Theatre interview: Nigel Havers

Nigel Havers.
Nigel Havers.
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The ever charming Nigel Havers is in a touring production of The Importance of Being Earnest that stops off in York this month. He spoke to Phil Penfold.

Nigel Havers is in a mellow mood. “I generally am, these days,” he reflects. “I’m getting more unruffled – or less and less ruffled, should that be? – as the years go by. I’m definitely not going down the Victor Meldrew route, turning into a grim old curmudgeon. I am very easy-going, my wife says. In fact, she’s told me that she thinks that I am one of the most placid people she knows.”

Havers has just turned 64, but looks a decade younger than his actual age. He’s lean, fit, has that trademark shock of elegantly wavy hair and is unfailingly polite. A charmer, in fact.

Currently, Nigel is touring the country in a revival of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a production which has an interesting new slant on it, for the entire cast is made up of actors “of a certain age”, and each is playing a part written for much younger performers. Alongside Nigel are stalwarts like Sian Phillips, Martin Jarvis, Rosalind Ayres, Christine Kavanagh and Nigel Anthony.

“Audiences seem to like it a lot,” he muses. “They certainly seem very intelligent, and they know the play – who, indeed, doesn’t? And it still gets the laughs in the right places”.

He’s “delighted” that one of the dates will be at the Grand Opera House in York and he’s juggling the tour with filming for a new series of the satirical send-up series A Life of Rock with Brian Pern. “I’m back as music industry executive Tony Pebble, and – as usual – we’ve been having a lot of fun. We were all delighted when the show found itself so popular that it got shifted from BBC4 to BBC2. I love it – because it’s of my era, and it is deliciously written, a beautiful parody of the music scene of the time. I think that Simon (Day) does a fantastic job as Pern.

“The angle is that Brian Pern is an ageing rock star, and that he used to front a band called Thotch. He’s a man who comes out with bizarre claims like his being the first person to have used Plasticine in a promo rock video. It’s affectionately based on the real-life Peter Gabriel, and – if you haven’t seen it – it’s all done in mock-documentary style. That means that they can weave in real-life people – like Roger Moore, John Humphrys, Rick Wakeman and Noel Edmonds – to give it that authentic feel. I love it. And if Tony Pebble is a little bit of a send-up of me, well, then I’m all for it!”

Not so long ago, he found himself as the subject of Who Do You Think You Are?, the BBC’s hugely popular genealogy and ancestral research show. Since Nigel is the son of a peer – his barrister father was ennobled when he became Lord Chancellor – and the grandson of Sir Cecil Havers, the judge who sentenced Ruth Ellis to hang after her murder trial in 1955, not to mention being the nephew of Baroness Butler-Sloss, the 
first female Lord Justice of Appeal, did he expect a long line of blue-blooded toffs in his family tree?

“Well, everyone says how posh I appear,” he laughs, “but I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I really didn’t. But the whole process was fascinating, and they really do take care of you on that programme.

“There is a surprise in every meeting, and you never know what might be revealed. In my case, it was that a distant grandma on my father’s side, a very ordinary Essex girl, married an up and coming lad who ran a Hackney carriage firm, and then later his business went bankrupt. He ended up owing what, in today’s terms, was £2.5m.

“On my mother’s side of the family, I found that I had Cornish roots, and that my great-great-grandfather, a miller, cheated on his wife and made a servant girl pregnant. He was a bit of a cad, in other words, and I’ve been playing those parts for years.

“There’s something of all those people in me, and that’s a pretty sobering thought.”

The Importance of Being Earnest, Grand Opera House, York, November 17 to 21; 0844 871 3024, atgtickets.com