Rodney’s Norman conquest

ANGI KENNEDY He may forever be remembered as that plonker Rodney from Only Fools and Horses; but Nicholas Lyndhurst has more surprises up his sleeve than Del Boy has had dodgy deals. He talks to Angi Kennedy about his new stage role.

ANGI KENNEDY

It would certainly get the net curtains twitching in Peckham. Our Rodney's turned into an alcoholic homosexual! You wouldn't want to be around when Del Boy finds out.

But the chance to surprise his audiences with a complete change of character is something that actor Nicholas Lyndhurst is relishing.

And you really couldn't get much different than the characterisation he is bringing to the Norwich Theatre Royal in November when he stars alongside Julian Glover in The Dresser.

“I play a Northern, women-hating, gay, alcoholic,” explains Lyndhurst. “It is hard work because the character, Norman, is on stage most of the time and he doesn't stop talking.”

This is the first major revival of the play that was made into an award-winning film with Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney. It was written by Ronald Harwood who won a Best Screenplay Oscar for The Pianist.

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Set in war-torn provincial theatre, The Dresser is a portrait of backstage life with an ageing actor manager (Glover) struggling to keep a grip on his sanity and complete his 227th performance of King Lear.

Ensuring that he does is Norman, his devoted dresser, who, for 16 years, has been there to fix his wig, remind him of his lines, provide sound effects and massage his master's ego.

“There are a lot of practicalities to fit in to the play, like having to put on full make-up and help Sir get dressed,” explains Lyndhurst.

“It is an amazing play but it is not laugh-out-loud. There are some deeply disturbing moments and we are talking about people having breakdowns and about unrequited love.”

Certainly breaking out, then, from the more familiar but nonetheless brilliant Lyndhurst roles that we have all known and loved.

“It is nice to get people off automatic pilot every so often,” he says. “To be able to say I know you know my history, but now see what you think of this...”

And who doesn't know that history? He is, of course, best known as the hapless Rodney Trotter in Only Fools and Horses. His teaming with David Jason and the rest of the cast, helped create the nation's favourite comedy.

But although he has become immortalised as “You plonker, Rodney” for a generation of viewers, his TV lifetime began many years before Only Fools ...

It was the start of the 'Seventies and little Nicholas was only 10 when his career took off.

He starred in a string of children's dramas from The Tomorrow People to the double leading role in The Prince and The Pauper. He even presented a children's TV series – Our Show – with fellow young actor Susan Tully (later of EastEnders).

By 1978, he found himself in the enviable position of having parts in two British sit-coms that were going to help him take the big step from child star to adult actor.

He was Ronnie Barker's son for Going Straight, the sequel to the classic Porridge, and more memorably, Adam, one of Wendy Craig's lanky, layabout sons in Butterflies.

When he got the part of Rodney Trotter in John Sullivan's new comedy Only Fools and Horses, he couldn't have dreamed how it would capture the nation's heart.

“It wasn't a success straightaway,” he explained. “When it started off, I think hardly anyone watched it – only half the cast did, for goodness sake!

“It was only at Series Three, or maybe the repeats of Series Two, that people decided they quite liked it, but even then they didn't really know its name.

“But the success of it really was down to John Sullivan.

“It was great fun and it was hard work, too. Every actor justifies himself saying 'Oh, but darling, it was terribly hard work'.

“But it was tough, especially when the episodes went to 50 minutes with no extension of rehearsal times. We would be up to 2, 3, 4am learning our lines, only to come in next morning and find out that they had been cut or changed.”

Now well into his third decade in the business, it is little surprise that Lyndhurst has something of the air of an actor about him. The notables he has worked with are “masters”, and he is at pains to point out the graft that has gone in to many of his roles.

“It is all serious work, the comedy and everything else,” he says.

But much of this is down to his loathing of playing the publicity game. He is an actor who wants to act, not one who wants to be a celebrity.

“Don't get me started on celebrity,” he says in a very precise, rather cultured voice that betrays nothing of Rodders.

“Celebrity is something I assiduously avoid. It is like a drug to some people, but I cannot bear it.

“The job is the most important thing and the publicity is something you have to bear. I know you have to do it for the sake of the production, but it is certainly not something I relish.

“I was once called a stealth actor, which is a description I rather like. I go in and do it with the least amount of fuss.”

And then he goes home. Already he is looking forward to the moment next spring when he can walk away from hullabaloo of the stage world and the publicity that is surrounding his new production.

“After this I just want to go home and be with my wife and son. Being a father is the most important role in my life. The role of Daddy is paramount.”

Four-year-old Archie wasn't even born when Lyndhurst started talking about the possibility of bringing The Dresser back to the stage. Now the little boy has started school and Daddy is feeling the separation from him acutely.

“I am missing the school run immensely. It used to kick-start my day, but I have to go to work sometimes I suppose!”

Not that Lyndhurst has any regrets about The Dresser – how could he when it has meant working with such theatre greats as Julian Glover and director Sir Peter Hall, founder of the RSC and formerly director of the National Theatre?

“It has been wonderful working with Sir Peter. The man's a genius. If you can get anything like that on your CV, it is amazing.

“We have been trying to get the play off the ground for four years. It was just the character that I loved and I had the idea that perhaps one day I would do it.

“Then one day Sir Peter Hall said he wanted to work with me. Well, wow!

“I thought 'There is no way he is going to want to do The Dresser', but I put the idea before him and said 'What do you think of this?'

“And he said he didn't mind what it was, 'Let's just work together'. So to work with him and an Oscar winning author – it is scary stuff.

“Working with Julian Glover has been brilliant too. He is a master. It is going to be great fun watching him.”

And it will be an eye-opening experience, too, for fans of Lyndhurst who may be expecting another outing of the sort of well-meaning but put-upon victim of circumstances that he has perfected in post-Rodney days with roles like Ashley in The Two of Us and the time-travelling Gary Sparrow in Goodnight Sweetheart.

“It does sound terribly luvvie-ish when you hear actor upon actor saying that they want to stretch themselves, but that is what I went into this job for,” he says, rather apologetically.

“I quite enjoy playing really nasty, unsettling people. I was Uriah Heap in a TV Dickens and got floods of mail coming in saying “I didn't think you could be such a bastard!”

“Also I did A Murder in Mind for television, in which I had to kill someone.

“We had a letter from a lovely older woman who said she had turned the programme on and thought 'Oh it's that nice boy from the TV, I'll watch this'.

“Twenty minutes later she was having to watch it through a crack in the door. She said she had to video it and wait until the rest of the family were with her because she had been so frightened by me!

“It is nice to have an opportunity to do something like that though.”

Imagine, if the mood had taken him way back at the start of Only Fools , maybe dear old Rodney would have really been an East End hard-nut... t

t The Dresser, by Ronald Harwood, starring Nicholas Lyndhurst and Julian Glover and directed by Sir Peter Hall, is at Norwich Theatre Royal from November 2 to 6; Tues-Sat 7.30pm, and Thurs and Sat matinee 2.30pm. Tickets range from £18.50 to £4, with concessions available. There will be a signed performance on Friday November 5, at 7.30pm. Contact the box office on 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk for further details.

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