MICHAEL JAYSTON ZULU CO-STAR TALKS ABOUT OLIVIER, ARCHER, AND CRICKET
"DO you mind if I smoke?", asks actor Michael Jayston, in a husky thespian voice without a hint of a Nottingham accent. "I smoke about 110 a day, what's the point in giving up when you've got to my age?" Settled in his usual table by the window in Hove's Topolino's, which he frequents at least twice weekly, I'm not sure whether he's being serious or whether it's another one of his silly jokes; a trait he inherited from his father, as he recently found out.
Michael comes from the old school of acting, and, at 71, the charm that had him in the running for James Bond in 1980 is still evident. He talks of partying with Laurence Olivier and spoke to Maureen Lipman only the other day, transporting us back to the decadent days of being an actor in the Sixties and Seventies. "A hell of a lot of people on TV today can't act on stage," he laments. "Now they just want to get straight into doing film."
The story of Michael's childhood is a sad one. His father died when he was one. "He was playing rugby with a bad cold, got booted in the chest and developed pneumonia. He was only 25." His mother died when he was nearly 15 and he was brought up, an only child, by his grandmother and uncle..
Psychiatrists always told him his behaviour was a result of the traumas of his past, something he believed until recently, when he looked up an old aunt in Nottingham. "I asked her what my father was like, and she said he used to play awful jokes on people, and I was so pleased that it was hereditary and not psychological," he laughs..
Growing up in Nottingham, Michael went to a Catholic grammar school. ("I'm not a good Catholic. I got out of it when I was about 25, but then you get the guilt.") where he first became interested in acting. After a stint in the National Service stationed in Germany, where he performed in many plays, he returned to Nottingham to train as an accountant for the National Coal Board. I always wanted to be an actor, but I thought I didn't stand a chance at getting into the Nottingham Repertory Company. It was very unusual for its time; it had an amazing cast of people, like Brian Blessed."
After taking Grade 8 in acting, he won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. "I left it until I was nearly 25 when I went to drama school, which is quite late but, as it was, I got all the parts that were going then." Picking up an agent before he had even left the school, he made his first professional debut, aged 27, in a production of The Amorous Prawn before going on to work on the stage at the Salisbury Repertory, Bristol Old Vic and then with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Michael's first major break into TV was The Power Game, with Patrick Wymark. "In those days I thought I was getting paid a lot" I was getting £500 an episode for The Power Game and £60 a week from the Royal Shakespeare Company.".
His first film was Cromwell in 1969. ";How long have you got?" he laughs when I ask him about it. I'm on now actually!," he says, eyes lighting up, searching for a TV. "Cromwell's just about to start on Channel 4." Although his favourite films are the little-known The Homecoming with Harold Pinter ("A tiny film but it had a discipline to it") and A Bequest to the Nation with Glenda Jackson, he's probably best known for his roles in Zulu Dawn and Nicholas and Alexandra, with Laurence Olivier, in which he played the lead role of Tsar Nicholas II. "Zulu Dawn has just come out on DVD on one of the newspapers, and it was called 'a classic'";. Around 70 per cent of the notices tore it to pieces, and it had a better cast than Zulu".
Michael's the first to admit when something he's been in is below average. I ask if he's ever turned anything down. "I did turn down a Jeffrey Archer. But I'm not prepared to say why" After starring in the TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Alec Guinness in 1979, Michael moved to Brighton with his present wife Ann where they brought up their two children, Richard and Katy. "I just liked the idea of Brighton, the whole sequence. Olivier was living in Royal Crescent and we used to go there quite a lot. He also had a house in Steyning and used to have 30 or 40 people around every weekend. I remember answerng the phone there once. ' Douglas Fairbanks here,' said the person at the other end. I nearly said, 'Oh you can piss off', then I realised that because I was in Olivier's house it really was Douglas Fairbanks. And Olivier said, 'Oh God, what does he want?'"
Aside from acting, Michael spends most of his time playing cricket for Rottingdean, of which he is president. "I bowl leg breaks. Last year I played 41 matches and got the most wickets. Now I sound like I'm boasting." He also has a fascination with going to old churches and seeing how many people have died. It's like people have just fallen asleep," he says, his father's sense of humour coming out again. "I think they've been buried for the wrong reason."
Today Michael mostly does television, with forthcoming roles in Holby City and The Bill. Three years ago he was filming East-Enders in Puerto Banus with Barbara Windsor. "She's marvellous, I like her a lot. The director asked her if she knew the area at all, and she said "Darling, Ronnie was out here, of course I know the area!" After nearly two hours in Topolino's, during which we eat some excellent lemon sole and everyone who comes in knows Michael, the tape runs out. "Im sorry, he says in that husky thespian voice that once played James Bond on radio. "I've been rabbiting on about nothing."
If talking about days with Laurence Olivier, playing cricket at Lord's, treading the boards with the RSC and turning down Jeffrey Archer is nothing, I'd like to know what something is..
Text: Poppy Smith.