English | Français | Español
|POWELL AND THE GLORY PROFILE ROBERT POWELL
Robert Powell's arrival is signalled by the staccato tattoo of some very insistent heels. Stacked heels, I notice, as they clip peremptorily down the theatre corridor, bearing his swishing stage presence out of view. Ten minutes later another set appear. This time courtesy of a pair of cowboy boots.
And emerging from this new footwear is a whole new person. Denim-clad, smiling, and really without the smallest resemblance to Jesus Christ.
You must remember. That bone structure more finely chiselled than a Vatican vanity unit, the Golgotha gaze from those storm-grey eyes, the captivating drape of that loincloth ...
It may be over 20 years since Robert Powell's eight-hour depiction of Jesus of Nazareth returned Easter to its proper place on the Christian calendar, with a thorn-free diadem in the television ratings, but this is still the role with which most people identify him. Even a fifth series of The Detectives can't deliver that sort of clout.
Not that Robert Powell laments this at all. We, his audience, may have clung to which ever performance of his 30-year career we found most affecting. He, the pro, has naturally progressed. And he looks back like an indulgent grandfather on our little loyalties. But playing Jesus had no more lasting effect on his psyche than playing Richard Hannay in the remake of The 39 Steps, he insists.
"I don't mean it was unimportant," he smiles. "It was seminal in beginning another phase of my career. When I did Jesus I had been at the sharp end of film and television for seven or eight years; so I was not an unknown actor. What it did was turn my career in a different direction by making me internationally known."
By this he does not mean Hollywood because, almost uniquely among British film actors, Robert Powell is delighted to voice his dismay and irritation with the American film industry. "Americans are so literal as a people - they see me playing Jesus and they really can't envisage anything else. They even seem surprised I don't have a beard and long hair. It is an extraordinary thing but the country that speaks - at least technically - the same language we do, is more foreign to me than Moscow. I mean that genuinely. I find language is not the crucial barrier, many other things are. Attitude. History. I lived in Los Angeles for a while and just couldn't cope with it, while I lived in Rome and it seemed like a second home."
He is equally definite about his opinions of Britain. Born in Salford 53 years ago, the younger of two sons, he still feels very much a northerner. "That, too, is an attitude rather than a geographical accident. I like northerners. I like their what you see is what you get mentality. And though I've lived in London for 30 years, the North is where my roots are and always will be.
"Sadly, I rarely get back now because both my parents are dead and I have no family there any more."
If this might suggest an idyllic childhood spent in the rosy glow of firelit family bliss, Powell is swift to admit the contrary. The family was not close. "There was an odd, undemonstrative relationship between us all. I knew my parents loved me, but there were no cuddles or heart-to-heart talks that I remember. That just was not the done thing."
Yet he has spoken movingly and at length of how deeply his parents' deaths have affected him, of how it is something he can never quite recover from. The reticence of the previous decades never completely vanished, but both his parents came to live with him in their eighties, in the last frail stretch of their lives. "We did get closer then. A lot closer, and I suppose that was due to the dependence which illness creates. But I'm glad it happened."
Has this made him consider his own mortality, I wonder. "Oh, constantly," he replies breezily. "I think it must. You know you're next, it's as simple as that. While your parents are alive, you're not next."
He grimaces, but does not choose to change the subject. "There are other things, too. Stupid things. Twinges of arthritis. Damaged knees from playing too much cricket that now suddenly seize up in the car. Irritating things ..."
And only then, much later than I would ever expect from an actor, does his ego assert itself over his honesty, and prompt him to add: "I'm in pretty good shape, though."
Which is true. Even though one can unkindly remark that his legs seem a bit on the spindly side and his torso very square, which, in his own words, makes him look " a bit like a haunted parking meter." But we are back on the upbeat now, talking of his starring role in Kind Hearts and Coronets which opens at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh on Monday.
Powell plays Mazzini, the suave, acerbic murderer who killed off six separate Alec Guinesses in the 1949 film.
"It's a huge part to learn. Mazzini never leaves the stage for the whole play and he's speaking for most of that time. To put all of that into my head and remember it, well ... I can walk away from this quietly proud that senile dementia is still many years away."
Mazzini's great gift, Powell pronounces enthusiastically, is that he is completely free of conscience.
"Utterly, gloriously egocentric." He says this with such gleeful vigour that I am forced to ask if he considers these traits enviable.
"They're certainly entertaining," he begins, then stops himself. "But only in fiction of course." What about his own admission that he is extremely difficult to live with?
"It's true," he sighs. "I am difficult to live with. But I'm blessed with an extraordinarily patient wife."
She is Babs Lord, formerly of Pan's People, the female dance troupe who graced Top of the Pops and a million or more male fantasies in the late Sixties. They have been married for over 20 years. "Babs is very tolerant. She has to be ... Well, she doesn't have to be but if she wasn't, we wouldn't be married. People say to me, 'you're lucky' and I say, 'hang on a minute, I asked her to marry me so maybe there was something I recognised in this woman -qualities that I knew were right for me. It wasn't accidental."
If this sounds a trifle arrogant, the details of their courtship add a rather different perspective. After admiring Babs on television, Powell eventually met her in the BBC, but was so shy about asking her out, he decided to ask all of the six dancers to join him for dinner. He thought this would look less pushy. However, he did arrange that she sat next to him and plucked up enough courage to ask her for a subsequent date.
Three months later, they were living together.
But the shyness, he claims, has never really left him. Even his heart-throb days in the pioneering television science serial Doomwatch, which delivered him as big a postbag of breathy female fan letters as any young actor could wish, did not entirely dismantle his anxieties.
“It was lovely, though," he laughs. "Probably because it was so unexpected. As a teenager, I was never the one who got the girl.Never."
What was it, then, which prompted him to abandon his law degree at Manchester University and hazard all that was dependable for the theatre?
"It was quite simple. I was appearing in a university production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle when the head of drama came backstage. 'Why on earth are you reading law?' he asked me. And all I could say was 'I don't know'. So he asked me if I'd like to come and read drama with him, and the scales just fell from my eyes."
As it happened he didn't even bother with the degree and went straight into rep at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke.
"I never went back to university," he recalls. "I stayed at Stoke for 14 months, and I got my degree 28 years later." Not from Manchester, but from his home town of Salford. An honorary MA. "But my father was still alive to see it," says Powell with a catch to his voice. "It was about nine months before he died, and he saw me, in cap and gown, finally receive my MA." He could not have sounded prouder if he had been talking of an Academy Award. And it's quite possible that an Oscar would not have given him as much pleasure. Powell has remained more than sceptical of showbiz plaudits. He knows his own worth and is not especially interested in other people's opinions of it.
"I'm not as sentimental as some are about the joys of the theatre. Actors can sometimes be a little precious about that. But I will say that I accept work now absolutely and only on the basis that I'm going to enjoy it. I will not take anything on the grounds that it might do me good, or improve my career. If that makes me sound difficult, so be it." It doesn't, of course, as he well knows. But what does make him sound, if not difficult, a little eccentric, is a story he tells me about contracts. This is only the fourth time he has toured in his entire career, and he confesses that he does not feel he organised himself particularly well.
"When I toured in '95, I had a clause in my contract that they simply didn't believe at first. They laughed. But I said no. I mean it. I mean precisely what I say."
And the clause?
Powell stipulated that he would not tour unless there was at least one member of the paid staff who had a golf handicap of 15 or under.
"I'll never, ever, sign another touring contract without that," he says, without a flicker of irony. "Golf makes a massive difference to touring. It's the most relaxing sport invented. It's not tiring and it clears your mind wonderfully. You get all the fresh air you need. It's perfect.
"And if you don't have that, you need somebody else in the company who is a bit energetic. Who enjoys exploring, like I do."
He sighs. "But I don't even have that in this company. I'm afraid these youngsters just don't have the energy I do."
And for the first time in the entire conversation, Robert Powell suddenly sounds all of his 53 years. All he needs is a "Bah, humbug" to round things off. But he grins instead. "Actually, I'm very content," he concludes.
Gillian Glover, The Scotsman, May 9, 1998
|FAQ | Home | Contact|