PHILIPPA MAY talks to a legend of stage and screen ahead of his appearance at Borderlines ONE thing that can never be said of Sir Derek Jacobi, who comes to Borderlines next month to talk about his career on screen and stage, is that he’s ever played it safe or been typecast.
Eighteen months after he closed in King Lear, he’s currently shooting a sitcom, Vicious, in which he stars with his old friend and fellow knight of the realm, Sir Ian McKellen, playing a gay couple who’ve been together for 48 years living in a flat in Soho.
It’s a departure for Derek, who, despite a CV boasting hundreds of performances, has only once before appeared in a sitcom, playing a very bad Shakespearean actor on Frasier.
“It was a perfect part for me,” he says, before adding, by way of explanation that “you have to be able to do it, to do it badly.”
With appearances on stage and screen, big and small, and parts ranging from Claudius in the iconic TV series, I Claudius to The Master in Doctor Who – “there are many who regard that as the apogee of my career” – to Hamlet, Lear and both Richard II and Richard III on stage, it might be simpler to list what he hasn’t done than what he has.
His first film role, in The Day of the Jackal came eight years into his time at the National Theatre, then run by Sir Laurence Olivier. “I’d been in the theatre exclusively, with three years in rep and eight at the National, and I’d not done any work outside it, no TV or film work. I was very anxious to do that, I had ambitions to do other things, so I asked to leave the National - I thought I’d take a year’s sabbatical and go back, but it didn’t turn out that way.”
One of the many films Derek has appeared in Love is the Devil, a portrait of painter Francis Bacon, will be screened at Borderlines.
In it he starred alongside the future James Bond, Daniel Craig. “It does very well on DVD apparently, because Daniel appears stark naked in two scenes. It’s very popular with young women,”
Derek reports, laughing at the irony.
Citing Gladiator as his favourite of the films he’s made – “I had a good time making it” – he points to the part of Francis Bacon as his favourite big screen role.
“He was the most interesting and the most challenging,”
he explains. “I never met him though we were in London at the same time, but I know we wouldn’t have got on at all. We were chalk and cheese. He was a physical masochist and a spiritual sadist and I am neither of those things.
“But actors aren’t in the business of making moral judgements.”
Reflecting on a career that has spanned more than 50 years, Derek says: “I am one of the luckiest actors you will ever meet, I’ve been more in work than out. I am lucky, too, in that I have done film and TV, radio and stage.”
Unlucky still, though, in securing the one job he’d love – a part in Coronation Street – Derek admits that he did recently manage to secure a seat on a bar stool in the Rovers Return.
“I was offered Coronation Street recently, but it clashed with Vicious so I couldn’t do it,” he says. This was the third time he’d been approached, though on the previous two occasions he hadn’t felt the parts were right.
“But I was doing Last Tango in Halifax in Manchester and was invited to the Coronation Street studios, where I was shown around. We went into the Rovers Return where they were filming and I asked if I could be an extra, so I was given a pint of beer but my back was to the camera.”
Admitting to “dropping hints like crazy”, there is surely every chance that he will one day he’ll add Coronation Street to his impressive credits.
In the meantime, there’s another series of Last Tango, and an eagerly anticipated holiday in Mustique, for some clearly well-earned “Sun, sea and sand”.
See Derek Jacobi in conversation with Francine Stock on Sunday, March 10, at The Courtyard. To book, call the box office on 01432 340555 or go to borderlinesfilmfestival.