WHERE did I get the idea that Michael Jayston was a typical, English country gentleman, living in the shires surrounded by guns, dogs, and children? Of course, he has played the very English Charles Dickens, as well as Rochester in "Jane Eyre." I knew he was born in Nottingham, in the heartlands of Britain, 36 years ago, but his mother was Welsh and his grandfather Irish. Michael later told me that this could account for the great affinity he feels with the Irish!
Michael isn't all that easy to pin down, but when you do finally meet him face to face, his sports-jacketed, boyish figure and his life-long passion for cricket do not entirely destroy the image in your mind.
Making my way to meet him in his dressing-room at the Apollo Victoria Theatre, where he is playing Captain von Trapp opposite Petula Clark in the very successful revival of "The Sound of Music." I was nearly trampled to death by the crowds coming out of the matinee, muttering, "Wasn't it good?"
Michael Jayston is a very busy man, but it's soon clear that he's organised. Hard-working people usually are!
I found his dresser waiting to welcome me, since Michael had been called to a sudden meeting. When he did appear, 15 minutes later, still in the Captain's Austrian costume, he apologised profusely for the unexpected hold-up, before dashing off for a two-minute removal of make-up!
He was soon ready, but when we emerged from the stage door, there was another delay. Head down, he slipped into the shadowy street, but not quickly enough for some dozen or so autograph-hunters who spotted him instantly.
Michael is a caring man who gives his time to people. His brief chat with a girl up from Worthing clearly made her day!
Michael is easy going and instantly friendly, without the least trace of affectation, and adept at side-tracking subjects he feels need not be aired!
As we dashed through the rush-hour traffic to get some plaice, a fish Michael really loves, to sustain him through the evening's performance, he said, "Are you sure you don't mind eating now?" adding, "They do nice salads here, too."
Something about the way he looked reminded me of his performance in the last episode of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" opposite Sir Alec Guinness, whose work and temperament Michael much admires.
"Alec Guinness won't admit it, but he's enormously generous in every way," Michael told me when we'd settled down to eat. "That's what's wrong with so many things in life today- people lack comapssion for others, the sort of pity that makes thm do things to help. Money's important, but it's not enough to give just that. You must give time, too.
"I was brought up as a Catholic and I know I will never be anything else. But I feel some church people are very arrogant. They say, 'God made us,' but how do we know?" His light blue eyes were defiant. "Perhaps we made Him." Michael's clearly a thinker.
He drank some beet ate a little more of his meal and went on.
"I get really mad when people pick on those who are not in a position to hit back," he said, savagely peppering his fish with all the passion of a true Scorpio man.
"I hate to see directors who must have a whipping boy; customers who pick on waiters in restaurants in front of others; and football hooligans who, through boredom and frustrations, set about people who've had nothing to do with the game.
"I came off the tube one night," he went on, "and believe it or not, I had a cricket bat in one hand, and a bottle of wine in the other! Four lads eyed me and as they approached, I sensed trouble.
"They made a remark, and so I picked one out and threatened to lay into him with my cricket bat if he didn't shove off. I would have done, too! Luckily, though, they ran off. They were just cowards. But imagine what might have happened if I had had children with me, or if I'd been without that cricket bat!"
Imagining Michael, after you've chatted with him for a few minutes, without a cricket bat, is not all that easy. He wanted to be a cricketer when he was at school, but sensed that he wasn't "that good." Now he contents himself with the thought that most cricketers are finished at 40, and he writes the odd peice of cricket journalism to appease the side of him that later wanted to be a sports writer.
On the tube on the night he had just described to me, he might easily have had children with him. He has four- Tom, Ben, and Li-An, an adopted Vietmanese girl, from a former marriage, and a baby son, Richard, from his present one, born just last year.
"People always criticise a divorce after an adoption, but the poor little girl would have died if we hadn't adopted her," he said of his daughter.
Someone who knows him well told me before we met that Michael was a rather "unusual type" to be an actor, and he clearly does not believe that the stage is the world with himself in the centre of it.
He sets great store by a sense of humour, loving the comedy of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and John Cleese. "I always watch him when I can," Michael told me.
"One responds to people with a sense of humour. That, and the different types of love, are the most important things in the world," he said. "That's the trouble with politicians. So many of them have no sense of humour. I think the best M.P. we've got is Jack Ashley. Look what he did for the Thalidomide children." People with power worry him.
The house outside London where Michael lives with Ann, his wife, formerly a nurse, and their baby son, has quite a large garden, where they grow vegetables- things like carrots, and the more unusual crops like salsify.
"How about that?" Michael twisted his hair boyishly as he pondered on the disastrous summer, which, with the start of rehearsals for "The Sound of Music," interfered with his planting.
"I'm not totally sold on gardening," he confessed. (Not, one suspects, if there's a cricket pitch nearby, or a chance to play the Lord's Taverners of for Bill Franklyn's Team for the Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund!)
"I'd rather leave carpentry and electrical things to the experts, too, though I can change fuses and things like that."
Havaning said we needen't rush, he asked suddenly, "What's the time?" Eating with the mercurial Michael could be a bit like being present at the Mad Hatter's tea party, were it not for his innate consideration. Time was ticking away towards the evening's performance, and we had to leave.
"Look here, this has been such a rush for you, with that meeting and everything. Would you like another chat? Tomorrow? Same time?" Then he was off down the stairs and away.
"Shall I check it's all right?" I called after him.
"It will be," he replied, and I knew it would.
WHEN I arrived the next evening, Michael was reading mail.
"I'm so behind with this," he said. "But I do hate the sort of letters that begin, I don't suppose you will read this. Of course I shall read it. But it takes time, and I find that helping just five charities is all I can fit in now.
After his National Service, Michael did a variety of jobs to get himself through The Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He worked for the Coal Baord, which gave him an admiration for miners, and in a fish market.
Sicne then he has played a great variety of roles in repertory theatre and at the Britol Old Vic and at Stratford. He really established himself on TV in "The Power Game," and in the cinema with films like "Cromwell" and "Nichoals and Alexandra."
I wondered if perhaps a musical might be easier to atct in than a straight drama.
Michael leaned back in his deep armchair, holding his crossed knee, and said quickly, "Oh, no. In musicals there's not much dalogue, just enough to link the songs." (Michael claims to be able to sing "a little.")
"If you had dialogue, a musical would last six hours," he went on.
"In Shakespeare, you're given everything in the words, but in musicals you have to fill out the part yourself."
It's clear that Michael enjoys playing opposite Petula Clark's Maria- the novice nun who comes to look after his seven children just before the Nazi invasion of Austria.
Hitler could never get to power here," Michael said, philosophical again. "We have such a marvellous Press. They keep an eye on things."
So is Michael really a typical Britisher, if not Englishman?
"I don't think of my country right or wrong," Michael said as he shook hands, seeing me into the lift. "I just wouldn't want to live anywhere else."