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New-age Powell
Robert Powell modestly dismisses suggestions he still looks young enough to take the title role in Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray but, as he tells Viv Hardwick, he's glad he's retained his youthful image.

The one actor who must have a portrait in the attic which looks years older must surely be Robert Powell. So it's hardly surprising to discover he's agreed to appear in a new version of Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray, where the hero allows his image to endure the ageing process.

Sadly, 59-year-old Powell laughs uproariously at the suggestion he's still youthful enough to play the title role, as has been reported in one write-up - Nick Waring is the young actor playing Dorian Gray.

Of the suggestion he jokes: "It's a miracle because he's a man in his 20s. I was offered Dorian Gray 30 years ago in a different play, but I didn't do it then and it's extremely unlikely that I'd be offered it now."

In spite of many assuming that Powell is still ageless enough to carry off the role, he says of his youthful image: "One doesn't push it, I can tell you. I'm delighted by my image, there's plenty of time for it to get old. The longer it stays youthful I'm happy."

In fact Powell takes on the role of Lord Henry, the man who influences Gray into his ill-judged pursuit of eternal youth.

"According to some he corrupts Dorian completely. I would see it subjectively and see this as a kind of vicarious model for a way of life, an aesthetic way of life, that is a true way of life. It's sort of Mephistopheles and Faust, and I play Mephistopheles and I don't offer Dorian Gray eternal youth but the painting in the attic is doing all the ageing for him and it's getting very ugly because he's living this appalling life, by trying to live out the mode of life I've set for him."

Today's Dorian Grays tend to use botox and cosmetic surgery, but Powell claims these rejuvenating aids have never interested him.

He comments: "Mind you, people who do tend to look increasingly odd. I don't think they stay exactly the same, I think they look peculiar. There's no question that I've yet to see cosmetic surgery that I've not been able to spot. But no names, no pack drill on that one. I've never been tempted, I'm extraordinarily fortunate to have got as much hair as I had when I was 20. And it's still dark. So that I think is the one thing that keeps you looking young: having all your own hair. It's all I need."

He's enjoying the company of experienced actor Simon Ward but admits that it's nerve-racking to take a new play on tour "because you have no idea what will happen until you put it in front of a paying audience.

"It's really quite terrifying. But it's quite gratifying, as we are into our fourth week, that the response from audiences is phenomenal. Just this afternoon, a slightly grey Wednesday afternoon in Nottingham, we had 700 people through the doors. We are booking out completely in certain places.

"It's a very funny piece with lots of huge laughs in it, but you've got to concentrate because it's Oscar Wilde and not slapstick comedy."

The actor who has played everything from Jesus for Franco Zefferelli to Richard Hannay of 39 Steps fame has become an enthusiastic supporter of regional theatre after discovering the level of support for good drama. The reverse is true of TV where he believes the rise of reality TV is driving good drama away.

Powell adds: "Commercial TV is funded by advertising and the advertisers want to attract the 18 to 25 year olds. However the people who watch television are middle-aged but, and this is a big but, they are not conned quite as easily as an 18 to 25 by advertising. Showing a flashy mobile phone is not going to make me rush out and buy one. The trouble is the TV audience is not ideal for advertisers to advertise to, so what are they going to do? "Instead of a drama picking up 12.5 million viewers, which we did with Hannay in the late 1980s, you are looking at a programme being judged as successful with six million viewers. Back then, six million was a failure, now six million is good, but that's about half what the advertisers want."

Away from touring, Powell is working on a new musical - "more a play with music" - which has been written by two friends. Negotiations are taking place to clinch a small West End theatre run for next year.

He says: "I'm starring in this musical and I was absolutely thrilled to open the script and, it's very rare for it to happen, find that the central character is 55 and you think 'yes, I don't have to pretend to be 40'. It's set in a university and the background is a professor who's marriage is going all over the place.

In Powell's own marriage, wife and former Pan's People dancer Babs has left home for months at a time to sail the world and walk to the North Pole.

Of the latter achievement he says: "That last escapade was in May and she raced 400 miles across the ice pulling a sledge against a bunch of marines. Her team came last, only by a few days, but the fact is she did it and was the oldest women ever.

"I think she does it to get away from me, is the straight answer. She's always had a natural energy to go to the limit and I think she's just finding another life now our children have grown up. She was trying to get to the South Pole this Christmas, but I'm not sure we can raise the money for that. But I think next definite one is next May when she's going to do the Great Wall of China, the walking version for a ten-day stretch of it. This is for Help the Aged."

Which takes us back to Dorian Gray. Powell roars with laughter at the link and expresses one wish before he finally gives in to age: to make one more TV series.

"How about the return of Doomwatch, with me old enough to be the boss," he muses.

Viv Hardwick, www.thisisthenortheast.com, 18th September 2003