INTERVIEW: ‘I hold my nose and jump’

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Phil Davis as Scrooge in the RSC’s A Christmas Carol. Photo: RSC/Manuel Harlan.

PHIL Davis talks to Herald arts’ Gill Sutherland about playing Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at the Royal Shakespeare Company…

From spawny mod in Quadrophenia to playing possibly the greatest fictional character… how did that happen? Well, there’s quite a gap! But I do think ‘how did I get here?’ I was brought up on a council estate in Essex and always wanted to be an actor, and, of course, one could only dream of being an iconic character in a production at the Royal Shakespeare Company. And here I am. It’s wonderful…

You started with the legendary Joan Littlewood, who has been called ‘the mother of modern theatre’ and is the subject of a new RSC play next year, what was that like? It was fantastic. It was 1972 and I desperately wanted to get going as an actor, but I couldn’t have gone to drama school because we didn’t have the money. I answered an advert in The Stage and went down to Stratford East [where Joan ran the infamous Theatre Workshop] and I was only meant to be there for one show, but Joan took to me and kept me on for a year. So it was like my training really, and in some ways it was an advantage not going to drama school because she worked in such an idiosyncratic way, I had nothing to unlearn. She was wonderful for me but she was tough [he laughs at the memory — she was notoriously ‘difficult’]. But for me she was great, and I came out of there fearless, because I thought if I can cope with her I can cope with anyone! I’ll be interested to see the show they are going to do about her here.

What was her approach? There was a lot of improvisation, a lot of extemporization. The script would go out the window and we would make it up and then gradually… Actually I can’t really describe the way she worked, it was like nobody else. There was a kind of freedom — there was a box of hats and coats at the back of the stage and you could just put one of those on, walk into the scene and make stuff up. The real key to it was that the shows were like living things, they were never finished, never set, they were always, always work in progress, organic and alive, and as soon as it got settled and comfortable she would throw it all up in the air and start again. She was completely unconcerned in those days with the greasy pole or critics and all that, she just wanted to do her thing, in her theatre, for her audience. She had a great love of people, ordinary people. Like, normally when you arrive at the theatre as an actor you wouldn’t walk across the stage, she said no, go and say hello to your friends, say good evening. It was inclusive.

How do you think it would be if you were starting out now? Well, I don’t think there’s an equivalent to Joan and her theatre. Most theatres don’t really have companies the way hers did. It’s a very different world. It’s all about being famous and getting on TV.

What was your motivation in wanting to be an actor? I really can’t say. I could read pretty early and liked reading out loud. A teacher at my primary school said to my mum at a parent’s evening: ‘He’s a born actor’, and that stuck in my head. We didn’t go to the theatre, or the cinema much either. It wasn’t like I was watching other actors going: ‘I want to be like him’, for me it was the doing of it. I always felt very comfortable pretending to be someone else [laughs].

Did your folks encourage you? Yes, although they were a bit baffled by it. My dad worked in a factory and to have a kid who wanted to be an actor was unusual; they couldn’t help but they were fantastic really, and they never tried to discourage me, they let me go my own way. They were very proud, although they are no longer with us. You have also worked a lot with Mike Leigh, how much has that been an influence on you and shaped you as an actor? The two big influences on my life were Joan Littlewood and Mike Leigh. Up until I met Mike in the mid-1970s and started working with him, in some ways I had thought of all the characters I’d played as sort of extensions of myself. But with Mike you were suddenly making a serious investigation of somebody else’s life, creating these characters and researching them. It changed me completely, I thought: ‘I can do this’. Obviously any character I play is going to look like me, short and blond, but I can take on other people’s characteristics and I started to take myself more seriously as an actor. A lot of the parts I was playing, because of my background, were Cockney kids and Jack the lads, and suddenly they started to get more detailed and more complicated.

Mike Leigh has said some lovely things about you but he says ‘just don’t ask him to do an accent’… He’s quite right, he always says that. Although I did a passable Salford accent for First Light at Chichester last year, he came to see it and says the accent wasn’t bad.

What are some of the highlights of your career? My first success was a play called Gotcha by Barrie Keeffe [in 1976] which I did at a tiny little theatre in Soho, it was my first proper success after I had left Joan. And my work with Mike, I’m particularly fond of Vera Drake [the 2004 film], that was a wonderful part. A lot of my favourites aren’t necessarily the ones that were big successes. There was a thing I did for Channel 4, 20,000 Streets Under The Sky, adapted from a Patrick Hamilton novel and I’m particularly fond of that; and Bleak House, and the cabbie in Sherlock — I’m in the very first episode, Pretty in Pink. I just want to keep going and get more juicy roles.

You are forever associated with being Chalky in the 1979 cult film Quadrophenia — is that ever, well, a trial? Do I get bored with it?! Kind of yes and kind of no. The curious thing is that when it first came out it wasn’t a big hit, then five years later kids are watching it on VHS, and then ten years, then 15 years. And people coming up saying I’ve watched it 25 times. Even David Edgar [playwright who as adapted A Christmas Carol for the RSC production] at the read-through was like: ‘I love Quadrophenia!’. So it’s one of those films that gradually has turned into a cult. It didn’t make a big difference to my career back then. I view it with amusement really, and, of course, people shout ‘CHALKY!’ at me as they pass, which is very nice.

How did the part of Scrooge come about? They just asked me to do it out of the blue. I was on my way to Wimbledon for the first time when I got a call saying would I like to play Ebenezer Scrooge at the Royal Shakespeare Company… and I’m a big fan of Dickens. I did Bleak House and also a bit in the Oliver Twist movie years ago with George C Scott as Fagan, and a Nicholas Nickleby movie playing various roles, and, of course, Scrooge is such a present character, and also the other great lure for me was the adaptation by David Edgar, which is masterful — it’s not just doing the story, it’s very much more complicated than that. I don’t do a lot of theatre, but I couldn’t resist it. Seeing both parts of Nicholas Nickleby in the theatre [the RSC’s 1980 production] was one of the best days I ever had. So here I am.

Playing an iconic character such as Scrooge must be so immense, is that daunting at all? Well every part is daunting in a way, and playing Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is a particular responsibility, it’s a huge role. I go onstage at the beginning and I don’t go off until the end. But it’s what I do, what I live for, so I’m very pleased to be here doing it.

Where does your job satisfaction lay? Mostly for me it’s the characters. A pair of shoes that I think will fit me — what can I do with this or that. Scrooge is such an iconic shape in my head, I couldn’t wait to have a go.

Scrooge is such an iconic figure, how are you playing him so he’s not just a stereotype? This is interesting because some people say you have to be careful with Dickens because the characters are so vivid, they are like characteurs — I don’t think that myself. But you’ve got to just do it: I hold my nose and jump. I didn’t watch the films of other people’s Scrooges, I stayed away from them. I don’t like talking about how I approach a role, it’s a trial and error thing. But I wanted to make it a big and bold performance, as it needed to be, but hopefully rooted in some reality.

What is the vision for this production, and what can audiences expect? I’m not sure how much I want to give away — but Dickens is a character in the play. The original genesis of the story was that he wanted to write about the working conditions for Victorian children, and he was appalled and outraged. In this version his agent and editor, John Forster, says write it as a story, so it’s as if Dickens is conjuring us up as characters in the play, making it happen and commentating on the action. It gives a lovely almost Brechtian alienation thing, and it’s enormous fun. And there’s lots of magic — we have had an illusionist helping us with some of the tricks we are playing. There is live music and dancing, everything you would expect from a Dickensian Christmas story is all in there.

How believable is the story of redemption? There is a transformation. When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes him back to his childhood you see why he became the man he became and the mistakes he made; the circumstances that threw him into a mode of living… People cover themselves up so they don’t get hurt; they grow a thick skin. Whether the story is believable you would have to ask the audience, but it is joyous and the story says nobody is beyond redemption, and the emotional punch of the story comes as this man is transformed. A friend of Nick Bishop, who plays Dickens, was in, and after he saw the production he said: ‘It makes me want to go out and do good things’, and that’s wonderful to hear.

Finally, as it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, are you a fan of the festive season? I love Christmas. I have children so Christmas is always very special. My son, sadly, is at university in Los Angeles so we won’t see him. My daughter is 15, in her GCSE year, so she’s at home. We thought about spending Christmas in Stratford, but I have an elderly mother-in-law who’s not up for travelling, so we’re spending it in North London with her. We like to get the tree out put the decorations up, all the usual things. I usually cook Christmas lunch but I’ll be having a break this year. We never have turkey, we usually have a nice joint of roast beef on the bone. Being Scrooge has in a way has made me feel even more Christmassy, partly because I’m away from home and partly there’s something tinselly about the show that makes you want to get a nice glass of red wine and sit by the tree with your feet up. I remember one white Christmas in the 1960s, I must have been about 11 or 12, and going out on Christmas morning and having a snowball fight with my brother and coming back in soaked, such fun. There’s a number of party games in the show because Dickens liked a game, and Scrooge likes a quiz. But I’m not so fond of party games but I do like a quiz. We always sit down and watch University Challenge. Gift-wise, giving is better than receiving, and jewellery always goes down well. Diamonds for the ladies!

WHEN AND WHERE: A Christmas Carol runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 4th February. To book tickets go to www.rsc.org.uk or call 01789 403493.