Michael Praed tells Alison Jones why we have a different appetite for scandal in these days of Jade Goody and Jeffrey Archer.
The idea of a public figure being shamed by a scandal and disappearing from the spotlight forever is becoming an increasingly peculiar notion for us.
It seems there is no disgrace that policiticans or celebrities cannot come back from, and maybe even see their fame increased.
Not imprisonment (Jeffrey Archer, Johnathan Aitken, Charles Brocket), sex scandals (Max Mosley), accusations of taking back-handers (Neil Hamilton) accusations of racism (Jade Goody) or even being tried for murder (OJ Simpson).
But there were no second chances in the 19th century, as Oscar Wilde rather prophetically illustrated in his play An Ideal Husband, when the central character faces public and personal ruin unless he submits to blackmail.
“It is hard for us to imagine what the word disgrace meant in those times,” says Michael Praed, who takes the title role of Sir Robert Chiltern in the production coming to Malvern next week.
“Now people get disgraced all the time, go away, serve their time or have their knuckles rapped in the newspapers and then seemingly fit back into society, damaged or not damaged. Sometimes a bit of notoriety can help.”
In the case of Sir Robert, if it were revealed he made his fortune from the sale of a cabinet secret when he was a young man, it would have been the end of his career, marriage and social life.
“Climates change, the notion of morality shifts,” says Michael. “Max Mosley is a recent example of somebody who was caught doing something. Wouldn’t the gentlemanly thing, the noble thing in ignoble circumstances be to put his hand up and say: ‘I have tarnished this company and I shall now resign’?
“A hundred years ago if you were a gentleman there was no question about how you would behave. You would absolutely resign from all the clubs and if you didn’t you would probably be booted out and ostracised because nobody would want to be seen with someone who had behaved badly.
“And it wasn’t just you, it was a terminal blow to your family name. That part of the terror of transgression is sadly lost to us.”
Michael would have seemed perfect casting for the role of Lord Goring, Chiltern’s bachelor friend, who gets all the best lines and is an equal to the mysterious Mrs Cheveley when it comes to scheming.
However, he says he was happy to be given the opportunity to play the conflicted Chiltern.
“I have played that type of Goring character in the past so I was really gratified to get a part that was much straighter. It is a refreshing change.
“He is human in that he has made a mistake as a young man that, two decades later, comes back to haunt him. He is a very human individual at heart, a good man who did a silly, selfish, clever thing which he shouldn’t have done and he knew he probably shouldn’t and potentially has to pay the price.”
Michael can barely have had time to unpack his suitcases since the last time he was on tour, playing opposite Simon MacCorkindale in Sleuth, which touched down at Wolverhampton Grand in April.
“That was (like An Ideal Husband) also a Bill Kenwright production and I got offered this job while I was doing that, which is why I went straight into it.
“To be candid, it would be wonderful to pick and choose what you wanted to do but that isn’t something that is my option.
“The thing about being on the road is... I don’t think it is necessarily location that is unpalateable. You can be miserable in your town house in Eton Square with your Bentley Continentals.”
Michael, 47, is separated from his wife Karen Landau, but keeps in touch with his teenage children, son Gabriel and daughter Frankie, by phone when he is away from home touring.
“They have grown up with me being an actor so they know there are times when I will be away. But it beats being a submariner, away for five months underwater with zero communication.
“Now we have the benefits of the mobile phone. I am not much of a texter, I am a traditionalist. That text speak irritates the s**t out of me to be perfectly honest.”
It is not surprising, given his preference for clear, punctuated sentences combined with a pleasant unaccented speaking voice (though he was born in Gloucestershire, he lived in Iran as a young boy, where his father worked for a petroleum company, before being sent back to England to attend public school), that he is in great demand as a TV narrator and reader of audio books.
For the last five years he has been supplying the voice over for Timewatch.
Though he has worked regularly on stage and as a guest artist in television series, Michael has never really eclipsed the success he enjoyed in the 1980s when he starred in the sexed-up retelling of the legend of Robin Hood story, Robin of Sherwood, with Ray Winstone as Will Scarlet. He then went to America where he played the Prince of Moldavia in Dynasty.
“Dynasty was the number one show so it was incredibly gratifying to be part of that. There is really nothing glamorous about getting up pre-dawn and working 12 hours but it is a great, enjoyable and silly way to make a living.
“It was definitely more fun than running round in a forest that is for damn sure. There were no creature comforts there. That was gruelling, brutal and potentially dangerous stuff. Inevitably you’d get hit or run into trees. We were younger then so it didn’t matter. It would kill me now.
“The boys (who played the Merry Men) did go out to let off steam. I was just knackered at the end of the day, I’d go back to the hotel, have something to eat and go to bed. I didn’t have any energy to go out carousing.”
Despite its popularity, Michael quit as Robin after only two seasons when he was offered the lead role in a Broadway musical about The Three Musketeers.
Michael maintains he does not regret leaving, even though the musical closed after just nine perofrmances.
“I have always been a creature to chance the consequences. It was a starring role on Broadway and I thought I would rather try this and fail than not have a go.
“Of course when it ploughed into the ground at 150 knots it was carnage. Rightly or wrongly (as an actor) you do feel a certain amount of responsibility for its demise, also it is humiliating to be in something that hasn’t worked. You have to develop a thick skin, 16 feet thick and made of titanium.”
Michael is an accomplished singer, though he hasn’t been as widely recognised for his abilities as other actors. While he was a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, teachers there tried to persuade him to try opera.
He has starred in a number of musicals, including Godspell, Carousel, Pirates of Penzance, Aspects of Love and Copacabana.
Early in his singing career, he starred in a production with Elaine Paige that could have made musical theatre history, as it was the first show to use Abba songs for the soundtrack.
Unfortunately it was a Christmas special called Abbacadabra, rather than the global phenomenon that is Mamma Mia.
“I think the book was conceived by the team that did Les Miserables and Miss Saigon and it was their first time they had worked with Cameron Mackintosh, so it was successful in pairing them,” says Michael.
“I have seen the show Mamma Mia but they needed big stars for the film. I’ve no doubt I could have handled Pierce Brosnan’s role but in terms of box office we are in different leagues, and he is Premier.”
* An Ideal Husband is on at Malvern Festival Theatre from Monday to Saturday next week. Box office: 01684 892277.