Sir Michael Gambon on playing Winston Churchill and not learning his lines

Michael Gambon tells Gerard Gilbert how Brando made him give up engineering to act, what worries him about playing Churchill and why he’s never seen ‘The Singing Detective’

Gerard Gilbert
Friday 19 February 2016 11:57 GMT
Michael Gambon as Winston Churchill in ITV's new television adaptation
Michael Gambon as Winston Churchill in ITV's new television adaptation

Sir Michael Gambon puts me on notice part-way through our interview that his memoirs might be, as Clive James once put it, unreliable. I’m asking him about an interview he gave in 2014 about once appearing with the Royal Ballet. “It’s a lie,” he laughs. “I told a journalist that I fell off stage and my head went through a kettledrum.”

If Gambon is given to mischievously fabricating anecdotes for journalists then it’s only symptomatic of his dislike of the whole process.

He rarely gives interviews, and there’s a generalised vagueness in his answers – punctuated by countless tag questions (“don’t they, aren’t they?”) – that suggest that this might be another of his coping mechanisms.

For my part, I am slightly in awe of the great man. Dennis Potter’s 1986 masterpiece, The Singing Detective, is, along with Heimat and Mad Men, one of my three favourite TV dramas of all time. But can I believe Gambon when he says that he’s never watched this (by his own estimation) career highlight?

“I watched bits of The Singing Detective but I’ve never watched all of it,” he says. “I’ve never watched myself willingly really... I’m always frightened. It was seven months work in a disused hospital and I was really locked into it, but I never had the courage to watch it all the way through. It was a big success wasn’t it?”

Not half. The role of mystery author Philip E Marlowe, suffering from writer’s block and a chronic skin condition (the same psoriatic arthropathy that disabled Potter), turned Gambon from a well-respected theatre figure into a household name – while the series, with its mixture of drama, noir fantasy and lip-synced songs was ground-breaking and controversial, the Mary Whitehouse brigade particularly perturbed by how Joanne Whalley’s hospital nurse creamed his cracked skin.

Gambon claims to have felt intimidated by Potter. “He used to come quite often into the rehearsal room and I was so overwhelmed by him,” he says. “He said to me: ‘You don’t talk to me much, do you?’ And I said: ‘I don’t. I’m a bit shy of you because you’re so famous.’ And he said: ‘What are you interested in?’ And I said: ‘I quite like cars.’ And he’d then joke with me. Nice bloke... I never really got to know him.”

Gambon seems to have come full circle because, in his latest role, he is again bed-bound and attended by pretty young nurses. In ITV’s Churchill’s Secret he plays the then postwar prime minister who, in 1952 and at the age of 78, suffered a series of strokes that were kept secret from both the public and his own government.

“He stayed at his house for months... nobody saw him,” says Gambon of the ailing leader. “It’s a bit odd. We wouldn’t tolerate that now. If the Prime Minister had a stroke we’d know about it two minutes later.”

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He follows Robert Hardy, Timothy Spall, Bob Hoskins and Albert Finney into the role of Churchill, but what’s impressive about his performance is that it doesn’t feel in any way like an imitation.

“No, no, no, I didn’t want to do that sort of thing,” he says. “It shouldn’t be about copying. I looked at the way he walked... his sort of build. The voice I found worrying... I tried to copy it a bit without being overtly... you know?”.

Gambon is clearly not an actor who enjoys analysing his craft in public, but he did once say, of playing Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies, that “every part I play is just a variant of my personality... I’m not really a character actor at all”.

He says now: “I’m not sure I was right about that. I think you just read the character then you try to become that in yourself. And I don’t know how you do it – you just go through long rehearsal periods, particularly on the stage. And I’m essentially a theatre actor.”

Correction: he was a theatre actor, but gave it up last year. “I can’t do it any more because I can’t remember lines clearly,” he says. “I’d do it in lightweight, small theatres, Beckett plays, stuff like that. But I can’t cope with big heavy ones.”

In recent years he used an earpiece on stage, but found that cumbersome. “That works well on television... you don’t even know it’s there. But you couldn’t do that in the theatre because of the rhythms and speed... the accuracy.

“A lot of actors use those things, but they don’t tell anyone, particularly the Americans. I know one Hollywood actor uses one. He just can’t be bothered to learn it [the script].”

Does he miss the stage? “Yeah I do. I love it. I miss the live audience and the rhythm of it – every day’s different, every night’s different.”

Gambon was born in Dublin in 1940, and left at the age of five, his engineer father moving the family to London to help with the city’s postwar reconstruction. He finished school at 15, and gained an apprenticeship with Vickers-Armstrongs as a toolmaker, becoming a fully qualified engineer at 21 before, naturally enough, he decided to become an actor.

“I’m much more mechanical than I am anything else,” he says, an interest that is these days channelled into his collection of museum-grade antique pistols, clocks and watches. But why, aged 24, did he suddenly write to Michael MacLiammoir, the Irish impresario who ran the Gate Theatre, a letter accompanied by a wholly fictitious CV?

“I remember going with a friend to see a film,” he replies. “It was Marlon Brando, and we were walking along the street and this mate of mine said: ‘The thing Marlon Brando was doing... that’s called acting.’ And it suddenly started to grow.” After a couple of years at the Gate, Gambon caught the eye of Laurence Olivier, who was then looking for spear-carriers for his fledgling National Theatre. Gambon made his debut as “Mike Gambon”.

“I stayed for three-and-a-half years. Then I went to Sir Laurence and said, ‘is there any chance of bigger parts?’ and he said, ‘no, I don’t think so’, and he rang up Birmingham Rep and I ended up being asked to go there.”

Leading roles followed, as well television exposure in the swashbuckling BBC adventure series The Borderers (1968-70), which led to Gambon being asked to audition for the new James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the part eventually going to the Australian George Lazenby.

Invited to meet Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, Gambon didn’t exactly sell himself. “I said I didn’t want the part because I’m not like him [Bond]. I haven’t got nice hair and I’m a bit fat and he said, ‘well, the present James Bond doesn’t have any hair... it’s a wig’. Nice man.”

Gambon may not have become 007 but, 35 years later, he found himself in an equally successful franchise, stepping into the late Richard Harris’s shoes as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films.

“I did six out of eight,” he says. “Loads of dosh, then you go back to normal. Half the people I knew already from the National and all those places. I get stopped in the streets by kids. ‘Are you Dumbledore?’ they ask me. With children you have to be nice, don’t you? With adults I’m not so nice.”

But the stage is the thing, and Gambon has done a wealth of theatre, specialising in Ayckbourn, Pinter and Beckett, and earning the epithet The Great Gambon from no less a thespian grandee than Sir Ralph Richardson (“He called me that name when he saw me in Life of Galileo at the National and I got to know him quite well. He was a lovely man... always made me laugh”).

The film roles have ranged from Layer Cake to The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, with Helen Mirren, while his Private Godfrey is the best thing by far in the new Dad’s Army movie. “We did it in Scarborough near where Alan Ayckbourn lives. God it was cold.”

On television in the past year he appeared in The Casual Vacancy and Fortitude, but his longest TV stint was as Georges Simenon’s fictional detective in ITV’s Maigret in the 1990s. When I tell him that Rowan Atkinson will soon be playing Maigret for ITV, he jokes: “God, why’s he doing that? He must be short of money.”

Gambon doesn’t discuss his private life, but I happen to know that he lived in a big old house in Kent with his first wife, Anne Miller, because it was just up the road from my parents’ home. They have one son, Fergus, a ceramics expert who appears on Antiques Roadshow.

Gambon subsequently moved out of the marital home and to west London with his new partner, Philippa Hart, with whom he had a son, Tom, in 2007, at the age of 67 (he’s now 75). Again I know this from personal experience, having had a child at the same time and having hung out in the same park cafe in Hammersmith. They had another boy, Will, in 2009.

He is vague about future projects. “I’m supposed to be doing something in Europe... I can’t remember what it was,” he says. “Something always pops up and I do it and take the money and run.”

He has given up his hobby of flying light aircraft because he feels too old. Would he ever retire? “Nothing worse, is there? What would you do? Sit watching the television?”

Well he could always catch up with The Singing Detective, I suggest.

“No, I wouldn’t retire,” he says. “Plod on.”

‘Churchill’s Secret’ is on ITV on Sunday 28 February at 8pm

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