Rupert Christiansen – The Telegraph
20th October 2015
Roger Allam belongs to that rare breed of actor with the chameleon quality: he can do Shakespeare or panto, sitcom or musical comedy, and he’s always so purely inside the role that you never think about the man behind it. That’s why at 61, after four decades in the business, he can still walk down the street unrecognised – and also why he’s never been short of work.
His latest incarnation will be a richly fascinating one. In The Moderate Soprano, a new play by David Hare, he will play John Christie, the remarkable landowner and five-star English eccentric who in the mid-Thirties established the Glyndebourne Festival.
A man of iron whim, Christie could be tamed only by the enchanting Audrey Mildmay, a singer of gentle charm who gives the play its title. Nobody could have anticipated the success of their late-flowering marriage: when they met and fell crazily in love, Christie appeared a crustily confirmed bachelor who’d won the Military Cross on the Western Front, taught geography at Eton and conceived an infatuation for all things culturally German, particularly the music of Wagner.
This wasn’t connected to Nazism: Christie was a complete innocent politically, his views a jumble of noblesse oblige and sheer bloody-mindedness which extended to building an opera house to his own specifications in the grounds of his Sussex estate. In a fit of romantic megalomania, he dreamed that this should rival Wagner’s grand temple at Bayreuth.
It was Mildmay who persuaded him to moderate his ambitions with a gentle plea – “For God’s sake, John, if you’re going to spend all that money, do the thing properly” – that has remained Glyndebourne’s mantra ever since. So the proposed temple ended up looking more like a village hall, albeit one in which jewel-like perfection could be achieved.
Hare’s play explores both the ideals and the tensions behind the early years of the enterprise, culminating in Audrey’s painful death shortly after the war. For Allam, it’s a story not only of “great married love”, but also of “the eccentricity of artistic enterprise”, which depends on a combination of vision and practicality.
He likes being inside the skin of Christie (who died in 1962) enormously, even though he happily accepts that “in many respects, he was plain barking. In the trenches, he tried to keep up morale by reading his men Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, and during the Second World War he fired off a lot of potty letters proposing a Ministry of Conscience and Morality. Yet he won medals for bravery under fire and his physical strength was immense – apparently, he could lift a tank out of a rut single-handed.”
“I suppose he was, at bottom, an old-school patrician, who felt like a king in his own domain, hence his preference for driving on the wrong side of the road and wearing tennis shoes with his dinner jacket. But his passion for opera was absolutely genuine, and he also felt a duty to provide for the betterment of others. Setting up Glyndebourne was, above all, an act of social generosity.”
Allam is an opera fan, but not a fanatic. He’s been to Glyndebourne only twice – “musically superb, disastrous productions” – but admits “a visit there is a special treat, and I feel the world is a nicer place because Glyndebourne is in it. Writing opera off as intrinsically elitist is absurd. The expense of the posh seats may exclude people for financial reasons, but there are plenty of ways in which it is still accessible: Glyndebourne’s autumn tour, for instance, or the Upper Slips at Covent Garden for ten quid.
“What I don’t believe is that DVDs or HD broadcasts can be a substitute for the real thing. I remember as a student going to Covent Garden, where they took out the stall seats and you hunkered down on the floor – I heard Pavarotti in Tosca there, and the experience of being in that same room with that astonishing voice has never left me.”
Even cheaper seats launched his own acting career. A vicar’s son, Allam went to Christ’s Hospital school, Horsham, and then Manchester University to read drama. “I had done some acting at school, but I wasn’t particularly good at it. What inspired me was going to the Old Vic in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the National Theatre was based there. I was studying Hamlet for A-level, and my sister’s friend told me about this play called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and the 15p seats anyone could buy in the gallery. So I gave it a go, and went back to see Laurence Olivier as Shylock and Paul Scofield in The Captain of Kopenick and that was me done for – I’d caught the bug.”
He’s never regretted not going to a conventional drama school, insisting “Manchester was wonderful for me. There was a battered old converted chapel where every Monday night we could put on whatever sort of show we liked. There was no fancy equipment, and no budget either, but you could take wing with your imagination and experiment. Nowadays they have a properly equipped studio theatre, and I’m told it just doesn’t get used in the same creative way.”
Young Allam also benefited from the old repertory system and the amount of subsidised fringe theatre in the mid-Seventies – he was one of only two men in the legendary feminist collective Monstrous Regiment. “Scary? No, it was terrific fun. I had a marvellous time.” A decade with the RSC followed, including a year as Javert in the first cast of Les Misérables (“in rehearsals, we didn’t have a clue what it would go on to become”).
Since then he’s run the gamut from an outrageously camp performance as Capt Terri Dennis in Privates on Parade in the West End, to an Oliver-winning Falstaff in Henry IV at the Globe in 2010.You can’t typecast him, not least because “every part offers the opportunity to learn something new. That’s what keeps it exciting”.
At home in south-west London, he and his wife, the actor Rebecca Saire, have two sons, aged 15 and 10. The run of family life consumes him out of working hours, and he says he hasn’t time for hobbies.
“The garden worries me quite enough; I struggle to keep it under control.” Recently he’s done some lucrative film work – Tamara Drewe, The Iron Lady, Mr Holmes – and had success in television as both the obnoxious MP Tom Mannion, in The Thick of It, and grumpy DI Fred Thursday, in the Inspector Morse spin-off Endeavour. Younger viewers may remember him from his striking appearance in the 2011 series of Game of Thrones, as the oleaginous Magister of Pentos, Illyrio Mopatis.
But with three Olivier Awards for Best Actor on his mantelpiece, he remains a theatre man at heart – “that’s where I feel I belong. I just wish it paid a bit better” – and his only ambition is “to go on like Maggie, Judi, Ian, Derek and Eileen, getting good parts till I drop dead. I couldn’t possibly retire. I’d be bored rigid.”