Man behind the moustache: David Haig’s made a career out of his trademark ’tache. Now it’s come off for a new theatre role
David Haig was a 12-year-old at Rugby public school when he got his first theatre review.
It was for his role in Sheridan’s The Critic, as Mr Puff, a pompous 18th-century fop who has written a terrible play about the Spanish Armada. ‘The praise I got was a double-edged sword,’ recalls David. ‘I was pronounced “vastly well cast” – but by a teacher who loathed me.’
Shortly afterwards, he was expelled for bad behaviour.
All change: A moustache-less David Haig, alonside Beatie Edney, in The Madness of George III
‘I was caught talking to a girl in town, and smoking. I refused to get my hair cut, and I’d leave the zip undone on my Chelsea boots – all things that drove the teachers crazy. On top of that, I’d been pathologically lazy academically, so the headmaster said unless I went to live with him and his wife for ten days to show I was prepared to change, then this was the end. I said no, and my parents realised I was a lost cause.’
David is now 56, an award-winning actor and playwright whose trademark military moustache has made him instantly recognisable in dozens of stage, film and TV roles.
There was his scene-stealing – trouserless – moment in Four Weddings And A Funeral as the bridegroom caught in flagrante with his new bride by Hugh Grant.
He’s had sexy romps in stage roles like Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny, Alan Ayckbourn’s House & Garden and William Wycherley’s lewd 17th-century comedy The Country Wife.
But none of these would have had the same comic effect without the gravity of his upper lip.
Familiar face: The actor as we are more used to seeing him
And, more seriously, that moustache was an important prop in his portrayal of Rudyard Kipling in My Boy Jack, the TV adaptation of the stage play he wrote.
But now, for the first time in almost 25 years, he’s clean-shaven.
The moustache has had to come off for his role as the king in Alan Bennett’s The Madness Of George III, which opens in London’s West End later this month.
Seeing the face without the fuzz gives audiences a shock. ‘But I had to,’ he argues. ‘George III never had a moustache. Everyone was clean-shaven in those days because they were terrified of lice. So I had to accept it was time to get the razor out.
‘Suddenly, I felt unprotected and exposed, both literally and metaphorically.
I felt, “this is me”. I also had a deep suntan when I did it, so I was left with this appalling white stripe of skin across my face.’
He concedes that over the years he’s been cast for his facial hair as much as for anything else. ‘A lot of the work I’ve got is as a result of my moustache feeling right, so it’s been very useful.
When I was making Four Weddings, the director, Mike Newell, said, “David, I’m worried if you shave it off you may just be left with a hole in your face.” But I’m so glad I took the plunge. It’s a great way to show the fall of the king from a head of state in full regalia and wig to a bald, broken man in a nightgown.’
The play premiered in 1991, and in 1995 an award-winning film was made starring Nigel Hawthorne. ‘I wrote to Alan Bennett and said I couldn’t hope to better Nigel Hawthorne’s performance,’ says David, ‘but I would try to match it. This is a part I’ve wanted to do for years.’
Most famous role: David as Bernard in Four Weddings And A Funeral
On the home front, David is married to actress and professional cook Julia Gray, with whom he has five children.
His talent for playing establishment figures with a twist is helped by his background. His mother was an opera singer and his father an Army officer who left after 20 years to become the first director of London’s Hayward Gallery.
They were disappointed when David left Rugby, but recognised their son was independently minded. After attending a crammer in Oxford, he spent a year on a kibbutz then lived in Denmark for two years learning plumbing.
Back in London, he enrolled at drama school. ‘Suddenly, I was working incredibly hard. I’d found my passion and vocation.’
And will the moustache make a return ‘There’s no going back. I’m freed from my trademark now,’ he says.
The Madness Of George III, Apollo Theatre, London, from 18 January. Tel: 0844 412 4658.