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|Stars whose paths were destined to cross
Columnist and local resident Colin Baker interviews Robert Powell before they both star in a production at Wycombe Swan and discovers they share more than a few similarities. I have been allowed a little more space than usual this week, not because I am such a gifted writer that the editor could no longer contain my talent within one column, but because I am appearing at Wycombe Swan next week with Robert Powell in Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Like me, Robert was brought up in Manchester and we both went to grammar school - he to Manchester Grammar School, I to St Bede's College.
We both studied Latin and Greek to A-level and subsequently, to please our parents, both read law.
Robert played King Lear during his time at the grammar school, I played Phyllis in Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe. I will leave others to draw conclusions about our future careers from those rather contrasting debuts.
Then our paths diverged. Robert saw the light at the end of the auditorium sooner than I did. It took me five years to quit law, whereas Robert's absolute certainty of his destiny led him to quit Manchester University after only one year. He successfully applied for a job at the Theatre in the Round at Stoke on Trent, run by the rightly celebrated Peter Cheeseman, whose acclaimed 36-year tenure as artistic director ended only recently.
"I was very lucky as a young actor to start my career with Cheeseman," says Robert. "He was a great teacher and director, I didn't go to drama school but Stoke was an incredible training ground."
Those formative years gave him the springboard for a distinguished career.
Robert has achieved success in many very different roles. He shined in Doomwatch, that cult success of the Sixties and Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. He trod famously and successfully as Richard Hannay in those 39 Steps previously trodden by Robert Coleman and Kenneth More. And in his latest complete change of direction with Jasper Carrot in The Detectives, he more than holds his own against the Brummy comic.
But despite all those and many other famously successful roles, he will always be recognised throughout the world for his compelling and moving portrayal of Jesus Of Nazareth for Franco Zeffirelli back in 1975.
I asked him whether the inevitable future association with Jesus, was something which he had to consider for long before deciding to accept the role.
"Oh yes," he replied, "and I realised that, in one sense, the part was unplayable. How could any actor satisfy the countless different ideas that each of us have of Jesus?"
After some experimentation in the first weeks of filming, Robert and Zeffirelli soon agreed that the characterisation had to have a quality that would allow each member of the audience to reconcile that performance with their idea of Jesus. A daunting task for any actor, but one which Robert seized with confidence and great subtlety.
And that quiet confidence in his ability as an actor has contributed enormously to Robert's continuing success. He, rather disarmingly, admits that he wishes that he had the same degree of self-belief and certainty in every other area of his life.
The power of his performance as Jesus led to an almost surreal experience in a church in South America, a continent which embraces its Christianity with a more vital and colourful enthusiasm perhaps than anywhere else on Earth. He was staggered to see hanging over the high altar a vast picture, blown up from the film, of himself as Jesus.
"Undoubtedly 1975 was a golden year," says Robert, "one that I can look back on as extraordinarily happy in every way."
Not only did he play Jesus, but also the lead in the much praised series Looking for Clancy and in Tom Stoppard's Travesties for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
He also found time to marry Babs, earning himself the eternal envy of every male who ever watched Pan's People on Top of the Pops.
In a desert littered with the failed celebrity marriages of many contemporaries, their 23-year marriage remains a successful and calm oasis.
Fortunately for his future career, when he played Jesus, Robert had already established himself in film and television.
Very soon after his first four words on celluloid (in Robbery with Stanley Baker) he found himself playing starring roles in film - such as the title role in Mahler and Captain Walker in Tommy, both for Ken Russell.
Around that time Hollywood could certainly have been an option. Indeed Robert tried it - but two months in the wilderness of Los Angeles was enough to convince him that his roots were in England with his then young family and his many friends.
Despite his long career and undoubted success, he is by no means cynical or jaded and remains enthusiastic about the life of an actor.
"I absolutely love my profession and the company of actors. And I am very gregarious; I love that time after the show when, over a meal and a glass or two, actors just talk and tell stories into the small hours."
He is an enthusiastic company member, organising outings, lunches and excursions into the unknown, armed with a library of Good Everything Guides. Sadly for the owners of the many excellent hostelries in south Bucks, Robert is able to commute to Wycombe from his home in North London.
His other passion is sport, particularly cricket (he is a dedicated and active Lords' Taverner) and golf. After accepting a new job, his next question is invariably "Does anyone in the cast play golf?"
Alas, for Robert, despite my keen interest in sport, I have never dared take up golf.
Being naturally competitive, I am pretty sure that I would throw myself into it; but I already have so little time with my family and golf is not a game that can be played for half-an-hour a week.
The Kind Hearts and Coronets production was a challenge that appealed to Robert immediately.
"As soon as I was offered the project, my instincts told me that, if it were done imaginatively, it could be a great success. Almost everyone has an affection for the 1949 film, even if they cannot remember every detail of the plot.
"When I read Giles Croft's brilliant adaptation, which combines the best elements of the film and the book on which it was based - Israel Rank - I knew that my initial optimism was soundly based."
The House Full notices already deployed on the tour seem to indicate that Robert's instincts were right.
His character, Louis Mazzini (played in the film by Dennis Price), never leaves the stage.
The fact that he is able to engage the affectionate complicity of the audience and provoke it to mirth while he systematically slaughters all the members of the D'Ascoyne family, is a tribute to Robert's skill as an actor and his easy natural charm.
Louis Mazzini is not only a serial killer; he is a serial philanderer too, expertly manipulating the ladies in his life, so that he can enjoy the love of three very different beautiful ladies in between despatching the D'Ascoyne family to premature oblivion.
While Robert makes his murderous ascent to the highest levels of the English aristocracy, I am obliged, as the embodiment of all of his victims, to whirl in a sea of off-stage Velcro, wing collars, wigs and spirit gum in order to present him with his next victim at the appropriate moment.
The next three months will take us from Edinburgh to Truro and a dozen places in between and there is already talk of a forthcoming season in the West End.
Not bad for two Lancashire lads - both Manchester United supporters and, yet another coincidence, both Geminis.
Robert is also slim, elegant and has a full head of hair.
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