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|I FELL FOR THE BLONDE IN PAN'S PEOPLE BUT WAS SO NERVOUS THAT I ASKED THE ALL TO DINNER
ROBERT POWELL TALKS ABOUT THE SHYNESS THAT DOGGED HIM ALL HIS LIFE
Actor Robert Powell likes to be in control. You will never see him drunk or over emotional. Logic and reason rule. Even his gestures are deliberate and economical.
Not for him the impulsive response he might regret. He watches his own reactions and responses like a hawk, to ensure he keeps level-headed.
It is why, despite a string of awards for roles including Jesus Of Nazareth, he has never let fame go to his head. Why, in the mid-Eighties, he turned down an offer of an estimated £10 million to live in Hollywood and stayed in Britain. And why his marriage to former Pan's People dancing girl Babs has lasted 19 years. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to discover that there's quite a fierce tiger in his emotional tank, albeit one he keeps strictly under control. Not that he particularly wants to talk about it. Like many men, he is happiest keeping personal chat at several arms' length.
Discuss his golf handicap (between 12 and 15) and you have a happy man. Try to delve deeper and he initially behaves like someone who has tripped into a vat of treacle, tugging at his shirt collar and laughing raucously to hide embarrassment.
Once he gets going, however, he seems to see the exercise as an overdue emotional springclean, to be tackled with appropriate vigour. 'There has always been a very dark and secret part of me that is deeply hidden,' he admits. 'Babs has opted to know me without knowing that bit, which is why we have stayed married for 19 years. Even I'm frightened to examine it. But perhaps it's the secret ingredient that makes me act. When I was younger it interfered with my life. Now it doesn't.'
Asking him to describe this secret part evokes the longest of pauses. 'I think,' he says eventually, 'that it's an awful selfishness, a realisation that I've never done anything I didn't want to do. It's one of the reasons I do so much for charity now. Guilt.'
Is he perhaps a tortured soul? He laughs long and slightly too hard. 'I find myself quite difficult to live with; 20 years ago it was even more difficult and I went to see a psychiatrist. The trigger was depression, which I have never had before or since.
'I was 29, unmarried, working very hard but also completely broke. I could find no joy in anything. Acting wasn't bringing me happiness. Relationships weren't working. I thought: I can't continue going through life being completely unhappy. I must do something about it.'
What especially didn't he like about himself? 'I used people, especially women.'
His relationships with his family were certainly far from emotionally fulfilling. He was born 50 years ago in Salford, the younger of two sons. His father, a mechanical engineer, was the dominant figure; his mother lived through her husband. The family were not close. 'There was an odd, undemonstrative relationship between us all. I don't remember my parents cuddling me or me them. Yet I know they loved me very much.'
Robert was a shy child and his difficult relationship with his father was resolved only when Powell senior was dying of cancer three years ago. 'As a child I wasn't frightened of him, but knew better than to upset him. We were never close in life, but got closer and closer while he was dying. He spent his last four months living with me in London.'
Powell's unease at home meant that he grew into an awkward adolescent. 'I remained very shy and had no confidence. In the early Sixties 15-year-old girls were not good at telling you you were terrific. I felt all my mates were better than me with girls and lost their virginity fairly quickly. I didn't realise at the time they were probably bragging. I just didn't know how to go about it and didn't eventually ditch it until I was 19 or 20.'
He claims the shyness still lingers. 'I have major problems when I work away from home. Three years ago I worked in Paris for 16 weeks - the only foreigner involved in a film - so I was in an hotel while everyone else was at home. At night I would eat dinner in my room, because I was too self-conscious to walk into the restaurant by myself.'
Powell went to Manchester University to read law, but decided to switch to drama and took a year off to work at the Victoria theatre in Stoke-on-Trent as a bit-part actor and assistant stage manager.
'It was the most glorious revelation. I was so happy, I worked 14 hours a day. They couldn't get me out of the theatre.' He never went back to university, although a few years ago he was awarded an honourary MA. 'It was wonderful for my dad, who was dying, to see me in regulation cap and gown.' Pin-up Powell is smaller than he appears on screen, with more of a paunch, although he is still strikingly good looking, with sharp sculptured features and curly black hair. It took him a long while, however, to appreciate his appearance. 'I always thought I was odd looking - a bit like a haunted parking metre. It was only when I became an actor and got so many fan letters that I thought: hell, I've been missing out, not using this to effect with women.' Not that he wanted to settle down young. 'I was fiercely ambitious, and didn't want to have to take jobs because I had a wife and child to support. I've often said No to work, which has perhaps given me a reputation for being arrogant, but I've never wanted to do anything just for the money.
'I knew refusing to go to America would dramatically cut down my chances of having an international film career, but I didn't like the States and didn't want my children educated there. I've still done 30 films (including The Thirty-Nine Steps) with my name above the title in 28.'
He returned to our screens last night with the third series of The Detectives, co-starring Jasper Carrott. They play a couple of cops who behave like old boys in Just William's gang - behaviour that has made them a huge hit with middle-aged men and teenage boys.
He and Carrott, long-time friends, have been surprised and delighted that the chemistry between them works so well on screen. 'We both have massive egos but they are the right kind of ego. We believe in our own ability and are completely committed to getting what we are doing absolutely right. Neither of us accepts that 90 per cent is good enough.'
Not until Powell had sorted out his career and his inner strife did he allow Cupid to strike. He saw Babs dancing on television and 'just loved the way she looked'. They met a few months later in a bar at the BBC but Robert was too intimidated to chat her up, as she was not alone. 'I felt so shy. I wanted to talk to her but, although I was 30, I found it terribly daunting to chat to one beautiful girl when she was surrounded by five beautiful friends.' He was not to be put off, however, and decided the best way to get to know her was to invite all six girls to have dinner with him. 'I didn't have the nerve to ask her out by herself.' He made sure he sat next to her and once the ice was broken, made a dinner date a deux for the following Saturday evening. She moved in with him three months later.
He proposed a couple of years later, when he was about to disappear for nine months to North Africa to film Jesus, but explained he wouldn't be around on a Sunday because he wanted to play cricket, golf or tennis. 'I am who I am and the worst thing anyone can do is imagine someone is going to change when they get married.' What would have happened if she'd turned him down because of it? 'I would probably have shrugged my shoulders.'
In fact Babs, who gave up her career when they married, was smart enough to recognise that he was a man who needed a lot of personal space and easily adapted to his Sundays off the marital hook.
Powell is full of praise for the way she has coped with him - 'I am not easy to live with. All actors are self-obsessed' - but admits the relationship has had its ups and downs. 'Over 19 years one moves in and out of affection with one's wife. I've got fed up and bored and no doubt she's got fed up and bored with me. But with a bit of luck, after a phase of not getting on particularly well, the relationship adjusts into a new phase.
'Passion is overvalued. You cannot maintain it. I think the ability to make each other laugh is the single greatest asset within any relationship. We've made our marriage work for 19 years and we'll make it work for another 19. Not that there haven't been temptations. I've worked with some incredibly beautiful women. I flirt, but leave it at that. To know I could if I wanted to is really enough for me. It's just not worth upsetting the apple cart.' He is very proud of their teenage children, Barney and Kate. 'Having children filled an empty bit in me and took away some of my driving ambition.' Is he dominant in much the same way as his father? 'I've deliberately tried to avoid it. I've encouraged Babs to have a life that has absolutely nothing to do with me. She does a lot for charity, her friends are not necessarily mine and she plays real tennis a couple of times a week. But I couldn't do anything without her. She runs the house and remembers every single birthday and opening night.'
Does he ever regret turning down the chance of international stardom? 'I have wanted to have my cake and eat it - a life and a career - and you can't have that once you become really famous.'
Angela Levin, Daily Mail (London) January 10, 1995
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