'LOOKING RUGGED AND LIVED-IN CAN BE AN ADVANTAGE'
Robert Powell is singing the praises of middle-aged men. And
it is not difficult to see why. The man who managed to turn Jesus of Nazareth
into a sex symbol is having to admit to stiffening joints and a paunch.
Not that he looks his 48 years. And he is quick to point out that he can still
play screen roles intended for men ten years younger. But without the make-up
and the soft-focus glow of a television or film camera, Powell is the first to
admit that his days as a dashing, romantic lead could be numbered.
'Ageing doesn't worry me at all,' he insists. 'And fortunately it has been a
fairly gradual transition. It's only three years ago that I was playing Richard
Hannay on television and I'm still doing leading roles, if not necessarily the
romantic ones. 'Like all people, we never see ourselves as being the age we
are. I've just been filming a television series with Jasper Carrott and we've
had this running gag between us that we are essentially only three-and-a-half
years old. And that's how we were behaving on the set - like little children.
'I'm not embarrassed to admit that because I think the one thing that keeps you
looking young is behaving young. The only fractional times when I become even
remotely aware that I am no longer 17 is when I detect a certain stiffness
around the knees if I've been sitting down for a long time. It's that twinge in
the knees that's the killer.
'I also have to watch my diet a bit because there is a tendency to put on
weight, which I never used to.
'The idea of looking into the mirror doesn't worry me at all. I still have one
enormous advantage in the fact that I have all my hair. And it's still dark.
Though I have to admit my beard is grey. I look a bit like Santa Claus these
days if I have a beard.'
Indulging in such honest self-appraisal doesn't seem to faze Powell. Quite the
opposite. Having decided to grow old gracefully he would appear to relish the
idea of joining a band of solid, middle-aged character actors who, in
television terms at least, are today's stars.
'I do quite relish the chance of exploring the complexities of middle-aged
characters,' he says. 'And there are some great parts around. In many ways they
are much better than the roles for 20-year-olds.
'If you look at all the popular television series - Taggart, Boon, Morse,
Kinsey, Lovejoy, Minder - every single one of the leading men is over 45. So
obviously that rugged, lived-in-a-bit atmosphere around an actor does him no
harm at all. In fact it's probably more difficult for an actor in his 20s to
establish the kind of dedicated following that the likes of John Thaw or
Michael Elphick have.
'The same goes for women. Look at Glenn Close and Meryl Streep, for example.
The only criterion is that you've got to be able to act. If you can act you
will work until you're 80. But if all that was there in the first place was the
body and the looks, then you just take the money and run while you can.
'I would like to think that now I'm older I am wiser, too, but probably I'm
not. I'm not cynical. It's just that I no longer anticipate too much from
anything I do. I no longer contemplate the success of a piece of work I'm
doing. During the past 27 years I've had lots of successes but I've also had
lots of knees in the groin on jobs which I thought were terrific but turned out
to be duds.
'The good news now is that I tend to choose fewer duds. So perhaps being wiser
means my selections have been better.'
Once such selection, in Powell's book, is a television adaptation of Arthur
Miller's play The Golden Years on Channel 4 on Thursday night. It has never yet
been performed on stage or screen, though it has been produced on radio.
Despite his insistence that he is embracing middle-age with fervour, Powell
gives a convincing performance in the role of a man at least ten years younger.
He plays the Spanish conquistador Cortes who overthrew the Aztec empire early
in the 16th century. It is a powerful drama, equally enhanced by Ronald
Pickup's performance as the emperor Montezuma.
Another project has been the filming of Charles Dickens's melodrama The Mystery
Of Edwin Drood, in which Powell plays John Jasper, a terrifying psychopathic
killer. But his appearance in the film, along with such actors as Nanette
Newman, Gemma Craven and Rosemary Leach, has stirred up a hornet's nest within
the acting profession.
Everybody connected with the £2million film worked for nothing despite being
urged by the actors' union Equity and the technicians union BECTU to have
nothing to do with the project.
Says Powell: 'I understand their point of view but I don't agree with it. At
the end of the day a film got made that would not otherwise have been made. All
we have done is invest the fees we would have been paid into the film. If it
doesn't work we won't get any money and it won't happen again.
'At the end of the day every actor has a choice. And I have to say that, having
made 35 movies in 27 years, Edwin Drood had the best atmosphere of any set I
have ever worked on. Nobody whinged and every single person was there because
they believed in the film.'
The television series he worked on with Jasper Carrott is the six-part
television comedy The Detectives. They developed the idea from short sketches
they did for the comic's Canned Carrott series, in which they play a couple of
Having worked solidly for the past four months, Powell intends to 'rest' for a
few months. His idea of resting is to limit his work to voice-overs for
commercials, narrations for documentaries and a few corporate videos.
Next year he is planning a nationwide tour of a stage musical which will take
him away from his wife Babs and their two children, Barney, 15, and Katie, 13,
for six months. 'It is a long time to be away and it's never easy. The family
have kind of got used to it but that doesn't make it any better. Even when I'm
working and I'm at home it isn't that easy.'
Recently, however, Powell has been getting a taste of his own medicine. His
wife, a former dancer with Pan's People, seems to be in demand again with three
television appearances in the past month. He appears to be pleased for her but
is unable to hide a vestige of chauvinism.
'If she was doing it all the time I'm not sure that it would work out,' he
says. 'When we married, Babs had been working non-stop for a long time and,
although she probably misses bits of it, I don't think she misses the actual
'If she wanted to work again, she could. There's no question about it. But it
is nice to get home to a place where the lights are on and there's a bit of
Lester Middlehurst, Daily Mail (London) November 7, 1992