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THE ENDEAVOUR INTERVIEWS 2019: Anton Lesser

All things Bright…

Interview copyright © Damian Michael Barcroft 2019

DAMIAN: Dickens (aka Uncovering the Real Dickens) was a wonderful three-part 2002 BBC docudrama written and presented by the great Peter Ackroyd. Now, the reason I mention this, aside from the fact that I love to rewatch it almost every Christmas, is the fact that this series introduced me to your work. It’s the most superior portrait and I found your interpretation of Dickens to be authentically tortured, gritty and even somewhat cruel at times. I’m wondering to what extent you discussed, either with directors Mary Downes and Chris Granlund or Ackroyd himself, how far you went as an actor in exploring such a dark side to one of our greatest and most celebrated writers?

ANTON: Hmm, we’re going back a bit now aren’t we? Yes, my goodness, well, from the research that I remember doing he was quite a difficult man. He was such a mixture, a really complex character and I think that’s what I always look for in whatever I’m playing; not necessarily a grittiness, but a complexity. So when you come across stories about the difficulties, how difficult he was to live with and all those stories about his wife and the affair and building a wall in the middle of their bedroom, it really inspires you not to go for the easy option, but really mine it for layers. I hope that it had those layers and wasn’t just sort of one aspect of a very complex character.

DAMIAN: And there’s an accompanying programme where Dickens is at home performing A Christmas Carol for friends and family who are gathered around him beside a glowing fireplace. Again, it’s an extraordinary and almost hypnotic experience to watch such a tour de force performance as you play Dickens acting out all the various characters with such energy and vigour; ranting, seething and barking – it was simply remarkable to see such danger and unpredictability. I wonder, do you ever get lost in the moment during such performances?

ANTON: Oh, erm… [laughs] what I remember most about that was that because I wear specs and couldn’t wear them [as Dickens] for reading, and I wasn’t familiar with contact lenses at that time, I had to learn the whole thing –  the whole book!

DAMIAN: Good heavens! I assumed you had an autocue because they were extremely long takes…

ANTON: [laughs] It would have been great to be able to read it but I couldn’t see it! I had to learn it and pretend to be reading so the energy in that was to do with trying to remember.

DAMIAN: Well as I say,  such energy and your arms were flailing about so much I was sure that you’d knock the glass of sherry over on the table next to you but you never did. Just a marvellous performance.

ANTON: Thank you.

DAMIAN: Let’s go back to the beginning of it all. I believe that you originally considered a career as an architect so at what point did you decide to pursue acting instead?

ANTON: That’s right. I did a degree at Liverpool University in architecture and then the usual course was you did a year out in practice and you came back and did a Masters and another year out. A bit like medicine you know, seven years! So I did my year out in Africa, in Nigeria, doing voluntary service overseas and while I was there I saw a British Council Film about the Royal Shakespeare Company and I had a kind of moment of recognition that that’s what I should do and I came back, went to RADA and my first job was with the RSC! So it was a very powerful experience of certainty about what I should be doing and that’s how it happened.

DAMIAN: Were you a nervous student or did you feel instantly at home at RADA?

ANTON: I loved it actually. I remember the first day feeling very daunted when they took us round the theatre and I thought oh my God, how the hell are you supposed to make yourself heard in a big place like this. So I was quite nervous in that respect but I loved being there because I’d done my student days already at University, I was there to get what I could get not to be a sort of student do you know what I mean? So I really made the most of it, yeah, I think I had a wonderful time there.

DAMIAN: You’ve mentioned fearing the audience wouldn’t hear you in such a huge theatre but was it during this period that you developed that wonderful aristocratic voice of yours?

ANTON: [Huge explosion of hearty laughter] Erm, I don’t know, I mean I’m a Brummie! So I don’t know about that, hmmm, I dunno. I think vocally, I’ve always been very unsure of myself…

DAMIAN: Really?

ANTON: I’ve always wanted to have a relaxed and really easeful voice but I’ve had a lot of vocal problems, particularly the last few years, so it’s an area I’ve never felt that I can really express what I want to express. It has always been a sort of compromise. I hear stuff coming out of my mouth and I find it very disappointing; the gap between being able to speak and the actual delivery is very often deeply unsatisfying and tense. I have this subjective judgement, we all do I suppose, but other people say nice things about it and offer me work.

DAMIAN: I find that absolutely astonishing to hear. As a regular listener to Radio 4, I often hear you in the plays or reading poetry and your voice is instantly recognisable – it’s a fantastic voice.

ANTON: [Slightly bashful] Thank you.

DAMIAN: You’re probably hardly ever the tallest actor on set, and yet, our eyes cannot help but gravitate towards you and you effortlessly command every scene you’re in. Tell me, where does this power and energy come from?

ANTON: Well first of all, I’m very flattered but I don’t recognise that as true because, you know, I am tiny and I think of myself as lightweight. I’ve been watching this series on television on Sky about great actors and great directors and the ones that I admire have a sort of effortless authority. I was watching one about Peter Finch last night and Anthony Hopkins, you know people like that, so I don’t feel as though I do have that quality that you describe but it’s lovely to hear.

DAMIAN: Well I think there will be many who would argue otherwise but we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. Anyway, I was actually going to ask you about this, in retrospect, were there certain actors in theatre or on film and television when you were growing up in Birmingham that you particularly admired and may have inspired or influenced your decision to become an actor later on?

ANTON: Yes, I mean long before I ever thought of being an actor, I do remember seeing John Wood in a play in Birmingham when I was at school and it was called The Sorrows of Frederick, about Frederick the Great, and it was this absolutely amazing performance and that obviously had a huge impact, and much later of course, I had the privilege of working with him and was able to tell him how he inspired me. Another actor I saw as a student at Liverpool was Jonathan Pryce who was at the Everyman Theatre. He had a powerful impact on me. I saw him do a lot in Liverpool and then when I was at RADA, he’d done Comedians, the Trevor Griffiths play in Nottingham and then the West End, and when we got to finals and I had to choose a part for the showcase performance, I said to the principal I’d like to do the Jonathan Pryce part in Comedians and he said alright, if you can cast it from your year we’ll do it and we did and it was that which was seen by Joyce Nettles who was the casting director at Stratford at that time and that’s how I got my first job.

DAMIAN: And, of course, since then you’ve many credits across theatre, film, television and radio, but at what point in your career did you start to become associated with roles in which you are often cast as rather regal characters and those in positions of authority?

ANTON: Yeah, I don’t know how that happened really. I mean I’m trying to think of the first one. I suppose because my first job was Richard of Gloucester in the Henry sixes, I started very early being associated with the classics and Shakespeare which was a huge surprise to me because I thought I was just going to end up holding a spear but then I went on to do, I suppose, classic costume drama on television like Anna of the Five Towns. So yeah, I suppose I started to get a connection with classic literature rather than modern stuff. Maybe that was it but the regal thing? – I don’t know! [laughs]

DAMIAN: Well, I’ve some examples for you: the Archbishop of Canterbury in The Palace, the Duke of Exeter in The Hollow Crown, Prime Minister Attlee in A United Kingdom and Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall (2015) which is a production I believe you are particularly proud of?

ANTON: Oh, I think it’s one of the best jobs that I’ve ever done because of the wonderful director, Peter Kosminsky who was fantastic, the adaptation and of course, Hilary Mantel’s amazing material. And then you had this sort of gallery of wonderful practitioners and actors and I was just so privileged to be in that. I was thinking the other day that I’m very lazy as a person, and, as an actor – I’ll get away with whatever I can get away with [laughs] but I remember thinking with that job, I don’t want a day off – I want to be here everyday and to be playing every part because I think it’s so brilliant! So yes, I certainly have an attraction for classic literature and great writing. Yeah I’ve been very fortunate.

Thomas More in Wolf Hall

DAMIAN: And in addition to Attlee of course, I must mention another Prime Minister, this time Harold Macmillan in The Crown (2017) and you also play Qyburn in Game of Thrones which are two of the biggest shows on the planet at the moment! Is it fair to say that you are more popular now than you’ve ever been?

ANTON: [laughs] Erm, I think you’d have to ask my agent [more laughter] because you don’t really know what you’re availability is being checked for.

DAMIAN: But you must recognise the enormous impact that these two shows have had?

ANTON: Absolutely. Yes huge, absolutely huge, and I feel very, very honoured to have been involved in them at all. I mean what is sad as an actor is when you see something like The Crown and you notice how many scenes you’ve shot that are no longer in it. That’s really difficult.

Harold Macmillan in The Crown
Qyburn in Game of Thrones

DAMIAN: Well, it’s interesting that you say that at this point because I obviously want to discuss Endeavour, and I’ve done a series of interviews with Russ Lewis [writer and deviser of the show] since 2013 where we discuss each and every episode in some detail and it’s quite surprising, upsetting even, that so many scenes are cut.

ANTON: I know, I mean I watched the first one last week of this new series and I was sitting there thinking, oh, for God’ sake, here we go again, that’s another scene [cut] and the reason that they always give, I mean I don’t know what Russ has said to you, is because of the format, the guests each week are the people that drive the plot so inevitably you can’t save time by cutting any of their stuff. So what has to go is the lovely backstory and detail that is so rich and unusual and interesting but, you know, is actually dispensable. So invariably, if there’s a nice scene with me and Roger where we’re talking about family, life and the past – a lovely little look into an another area of their life,  that’s the first thing to go. Every year it happens and every year I complain…

DAMIAN: But I think Russ probably feels the pain most. Now, because I’ve interviewed so many of the cast over the last few years, it wouldn’t quite be the done thing to have a favourite character. Therefore, let me say instead that Reginald Bright is a character with which I have a particular interest and fascination. In my interviews with Russ, he told me that some of the initial inspiration for Bright came from Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. To what extent was this useful in helping to find your character as you prepared to play Bright for the first time?

ANTON: Well I mean I didn’t know much about him, that particular man, but I knew enough anecdotally – bits of footage that we’ve all seen over the years about the war. I got a sense of that type of man but I think what helped me most was the letter that Russ wrote to me when he was describing the character and he was describing what he felt about him and I sort of intuitively got a sense of what he was after so it’s in no way, my portrayal, is in no way a response to in depth research about Montgomery.

DAMIAN: I also asked Russ about Bright’s backstory and he had the following to say: ‘Bright has come – as I think is alluded to in some of his dialogue – from the Colonial Police, and has spent most of his career ‘overseas’. I think that dictates in some part his attitude to the men. He is still applying the lessons learnt in the tropics – a certain ‘Empire’ way of dealing with ‘local officers’ and indigenous peoples – to the good folk of Oxford. His is a world – his younger days at least – straight out of John Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song. ‘Six o’clock news… lime juice and gin.’ The second son. Packed off to ‘foreign climes’ to make his way in the world, and do his bit for King and Country. He is a man even more out of time than most in the 1960s. But, he is a very decent man, if a little dazzled by those he perceives as his social betters. When the chips are down, his loyalty to his troops – for all his bark and bite – is total.’ What’s your response to these influences?

ANTON: Sounds like the man I’m playing doesn’t it?

DAMIAN: Absolutely.

ANTON: Yes, I’m very glad to hear that because it means that I’m sort of pretty well there. I love him and I feel especially sad that we don’t see more of what’s going on underneath. We do in the last two episodes as you’ll see but, erm, I just think the viewer is always more interested in the peoples’ backstory than in the plot because I think that’s the continuous nature of the piece. They get a different story every week but they’re hung on this continuous thread that we’ve known and loved all these years. That’s what nourishes the whole thing.

DAMIAN: To what extent did you discuss the future of Bright and where he was heading as a character with Russ?

ANTON: Not at all. No, I mean I don’t know how much of an arc he had in his head right in the beginning and don’t know whether he knew then about what’s happening now [with Bright and his wife].

DAMIAN: Well, it’s interesting because I’ve recently done an interview with Damien Timmer [executive producer and managing director of Mammoth Screen] and he feels quite certain that, if you take someone like Joan Thursday for example, Russ has actually got many of the character arcs all mapped out. Indeed, I asked Russ in one of our interviews when he knew Endeavour and Joan would fall for each other and he said the moment I had her open the door for him that first time.

ANTON: But do you think right at that beginning he had the end in view – the whole thing in view?

DAMIAN: Well, yes…

ANTON: Oh!

DAMIAN: Obviously I don’t know the details but that was another question I asked and Russ told me he knows exactly how Endeavour will end and that was back in 2013!

ANTON: Gosh!

DAMIAN: Yeah. Anyway, in addition to the aforementioned A Subaltern’s Love Song, which has always struck Russ as a sort of Between Wars idyll, he cites Indoor Games Near Newbury, also by Betjeman, and Love For Lydia by HE Bates, as continued inspirations for Bright. Looking at texts such as these, some of which might simply be seen as a gentle satire on the middle classes, also evoke a certain rites of passage and courtship rituals; the sitting in the car outside the dance for example, which combine to suggest a very loving man with a deeply sensitive side to him which perhaps only his wife would be privy to. Was exploring Bright’s home life something that you’ve pushed for? I mean, I’ve personally pestered Russ for years about why we can’t meet Mrs. Bright…

ANTON: [Laughs] Well only that, as I’ve said, I’ve always wanted more of what’s going on behind. We had one little story about his time in India didn’t we with the tiger? I just think that those things are so precious and so I have wanted more.

PREY

But the interesting thing about his wife is that there was a scene very early on and there was a picture of his wife on his desk and we were discussing with Thursday some infidelity that was part of a case that they were looking at. And, when the director was shooting it, he was shooting it across the desk towards me and I said, you know -this is me sort of being desperate to get one of those threads into the scene- and I said if you shot it from the other side, you can get me shooting a glance at that photograph. Obviously we don’t have it in the dialogue for anything to be inferred but it’s just another little thing that somebody might pick up when they’re talking, just get a little note of something that says I wonder if something’s gone on in his own life back in India. Yeah, that was just me trying to get another little note and colour in there.

GIRL

DAMIAN: When we first met Bright in GIRL (S1:E1) he was a stickler for the rules and could only see things in black and white. However, NEVERLAND (S2:E4) saw the beginning of a gradual softening in Bright’s character, do you agree that this was a turning point for him and how deeply do you think he was affected by the events at Blenheim Vale?

ANTON: Oh yes, with the child abuse and all that. Yeah, I think that was huge for him because we started to see his own history about his own child. We started to get intimations that something might have happened in his history and he has a deep wound. Yes definitely, that was when I started to feel I wanted to see more of what was going on.

NEVERLAND

DAMIAN: And I think there was another turning point for Bright when he gives Thursday his revolver back in CODA (S3:E4) even though Division made it quite clear that he was to remain suspended from duty. Was this Bright’s way of making his peace with Thursday following the shooting?

ANTON: Yes, I think there was a couple of moments like that when Thursday got himself into a scrape, didn’t he beat a witness up? There was a lovely scene where Bright actually goes against all his principles, about going according to the book. Moments like that were huge for him because he’s always done everything by the book, but of course has learned as we all do, that life doesn’t operate by the book and it doesn’t actually always serve your best intentions and there are moments when you have to abandon the book. I think those little moments for his character were brilliant because they allowed me to show a man who’s worldview has actually started to be dismantled. That’s what I always find interesting, that’s where I think we can see through the cracks into something more human and that’s what we recognise. I think television can become really, really powerful when we recognise our own humanity.

CODA

DAMIAN: One of the lovely surprises regarding Bright was seeing how he welcomed and warmed to WPC Shirley Trewlove when she was first introduced in ARCADIA (S3:E2), ‘My door is always… well, if not actually open then not infrequently ajar’.

ANTON: And again, that’s that whole child thing isn’t it? At first you sort of sense that there was this rather, you know, a man far too old having sort of feelings for this attractive young woman and then we realise no, it’s a father-daughter thing. And then we understand that later when he talks about his daughter dying in India.

ARCADIA
ICARUS

DAMIAN: Were you particularly pleased to read the script for PREY and discover that Bright took centre stage in the climatic action set-piece for once?

ANTON: [mischievous laughter] That’s been my favourite scene in the whole series!

PREY

DAMIAN: Has it really?

ANTON: Yep, just to have that moment where we stop having to relentlessly be, you know, motivated by the plot and we can actually zoom in on the human beings who have this history and reasons for why they are behaving in the way they do. I loved it! I really loved that episode. Yeah, that’s really been a highlight and it was directed by Lawrence Gough who has become a really good friend. I’ve just done a film with him called Gatecrash.

DAMIAN: When will that be released?

ANTON: Well, I’m hoping soon but I think it’s got to do the rounds at the festivals before it gets any real exposure – look out for it!

DAMIAN: I certainly will. Now, we were talking about Trewlove before and when I interviewed Dakota Blue Richards last year I asked her what it was like working with an actor of such gravitas as Anton Lesser and she replied, ‘Anton is one of the world’s better people. The ideal combination of talent, humour, professionalism and gentility. He never fails to delight me and is always the best part of my day. Working with him has truly been a joy and an honour’. That’s quite an endorsement isn’t it?

ANTON: Aw, blimey, that’s amazing – she’s such a liar!!! [laughs]

DAMIAN: Were you sad to see her go?

ANTON: Yeah, I really was. I could understand it though, I mean she is a fantastic actor and it wasn’t really fulfilling enough for her – it wasn’t going anywhere. Obviously they wanted her to stay and they did everything they could, but no, it wasn’t enough. You need to keep refueling as an actor.

ICARUS

DAMIAN: I thought it was a pity because in the last series they really built up her character quite significantly.

ANTON: Yeah I know it was a really sad. I felt for her because I’ve had similar feelings all the way through. I thought to myself if this character doesn’t start opening up somehow, if we don’t see something going on I can’t see myself continuing, but each year they’ve asked me back and they’ve said it’s going to be great and we’ll try and get that theme back that we couldn’t get [before] and put it back in. To an extent that’s happened [now] but I mean it’s still frustrating because the amount of screen time that you get as one of these characters can be minimal then and that’s OK if, when you are on screen, it’s a scene that is more than just sort of ‘very well, carry on’ sort of acting.

DAMIAN: I understand but I’d never forgive you if you did leave… [Anton laughs] Given what you’ve just said then, how did you feel about the changes to Bright with the closure of Cowley and the character developments relating to his demotion?

ANTON: Well again, the man starts to become much more vulnerable and that is much more interesting to explore than somebody who is always on top of everything and by the book – it gets to become a bit predictable and not very interesting to play. So now when things fall apart, it becomes more tender, softer, vulnerable and complicated. So I’m enjoying this last phase of the story much more.

DAMIAN: In addition to Russ’ amazing scripts, I think the magic of Endeavour is that it’s got this wonderful ensemble cast that work so well together and share this magical chemistry.

ANTON: Yeah, we’ve also had a whole mix of directors of course. But yes, that consistency, having that one eye over everything – it’s wonderful from our point of view because you know it’s one voice. One storyteller.

DAMIAN: Anton, it’s been an absolute honour and a privilege to do this interview so thank you very much indeed.

ANTON: It was nice to talk to you, cheers Damian.

 
A Subaltern’s Love Song

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won,
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father’s euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house, buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in
To the six-o’clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dappled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts,
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun,
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing’s the light on your hair.

By roads “not adopted”, by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
I can hear from the car park the dance has begun,
Oh! Surrey twilight! importunate band!
Oh! strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.