How Roger the leftie got to like Roy the rebel

Andrew Billen – The Times
7th March 2017


Roger Allam thought Roy Jenkins condemned Britain to 18 years of Thatcherism, but playing the SDP leader in a new play changed his view

Roger Allam, Nathalie Armin and Debra Gillett in rehearsal for Limehouse, in which Allam stars as Roy Jenkins

The bald cap and the receding hairline wig that will top it off and turn Roger Allam into Roy Jenkins await him in the costume room. One of Britain’s most recognisable actors is about to assume the role of one of the most familiar politicians of the 1980s, the man whose failure to make it to No 10 robbed Britain of its first bald prime minister since Churchill.

Steve Waters’s Limehouse, which is playing at the Donmar Warehouse in the West End of London, is set on Sunday, January 25, 1981, the day that the ill-fated Social Democratic Party (SDP) began to become a possibility. Roy (pronounced Woy) Jenkins was primus inter pares among the “gang” of four Labour defectors: Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. For a heady year, until the Falklands intervened, it was not inconceivable that the party would topple Margaret Thatcher and come to power.

Not yet 30, Allam had just joined the RSC. A few years on and he would be its Inspector Javert in Les Misérables and his many years of stardom, albeit of a secondary sort, would begin. I ask him if he was among the thousands who signed up to the SDP by — and this was revolutionary in itself — credit card. “No,” says Allam solemnly. “I bought very much into the narrative that they split the left vote and gave us 18 years of Thatcherism. However, the play is an opportunity to reconsider.”

Even for then Jenkins, in his dark suits and with his silk handkerchiefs, whose diaries of his years as president of the European Commission were stuffed with accounts of long lunches and heavy dinners, was an old-fashioned figure, I say.

“Well, that’s another one of the what-ifs, isn’t it? What if Shirley Williams had led? But, actually, reading about Roy Jenkins I got to really like him. I think he’s a really interesting figure and incredibly intelligent and bright and was, 15 years before this, a very civilising home secretary in the Wilson government. So, was he old-fashioned? I don’t know.”

In his own ways, Allam’s slightly formal urbanity contradicts his own political radicalism. This is an actor who once fired off a sardonic letter to the Guardian wittily castigating tax cheats. At 63 (three years older than Jenkins was in January 1981) he does not, however, share Jenkins’s dress sense. Breaking from rehearsals for lunch to talk, he sports a lumberjack shirt, an unbuttoned corduroy waistcoat and a large tweed jacket.

Yet his lived-in looks have always been, for me, subsidiary to how he sounds. His deep, precise but lilting diction has lifted roles raging from Inspector Fred Thursday, the young Morse’s superior in Endeavour, to the dementia-suffering and corrupt brigadier in The Missing. In the cinema we will see him next as a poet in the film of Stephen Fry’s novel, The Hippopotamus. His voice is as rich as Jenkins’s ever was.

Roger Allam: “Reading about Roy Jenkins I got to really like him”

High-living Jenkins, the son of a Welsh miner, was a fascinating man, not least for a private life that encompassed not only a devoted wife, the mother to his three children, but two mistresses, all of whom knew about one another. Limehouse has no room to explore that particular hinterland. It is busy cramming the painful incubation of the fledgling SDP into a few hours at Owen’s riverside flat in the soon to be fashionable London Docklands district of Limehouse.

Having read John Campbell’s biography of Jenkins and the politician’s memoirs, Allam does not deny there is a responsibility imposed on an actor playing a real person — something he has done plenty of times, from Hitler through Oliver Cromwell (“I wore the warts”) to Robin Janvrin, the Queen’s private secretary, who later told him he had enjoyed watching himself in The Queen.

Jenkins’s widow died only a month ago. Did that make it easier? “Yes, I believe it would have been harder otherwise, actually. I don’t envy the others [in the cast] because I’m sure Shirley Williams, David Owen and the others will come and see the play.”

While Jenkins was born into the trade union movement, I have to guess where Allam’s own leftism originated. Noticing that his father was a London vicar, I suggest it came from a Christian socialist tradition. Rather, it turns out, it was born of a separation from his father when Roger was sent to a charitable boarding school in Sussex. At Christ’s Hospital he was infuriated by injustices such as corporal punishment — his housemaster caned him for smoking — and, less dramatically, older boys being permitted to steal food from his plate.

“Quite a lot of children who went there came from families that had split up; divorced parents and stuff like that. I came from an incredibly loving family background, so it was utterly miserable.” He must have missed them terribly. “Hugely. Hugely. And then, of course, you stop missing them and you get older and things go on. It was difficult when I came back from university and lived at home briefly. For half my life I’d been away from home more than I’d been at home.

The SDP’s David Owen, Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins in 1981

“Not long after, my father died. I was just 24. He was only 63. Of some horrible disease that they can’t do anything about. I never really developed a proper adult relationship with him.” Indeed, he says, he never told his father that his faith had “melted away” while he was at university in Manchester.

Emotional distance is not a mistake he has made with his boys, aged 16 and 11, by his wife, the actress Rebecca Saire, whom he has been with since 1993. “My younger son is still very tactile and still holdable on your lap. You think, ‘Oh God, soon I won’t have that’.”

The remark prompts me to say that I have observed a melancholy in his performances, even his turns in The Thick of It as the Tory minister Peter Mannion, utterer of the unforgettable “I’m bored of this, I’m going for a Twix”. He says that no one has said that to him before, but does not demur. I tell him that I found his Prospero in The Tempest at Shakespeare’s Globe particularly upsetting. He thanks me. When Prospero gives a long exposition of what led to his exile 12 years before, Allam believes he is reliving the pain for the first time. Vocalising what happened is for him a kind of “therapy”.

Allam, centre, as the minister Peter Mannion in The Thick of It

Has he, Allam, ever been in therapy? “I’ve had a go, yeah. Your life becomes like this planetary system and sometimes the depressing planet can come around and just sort of occupy your brain, but I don’t get clinically depressed. I don’t require drugs to lift me out of it. I just have to wait.”

His career offers limited comfort. He finds most of his performances wanting, and can regard his career that way too. “I think I could have done better, or I could be further on. I don’t know. I could have had the odd Hollywood movie in my back pocket.” A Marvel villain? “Yes! Why not?”

He shares one restorative joy with Jenkins: an expansive dinner table. Susanna White, who directed him in the BBC’s Parade’s End a few years ago, told me he was a bon viveur in the best sense. “Is there a worst sense?” he retorts. “Well, I’m with Roy on that. I like good food and I like good wine, although I don’t think I’d find myself among the expensive clarets Roy drank.”

As Falstaff in Henry IV in 2010

I need to ask him about that voice. I hear the iambic pentameter in it almost always. “It’s not conscious but I’m certainly very conscious of language and how it works. The iambic pentameter is considered to be, if you’re speaking English certainly, the natural number of syllables you can speak in one breath.”

His diction is so clear, I wonder if, in this age of mumbling television acting, directors ever tell him to “take it down”? “Of course,” he says, but he does not argue back. “What’s curious is that sometimes I’ve done scenes on films and on television where I’ve been sitting about the same distance we are now and I can’t hear what the other actor’s saying because it’s somehow considered untruthful to speak louder.”

This attempt at naturalism is partly fashion, he says. Hard to think of it now, but the SDP was once a fashion too, a political fad, and one he saw through. Yet just as his atheism has softened with the years — he now calls himself an agnostic or “non-theist” — so his antipathy to the SDP has modified. Jenkins was not, by 1981, a careerist, and nor were his co-conspirators. They could rather, he says, be seen merely as “woefully mistaken”. If anti-Corbynistas today wish to avoid making the same errors, they would do well to go and watch Allam as Jenkins lead the left astray.

Limehouse is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0844 8717624), to April 15. For a chance to get free tickets to any Donmar show, under-25s can sign up for YOUNG+FREE alerts at