Birdsong Brideshead … & 40 years of marriage
He stole our hearts in Brideshead Revisited, and is doing it again in Birdsong. Anthony Andrews tells Fiona Hicks about the horrors of the Great War, the joys of My Fair Lady and his very understanding wife…
Andrews is, of course, the original golden boy of television drama. His performance as Sebastian Flyte in 1981's Brideshead Revisited catapulted him to stardom on both sides of the Atlantic. 'I was incredibly fortunate to be involved with the production. Brideshead was a real landmark – both in television history and in my career.'
It is fitting, therefore, that director Philip Martin desperately wanted Andrews to take the part of Colonel Barclay in the BBC's current adaptation of Birdsong, but surprising to learn that the actor was initially reluctant. 'I've got rather fussy in my old age, you see. They approached me about Birdsong and although it was a little gem of a part, I initially said no. Philip Martin wrote me the most charming, wonderful letter explaining why he wanted me to do it, and inevitably I caved in.' And he is glad he did. 'It was a real spit and a cough part, but an absolute joy to do.'
Andrews spent a week filming on location. 'I was lucky that my role was pretty contained. I got to do a Henry V moment where I am addressing the troops, but I was able to avoid the trenches and the real mud and the guts. I had a wonderful time shooting and I think they've done a fantastic job.'
Birdsong is just the latest production to feature The Great War. It was a key theme of the last series of Downton, and Spielberg is currently championing the cause with War Horse. With the death in 2009 of the last First World War veteran, Harry Patch, there is a real feeling that these stories must still be told so they are not forgotten.
War and its consequences are especially topical for Andrews since another of his recent projects is all about combat stress. Acclaimed writer Sandi Toksvig has recently penned the play Bully Boy – and created a key part with Andrews in mind.
'It was so generous and sweet of her. We tried the play out in Southampton and it was extraordinarily successful, so with a minimum amount of work we'll definitely bring it to London. I can't wait.'
In preparation for his role, Andrews spent a lot of time with soldiers who had been afflicted by this stress. 'We are all facing a global terror campaign, but the soldiers who spend time in Afghanistan and Iraq are really subjected to the sharp end of the conflict. It's hard to imagine the violence.'
The play steers away from Toksvig's characteristic humour and is a thought-provoking investigation into the effect of the trauma. 'The play is not anti-war, as it rationalises and realises the reasons for conflict. But it is certainly a play that is making us aware of the horrendous effect that these events can have on people.'
Of course, the horror of combat is also a dominant theme of Birdsong. 'Going back as far as the First World War, mental health – or rather mental injury – was so misunderstood that they shot people who went to pieces. Thankfully we've come a long way since then, but this is still a very real issue.'
Despite his incredible television and film success (Andrews also appeared in last year's box-office hit The King's Speech), his appearance on stage marks a real return to roots for the actor. 'My first theatrical experience was seeing My Fair Lady when I was about 10 years old. I couldn't see much – those were the days when you had standing room only tickets and I was quite tiny – but I was blown away. It ignited a passion.'
Andrews's experience came full circle years later when he found himself playing the part of Professor Higgins at the same theatre on Drury Lane. 'It was quite simply a dream come true.'
Out of all the mediums, he feels theatre is really where he can cultivate his art. 'The use of close-ups on film means that you can break people's hearts with a change of a look, but with a stage performance – you really own it. Every night you go out there, the moments are your moments to do what you want with. What's more, you get to do it with audience reaction, which is the most wonderful privilege. The immediacy of it becomes such a turn-on and it's much more exciting.'
As evidenced by Philip Martin's personal request, Andrews is still in high demand. With his velvety voice and gracious demeanour, he has lost none of the charisma that captured many hearts back in his Brideshead days.
How does he feel about still being a heart-throb? 'It goes with the territory,' he chuckles. 'To begin with it was a bit throwing – I remember going to collect my children from school and the older girls would be hanging out the windows and carrying on. But it's nice to be remembered.'
His wife Georgina doesn't take it too seriously either. 'She takes it all in her stride. She's always been extraordinary in that respect.'
The couple have been married for 40 years. Such a milestone is exceptional in itself, but virtually unheard of in the showbiz industry. When asked for the secret to a happy marriage, Andrews does not hesitate before answering: 'My wife is my greatest friend. More than anything else – the passion or whatever – it's that core friendship that is so important. We are very tolerant of each other and we have always made a tremendous effort to keep the family unit together.'
It is perhaps his wife's support that has enabled him to have a career of such longevity – another rarity in the acting industry. 'I really do feel for the young people now who are coming into it. It is the most terrifyingly fickle industry and the competition is so high. But I was thrilled to work with Eddie [Redmayne, the young actor who takes the lead in Birdsong] because he is one of the greatest that's coming. He's got a tremendous facility for truth; I have great faith in him.'
As for himself, Andrews speaks with great verve about all the things he still wants to achieve.
'There's so much I'd love to do: film, television, theatre – all of it. I don't think actors ever retire, the parts just get smaller and dustier!'
We've no doubt that his roles will remain delightfully dust-free for some time yet.
Anthony's leading ladies
Diana Quick This eminent actress was the first female president of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. She achieved international fame in Brideshead Revisited with her portrayal of lovelorn Julia Flyte, receiving a BAFTA nomination for her work. The dark-haired beauty donned a white wig to play the Queen in Channel 4's 2009 docudrama of the same name, and has regularly appeared on stage.
Joanna Riding Played Eliza Doolittle to Andrews's Professor Higgins in the 2003 run of My Fair Lady at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, winning a second Olivier Award for her performance (the first was for Carousel, 10 years previously). She has enjoyed an illustrious career in the West End and appeared in two musicals at the Gielgud Theatre last year alone.
Georgina Simpson Heiress to Simpson of Piccadilly, Georgina was a fellow actress when she became an item with Andrews. 'Our romance began the moment we met,' he remarked. They have just celebrated their ruby wedding, and have three children, all of whom have embarked on careers in the arts.
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