Monkeying around

Nigel Havers tells Dan Whitehead why he's happy to turn his hand to comedy, drama – even a bit of panto

“I’m driving to Birmingham.” Having called up for my scheduled interview with Nigel Havers, I find myself going straight through to his mobile as he heads up the motorway. The distant echo in his unmistakable voice reassures me that he’s using hands free, but even so, headlines dance through my mind: Beloved Actor In Motorway Horror – Nosy Big Issue in the North Reporter Blamed. Thankfully, as you may have guessed since that headline never materialised, no such tragedy occurs.

As for why Nigel Havers is brumming his way towards Brum, it’s for his final week as the villainous King Rat in Dick Whittington at the Birmingham Hippodrome, where he’s been co-starring with Julian Clary and no lesser luminary than Joan Collins. “It’s a fantastic panto to be involved in. It’s probably the biggest in the country, it’s got a great cast. I’ve known Joan for years and years but we’ve never worked together. We’ve had a ball.”

Panto is just one more eclectic swerve in a career that has spanned over four decades, and encompassed everything from critically acclaimed movies like Chariots of Fire and Empire of the Sun, to the popular sitcom Don’t Wait Up, which ran for seven years. More recently, he’s crossed the pond for the cult US drama Brothers & Sisters, and even walked the cobbles of Weatherfield in a 50-episode run on Coronation Street. Throw in cameos in everything from Little Britain to Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, and a stint in the jungle for a certain testicle-munching reality show (the only topic deemed off-limits during our chat) and you begin to realise how difficult it can be to squeeze Havers’ career into a predictable pattern.

“I’ve been a fan of Manchester for years.”

Now he’s set to appear as a harassed legal eagle in Lunch Monkeys, the BBC Three sitcom about the misadventures of the postroom staff at a Manchester firm of solicitors. For the actor it meant pulling double duty while contracted to Corrie. “I did the two at the same time,” he confirms. “Running from one production to another. It was quite difficult, but I never complained.”

Key to this stoic approach may well be a genuine passion for the city itself. “I’ve been a fan of Manchester for years. My early career really kicked off there when I did lots and lots of TV for Granada, years ago. It’s like a home away from home. I could very easily live around there, no problem at all.”

“I’m just a catalyst. The show’s about the kids.”

It’s rather appropriate that his latest project takes place in the legal world, albeit viewed from the perspective of its truculent support staff, as Havers’ own family is steeped in law. His brother is a QC and his father defended Mick Jagger and Keith Richards during their 1967 drugs trial, and also prosecuted Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, and more controversially, the Guildford Four. Not that being raised in such a legal dynasty was much help in playing a humble Manchester solicitor. “Not really, no,” he laughs. “It doesn’t really make any difference. I’ve never worked in an office, so I have to imagine what that’s like. One of the reasons I became an actor instead of a lawyer is because I didn’t want to have to go to an office every day.”

It’s Havers’ first major sitcom role since Don’t Wait Up finished in 1990, but he’s happy to take a back seat and allow the spotlight to favour his younger co-stars. “I’m just a catalyst really. The show’s about the kids. I think they’re wonderful young actors and I think it should be about them. They’re all very talented. I love doing it.”
And while he’s coy about his future plans, he hopes that Lunch Monkeys will continue to be part of them. “I’d love to do some more. It would be great if it got picked up by BBC Two and they put it on there. You can never tell. It’s all to do with how many people watch it, how many people like it. It’s out of our hands.”

Is it frustrating, I ask, as an actor to leave the fate of favourite projects to the whims of the ever-changing media industry? Would he ever consider shifting into a production role to help nurture more good ideas to fruition? “I do that occasionally,” he confesses. “Later on this year I’m co-producing a new play for the theatre, that’s always fun. There are lots of similar things I’ve done in the past so I’m always up for anything like that.”

Indeed, it seems that one of the reasons his career has endured and thrived for so long may well be his zen-like approach to the fickle nature of showbusiness. “I’ve got used to it,” he says. “You just have to go with the flow. The whole landscape has changed. TV, film, everything has changed. You can’t guarantee any audience any more.”
Not for him the calculated cherrypicking that some actors obsess over as they try to sculpt successful careers from the sloppy clay of popular opinion. “I’m what’s called a ‘letterbox actor’,” he chuckles. “You wait for something to come through your letterbox and then you do it. Go where it takes you.”

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