Michael Gambon – the Phibsboro boy who became a Londoner, then an actor – is back in his native city for a production of ' Krapp's Last Tape', the perfect play for a former engineer, writes FIONA McCANN
MICHAEL GAMBON hates interviews. This is the one thing that anyone who has ever read or seen an interview with the 69-year-old actor can say with certainty. He has expressed his distaste for the interview process time after time, and is notorious for telling tall tales to gullible journalists, to pass the time more amusingly. Which is why I arrive to meet him steeled for a professional nightmare.
Our encounter, in fact, is a pleasant surprise – the Michael Gambon I talk to is charming, with a keen sense of humour and a ready chuckle, eager to address my questions though at times appearing genuinely puzzled as to why anyone would care much for his answers.
He has just come from rehearsals at the Gate Theatre for his upcoming performance in Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, the latest of countless performances on stage and screen over the course of a lengthy career. It's a sort of homecoming for this northside Dubliner.
“I have no memory if it,” he says of his early years in what is often reported as Cabra, though he himself believes it was Phibsboro he lived in until the age of five. “I was only a kid when I was taken to England, so I remember very little. I remember coming back on holidays with my parents, going to the seaside and all that, but I don’t remember anything else. It’s all a blur.”
What he does recall with great clarity is his childhood in post-war London. “I became a London boy,” he says, as the cockney in his accent makes a pronounced appearance. “I used to run around the streets of London by myself at the age of eight. You could walk right across London and do all sorts of stuff. I’d spend my time breaking into London Zoo.”
His eyes twinkle at the recollection. “We were in there every Saturday, and we’d catch fish in the canal, sell the fish to the pet shop where they used it for bait, and we’d break in to the zoo through the fence and then spend the money on chocolate and ice cream and all that. I became obsessed with animals. I still am. I love them. So, as a kid, I got very fond of animals, Guy the Gorilla particularly. I could look at him for hours as a boy.”
He remembers his childhood with great fondness, growing up the son of two Irish parents. “My dad was a bit of a communist,” Gambon says, before mimicking his late father’s thick Dublin accent as he describes how he inadvertently kicked off his son’s career on stage.
“He said to me one day, ‘Michael! There’s a theatre round the corner there, and they’re looking for a friend’.”
The theatre in question, the Unity Theatre, put on plays for a working-class audience – “communist plays about capitalists” – and it needed help building a set. “So I went round and they immediately said: ‘Will you be in the play tonight? All you’ve got to do is walk on with a cup and a saucer and ask can you have more tea.’ ” He grabs the cup and saucer in front of him in a quick re-enactment of his acting debut. “I just did it!”
He reverts to the cockney accent of his childhood as he delivers his first-ever line again. “‘Can I’ve a cuppa tea?’ . . . I thought: ‘People do this for a living? It’s easy!’”
He got his first professional gig in Dublin, however, after writing a fiction-filled letter to Micheál MacLiammóir. “I wrote and said I was passing through Dublin on my way to New York. It was complete lies!”
Something – whether it was the suspiciously impressive CV or the young man's flair for the dramatic – convinced MacLiammóir, and Gambon was offered a part in Othelloat the Gaiety.
As if working with the legendary Irish impresario weren’t impressive enough, he later clocked up three years with Laurence Olivier as part of the National Theatre Company. “He took me on as a walk-on,” says Gambon, who was given a shot by Olivier despite what he has since described as an abortive audition brought to an abrupt end by a splinter. Olivier wasn’t fazed, however, and made Gambon “one of his boys, carrying his spears”.
Olivier later helped him land a job with the Birmingham Repertory Company when Gambon started looking for bigger roles. The stage work that followed – "I'd been at the Royal Court, and I'd been at the Birmingham Rep, the Liverpool Playhouse, I'd been all over the place" – led to his first TV break in a BBC2 series called The Borderers.
“It was a brilliant job!” he says. “Every day I got out there, got on my horse, rode off, had a sword, all that stuff, fighting battles. I had a castle – it was wonderful!”
The transition from stage to screen presented no major problem – “It’s just acting, isn’t it?” – though he later admits to a nervousness in front of cameras. “They’re frightening! I had to learn how to relax in front of them. Working in America, I watched American actors, who just have the ability to exist in front of the camera. They’re not worried, not frightened. I tried to learn that from them. They break all the rules.”
WHATEVER HIS FEELINGS about cameras, it hasn't prevented him taking on numerous television roles since The Borderers, most famously perhaps in Dennis Potter's acclaimed series, The Singing Detective. He's also made a host of films, although never, alas, as James Bond, despite being called up to audition for the role while in his thirties. "I said: 'Well, you don't want me. I've got no teeth, a double chin, a bald head.' And they said: 'No, we can do all of that! Sean has a bald head! We put a toupee on him, we do all this, pull it all up, put new teeth in him!'"
Despite their optimism, however, Gambon didn’t get the part, which later returned, ironically enough, to Connery himself.
He did, however, grace the big screen in The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover, alongside his long-time friend, Helen Mirren, and in numerous other films, including Gosford Park, Dancing at Lughnasa, Sleepy Hollowand the latter six of the eight Harry Potterfilms, in which he took over from the late Richard Harris as Professor Albus Dumbledore. "I enjoyed it!" he says proudly of his Dumbledore days, though he admits the role may not have stretched him particularly as an actor. "There's no character really, it's just me! Me dressed up in a costume! I'm essentially playing myself, that's all I'm doing."
Still, he misses the Harry Potterfilms. "It's fun laughing all the time, and I know all the other actors, I've known them for years. It's like being with friends."
You get the impression that Michael Gambon is fond of laughing all the time. There’s a wicked humour running just below the surface throughout our conversation, and he is determined not to take himself too seriously. Although he refuses to be engaged about his personal life, he deflects such questions without rancour. (At a young age he married Anne Miller, with whom he had one son, though the couple separated some time later. He has since had two more sons with actor Philippa Hart, who is more than 20 years his junior.) He is also a man who appears to find fun wherever he finds himself, which most recently, he tells me, was at Jeremy Clarkson’s 50th birthday bash.
“Best birthday party I’ve ever been to. . . . the world and his wife were there. Fantastic! Went on all night!” he says.
Even in Hollywood, though he disdains the glitzy club scene and star-sprinkled cocktail bars, he has found a circle of people to join him in drinking and divilment. “I’ve got six mates there who I always consort with. They’re all English. It’s like going back home. We sit in each other’s houses, and swear . . . We meet on Saturday, have lunch, get pissed, and that’s been my life in Hollywood,” he says with a grin. “You go out every day and do the film, and you look forward to the weekends where you can be English again.”
When he’s not busy swearing and smoking – his only vice, or so he claims – he is either flying (he has a pilot’s licence), driving some of his beloved fast cars or tinkering with his gun collection. “I’m always interested in anything that goes bang-bang or makes a noise, anything mechanical. Guns, aeroplanes, cars, hammers, tools, equipment, machinery, anything that makes a noise and goes click-click-click I like.”
No surprise, given that he trained as an engineer. Did he ever think about pursuing that line of work? “No. I think I drifted away because I got a job as an actor, and I just thought: ‘This is nice. This is easy, acting. Just standing there with a spear all day. Anyone can do that. There’s more money in this. I’ll do this.’”
Can it truly be that easy? He plays down his profession as workaday and squirms at high praise, yet he has been referred to on more than one occasion as Britain’s greatest living actor. So what makes an actor great?
“I don’t know! I’ve no idea!” He looks alarmed at the question. “You can’t teach people to act,” he says, as he struggles to find an answer, before surrendering with a shake of his head. “It’s hard, I can’t answer that.” Yet he is immediately conscious that to fail to define this secret ingredient may contribute to an inflated sense of his profession. “It’s no mystery,” he clarifies with a shrug. “It’s either there or it’s not.” For his own part, he employs no particular technique. “It’s intuitive. I don’t think about it.”
Whatever he's doing, he appears to be doing it well, at least if the list of awards and accolades he has received to date is anything to go by. In fact, such is their number that there is an entire Wikipedia page devoted simply to the "awards and nominations received by Michael Gambon". They include three Laurence Olivier Theatre Awards, two Evening Standardawards, two Critics' Circle awards, four Baftas, two Royal Television Society Awards and a Screen Actors' Guild Award. It's not a list he particularly likes to dwell on.
“I forget about them,” he says dismissively, and then adds with a chancer’s smile that he keeps them “all in the lavatory”.
He has also been awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) by Prince Charles and the title Knight Bachelor by Queen Elizabeth II herself. “The knighthood, you get big medals and stuff . . . and they’re all in boxes hidden away,” he says.
Would he ever consider wearing his medals? “It says on the box for the knighthood that you cannot wear the insignia unless you’re wearing tails. It goes with the proper dress, and I’ve never worn that sort of stuff. The full gear with all the polished shoes and the stiff front, and all that . . . unless you dress like that you can’t put it on.”
Another smile that creeps into his gruffness, a sure indicator of mischief. “You can tell Colgan the same,” he says of the Gate Theatre director, who was recently awarded an OBE. “He can’t wear the OBE unless he’s wearing a dinner jacket, and I’ve never seen him in a dinner jacket, so tell him that he won’t be wearing that. Tell him I said he’s not allowed to wear it.” A throaty chuckle breaks out. “Write that in the paper: Colgan shouldn’t be wearing that badge without the proper clothes.“
COLGAN, BADGE or no, is currently directing Gambon in the upcoming Gate production of Krapp's Last Tape. Would Gambon ever consider directing himself?
“No.” He scrunches his nose at the thought. “They asked me once to direct a short play at the National Theatre as a curtain-raiser . . . I went into rehearsal, and I just sat there. I didn’t know what to say.”
He remembers his one command being to send the actors on a tea break during rehearsals, a time he is sure they took to air their grievances about their director: “‘I don’t like that bastard. He’s a terrible director!’ I could hear them whispering, and I thought, ‘I’m not made for this job’.”
He also sees directing as a lonely occupation. Actors, on the other hand, get to work as a team, and develop a particular camaraderie. "You gang up on the director," he says with evident glee, although aware that as the only actor involved in Krapp's Last Tape, he doesn't have that luxury on this occasion. "I can't gang up on Colgan because it's just me . . . I'd lose! But if I was in a play with 10 of us, we'd eat Colgan for breakfast!"
His directorial debut remains his only attempt at such, and he now concentrates solely on acting, even though it may not always be the healthy option. He blames his current smoking habit on Samuel Beckett.
"That'd make anyone smoke," he says of Krapp's Last Tape. "Even if you weren't a smoker, you'd smoke if you were in a Beckett play. They're so difficult, and this particular play is very difficult."
It’s not Beckett’s precision, nor indeed Colgan’s direction that has him reaching for the fags, however. “It’s constant technique! It’s turning machines on and off, picking up the tape recorder . . . all of that’s in your mind, and the acting goes out the window!”
He reels off the careful stage direction he has to keep in mind for Krapp's Last Tape. "Pick up the banana. Walk down the front with the banana. Peel the banana, put it in your mouth. Only take half of it. Bite the banana. Drop the skin on the stage. Walk this way. Try and miss the skin. Walk that way. Slip over the skin."
It’s a far cry from his cup-and-saucer days in the Unity Theatre. “This is what’s going on in your mind all the time, it’s nothing to do with acting! It’s all just technical memory.” Which doesn’t mean he’s lost his passion for the profession that has kept him gainfully employed for some five decades now. There’s a fire in him even now, as is evident when I question him on the possibility of retiring, given that his 70th birthday is approaching.
“No!” He is definitive, his face registering alarm at the notion. “I couldn’t imagine that. I don’t think anyone would retire, would they? People retire because they’re forced to, don’t they?”
It’s a thought he simply refuses to entertain, pushing it away in a gesture that is at once defensive and commanding. “I can’t imagine retiring. Jesus Christ, I’d go mad!”
Married to but separated from Anne Miller, with whom he has one son. Has two other sons with girlfriend Philippa Hart.
Performances in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests and in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in the 1970s established Gambon as a leading actor. Other notable roles were in Brecht’s The Life of Galileo and David Hare’s Skylight, which earned him a Tony award nomination on Broadway.
On film, his performances in The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover and Gosford Park earned him critical acclaim. He is known to a new generation for his turn as Dumbledore in the last six of the Harry Potter films.
His compelling performance as an ailing crime writer, hallucinating from his hospital bed in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective.
Krapp's Last Tapeopens at the Gate Theatre on Thursday, with a low-price preview on Wednesday, and will run for 19 performances only