Unassuming, nondescript, fastidious, listening to questions and taking time - sometimes too much time - to respond in an accurate - sometimes too accurate - way. Is this an actor I see before me? Indeed it is, and one of the country's best, garlanded with awards in his early days, the brightest spirit in a glittering array of Royal Shakespeare Company stars. He sits now at a corner table, speaking softly of incest, one of the subjects explored in Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles, and his own diffident attitude to life. "I know it takes vanity to do this job and I've been accused of giving flowery performances, but I like to leave all that behind when I'm off stage. It seems to me it's difficult to observe the world unless you can retreat into something fairly ordinary. Actors mix in a milieu that is exaggerated and rarified. We need perspective so we don't regard what we do as something special. Once the play is over, it's over and can never be repeated."
He dithered about his order, eventually choosing spinach mousse followed by mushroom-and-tomato hash cake and a glass of the house claret. As the fifth generation of actors on his mother's side and surrounded by thespian relatives and omens (father, Arthur, was a comedy actor who, among many other things, spent 18 months in No Sex Please, We're British; uncle Leslie Howard was a pre-war matinee idol; and, it is alleged, he was conceived at Cheltenham Rep), he was perhaps doomed to mummery. "My parents had quite a hard time and were very anxious for me to do something else. I had vague ideas of becoming a television director but by 16 I realised I'd like to act. At school I'd been dragooned into plays because my father and mummy were actors and they assumed, 'You must be one too'. The same thing happened to my son [James, now 19]. I wish people wouldn't do that sort of thing. It's so silly. The kid is embarrassed he can't measure up to his father. I played Celia in As You Like It - I wanted to be Rosalind and had terrible fights with the boy who was - and asked my parents to tell me if I was naff. If they'd said I was I wouldn't have attempted it."
He saw very little of his parents. An only child, he was sent to boarding school at six and spent holidays with relatives while they toured in plays. "It was sad but I didn't notice I was particularly lonely. The good thing is it gives you a sort of independence." After National Service in the Air Force he started as a stage hand in Coventry before working with Sir Laurence Olivier during the first hectic season at Chichester Theatre more than 30 years ago. "I was inspired by him, and would love to have been as good a classical actor, as well as being able to make films. I wasn't interested in the impresario side. The ambition to be a very good actor is all I could manage, without diverting into other activities." Is he really ambitious, I wondered. He thought for a long time before replying, cautiously, "Yes," then paused and added, "I think. It sounds pious to say my ambition is to be better. Sometimes you surprise yourself by doing something pretty well.
In 1966 he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and stayed there for 16 years. What is it that makes some actors desert their success in midstream and sidestep either into drink, or - in his case - relative isolation? Let's not look for deep meanings. "I thought I should recharge my batteries, lead a more normal life, read books, see what else was going on in the world and re-assess myself. I'd gone as far as I could at that time." He made a few films [including Dakota Road], appeared in television series [John Le Carré's A Perfect Spy] and made commercials. "It wasn't a spectacular advancement but I don't think it was a waste of time. It allowed me to be more available on the domestic front - the theatre is a terrific strain on your other half - and see my son grow up."
When his first marriage, to a designer, broke down after 10 years he lived with author Sally Beauman. His entry in Who's Who says, incorrectly, they are married. "We are in our sense but as we'd both been married before we felt there might be some danger in taking an oath again. Can you take an oath again if you've broken it once? Unless you feel spiritually obliged to marry why should the state have anything to do with it?" In the 80s she earned a $1 million advance for her first sex and shopping novel Destiny [her third, Lust and Love*, is just published]. "It took a long time for it to sink in and didn't give me any more freedom to pick and choose parts. We consciously wanted it not to make any dramatic difference. It could have been very difficult if it had. Anyway, when you add the commissions and tax and remember it's dollars not pounds, it's not exactly the pools, terrific though it is."
Over espresso he said he never had ambitions to be a big Hollywood star, like some of his contemporaries. "One does feel that very famous actors have their freedom curtailed. Everything they say is taken down as holy writ and there's a danger they allow the job to let them lose their real personality. Once that happens, it distorts and destroys everyone who comes within half a mile of you."
[* Lovers and Liars]
Sunday Express Magazine, 1.5.1994