Nigel Havers: ‘At 15, I sang Jumpin’ Jack Flash to my dad in Mick Jagger’s courtroom suit’

The star of A Passage to India and Coronation Street on gigging in Portugal aged 17, discovering theatre in Suffolk and his love of David Lean’s films

Paul McCartney’s Höfner Violin bass

I was first aware of the Beatles when Please Please Me got into the charts when I was 12 or 13. They sank in when the album came out. I put the LP on the record player, sat down and listened to it in one go. They wrote their own songs with three guitars, a drummer and vocal harmonies. It’s hard to realise what a monumental change in music that was.

Paul McCartney is one of the great bass players. Some of his riffs are incredible. He didn’t want to play bass, because he’s a lead guitarist, so he plays it a bit like a lead guitar. I always wanted a Höfner Violin bass, because that’s what McCartney plays. If you play a regular bass, like a Fender, and swing it round, it looks odd. McCartney is left-handed, which is why he chose the Höfner Violin.

I was in this wonderful shop in Bath once, while doing a play, and they had a ’63 Höfner Violin, so I bought it. It’s in my study and I love it. I must have spent hours trying to work out the controls, but they don’t seem to work. I wonder if McCartney would have had more luck.

The Crinkles

Listen to Julie, the B-side from Nigel Havers’ record with his band January.

My older brother and I bought guitars and formed a band with two mates called – embarrassingly – the Crinkles. I wanted to play lead, but so did my brother, so I had to be the McCartney. We rehearsed like crazy and played the Beatles, the Kinks and the Hollies, because they were easy to learn. A mate with a Land Rover would drive us to play parties in our school holidays. We charged £80 and were quite successful.

We got a gig in a nightclub in Portugal called La Boîte, so one summer we all took off to this Portuguese hotel. The local band couldn’t play the Beatles and so on, so we were really hot because we played all the hits. I’ll tell you: if you’re in a band, aged 16, 17, playing in a nightclub … well, let’s just say we had a hell of a good time.

We even released a record – It Sings for Me on the A-side and Julie on the B-side – recorded in 1968 in Bond Street Studios. The other two band members had gone off to uni, so it was just my brother and me. We were called January – another terrible name chosen by my brother.

David Lean

David Lean on the set of Lawrence of Arabia
Extraordinary ... David Lean on the set of Lawrence of Arabia. Photograph: Columbia TriStar/Getty Images

Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean, is an incredible film. My mother took me to the Odeon in Leicester Square one matinee, just prior to me going to drama school. I was bowled over. It’s a four-hour movie, but it’s absolutely epic. Peter O’Toole is extraordinary. I didn’t know anything about film-making at the time, so I wasn’t watching the lighting and photography. I was just watching the story: the key to any great film. I must have seen it 100 times. I have a copy of the script that I have studied and studied. It’s all about the dialogue and economy of lines. Every character is so well drawn. That’s what Lean could do so well.

Years later, the phone rang: “Hello, is that Nigel? It’s David Lean here. I wondered if you’d come and meet me for tea, because I want to talk about you paying Ronny Heaslop in A Passage to India.” I said: “Is someone taking the piss or what?” He said: “No. I’m David Lean.” So I went to see him and … well, it all came full circle.

The Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds

The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
Magical venue ... the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. Photograph: David J Green/Alamy

I went to Nowton Court boarding prep school in Bury. One summer, my father [the barrister Michael Havers] was on a case in India, so we stayed at school during the holidays. Some of the old boys came to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream to raise money for the then derelict Theatre Royal that I am now on the board of.

We did it as an open-air production in this sort of amphitheatre with a raised grass stage and a semi-circle of trees. The sun came down and the lights came on: it was magical. The main parts were played by adults, but the fairies – Oberon and Puck – were played by children. I played Puck and thought: this is what I want to do for a living.

At 15, I shunned the family tradition of Eton and went to the Arts Educational School in London to learn my craft, which I reckon was a pretty good idea. There were two popular radio dramas on the BBC Home Service [now BBC Radio 4] – The Archers and Mrs Dale’s Diary. I appeared as Mrs Dale’s grandson for three years. Then I joined the Prospect Theatre Company in 1969 with Ian McKellen and Timothy West. That’s how I started.

The pill

Everything changed with the Beatles and the Stones. People stopped wearing suits and bowler hats and grew their hair long. It’s hard to understand today, but if you grew your hair any longer than a short back and sides, you were called a revolutionary. That was our way of showing that we were young, vibrant and new. If you see pictures of Mick Jagger when the Stones started, his hair looks quite short, but that was actually considered to be really long. I had mine a lot longer than that. I just didn’t cut my hair for a few years. My mum and dad didn’t seem to mind. They thought it was quite cool.

The pill had just been invented, so that changed the whole landscape. There were about 250 girls to 40 boys at drama school, so it was rather stacked in my favour. My parents had a flat in London that they hardly ever used, so I lived there, sort of on my own, aged 15. At 16, I settled down with a girlfriend, [the actor] Susie Blake, and we were a couple for a few years.

Mick Jagger’s courtroom suit

Mick Jagger on the morning of his appeals court hearing in 1967
Satisfaction ... Mick Jagger on the morning of his successful appeals court hearing. Photograph: Getty Images

When Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were arrested for drug possession in 1967 at Richards’ home in West Sussex, my father ended up representing them. I would have been 15 at the time. There was a trial and they were nearly sent to prison. In fact, they were sent to prison for one night [Jagger to Brixton and Richards to Wormwood Scrubs] and my dad got them out on bail. They were found not guilty on appeal, so we held this big party in the London flat to celebrate.

Mick arrived still in his suit – my dad had wanted him to look smart for his appearance in court. When the party was over, Jagger changed back into his day wear – a kaftan, something flowery – to go off to do an interview on Panorama and left the suit he’d worn to court on my bed. So, obviously, I had to put it on and do Jumpin’ Jack Flash for my father. I remember there was £200 in the back pocket. I’d never seen such a huge wedge of money in my life.

Series one of Finding Alice, starring Nigel Havers, is available on DVD now.


As told to Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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