Alan Howard, CBE and star of a new production at the Royal National Theatre, talks with Michael Leech about his life, work and living in London.
"I've always lived in London, apart from touring and working abroad for short periods. It's my town, and I am really at home here." Alan Howard is a big handsome man, currently starring in an epic production of a Russian play, Flight, by Mikhail Bulgakov, staged by Howard Davies at the Royal National Theatre. Never performed before, it offers a wide canvas of riveting impressions with colossal sets and a huge cast. It's the sort of play you can only see at the National Theatre: it's far too costly to mount commercially in the West End.
Alan Howard plays Khludov, a hardbitten, aristocratic White Russian general at the time of the Revolution. His fine, distinctively burnished voice has resounded in films such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover, The Secret Rapture, Dakota Road and Work is a Four Letter Word. He has been made a Commander of the British Empire in the Queen's Honours List and goes to Buckingham Palace to receive the award this Spring.
"I love London, though it is becoming more difficult to live in and a lot more expensive just to get around. I live in North London near Highgate and Hampstead, and I find that if you accept a dinner invitation south of the river, you almost have to ask if you can stay over!"
We are actually sitting south of the Thames, talking on a terrace of the National Theatre and looking at a spacious riverside view stretching from the Houses of Parliament to St. Paul's Cathedral. "Splendid isn't it? For me, London is a city of so many aspects. Unlike New York or Paris, it has no central focus. My own part of town is typical, very mixed, and I like that. Individual areas have their own character.
"Flight is called a set of dreams, and it is a sort of voyage. It goes from the snows of the Crimea to corrupt Constantinople and lively Paris. Khludov is a great character, very Russian. I find him intriguing. Russian drama is different. We think so often of Chekhov but this play has all sorts of colourings from Gogol to Ovstrovsky. And the social world is so removed, exotic, with strands of a third culture. The Russian sense of humour is very different, too - broad, sweeping strokes, subtle echoes, feckless and crazy. It has echoes of Shakespeare and, for many Russian writers, life seems to be just a fascinating game."
Howard has toured extensively around the world, and been seen frequently in leading roles at the RSC, the National Theatre and with Sir Peter Hall's company, most recently as Vladimir in the much-lauded Waiting for Godot, which has just returned to the Picadilly Theatre with a different cast. His unique style and bold shambling figure command attention on the stage and he much enjoyed appearing with Hall's group at the Old Vic.
"What a bold, brave thing to do. A fine theatre and a good company - although it's hard work being in several plays and doing seven-day-a-week repertory, including Sunday performances. But repertory gives audiences a chance to see actors in contrasting roles and it's an exciting concept. I hope it goes well in the West End."
Alan Howard has been a star in the London theatre firmament for many years. Other actors in his class have become famous faces on regular TV shows, for example, David Suchet in Poirot and Nigel Hawthorne in Yes, Minister, seen round the globe. He wrily admits big-time TV does make a difference but, for him, the lure is still live work on the stage. "While it would be very nice to get such TV roles, I'm not envious. On TV, you can end up as a household commodity, a sort of object people feel adorns their home."
He has one son, James, who is 23 and who has no desire to be an actor. "I'm not founding a dynasty! He wants to do post-graduate work in copywriting, which probably means he'll be doing better than me in very short order! I certainly don't make a fortune working in the theatre, much as I love it!"
Perhaps plaudits have been slow in coming to this compelling artist, and he is touched by his 1998 CBE, though he confesses with amusement that so far it hasn't met with a rush of recognition - or made a difference to his social life.
"The CBE was awarded for services to drama. It's quite an honour and good to feel you are appreciated. At this stage in my career, I don't hanker after any one particular role, although there are some I wouldn't mind trying again, and I would like to do a new play before long. Life is pretty good to me. I'm just glad I go on working!"
London This Week, April/May 1998.