Doctor in the house I think I need one! As he revives the classic Dirk Bogarde comedy, Robert Powell reveals a terrifying dark side
22:18 GMT, 6 April 2012
Robert Powell doesn’t exactly talk himself up. In less time than it took to nail his Jesus Of Nazareth to the cross in the brilliant Seventies TV series, he’s told me he’s a ‘control freak’ with a ‘dark’ side who loves pubs – ‘I mean I really love them’ – and watching football with his mates.
One of these mates, ‘a huge friend’, is Dennis Waterman. That’s right, the ex-Minder star who recently shocked us with his outrageous excuse – that she was better at arguing than him – for slapping his ex-wife Rula Lenska during their 11-year marriage.
Not that he’s a wife-beater, mind, ‘she was hit and that’s different,’ he insists in a forthcoming episode of Piers Morgan’s Life Stories. Dennis and Robert, 67, have never come to blows.
Robert with Joe Pasquale in Doctor In The House
They met at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1966, and spent most of their 20s being lads, getting drunk and sleeping around, but it didn’t sit easily with Robert. He ended up in therapy.
Today, he’s been married for 36 years to Pan’s People founder member Babs Lord, and has two grown-up children, Barney and Kate. ‘Marriage is an extraordinary institution,’ he says and, though they’ve had their ‘ups and downs’, he’d no sooner wallop Babs than appear on Celebrity Love Island.
Robert, of course, is a hugely respected actor with a varied body of work that includes Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps, The Detectives with Jasper Carrott, numerous roles in the theatre, a lengthy stint on Holby City, as well, of course, as Jesus Of Nazareth. He’s currently touring the UK in Doctor In The House, a live version of the classic Dirk Bogarde film with Joe Pasquale.
Robert and Babs with Dennis and Rula in 1985
‘Joe’s divine, a lovely chap,’ he says. ‘He’s not what you think he is. He’s a very serious young man who happens to be very funny and very considerate – he’s thinking about other people all the time. It’s lovely to watch. He’s much less selfish than I am – and much more generous.
‘I love being on stage. I’m completely, totally relaxed,’ he says. ‘It’s the only time in my life when I know where I am and what’s coming next. The other Robert Powell is probably fairly melancholic. Let’s just say happiness isn’t my default position. There are dark parts. I’m very good at it. I frighten people sometimes.’
Crikey, he can’t be easy to live with. He nods. ‘I used to spend a lot of time working overseas. My wife always said, “The house settles into peacefulness when you go off to work. When you come home it’s like an atom bomb’s been dropped. The entire atmosphere changes.” It’s an energy thing. I never stop. There’s always something to do around the house. I’m having to mend this, check that, go online and get new taps for the shower. It’s non-stop.’
I love being on stage. I’m completely,
totally relaxed. It’s the only time in my life when I know
where I am and what’s coming next.
How does Babs cope ‘I adore my wife,’
he says. ‘We’ve managed to make our marriage last a long time. There
have been times when, due to outside influences, we’ve reached a point
where we’ve said, “Do we or don’t we divorce”, particularly when my
mother came to live with us for a while when she was ill with dementia.
It got virtually impossible for Babs to cope. But that was 16 years ago
and you live through all that and become mates, which I think is
Robert believes Babs saved him, in a way. They married in 1975, shortly before he began work on Jesus Of Nazareth. Dennis, whom he’s known for 46 years, was, he says, ‘my other half’ until then. ‘It’s rather like Tigger in Winnie The Pooh. He had to try out about 20 different breakfasts before he found out what he liked. I had to play the field just to find out what I didn’t want.
‘I was a young actor who became famous fairly quickly. I got my first leads on TV in a Wednesday Play and the science-fiction series Doomwatch when I was about 25. I just went through the roof. When you’ve never thought of yourself as attractive in any way, it’s astonishing. I didn’t pull girls when I was younger at all. I was too shy and sort of skinny and odd-looking. You don’t go around thinking, “God, I’m sexy.” You just don’t.’
But the rest of us did when he
appeared with those astonishing eyes as Jesus. Today those electric-blue
eyes have lost some of their voltage and his hand is swollen with
arthritis. Perhaps it’s why the black dog is nipping at his heels. ‘Oh,
I’ve had arthritis for as long as I can remember. I live with it,’ he
Robert Powell is a hugely respected actor with a varied body of work that includes playing Jesus Of Nazareth in 1977
something in their life. I’ve got arthritis. If I play golf in the cold
it hurts. No, it’s not because of that. I went to a psychiatrist when I
was 30 because I didn’t like myself much. I was unhappy and couldn’t
work it out. From an outsider’s point of view, I had everything. I had
more work than I could cope with. But it’s going back to this
self-loathing… I’d look in the mirror and wouldn’t like who I saw.
‘The psychiatrist was brilliant. He made me realise I wasn’t listening to my conscience and was betraying who I really was. He said you have to like yourself to be happy. It’s like, say, my aunt would ring up after Dennis had just put the phone down. He’d have rung and said, “Bob, we’re going down the pub tonight, you coming” “Yeah, terrific Den, see you down there at 8pm.” Then my aunt would ring and she’d be in need of me.
‘You’ve got two choices. One is going to be a really miserable night with your aunt, and the other is going out with Dennis and having a ball. But the answer’s terribly clear. You don’t go to the pub but you get rewarded because it’s edged you back towards who you really are. Doing things you don’t want to do is probably a secret to a happier life.’ Given what we now know Dennis got up to after a few drinks, it’s probably just as well.
‘I’ve been there through all Dennis’s marriages [he recently married his fourth wife Pam Flint],’ says Robert. ‘Den and I have never, ever raised our voices to each other in 46 years because neither of us has ever judged the other or interfered in their life. You just don’t.’
But surely we’ve all got a moral compass. How can he excuse his mate’s bad behaviour ‘There’s not a human being alive I won’t talk to,’ he says. ‘There’s a quite simple rule. If you like somebody more than you dislike them you can have a relationship. Once you accept you like 75 per cent but 25 per cent you find irritating for this or that reason, you just have to ignore that 25 per cent.’
I went to a psychiatrist when I
was 30 because I didn’t like myself much. I was unhappy and couldn’t
work it out.
I wonder what else he’d turn a blind eye to. Unfaithfulness ‘I think monogamy is a little unnatural, if I’m totally honest,’ he says. ‘You change. Things alter. It’s the exception rather than the rule and I think it’s exceptional to cope with it and manage it. It’s hard work.
‘I’m faithful, definitely, because I adore my wife, but we don’t necessarily spend that much time with each other. We’ve reached a point now where she’ll get an invitation from one of her explorer mates [Babs has trekked round the North and South Poles, Nepal, Venezuela, the Great Wall of China and the Sahara Desert]. I won’t go. I let her get on with it. I say, “They’re your friends. I’d be bored.”
Ever tempted to stray ‘As an actor you need to get close to another actor you’re working with very quickly because you really need to find their soul, as that’s what you’re going to be playing with,’ he says. ‘With an actress it’s very easy to find them deeply attractive. You deliberately create a frisson that kind of says, after quite a short period of time, “Yeah, we could, but we’re not going to.” The moment you’ve achieved that point where the next logical thing would be to sleep with somebody, you don’t need to because you’ve already got there.
‘Part of my job is to try and seduce people. It’s what I get paid for, and if people get in the way of me doing my job I can be very difficult.’ Which all sounds rather, well, frightening and dark. ‘The only thing I’ve got is my job,’ he says. ‘The definition of me is Robert Powell the actor. The other Robert Powell’s probably pretty dull, really. Robert Powell the actor can occasionally come up with something interesting.’
Doctor In The House tours the UK until 28 July. Visit www.drinthehouse.co.uk