Before I met the real Tim Pigott-Smith OBE in the Crown Room of the Royal Theatre at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate, I whiled away a few minutes meeting the famous Tim Pigott-Smith in my imagination.
This is the TPS who first took centre stage on our TV screens in The Jewel In The Crown (1984) but whose career now spans countless television and movie roles from Dr Who to James Bond and Escape to Victory.
He’s a dab hand at the flawed authority figure: in a single sideways glance he can describe icy English stand-offishness with underlying flickers of lonely self-doubt.
A. Single. Glance.
Had he wished to he could have carved out a career as one of Hollywood’s off the peg Brit bad guys. It adds a touch of irony to the fact that he is in Northampton to play one of the great American roles: Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.
In my imaginary conversation with him Tim is turning that chilling gaze on me: “Haven’t you done your research?”
Deservedly as it happens, because a bit of research reveals a much more complex and talented performer than the Hollywood roles require.
His theatre credits speak of a massive range, he directs, and he has written some children’s books (The Baker Street Irregulars) and his memoir, Do You Know Who I Am?, comes out while Death of A Salesman tours following its run at the Royal. He’s one of those actors you think you know because he is such a familiar face but in fact, forget everything you think you know…
Far from the pomposity and emotional remoteness of his best known characters, Tim is an engaging and friendly man. He strolls in apologising for keeping me waiting and for the slight growl caused by his sore throat (“you just get on with it, otherwise you don’t work”).
His skin was pale but in a glowing rather than an unhealthy way and he had a way of grinning mischievously at times that he might well have had since he was 12 years old.
I asked him how he came to be involved in this production of Death of A Salesman.
“Well my wife Pamela is playing my wife in Death of A Salesman. I had stayed in touch with the director Abigail Graham since we worked on Enron together and she said she wanted us to do it. She thought Pamela and I would be ideal, so we spoke to James Dacre, who has been making such a great success of running the theatre here,” Tim explained.
The play is at the Royal throughout April and then goes on tour. For Tim and Pamela, the chance to work together is also a chance to spend time together as they are usually hostage to wherever work takes them.
Tim’s latest success playing Charles III saw him spending several months in New York during the play’s run on Broadway.
“Pamela couldn’t make it to the opening but she came out for Christmas, so it was all right,” Tim smiled, but he was clearly delighted to teamed with his wife for this production.
“It’s completely natural for us to work together. We have acted together, I have directed her. We go home and we can run through it. I do have to be careful about the cast reporting back to her, you know: have you seen what the leading man is doing?”
He deployed that twinkly eyed boyish giggle. The sense of mischief is not just for fun. He looks for the different or new way of doing things in his work.
“It’s quite a bold production. Willy remembers things from his life in a very vivid way and we are experimenting with how we depict that. I didn’t think it would be worth doing unless we brought something new to it. I saw a very dry and dated version a few years ago.
“It is about the danger of the capitalist dream and what happens when you can’t let go of the idea that everything is always going to get better. This idea that anyone can be a success, even be the President – which seems to have come true in a ghastly way!” Tim laughed.
Death of A Salesman will be staged in American, so to speak (indeed there are two American cast members) and Tim summons up the accent with ease. It’s reassuring. We’re not going to feel uncomfortable watching him.
For someone who spends a lot of his professional life on the road Northampton is not a completely unfamiliar environment.
Tim said: “I was born in Rugby and lived in Leicester and Stratford so I’m a Midlands boy, although like a lot of actors we live in London now for work reasons. We are staying in the area during the play because it’s over an hour to get back home. Northampton is a lovely place, there are some amazing buildings here like the Guildhall and All Saints church.
“My mother came to stay with her uncle here early in her life. He was Charles Halliwell, I think he was a headmaster.”
Quite rightly, with so much material to draw upon, Tim has written a memoir.
“It’s called Do You Know Who I Am? It works two ways… you have the obvious meaning but it’s also a question I am asking for myself.”
The role call of names he could be dropping is immense. The classic football movie Escape to Victory featured Bobby Moore, Pele, Michael Caine, Silvester Stallone and a host of Ipswich Town players.
“It provided me with a few stories for the memoir,” Tim smiles. Despite the glamour of the famous names, however, you get the impression that right now – in rehearsal for a new play with a team of fellow actors around him – is where Tim really likes to be.
In a rehearsal room you find out what you can do. You stretch your muscles.
He said: “I didn’t really want to be a Hollywood actor. With film you bring what you know to the screen, whereas in a rehearsal room for theatre you find out what you can do. You stretch your muscles.”
- Death of A Salesman runs from April 8 until April 29 at Royal & Derngate.
- DoaS is the first 2017 Made In Northampton production
- The cast is Tim, Pamela Miles, Geff Francis, Sujaya Dasgupta, Ben Deery, Michael Marcus, Amelia-Rose Morgan, Mitchell Mullen, Thom Tuck, Connie Walker and Michael Walters
- it is directed by Abigail Graham
- the set is by Georgia Lowe but will be put together by the R&D team
Would you look at these credits:
Theatre includes: Death of a Salesman (Royal & Derngate), King Charles III (Almeida Theatre / West End / Broadway – Nominated for a Tony Award and Olivier Award for Best Actor); Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Theatre Royal, Bath); Stroke of Luck (Park Theatre); The Tempest (Theatre Royal, Bath); King Lear (West Yorkshire Playhouse); Educating Rita (Trafalgar Studios); Enron (Chichester Festival Theatre /Royal Court / West End – Nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actor); A Delicate Balance (Almeida Theatre); The Iceman Cometh (Almeida Theatre / Old Vic / Broadway); Little Nell (Theatre Royal Bath); Pygmalion (Theatre Royal, Bath / Old Vic); See How They Run; Jane Eyre; Benefactors (West End); Hecuba (Donmar Warehouse); Antony and Cleopatra; Mourning Becomes Electra; Mary Stuart; The Tempest; Cymbeline; A Winter’s Tale; Entertaining Strangers; Coming In To Land; NT 50 (National Theatre); The Bengal Lancer; A Christmas Carol; The Picture of Dorian Grey (Lyric Hammersmith); Heritage (Hampstead Theatre); Old Times; The Alchemist (Birmingham Repertory Theatre / National Theatre); Retreat (Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond); Amadeus (Compass Theatre); Julius Caesar (RSC Stratford / Barbican); Sherlock Holmes; (RSC Aldwych and Broadway); Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Titus Andronicus; Woman Before Woman (RSC); Traps (Royal Court); Hamlet (Prospect Theatre); As You Like It; Major Barbara; School for Scandal (Bristol Old Vic).
Television includes: King Charles III; Decline and Fall; Lewis; Rory Bremner’s Election Report; Houdini; 37 Days; The Bletchley Circle; The Great Train Robbery; The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (3 series); Wodehouse in Exile; Miranda; Downton Abbey; The Hour; The Little House; On Expenses; Money; Foyle’s War; Midsomer Murders; Holby Blue; Poirot; North and South; Eroica; Pompeii; The Vice; Inspector Lynley Mysteries; Bloody Sunday; The Innocents; The Glittering Prizes; The Wilderness Years; Hannah; ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore; Eustace and Hilda; The Lost Boys; Wings; Fame is the Spur; Jewel in the Crown (BAFTA, Press Guild and TV Times Best Actor Award); The Traitor; The Challenge; Life Story; The Chief; The Life and Times of Christopher Columbus; Bullion Boys; Shadowy Third.
Film includes: Victoria and Abdul; 6 Days; Whisky Galore; Jupiter Ascending; Red 2; Alice in Wonderland; Quantum of Solace; V for Vendetta; Alexander; Johnny English; Gangs of New York; Bloody Sunday; The Four Feathers; The Remains of the Day; Aces High; Joseph Andrews; Sweet William; Clash of the Titans; The Day Christ Died; Escape to Victory; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Richard’s Things; Laisser-Passer; Dead Man’s Folly.
Directing includes: Company by Samuel Beckett (Edinburgh Festival / Donmar Warehouse); Hamlet (Regents Park); The Real Thing (National Tour). Artistic Director of Compass 1989 – 93.