Roger Allam: 'I can do posh'
Roger Allam’s patrician roles on big screen made him go-to guy for lead role in film of David Park’s novel, writes Tara Brady
Despite a hugely varied career that has touched on everything from Olivier award-winning Shakespeare to talking testicles: on screen, at least, characters don’t get any grander than those essayed by Roger Allam.
His Anglo-Irish aristocrat Sir John was symbolically offed by Cillian Murphy’s revolutionary in Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley: his Arnold Royalton brought a touch of class to the Wachowski siblings’ Speed Race (2008); he was 18th-century prime minister Henry Pelham in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; Thatcher strategist Gordon Reece in The Iron Lady; and stood in for Baron Javrin, the private secretary to Queen Elizabeth II, in Stephen Frears’s The Queen.
Almost inevitably, when it came time to adapt David Park’s novel The Truth Commissioner for the big screen – in which an Oxbridge-educated British diplomat heads up a fictionalised commission for truth and reconciliation at Stormont – there could only be one patrician figure for the job. “I can do posh,” jokes the veteran actor.
And yet, as the 61-year-old is quick to note, he was not raised to be lord of any manor. A vicar’s son, he grew up in London’s East End before attending Christ’s Hospital school in Horsham.
“It was a strange school in that it was 16th century and had all the facilities of somewhere like Eton – fantastic playing fields and so on – but was all scholarship. Your parents paid on a sliding scale. If they earned a certain amount – quite a low amount – you couldn’t go there. The boys there came from ordinary backgrounds or from military or clergy or divorced people.”
For Allam’s family, who were “servants and tradespeople”, it was a big deal that he went on to the University of Manchester: “My father’s generation left school at 14,” he says. “So education and being well-spoken were hugely important to them. Those were ways to get on.”
Allam’s interest in treading the boards had already been piqued by trips to the Old Vic, where, as a schoolboy, he watched Laurence Olivier as Shylock and Paul Scofield in The Captain of Köpenick from the 15p seats. By the mid-1970s, he was acting with a feminist theatre troupe and performing with a jug band at folk clubs.
“I wouldn’t say I was a wildly political animal, but the political art of that time did educate me,” he recalls. “Theatre has been a part of my education as much as anything else. Each time you figure out how you’re going to work with this director and this group of actors and for that you use everything you possibly can.”
He took his West End bow during the early 1980s: a decade with the Royal Shakespeare Company followed, and a year as Javert in the first cast of Les Misérables.
“Lots of people are astounded that I was in the first cast of Les Misérables,” he jokes. “Possibly because I look so incredibly youthful. But then you meet people who are mad about Les Misérables and they don’t know that I’ve ever done anything else.”
When he left the barricades in favour of a role in Arthur Miller’s The Archbishop’s Ceiling, Miller, for one, was most impressed, saying: ‘This is part of what theatre culture means, And it is something few New York actors would have the sense of security to even dream of doing.’
Years later, Allam, now father of two sons with actor Rebecca Saire, would still make the same call. “Arthur was very romantic about that decision, but to me it seemed entirely practical. I had been doing Les Misérables for a year and I needed to move on. I didn’t want to play the same role eight times a week for another year.”
Regular screen work came comparatively late in his career, when two roles – caustic MP Peter Mannion in The Thick of It and Morse’s mentor in the Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour – made him instantly recognisable.
“I had to make a conscious decision to do more on screen,” he says. “It goes back to when I was a teenager. There were fantastic things on television, but I never thought it was something I could actually do because it wasn’t obvious to me how it was made.”
There must be times when doing telly isn’t quite as, well, rich, as, say, doing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet? “They are different. Shakespeare is the best writing ever. It’s incredibly rich, dense, expressive language. About 95 per cent of the meaning of the play is expressed in that language, whereas most writing is as much about what happens when people aren’t speaking, what happens beyond language. Often in television, a lot of information has to be relayed in a particular scene, but what has been said has nothing to do with it.”
One suspects the Bard and the boards will, regardless, always be waiting for Allam, who has, to date, been nominated for four Olivier Awards, winning two of them for Privates on Parade in the West End, and for Falstaff in Henry IV at the Globe.
“Falstaff was particularly pleasing because I didn’t really have much notion about how to do it. At the Globe, you’re approximating how they would have performed in Shakespeare’s time. So it’s daylight and there’s no pretence – if you like – that you’re not doing a play. The performance is always present and Falstaff is a character who speaks to the audience all the time.
“It was thrilling because it demanded bits of language and music and everything. And bits of everything is what it’s all about.”