At Shepperton Studios recently I met Michael Jayston for an interview. Jayston is of course, the man who plays Nicholas in Nicholas and Alexandra, a role which elevates him into the big league. Michael is a jovial, charming, chatty fellow. He is 35, rakishly handsome with a winning smile and amused warm blue eyes. He's married and his stunning ex-model wife Heather recently gave birth to a bundle of joy called Tom.
At Shepperton Michael was filming The Public Eye with Mia Farrow and Topol, in which he plays Mia Farrow's husband. She plays a dotty American girl who snatched him from the disbelieving bosom of his oh! so proper family. Their happiness slowly vanished when he suspects her of having an affair. So he enlists the help of an eccentric Anglo/Greek investigator played by Topol.
Based on the hilarious play by Peter Shaffer the film takes place in London- including the off-beat touristy locations - and it is a change of pace for all concerned, particularly for Michael after the gruelling demands imposed by his starring role of Nicholas.
Born in Nottingham, Michael grew up with his mother and grandparents (his father died when he was two). Money was fairly scarce and he became a very self-sufficient little boy. "My imagination developed most between the age of about six and eleven. I was a fairly solitary child and spent a lot of time playing with my toy soldiers and dressing up as a Red Indian. When I was about ten I saw Buffalo Bill - there were alot of Indians in that - and I was so impressed that I went home and painted my face with nail varnish. You can imagine the trouble I had getting it off! By the time they'd finished with the turps I really looked like a Red Indian." He smiled, "But I was never bored, that just didn't come into it."
Imitations of the famous and a wickedly accurate mimicry played a part in his youth (his impersonation of Peter Lorre, once so good, has now deserted him) and still does, as audiences will realise when Young Winston is released - Michael speaks the narration impersonating the late Sir Winston Churchill. He gave me a sample which I thought extremely good, but he said deprecatingly, "It's better when I've had a couple drinks." He enjoys practical jokes (and is plotting a few right now) but dislikes 'sick' humour.
At school he appeared in end-of-term productions and later, after National Service and a variety of other jobs, he won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He was older than most of the other students, possibly more determined, certainly more serious. As a result a great deal of knowledge rubbed off on him - and he wangled extra classes on his grant. "And ended up with the princely sum of £7 a week - a fortune!"
After considerable work in repertory he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1965. His big break with the Royal came when Ian Holm suggested Michael replace another actor in a part.
"Do put in your story how much Ian helped me." Michael asked. They have been friends ever since and Michael succeeded Ian in Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" during its American run. They also worked together again on Nicholas and Alexandra in which Ian has a key role as a revolutionary. In addition to his role in the TV series "The Power Game" Michael's range of television parts give a clue to his versatility - Dickens, Beethoven, Wilfred Owen, Strindberg, poetry readings of Rupert Brooke's works and numerous plays.
Home for Michael is a new retreat in Cobham, Surrey, which he bought just before his wife had the baby. For the two preceding weeks they were staying with Mia Farrow and Andre Previn.
The money which his success has brought him is, he confesses, "nice to have". But he says he has "a healthy contempt for money." What he does do though is speculate on the Stock Exchange. His interest was fanned when he appeared in "The Power Game" (what better nursery?) and since then he has dabbled, with some success, on the advice of two stock brokers. "I regard it as an investment and my form of gambling. I never get time to gamble on the horses these days."
But the essence of Michael Jayston is his professional attitude. He is ambitious, but says that he hasn't a definite goal.
The future however looks bright: an offer to join the National Theatre; the possibility of a project he believes in - a small budget film about Strindberg - being realised; television and films. But the mercurial quality of success lurks in his mind. Like technique, success shouldn't be analysed too deeply. As he is quick to point out: "This year's success is next year's has-been."