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Robert Powell has only one regret about his latest theatre tour. The play, Double Double, is a two-hander and his co-star Susannah York doesn't play golf. "A few years ago I had it written in my contract that one person in the company had to be a 15 or better golfer. I was deadly serious as that was intended to be a 30-week tour," says the actor.
"Golf is an extraordinary game. It's almost the best preparation for stage work there is because after four hours you literally clear your head of everything. So you walk on stage with a completely relaxed state of mind. It's almost zen-like. "The perfect situation would be Susannah playing off 12 or 13 on golf but she doesn't play at all."
When we spoke last week, at the tour's mid-point, he'd managed to play golf for the first time since going on the road with the thriller by former Royal Shakespeare Company actor Roger Rees and Eric Elice.
"It's a good play, a bit of fun and a good thriller," he says of the production which comes to Billingham Forum next week.
"It works on lots of different levels and is a big challenge because it's just two people. It's hard work, there's a lot of stuff to learn but that's fine. The net effect seems to be that the audience love it."
Powell has also been reminded of the role that made him famous (if you don't count his earlier appearance at Toby Wren in BBC's Doomwatch) - playing Jesus of Nazareth in the eight-hour mini-series directed by Franco Zeffirelli. A feature-length version has been re-released on video and DVD for Easter. Does he mind being reminded of a part he took so long ago? "I have no attitude towards it, to be honest with you. I don't earn any more money from it coming out again," he replies.
He can't even say he looks back with pleasure on the experience of filming the series. "It was a watershed for me but it wasn't a pleasurable job to do particularly simply by virtue of the role. It's impossible to do. So you just have to find a way through it," he says.
It's nearly 25 years to the day since he screen tested for the part, not that he imagined people would still be watching it and talking about it a quarter of a century later.
"When you are 30 or 31 you don't think of things being around for 20 or 30 years. Even the film The Thirty-Nine Steps, which is shown on TV more than Jesus of Nazareth, I made 22 years ago."
Most of his acting of late has been on the stage simply because it's worked out that way. He does whatever interests him and if the TV offers aren't to his taste - and they usually aren't - he looks elsewhere. His most recent regular TV role was opposite Jasper Carrott in the BBC comedy series The Detectives, which ended several years ago. No more are planned.
"When we started out we said we'd do five series which is 30 shows and then finish. From people's response, we went out with it peaking. The last series was as good as it got. We improved year on year so I think it was better to go out right at the top of it." Stage work is not as long-lasting as TV and film. "I quite like the ephemeral quality of theatre, the fact that it's here today and gone tomorrow. But you bump into people who saw a play you did a long time ago and say how much they liked it," he adds.
Last year he toured in a stage version of the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts And Coronets in which he was on stage throughout. "But that's good - I love all that because it's another challenge. I keep being badgered by my agent who says I should re-establish my classical credibility. He thinks I'm having too much of a good time taking work that entertains me."
Once the Double Double tour is over he intends to take a holiday and then look at various projects under consideration. He always means to take his computer and mobile telephone so he can work during the day while he's away on tour but somehow it never works out like that.
He would, you gather, much rather play golf although a much bigger adventure could be round the corner. His wife Babs, a former Pan's People dancer, is preparing to sail off on the BT Global Challenge which will keep them apart for the best part of a year. He hopes to join her at various ports of call during her round the world trip. Perhaps he'd like to join her on the adventure, you suggest. "Watch this space. That's all I'll say," is his enigmatic reply.
Steve Pratt, The Northern Echo, 8th April, 2000
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