Derek Jacobi is one our greatest acting knights, but it was very much at the start of his career that he made his Chichester Festival Theatre debut 49 years ago this summer.
Sir Derek is delighted to be back once again as part of the Festival Theatre’s 50th anniversary season, as Captain Shotover in Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House (July 6- August 25).
For Sir Derek it’s a place full of happy memories. And one or two medical ones. He’ll be hoping not to bother the hospitals this time round.
‘I had a lovely time in my first season here. I was young. I had a lovely place down on the road to West Wittering. But I did end up for a while at St Richard’s hospital!
‘I had toothache and I went to the dentist. It was back in the days when they gave you gas. They gassed me, and I woke up half way through. I panicked and they panicked. And I ended up in hospital.’
Something similar happened 33 years later when he was back in Chichester for William Congreve’s Love For Love.
‘We were actually still previewing. We had previewed on the Friday night and we were doing two previews on the Saturday, and I woke up on the Saturday morning with a stomach ache.
‘I rang the theatre and they arranged for me to see a doctor. He told me that I had acute appendicitis! I was in hospital and by 3pm they had whipped it out!’
And no, he wasn’t back for the evening performance. Sadly – but understandably – he missed the run, the one sad moment in a long and happy Chichester association.
‘i love the place. It’s wonderful to be here. I love the countryside around Chichester. I am living in Bosham at the moment, and it is such a wonderful gig.
‘I used to love the days when you had a matinee and no evening performance and you would come out at 5pm in the sunshine and you could see the city or go to Brighton.
‘And I have glorious memories of going out into the countryside.’
Sir Derek’s first visit to Chichester brought him to the city in 1963 playing Brother Martin in Saint Joan opposite Joan Plowright in the title role.
‘I was working at the Birmingham rep. That was my first job. I had started in 1960, and I was in the rep for three years. One Wednesday matinee Laurence Olivier was out front and saw me (on stage).
‘He offered me a job in Saint Joan in Chichester (in the CFT’s second season).
‘The first season there were three plays and the first two were not a success. Everything was depending on the final play Uncle Vanya with Redgrave and Olivier and all the big stars, and that was a huge success and that saved the season.
‘In the second season, that particular production came back, and one of my first jobs was to understudy Michael Redgrave as Vanya’ – a part Sir Derek was himself to play in the Minerva when the play was revived in 1996.
In 1963, however, the theatre was still at the point where it needed to prove itself: “Until then they had had one success out of three. But the second season was all success.
‘It was the choice of plays perhaps in the first season. Maybe they weren’t quite right – but I say that without any insight or knowledge!”’
He certainly remembers that the theatre was rather daunting, overwhelming in terms of both size and shape – not a problem he will run into this summer as he returns to help celebrate the CFT’s half century.
Heartbreak House – once more a Shaw at Chichester for Sir Derek – was a play which was put to him; he read it and fell for it: the perfect follow-up to his Lear.
‘I had just been playing King Lear all over the country and in London and New York, and that was a bit of a killer. I loved doing it, but along came Heartbreak House which is very much a company play.
‘The whole play doesn’t depend on Shotever as it does on Lear. And you can’t be compared to all the 600 other Lears. Reviews are always comparative, which is fair enough for the critic, but not from the actor’s point of view.
‘The actor may have seen Hamlets or Lears before but he has got to make it his own.’
Sir Derek concedes an inevitability that he would one day tackle Lear: ‘I think if you have got any aspirations to take on the classical repertoire when you are young, you have to go through the Hamlet loop.
‘If you are successful, you are admitted and they wait for you to age and then see if you can go through the Lear loop so they can see whether they were right about you all those years ago!’
Sir Derek’s has been a career of remarkable distinction: ‘I’ve been lucky,’ as he puts it with characteristic modesty.
His films have included Twelfth Night, My Week with Marilyn, The King’s Speech and Gosford Park. Numerous theatre credits at Chichester include Uncle Vanya, Playing The Wife, Hadrian VII, The Royal Hunt Of The Sun and Saint Joan.
But for many he will always be – in fond memory at least – the limping, stammering Roman Emperor Claudius.
I, Claudius, a 1976 BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’ Claudius novels, still stands as one of the corporation’s most successful drama serials of all time.
‘It was the script that made it,’ Sir Derek believes. ‘It was a wonderful combination of sex and violence and great humour – and an excellent script. And also a cast that was allowed to be theatrical rather than purely TV.
‘The performances were big. Nobody muttered. Nobody did camera acting. It was an extraordinary time. Nobody ever imagined that it could have the success that it did. It was in the BBC2 posh slot and within a couple of months it had transferred to BBC1. I had my first big success in America because of it.
‘I owe it a lot. I got my foot in the door in America through I, Claudius. When it out and the first episode was transmitted, we were just completing episode seven.
‘We had another six episodes to go. I haven’t watched it recently. I don’t like watching myself. I didn’t see it in fact until about five years after we finished it.’
But five years on, with a little distance and a new perspective, Sir Derek was delighted to see that it was clearly quality drama.
...performing in Chichester
There is a wonderful feeling of less pressure in Chichester. Maybe it is the summer season that I love. It feels very civilised.
...starring alongside Joan Plowright in Saint Joan
I was working at the Birmingham rep. I had started in 1960, and I was in the rep for three years..
...working Heartbreak House
There is no stand-out role. It’s very much a team effort. Shotover is a lovely part.
...being offered his first job by Laurence Olivier
It was wonderful. For a young actor to suddenly be thrust into the company of all these star performers, I was just very fortunate.
... working with Herbert Wise on I, Claudius
We were give the most wonderful script and a great director in Herbert Wise.