last year – partly because the couple were moving house, to Hampstead, where we meet – he’s loving being back on the stage, his true passion.
“Why else would you do something for £400 a week? It’s wonderful. You never learn to act in front of a camera. You never learn anything in front of a camera. But you learn to act in a rehearsal room with a good play and a good cast and a good director.”
He goes straight from the Park Theatre to the Almeida in north London, to play Prince Charles in King Charles III, directed by Rupert Goold. Then it’s on to the Theatre Royal, Bath for another production, which is just how he likes it.
Given the warm reception he always gets from critics, who, he notes sadly are a dying breed these days, it might be wise to book up now. And until then, there’s always that Jewel box set, which is guaranteed to be bam, bam, bam-free.
Tim Pigott-Smith appears in 37 Days, BBC 2, 9pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday
1946: Born 13 May, in Rugby, Warwickshire. Goes to Wyggeston boys’ school, Leicester, and King Edward VI School, Stratford-upon-Avon, where his family moved when he was 16. His father worked for the local paper. Studies at Bristol University before training as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school.
1971: Has what he calls a pivotal moment in his early career while playing Laertes and First Player in a tour of Hamlet, when Ian McKellen gives him acting advice.
1972: Joins the Royal Shakespeare Company and marries actress Pamela Miles. They later have a son, Tom.
1984: Gets leading role of Ronald Merrick in the acclaimed ITV mini-series The Jewel in the Crown.
1990: Many other TV roles in series follow, starting with The Chief, then The Vice and, in 2004, North & South.
2009: Plays Ken Lay in the award-winning Enron, first at Chichester Festival Theatre, then in London.
2011: Is critically acclaimed for his King Lear at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds.
2012: Plays Prospero in The Tempest at Theatre Royal, Bath.