Alan Bennett once overheard an old lady say, ‘I think a knighthood was wasted on Derek Jacobi,’ and I know what she means. It’s strange how he has always been singled out for prizes and high honours — why not Ronald Pickup, Charles Kay, Edward Petherbridge, Frank Finlay or the late Jeremy Brett? Ian Richardson absolutely hated him — just couldn’t contain his envy and incredulity, at least in my presence.
Though I’ve never been able to believe in Jacobi on stage or screen as a villain or as a passionate lover, by being fundamentally unthreatening (and shrewd), he is esteemed — just like the Emperor Claudius, his signature role. He is a good courtier, having been a pal of Princess Margaret’s and a guest at Windsor Castle, where the Queen said to him, regarding the plot of Richard III, ‘Some things never change!’ He even holds the Order of the Dannebrog, first class, awarded to him by Queen Margrethe ‘during a celebration in Tivoli Gardens’.Jacobi possesses exquisite manners, and when he dined with Margaret Thatcher and she told him she would never give a speech in a darkened auditorium because ‘I need to see their eyes!’ it is to Jacobi’s credit that he didn’t wet himself there and then from sheer terror.
He was born in 1938 in Leytonstone, and this book describes a lower-middle-class childhood that could be illustrated by Raymond Briggs; stucco late-Victorian terraces, small vegetable gardens, tinned salmon for tea and Hitler’s bombs falling in the road. ‘Everyone has their first banana story. I had no idea what to do with the first banana I held in my hand.’ Fancy. No wonder Jacobi was ‘probably seen as soft, girlish and a bit fey’. His father, who managed the crockery department in a Walthamstow shop, was excused active service in the army ‘because of bunions’. His mother had crippling headaches from mastoid trouble.
They died only the other day. Until well into old age, Jacobi’s parents came to his house in Hampstead to do the cleaning and dusting, fill the fridge, put the laundry on, ‘sensing I could do without trivial things and just concentrate on my work’. It never seemed to dawn on Jacobi to remember that, as a middle-aged man, he ought to be ironing his own shirts by now. From the minute he was born, as an adored only child, ‘not only did I get all the pocket money and all the presents, but I carried all their fears, love and aspirations’. Actually affection and anxiety aren’t diluted the more children you have but intensified and multiplied. But people without children of their own have no idea — they are so incredibly self-absorbed.
We have a clue here, too, to Jacobi’s success, and to his style and method. In a furtive way, he is very driven and ambitious. (Hence he could capture with conviction people like Alan Turing and Francis Bacon.) Like a royal baby, he expects things to be done for him. ‘I do not and cannot cook,’ he states at one point. He can drive, however, and on his 21st birthday his parents gave him a Ford Popular, for which they had been setting aside ten bob a week since he’d been born.
He was a sickly infant, bedridden with rheumatic fever and spots. ‘A nurse came daily to tend my bedsores. I had to move about on crutches like Tiny Tim.’ He passed the time knitting and doing embroidery. It was hardly a surprise that he’d be aiming at the stage rather than, say, whaling or mining. He always enjoyed dressing up in his mother’s ‘glorious white silk wedding veil’, never forgot seeing Noel Gordon as the Principal Boy in pantomime, and at the cinema worshipped Ava Gardner and Greer Garson.
Though unprepossessing physically — if he went swimming he ‘grew giant verrucas’ on his heels — Jacobi was nevertheless ‘a bit of a show-off, cocky and even bossy’, qualities that won him a scholarship to Cambridge. At St John’s he did no work, didn’t mix with other undergraduates and dined alone on curry. What he did instead was act in a lot of student plays — a contemporary was David Frost, who wouldn’t attend rehearsals if ‘he considered the part too small’.The next thing we know Jacobi is at the Birmingham Rep, living in an Edgbaston flat wallpapered by Albert Finney.
After Birmingham, where he was seen by Laurence Olivier, he was recruited to the National Theatre, understudying Laertes to Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet — a catastrophe, as O’Toole was drunk all the time and kept slashing his sword at patrons in the stalls. The chapters on Laurence Olivier, incidentally, are marvellous — much more gripping and zesty than the entire new biography by Philip Ziegler. Jacobi, like everyone of that gifted generation (Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Michael Gambon, Sir Robert Stephens, Sir Alan Bates — Christ, they give the gongs away, don’t they?), remains in awe of the man, saluting his ‘stupendous emotional energy’ and physical energy too. Olivier, in a Restoration play, had to leap out of a window, totter along a wall, jump on top of a sedan chair, whilst simultaneously getting dressed, putting on his wig, coat and stockings. Jacobi, understudying the role, couldn’t duplicate a fraction of the business. Yet if you met Olivier in the street he was as nondescript as Harry Worth.
I’m glad that, at long last, an actor has exposed the dictatorial directors Bill Gaskill, Peter Wood and John Dexter. ‘They had the power of hiring and firing. From one moment to the next they could get rid of you.’ Though their rationale was ‘I give you a hard time because I think you are a good actor; I do it for your own sake,’ Jacobi correctly has only contempt for such manipulation and cruelty, which amounted to abuse. ‘They were actually very weak, they were cowards’ — particularly in the way they sucked up to stars. People flocked to Dexter’s funeral, Jacobi says, ‘to make sure he was burnt to a cinder’.
We also hear about Otto Preminger (‘disgraceful, vile’) and the pretentious Cambridge theatrical don Dadie Rylands, who wore a black tie because he was still in mourning for Rupert Brooke. Dadie was ‘peevish-looking and red-faced,’ and as for his acolyte John Barton, later of the RSC, ‘he’d be frightening the fuck out of me’.
Jacobi’s own season at Stratford in the 1980s was a triumph. I saw his Benedick, Prospero and Cyrano many times. He had an elegant, unfidgety command, a concealed camp, almost a melancholy. I loved his voice, still do, which is almost a croon. Then came lots of touring in the rain with Timothy West, cameos in thrillers about spies, a professional association with Sir Kenneth Branagh, and a civil ceremony in 2007, which united Jacobi with his long-term partner, Richard Clifford, himself a fine actor.
Another reason to admire this book is that Jacobi is completely open about his homosexuality (you wonder what the fuss used to be about), and he confesses to unrequited passions for Julian Pettifer and Michael York. When the latter fell for the Hollywood trappings, with butlers, maids and cooks, I’m sure Jacobi is right to say these ‘had an adverse effect on his acting potential’. Like most men who met Noël Coward, Jacobi was the recipient of a pass. ‘You’ll never be a great actor, Derek, until you are circumcised,’ stated the Master bewilderingly. (He was perhaps trying to find out, amongst other things, if Jacobi was Jewish — Jacobi says that his father and grandfather point-blank refused to discuss ancestral matters, though there were possible origins in Prussia.)
As Luck Would Have It has been ghosted and adroitly assembled by Garry O’Connor. I smiled faintly at the use he has made of my own very first publication, the swiftly remaindered — indeed pre-remaindered — Stage People (1989). A little attribution and acknowledgment would have been nice.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10