Life could be confusing for actor Michael Jayston- he's played so many historical characters. Gay Search found him breaking into the fictional world of Jane Eyre, the current television series in which he plays Rochester.
Michael Jayston has made such a habit of playing famous characters from history just lately that it comes as a bit of a surprise to see him without an elaborate wig, beard or moustache, and wearing an open-neck shirt and casual slacks.
In the last four years, Michael has played no fewer than fourteen historical characters, from Beethoven, Charles Dickens, and the First World War poet Wilfred Owen on television, to Tsar Nicholas in Nicholas and Alexandra, General Ireton in Cromwell and Captain Hardy, Nelson's faithful companion in Bequest to the Nation, in the cinema.
"It's terrific, playing real people," Michael said, "because if people say 'That's ridiculous, totally unbelievable!' you can say, 'No, it isn't, it actually happened that way and I can prove it.'"
It's also been an education, giving him a chance to brush up on his history. "I usually do quite a bit of reading, but when I came to Beethoven, he's such a colossal character that I really didn't know where to start. You can't play every aspect of a man, because it would get so diffuse, so you have to hit up on two or three main facets of his character and stick to them.
"With Beethoven there were almost too many facets to choose from, but one day I was listening to one of the symphonies and I glanced at the notes on the back of the record cover. Someone had written, 'Considering his ill health and deafness, he had, within him, a monumental affimation of life.' and that's what I based the performance on. I loved playing him because he was such an incredible man- when you consider how people these days give in to the slightest little thing, and there he was, almost deaf, creating marvellous, positive music!"
Nicholas Romanov, the last, ill-fated Tsar of Russia, was an entirely different kettle of fish because Michael found it very difficult to sympathize with him. "He was basically very weak, and the only way to play someone like that is as though he doesn't know he's weak."
With a beard- his own- and the right clothes, Michael didn't look unlike Nicholas, but there was no way he could make himself physically resemble Captain Hardy, his latest historical venture.
As he says, "I really don't know why I got the part- Hardy was 6 ft. 3 in. tall, had bright red hair and a West Country accent." Michael is about 5 ft. 10 in., has dark brown hair and his accent is Northern. I couldn't do much about the first two, but I did offer to play it with a West Country brogue. The director thought it might jar, though, because most people don't know anything about the man, apart from the fact that Nelson said, 'Kiss me, Hardy,' just before he died.
When we met, Michael had just fnished playing, by way of a change, one of the most famous fictional characters in English literature, Mr. Rochester, in the BBC's new serialization of Jane Eyre. "It was marvellous stuff to do, a part you can really get your teeth into. I played it once before at drama school, though obviously I was much too young. It was when the film version, with Orson Welles as Rochester, came out, and I thought he was dreadful! He looked magnificent, but I don't think American actors can cope with period dialogue."
While he was working on the last episode of Jane Eyre, he started rehearsing ATV's production of The Merchant of Venice and was dashing backwards and forwards across London trying to remember what he was supposed to be doing where. "It really did begin to feel like a job of work then- luckily, it isn't something that happens too often." Michael is playing Gratiano to Sir Laurence Olivier's Shylock. They have worked together before on Nicholas and Alexandra, when the roles were reversed and Michael was the star while Sir Laurence was a supporting player. "He certainly made his mark on the flim, though," Michael said with a grin, "and was marvellous to work with."
Sir Laurence is a bit of an idol in the Jayston household- even Michael's eighteen-month old son Tom can pick out his photograph. "I showed him a photo on the cover of a magazine and now, whenever I say, 'Where's Sir Laurence?' he trots off and fetches the magazine!"
Michael was born in Nottingham thirty-seven years ago, into a "genteel, impoverished family," His father died when he was two, his mother when he was sixteen. "I wish she were alive now, because she was the one who gave me an interest in literature in the first place. By the time I was twelve, I could recite the whole of How Horatius Kept the Bridge, and great chunks of Omar Khayyam, though I didn't understand it all, by any means. I'd always liked dressing-up; putting a metal colander on my head and being William the Conqueror; and once I painted my face with my mother's nail varnish when I was being an Indian- I had a sore cheek for days because I couldn't get the stuff off!"
When he finished his National Service, at twenty, he took a job in the wages office of the local Coal Baord, and channelled his acting ambitions into the local amateur dramatic society. "I'd thought about taking it up professionally, but the only professional theatre I'd seen at that time was the Nottingham Rep., and they put me off the whole idea. They were so good that I used to think, 'If this is the standard I might as well forget it.' Little did I know that the company in Nottingham was about the best in the country, and it wasn't until I saw a touring company who were appalling that I realized I might have a chance!"
Finally, he decided to try to get into drama school, left the Coal Board and took a job in the local fish market. The money was so good that he was able to save enough to pay his way through drama school. "I worked from four in the morning until five in the afternoon, then acted with the local amateur group in the evenings- pretty gruelling."
After drama school came rep., eventually the Bristol Old Vic and, finally, the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon where he stayed for four years. If the RSC hadn't insisted that Michael took a holiday in January, 1968, he would probably still be there! "I didn't feel like going away anywhere in January, so I accepted a part in a television play by William Greatorex. Six months later he created ATV's The Power Game, remembered me and offered me a part." That led to Cromwell, with Richard Harris in the title role, not only Michael's first break into films, but an introduction to Heather, then Richard Harris' secretary, now Michael's wife.
Their elder son, Tom is already showing signs that he's inherited his father's dramatic talents. "I say to him, 'What does Humphrey Bogart do? and he slides his top lip up and down on his teeth. Everyone things it's amazing, but I must confess I cheated- I started off by asking him what a rabbit does, then sneakily substituted Humphrey Bogart for 'rabbit'." Tome has seen his father on television doing Jackanory, but showed not the slightest interest, much to his father's chagrin. "He heard my voice the other night on a commercial, though, and his ears pricked up at that.
In the last few years, Michael's been so much in demand professionally that he's had little time to himself, but when he has a few hours free, he'll spend them happily blowing bubbles- yes really!
He confessed, "I bought one of those little pots of solution with a wire loop for Tom one day, but then I found I could make much better bubbles with my own solution, a mixture of washing-up liquid, treacle and gelatine. I can blow them the size of footballs and they last for ages!"
He's also mad about cricket- plays for his local team and, sometimes, for the Lord Taverners in their charity matches. "I'd have liked to have been a professional cricketer, but though I had a trial for Notts schoolboys when I was fifteen, I wasn't really good enough. Obviously, I'd be very happy if the boys turned out to be good at the game, but I'm not going to push it. I can't stand people who are half-hearted about things. If you do anything, then you should do it to the best of your ability."
This is a philosophy Michael clings to, whether he's acting, playing cricket or blowing bubbles. "When I've finished a job, I enjoy being at home, but by the third day I'm on edge again."
So far this year he's made three films which have yet to be released, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, and two psychological thrillers. "I still call them horror movies! In one I play a man who falls in love with a tree trunk. Joan Collins plays my wife, and I"m sure that most men, given the choice between a tree trunk and Miss Collins, would opt for the lady, but not the character I play."
He's nothing if not versatile, Mr. Jayston!