Wednesday, 30 November -0001
Brideshead and being ‘seduced’ by Ava Gardner
As he returns to the stage, Anthony Andrews tells Maureen Paton about Hollywood love scenes, his friend Princess Anne – and how he might have been the first blond Bond
Written by Maureen PatonThere is no mistaking the elegant, 6ft-tall Anthony Andrews for an ordinary person in the street. Exquisitely clad in a Canali jacket, he sounds rather like Prince Charles and looks every inch a pillar of the Establishment, until a discreet gold chain glimpsed under his open-neck shirt reveals his bohemian side.
Anthony and his wife Georgina, former actress, champion showjumper and Simpson of Piccadilly heiress, are longstanding friends with Princess Anne, who is godmother to their youngest child Sammy (Amy-Samantha). Yet the actor still doesn't regard himself as an Establishment figure. 'And I don't think Princess Anne sees herself as one either,' he adds. 'She's a tremendous good sport with a fantastic sense of humour; we met her through eventing, since horses are the great love that Georgina and I share.'
Now a grandfather by his theatre producer son Joshua, Anthony is a youthful-looking 64, even though he claims to do no exercise apart from occasional horse-riding and walking his beloved Labrador, Ripple, daily.
'Part of the problem is that work has been non-stop for me,' he explains. With parts earlier this year as Colonel Barclay in BBC Two's Birdsong, as former Conservative Prime Minister Anthony Eden at the Chichester Festival Theatre, and as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady at the Proms, he is now reprising his role as an army investigator in Sandi Toksvig's play Bully Boy at London's St James Theatre.
The Bully Boy role of a military policeman investigating a civilian death in a play that explores the mental trauma caused by war, is the kind of challenge that Anthony has revelled in since his acting debut at the age of 13 at the Royal Masonic School for Boys in Hertfordshire as the goddess of war, Athena. With false breasts, a helmet over his wig, a shield and spear, after a gust of wind whipped up his silk skirts to reveal boxer shorts beneath, the school was agog to see how the dyslexic Anthony would deliver his first words.
'I'll never forget that moment when everyone leaned forward to listen, and I think it inspired me,' he says.
His love of the versatility of live performance means he has ruled himself out of the major Hollywood screen career that his 1981 Brideshead Revisited co-star Jeremy Irons has enjoyed. As he admits to me, 'I tend to be my own worst enemy, because if you're good at one thing producers want you to keep doing it to capitalise on it. A lot of people have become known for being themselves when playing parts, but I run from that because I want to play something different. Commercially, that's probably a disaster, but I have no regrets.'
In the late 1970s, Anthony turned down the role of the debonair British spy in the American TV series Remington Steele, a role that propelled Pierce Brosnan to stardom. Although it's tempting to imagine Anthony becoming the first blond Bond ahead of Daniel Craig, at the time he didn't want to uproot his two eldest children (Joshua and Jessica, now in their late 30s) and lock himself into Hollywood's seven-year contract.
Granada Television had offered him the role of Sebastian in Brideshead. 'It was a very crucial stage of my children's development and I had to decide if I wanted Hollywood kids or whether to bring them up in England. The producers flew us out to LA, installed us in a rented house with a pool and kept putting the money up; Georgina is a keen swimmer and every time she got to the shallow end, the money had gone up,' he recalls, chuckling. 'But in the end I decided I really must stick to my guns and not be seduced by this.'
Brideshead paid off spectacularly in the US as well as the rest of the world, and Anthony has since had his fair share of being seduced by Hollywood. Most notably, he starred with Ava Gardner in the mini-series A.D., in which his character, Emperor Nero, shared love scenes with Ava as Nero's incestuously-inclined mother.
'Ava was a fabulous woman to be seduced by: an extraordinary, very kind person with the most fantastic tales of old Hollywood,' he recalls, dreamy-eyed at the memory.
Urbane, witty and well-adjusted, he seems to have achieved the ideal balance between a solid family life and the freedom to choose the roles that interest him. Family is important to him. Explaining the 11-year age gap between Sammy and his middle child Jessica, he describes Sammy as 'our wonderful surprise – it was like starting again and having a second family.' She has followed her parents into acting, and is part of a musical trio, the 1940s-inspired The Pink Champagne Sisters; meanwhile, Jessica is a novelist and journalist.
The only hiccup in four decades has been three days in intensive care in 2003, suffering from overhydration after drinking too much mineral water while playing Professor Higgins on stage. 'That was scary. I had so many letters from doctors advising me to put more gin in it!' he smiles.
Meanwhile, he says that the public still wants to talk to him about Brideshead all the time. 'You can tell where it's still being shown in the world because that's where most of the fan mail comes from.' And judging by the compliments posted on his website by female fans about his latest theatre role, he's still a matinee idol, which amuses him.
'The fact that my character in Brideshead was gay didn't seem to put them off!' he says.
The enduring cultural influence of the series, which ushered in the 1980s fashion for Young Fogeyism, continues to amaze him. 'It set the tone for a whole retro mood after the 1970s. Margaret Thatcher got into Number 10, the Sloane Ranger Handbook was published, people wore black ties again and champagne was in, whereas it used to be frowned upon.'
He laughs and adds, 'And now toffery has come round again – look at the success of Downton Abbey. So if you hang around long enough, perhaps you come back into vogue.
'I said to Sammy the other day, "Am I being frightfully old-fashioned?" when I was looking for a handkerchief to display in my jacket pocket. And she said, "No, no, Daddy, you must never stop!"'
Anthony Andrews is in Bully Boy at St James Theatre until 27 October: 0844- 264 2140, www.stjamestheatre.co.uk
Daily tip from the lady archive
“A GRACEFUL walk is a great asset, for sometimes it can create an illusion of beauty where little exists.”The Lady. Pleasant Exercises for Grace. 2nd April 1931