Thursday, December 7

‘I was in front of an audience but all I could think was, I could be dying’: Robert Lindsay on acting, ageing – and surviving cancer | Robert Lindsay

Robert Lindsay was sitting on the set of The Fever Syndrome at London’s Hampstead theatre, having his photo taken. Instantly recognisable everywhere since his stupidly handsome days – playing the eponymous Marxist in the BBC’s sitcom Citizen Smith from 1977 to 1980 – his face nevertheless, at 72, has an unexpected quality. It’s craggier than you remember, and much more relaxed than you’d expect. Content, even.

The Fever Syndrome is a family drama set in New York, where the adult children of an eminent IVF scientist are congregating in his creaky brownstone to have a number of things out. It’s a powerful, moving work – “in the audience, every night, we’ve had people sobbing” – of which he is passionately proud and a little defensive. “I haven’t read the reviews, but I know from what friends have been saying that the actors have come out of it really, really well, but critics have had a go at the play. I think they’re wrong. It’s remarkable what [Alexis Zegerman] has written.” This is a habit, and an endearing one – mention his stunningly malevolent and charismatic performance in GBH in 1991, and it’s, “Oh, that was all Alan Bleasdale”. He’s equally generous about his co-stars: I now know much more about how great Emma Thompson was, in Me and My Girl (a West End hit in 1985, which transferred to Broadway, and made Lindsay’s name there), or what Zoë Wanamaker was like in the long-running BBC sitcom My Family, than about any plaudits or career-defining moments they delivered for Lindsay.

Lindsay in Citizen Smith. Photograph: Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

“I love this profession,” he says, “I love what I do. I’m passionate about it.” He sounds a bit as if he’s sitting in front of a parole board – his crime, not being luvvie-enough. “But I do feel quite cavalier about my career. I don’t get nervous. Because it doesn’t matter. But it does. But it doesn’t.” He loves a line AA Gill wrote about him in the early 00s, when reviewing an eerie detective show called Jericho. “He said, ‘he’s very versatile, he wears his career like a used overcoat’.”

Lindsay was born in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, in 1949, his father a carpenter, his mother a cleaner, and went to a rough school where “the uniform was a leather jacket and a bicycle chain”. When he said he wanted to be an actor – inspired by a theatre group with a free-thinking teacher – the careers adviser said, “‘What, you want to wear tights? Have you considered a career in hairdressing?’ I wanted to punch him so badly,” he remembers. “That’s no disrespect to hairdressers. Just how the theatre was regarded, so effeminate.” But he got in to Rada – “I was euphoric. My mother was beside herself. I mean, running around the neighbours, knocking on all the doors. It was just lovely. I remember that day vividly. My mum and dad, so proud.”

Rada is where he learned received pronunciation, how to sound a lot less Derbyshire, so that when he went home his friends looked at him as if he was from outer space. “But I just wanted to act. My voice coach said, ‘Robert, we’re not trying to take you away from yourself. We’re just trying to you give you another depth. Because there aren’t many DH Lawrence plays. I know, deep down, you have the facility to be anything. You have all the attributes of a great actor. And you have to stay true to that.’ So she made me very proud of the fact I was changing.”

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Still, he always felt conflicted about shedding his authentic voice, ambivalent about where the line was between training oneself to take on many guises and being left with no self to disguise. He distils all that into an anecdote: a meeting between John Lennon and Laurence Olivier sounds a bit name-droppy, but isn’t, because Lindsay wasn’t there. “These were my two heroes – my working-class hero and my theatrical hero. They met at the Savoy, and Lennon hated Olivier. He said, ‘This fucking guy doesn’t know who he is.’ And when I worked with Laurence [in Granada’s King Lear, in 1983, with Olivier as Lear and Lindsay as Edmund], I remember he was like an amoeba. He’d change with you and with the moment. That worried me later in life. I started to reevaluate, and I think that’s why I’ve got quite political, and started to relate to where I come from.”

Robert Lindsay (left) in Jericho.
‘He wears his career like a used overcoat’ … AA Gill on Robert Lindsay (left) in Jericho. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Straight out of drama school, what gave his career its moorings was this sense that if versatility was his prize for giving up his roots, he had damn well better use it. This philosophy has given the world an array of incredibly different performances. There is the most wholesome musical theatre – Me and My Girl, as Fagin in Oliver in 1997, for which he won an Olivier award, this year’s Anything Goes, for which he was nominated for an Olivier. Then a fair amount of Shakespeare on stage and screen (“creaky floorboard Shakespeares, we used to call it,” he says of the BBC season in the early 80s). But also the much darker performances, in (Channel 4) dramas including GBH and Jake’s Progress, both written by Bleasdale. And finally the classic sitcoms such as My Family and Citizen Smith, the latter giving him his first taste of fame as a household-name, which he absolutely hated.

Lindsay (centre) in Anything Goes at the Barbican, London.
Lindsay (centre) in Anything Goes at the Barbican, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Just about the only thing missing on his CV is a prolonged stretch in Hollywood, though he did play the title role in the niche musical, Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool, and fell out with Harvey Weinstein during the making of Strike It Rich. But, what really did for him in LA was that he hated it there. It came to a head in the early 90s, when he was driving around in his Starsky & Hutch car. He was on his way to see Helen Mirren, with whom he’d worked in 1982, on Cymbeline: “We had that wonderful bedroom scene, when Iachimo has to find her mole. I called my dogIachimo, funnily enough. What a stupid thing to call a dog.” Elgar’s Nimrod came on the radio, and he realised how homesick he was; how little he wanted to do the project he was about to start. Mirren tried to persuade him that everyone does a bad film sometimes, but he says: “The story I love more than anything is Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, Jack’s in this really, really awful film. And they’re at the screening at Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, sitting there watching it. Walter, sitting behind him says, ‘Jack, can you get out of this now?’”

It is rare that you can reasonably ask the question of Lindsay: “How much does this character mirror your own life?” But The Fever Syndrome is an exception. This play is full of peculiar coincidences and resonances: one of the other actors has a child with sudden fevers, as does the grandchild in the play – which gives the play its name, and “I have a son with terrible OCD, which he’s dealing with. We all have our own particular problems with our children, everyone does. As the play says, ‘There’s no perfect child’.”

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Lindsay with Emma Thompson in Me and My Girl at the Adelphi theatre, London.
Lindsay with Emma Thompson in Me and My Girl at the Adelphi theatre, London. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy

Also, the actor playing Lindsay’s daughter bears a resemblance to his actual daughter, and his family composition – a daughter from his relationship with actor Diana Weston, two sons from his second marriage – is the same as his character’s. As he delves into where reality and fiction diverge, it’s like following him on a deep sea dive, moments of obscurity, reflection, clarity, sudden colourful tangents, all delivered in a voice so rich and compelling that every detail sounds vital. So, this irascible patriarch he’s playing “was always too self-obsessed to bring his kids up the way he should have, and I think my self-obsession stopped when I had kids. Before I had children, I was going to the top, wherever that means. I was driven.” In the early days, the attention turned his head – he was getting these incredible reviews, he was the new Laurence Olivier, the new Gene Kelly, the new Fred Astaire. “I’d started believing all that rubbish. That single-mindedness broke up my first marriage [which was to actor Cheryl Hall; they divorced in 1980]. I haven’t had therapy, so I sometimes sound a little bit confused.” So he has never once set foot in a therapist’s office? Wait, bookmark that for a minute.

Lindsay with Zoë Wanamaker (centre) in Our Family.
Lindsay with Zoë Wanamaker (centre) in My Family. Photograph: Neil Genowner/DLT

There was no acrimony in his blended family – Weston is godmother to one of his sons with his second wife, the actor and dancer Rosemarie Ford, and all his kids get on very well – “They’re brothers and sister, there is no ‘step’” – but, as he describes this harmonious, un-stagey life, the memory of that separation, in the mid-90s, intrudes. “I did go to see a therapist once. When I broke up with my ex-partner, I was so destroyed. Where I come from, how I was brought up, you just did not break up when you have children. I was in a shocking state. I was filming Alan Bleasdale’s Jake’s Progress and the press were horrendous. They were following my daughter to school. The Daily Mail bribed a lovely guy who used to clean my car for me … It was just dreadful. And then I found out my phone was hacked.” He never followed that up, but it made sense of why photographers would be on his doorstep when he tried to patch things up with Weston, or at the train station when he went to meet Ford. “As the years go by, I wish in many ways I had done something. But I had my own problems to deal with, and I think we dealt with them brilliantly. My ex, my wife, my kids, we’ve all handled it brilliantly.”

As we talk about his character’s emotional tempo and his top note of grumpiness, Lindsay slides, again, from self-deprecating domestic observation into something much more searching. “I’ve got more irascible as I’ve got older, as my sons and my daughter will all point out. When they saw the play, they all said, ‘It’s not much of a stretch for you dad’. Parkinson’s disease is making this character very angry, and I know what that is, because I was diagnosed with prostate cancer 11 years ago. I was monitored, and it came to the point where it was getting a little near to the periphery, and they can’t help you after that. So my wife and I had to make a decision and I had it removed.” He dates each point of the disease from what he was filming or starring in when he got bad news. “Comedy’s the worst thing when you’re having emotional problems.”

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He was sitting in makeup with Zoe Wanamaker, his screen wife on My Family, when he was first diagnosed. “She said, ‘Right, OK, let’s go on and be funny, and then we can talk about it.’ I can’t remember the recording at all. It was in front of a studio audience – 500, 600 people, cameras, lines, bang, bang, bang. All I could think was, I could be dying.” He was doing a charity performance for the Queen with Emma Thompson, the night before he had his prostatectomy, and he diverts on to what a great friend she is, before concluding: “What I’m trying to say is, I think my irascibility came when that was taken away. I’ve had a very healthy and sexual life. I’m very, very happy. And that whole period when it’s removed is awful.”

Lindsay in The Fever Syndrome at Hampstead Theatre, London.
Lindsay in The Fever Syndrome at Hampstead Theatre, London. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz

This was all just before Covid, which he caught last month, and “I panicked,” he says, “because my brother nearly died at the very start; he was really sick”. His brother is a carpenter, like their dad, and they have a warm relationship, with a bit of straight-talking and side, as they did with their dad. He remembers his parents coming to the press night of Me and My Girl, at the Adelphi in 1985. “As I went forward for the curtain call, the whole theatre stood up. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is it!’ And I looked down and the only person sitting down was my dad. Afterwards, I said, ‘Dad, I got a standing ovation. You were just sitting there!’ He said, ‘I paid for the seat, I’m sitting in it.’ But he didn’t pay for it, actually!”

Recently, in life as well as on Twitter, Lindsay has become much more open about his politics – he has always described himself as a socialist, but has recently put more flesh on those bones: he is an environmentalist, a fierce decrier of dishonesty in government, and passionately anti-Brexit. “People have said to me, ‘Why don’t you go into politics?’ But I think I probably care too much.” He and his brother had such a bad argument over Brexit that, “my son filmed it,” he said, “because we were almost getting to blows.” It’s hard to see how filming it would have helped. “Maybe he just wanted to put it on YouTube.”

“I’ve decided now,” he concludes, “I’m going to enjoy my age in this profession. I’m gonna celebrate my age and not get fucked up by it. How women cope with it, I’ll never know.” He switches back into character to quote a wry, elegant line from The Fever Syndrome, peculiarly fitting to his mood of rueful contentment: “I made mistakes. Yeah. Life is full of mistakes. Life itself is a mistake. One genetic mutation after another.”

The Fever Syndrome is at Hampstead theatre, London, until30 April. Tickets available via

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