About me

Happy to be a jolly good chap

Robert Powell would be just the man to share a bomb shelter with. He’s extremely, fastidiously neat. His movements are economical. He doesn’t lunge to make a point, nor wave his arms about, nor raise his voice for no good reason. He’d neither panic, nor round on you saying how much he hated you.

Only the eyes – greenlish blue and eerily bright – move, and when they do they say everything.
What they say is that his man is an independent man. A man who has managed to stay out of the rat race and live the life he wants to lead with his live and children in London’s Hampstead. A man who waits for the right thing to come along.

And the right thing at this point in his life – he’s an evergreen 43 – is Hannay  (ITV Wednesday), the swashbuckling colonial hero of John Buchan’s The thirty nine steps, who takes polite Edwardian society by storm with his integrity, simplicity and sheer, naked heroism. A sort of Crocodile Dundee, 1912-style.

Stirring in a sunlit Dorset field overlooking beautiful Kimmeridge Bay (Dorset doubles for Scotland in the ITV series), Powell, in a heathery lambswool tweed suit with Norfolk jacket, honey-coloured suede waistcoat and Balmoral boots, is Hannay.

The reason I’m Hannay in the first place is that he was a character I grew to enjoy when I played him in the 1978 film version  of The Thirty nine steps. I saw in this series the mind of a man who doesn’t belong and doesn”t want to. Richard Hannay is such an outsider of the stilling society he’s faced with that he isn’t aware of the awfulness of his fate.

“He arrives in London in a wonderful suit, a tweed affair worn like a sadari sweet, his trousers tucked into his boots. It’s only with the greatest reluctance he allows himself to be parted from his Sam Browne belt, and then oaly so he won’t embarrass his friends. He’s a man of the veld.”

Ever since Powell played the lead in Jesus of Nazareth, that giant role has hung round his neck like a milstone. As it was, the 1977 TV epic, courtesy of Lew Grade,  nearly ended in disaster for Powell when the cross he was hanging from slipped.

And in fact, apart from The Thirty Nine Steps and The Jigsaw Man (1984) in the cinema and a few television appearances (among them the TV movie Frankenstein and the BBC series Looking for Clancy) we’ve seen very little of Robert Powell these last few years.

“Yes,” he says drily. “I’d noticed. I was at a cricket match last year when a little girl came up to me and asked for my autograph. ‘My mother says you’re famous,’ the little girl said. That set me thinking. I thought I’d like to get back to TV for a while and then when Hannay came up it seemed the best of all possible works.

Hannay and Powell would, in fact, make ideal stable companions. Both of them being loners, there wouldn’t be much idle chat nor any introspective nonsense.

Neither character would intrude on the other’s territory, and each would understand the other’s love of freedom. Essentially, neither would be important enough to the other to make or break them.

For Powell as an actor hitting middle age in the agitated Eighties, is a remarkably cool and self-conained man. No one has ever seen him drunk or disorderly or even  mildly elated. He has pared down his possessions on principle. “Every single thing you own has to be looked after and that takes time,” he argues. “I’d rather use my time doing other things.”

He doesn’t own a house on some sun-scorched Costa. He’s not part of the star syndrome. His home life with former Pan’s People dancer Babs Lord and their two children Barney, 10 and Kate, 8, is stable and happy.

Moreover, and unusually,  he tends to put family life first. Exotic foreign locations have been no part of Powell’s life unless he could take the family with him. He once flew home from a holiday in the West Indies, spent three days on The Jigsaw Man, then flew back again to collect the family and fly home together.

Have the years since Powell played Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps made any difference to his current portrayal for TV?

“I’m older, that’s all,” he says, looking ever-young in a sudden burst of sunshine.

Wiser, too? That’s not, he counters modestly, for him to say.

But Michael Robson, who wrote the original script for The Thirty Nine Steps starring Powell, and who fervently hoped that he would play Hannay again this time round, says: “Bob has changed, but very subtly: he’s got something extra, a kind of weight and authority that only the years can bring. To me he is Hannay”.

Powell remembers the moment in The Thirty Nine Steps when he realised the kind of man Richard Hannay was. “He’s jumped from a train, swum a river, crossed a mountain, he has no friends and everyone is after him. He’s both hunter and hunted and yet, alone and with 20 miles of empty countryside stretching in front of him, he’s exalted; completely gloriously happy.

It would be virtually impossible to find a character like Hannay in 1988. The VAT man would dampen his pure spirit.

“Quite simply,” Powell concludes, “Hannay is not a contemporary character. He lacks of cynism, the grey view of life. He’s neither moody nor introspective; he’s a man who’s comfortable with himself.”

Just like Robert Powell.

By Eithne Power, Tv Times 2 – 8 January 1988