It’s 50 years since the young Derek Jacobi was plucked from Birmingham Rep by theatre old boy Sir Laurence Olivier. Graham Young talks to the acting legend about how the move changed his life.
An only child of working class parents, Sir Derek Jacobi was just 10 years old when he sat down to write a letter that wasn’t to change his life.
But the twists of fate since that day suggest he’s a man who has very much made his own luck.
And enjoyed every single minute of it.
Born on October 22, 1938, the young Jacobi was fascinated by the emergence of children’s programmes on television, so he wrote to Ealing Studios’ boss Sir Michael Balcon to see if he had any work for him.
“I got a reply from his secretary,” chuckles Derek. “It said something like ‘When you are a bit older, contact us again’.”
Somehow, Jacobi’s career wheels were set in motion – to the point he could now perhaps be acclaimed to being the greatest living theatre actor to have come out of Birmingham.
Balcon was born in Birmingham in 1896, gave Alfred Hitchcock his first directing job in 1925 and was the grandfather of Daniel Day-Lewis.
Like Hitchcock, Jacobi was born in Leytonstone.
Mother, Daisy, worked in a drapery store and his father, Alfred George, was a tobacconist.
Jacobi arrived in Birmingham in 1960, fresh from a grammar school education and history degree at Cambridge University, where fellow students included Ian McKellen, David Frost and Trevor Nunn.
For three years, Jacobi learned his craft on the boards of Birmingham Rep in Station Street, following in the footsteps of city-born Paul Scofield, Ralph Richardson and Albert Finney. But it was another Rep old boy, Laurence Olivier, who was to change his life in 1963.
When he came calling, Olivier had already spent two years at the Rep from 1926.
Olivier had also won the best actor Oscar in 1949 for Hamlet (en route to nine best actor Oscar nominations, a record still shared with Spencer Tracy).
Jacobi, in total contrast, had just been rejected by the RSC.
Yet months later, he was under Olivier’s wing – and spent his 25th birthday making his first night appearance in Hamlet, playing Laertes opposite the newly Oscar-nominated Lawrence of Arabia star Peter O’Toole.
Jacobi readily admits that career breaks don’t come much better than that.
“Out of all the Reps, Birmingham was the most traditional and classically-based,” says Derek.
“And I knew it was only 20-odd miles from Stratford, a natural progression for anyone with aspirations for the classics.
“I Ieft the Rep after Peter Hall offered me parts and a season at the RSC.
“But at an audition for Ariel in The Tempest, I hadn’t been prepared.
“I read it, but not very well and the response was along the lines of: ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you’.
“I received a letter saying I wasn’t ‘RSC stuff at the moment’, so I had to go back to the Rep and ask for my job back.
“It was 1963 and the 50th anniversary of the 1913 founding of the Rep (which celebrated its centenary last month).
“We began to do three Shakespeares they had never done, Henry VIII, Troilus and Cressida and Titus Andronicus.
“Olivier came to see me in Henry VIII in the spring season and I went from there to his Chichester Festival Theatre and on to the original National Theatre at the Old Vic, spending eight years together.”
Could he see at the time what that really meant – or is it only with the benefit of hindsight?
“Oh, I knew at the time I was lucky,” he laughs.
“I hadn’t even been to drama school.
“Three years in Birmingham. Eight at the Vic with people like Maggie Smith...
“That’s 11 years of never having to wait tables, so I was really blessed! It was amazing. My heroes are theatre actors and I’ve got to work with most of them.
“Theatre is magic, electrifying, and better than anything I have ever done in front of a camera.”
Today, Jacobi is a multi-disciplinarian and a household name – a ‘townie’ who loves going away and returning to London even more.
His TV credits include I, Claudius (1976, alongside Patrick Stewart, John Hurt, Brian Blessed, George Baker, David Robb and Birmingham’s own Kevin McNally); Cadfael (1994-96) and his recent hit Last Tango in Halifax (a second run will shoot with co-star Anne Reid this summer). Films range from The Day of the Jackal (1973) to Henry V (1989), Gladiator (2000), Gosford Park (2001), The Gathering Storm (2002) and the multi-Oscar winning The King’s Speech (2010).
Despite the respective attractions of the RSC and the West End, Derek loves nothing better than being in a hit Broadway show – even though his first run there was cut short.
Three weeks after seeing his debut, mother Daisy died aged just 70 after suffering a brain haemorrhage back at home.
“I brought them over to New York, and they thought they were on the moon,” he smiles.
“After I was born they’d saved ten bob a week – and bought me a red Ford Popular for my 21st birthday.”
His father lived to be 90 and accompanied Jacobi on the day he received his knighthood for services to drama in 1994.
It was only at the age of 72 that Jacobi felt he was old enough to follow Hamlet with King Lear.
“Two years ago... how time flies,” he muses.
“I’m a serf in movies. My great love is the theatre, so that’s where I flourish.
“We were doing eight shows a week in London, went on tour and then did seven weeks in New York, so that’s 150 Lears!
“It’s a wonderful role, but physically tiring and vocally very tiring.
“You wake up every day and think: ‘Is the voice still there?’”
Such roles are all-consuming at the time, requiring concentration for five hours before curtain up at 7.30pm when Jacobi says: “I have to be at the peak of my energies”. Age has made him more nervous beforehand, meals can only be eaten afterwards.
But he still finds the buzz of a live audience the greatest thrill of all, at least until someone’s phone goes off.
“That’s the problem with intervals,” he says. “There are notices before but then people turn them on and forget.
“I haven’t got the courage to shout ‘Shut the **** up!’ The manners of an audience have changed enormously.”
Another thing which makes him angry is how some people who benefited from the grammar school system like he did then “pulled up the ladder” to prevent others from following suit.
And then there’s the failure of some critics to “recognise just how good Kenneth Branagh is”.
Having once been labelled “the new Olivier”, Jacobi agrees that Branagh, now 52, has been under-appreciated despite his five Oscar nominations covering acting, writing and directing.
“My admiration for Ken knows no bounds,” he says. “He’s a brilliant, natural theatre actor who is great on stage but who loves film, too. He directs, he acts and is one of the most important people we have – a mover and shaker, a throwback to the old actor/manager which Olivier was.
“The problem he’s had is that in England his talent was seen as precocious, like ‘Who does he think he is?’
“Rather than accept that talent and go with it and give it its head... he’s still, strangely, having to live it down that he published an autobiography which was to raise money for his Renaissance Theatre Company.
“Those critics have been incredibly ungenerous as far as Ken goes.”
While many people have trouble getting into Shakespeare, Derek has a near-photographic memory to remember texts.
But he worries about the way they are taught.
“The plays were written to be performed, not examined,” he sighs.
“Our problem, as the actor, is to think: ‘What do the words mean? How do we say them? Why do we say them? And to make them accessible, by sounding as if it’s the way we talk every day’.
“Audiences will then understand what you are saying without hearing every word.”
The most Jacobi can remember not working for is about four months – which puts him at odds with Daniel Day-Lewis’s preference for making films so rarely.
“He has an admirable reputation for thinking himself into a role, I’m surprised he didn’t experience being shot in the head to play Lincoln,” laughs Derek.
Does Day-Lewis deserve his three best actor Oscars, though?
“In screen terms, certainly,” says Derek. “He’s given wonderful performances.”
Jacobi is today still only the second president of Birmingham’s Hall Green Little Theatre (1950) – after Olivier before him – and he expects Day-Lewis to be offered a knighthood soon.
“You get two boxes – yes or no,” he explains.
“I thought long and hard about it and then ticked ‘Yes’.
“It’s strange and lovely and I’m very proud, but I don’t really use it. People call me Derek.”
Rare is the time he ever watches himself on screen, even though he acknowledges others learn their craft that way.
“I can’t be objective enough, I’m totally subjective. I only watched I, Claudius five years after it was finished.”
But one recorded performance Jacobi is proud of can be seen on the silver screen again on Sunday night as part of The Borderlines Film Festival.
He plays painter France Bacon in Love is The Devil (1998), an 18-rated art house film which saw him sharing a bed with a burglar played by a future James Bond star, Daniel Craig.
“Anne Reid told me she’d been in bed with Daniel in The Mother,” Derek laughs. “I told her I’d been in bed with him twice in Love is the Devil!”
Only this week, Jacobi has just completed filming the final episode of Vicious, a new ITV1 sitcom about two ageing gay men who have lived together for 48 years.
“It ain’t King Lear,” he says of the new six-part series co-starring Sir Ian McKellen, another theatre legend with two Oscar nominations to his name.
It will begin on TV on April 29, but in the meantime Jacobi will continue to dream of being offered the chance to meet Daniel Craig on screen again... this time opposite his James Bond persona.
“Baddies and victims,” smiles Derek. “Those are the best parts.
“And Daniel Craig is the real deal. A proper actor.”
* The Borderlines Film Festival is the country’s largest rural film festival, with screenings and events running throughout Herefordshire and Shropshire until March 17.
Sir Derek Jacobi will talk about his career from 7pm on Sunday in an ‘On Stage On Screen’ event hosted by BBC Radio 4’s Francine Stock at The Courtyard in Hereford.
A £25 show and reception ticket will enable visitors to meet Sir Derek.
Love is the Devil (18, 98mins) will screen from 8.45pm (£6.80). Details: www.borderlinesfilmfestival.co.uk or 01432 340555