Samuel West: 'On screen I mostly play evil members of the establishment or Victorian perverts'

The actor on his pandemic poetry jukebox, life lessons of the Moomins, the pros and cons of Twitter, and how to reboot regional theatre

Samuel West, 54, one of the best verse speakers of his generation, has played Hamlet, Anthony Blunt (twice) and recently become Siegfried Farnon in Channel 5’s All Creatures Great and Small; he is currently working on the second series. The son of Prunella Scales and Timothy West, he lives with his partner, the playwright Laura Wade, and their two daughters, aged six and three. West’s production of Wade’s The Watsons was due to open in the West End when the first lockdown struck.

What has been the best bit of home schooling?
Teaching my daughters chess. The three-year-old doesn’t really play yet but she knows how the pieces move. It teaches them pattern recognition, which helps with music and maths – and how to lose well and fight peacefully. And it’s just an exciting game.

What books do you read with them?
We’re fond of fairytales with a twist, like Princess Smartypants and Interstellar Cinderella, about a girl who wants to mend spaceships: the prince’s spaceship breaks down and she fixes it. When he says “Will you marry me?”, she says “No, I’m much too young.” The Rebel Girls books are regular bedtime reading. And, always, the Moomin books. Tove Jansson is a great guide to the odd and different. When the small creatures bring home another friend, Moominmamma just sighs and lays another place at table. That’s really important now – the idea that a friend can come from anywhere.

Did you overlap with Boris Johnson at Oxford?
Not politically, but yes, for a year. I saw him propped up on the floor at a Jericho house party once. I think that is the only time we’ve been in the same room.

What did you learn about acting and being an actor from your parents?
The first thing was the unemployment statistics: I could absolutely tell you what proportion of the members of Equity were working when I was 10 – and it hasn’t changed much. I learned it was a craft that wanted to be an art and sometimes was. That it was worth doing properly. That it was worth persevering.

Do you feel in danger of being typecast?
On stage, people trust me to be different. On screen I mostly play evil members of the white establishment or Victorian perverts. Nobody ever has my politics, or quite my “tired dad” vibe.

What role would you most like to play?
Anything in a Sondheim musical – the judge in Sweeney Todd, the narrator in Into the Woods. And Doctor Who, of course.

You set up a pandemic poetry jukebox on SoundCloud. How did it work?
I put a call out on Twitter about reading poetry. Twenty-four hours later I’d had requests for 650 different poems. I started with Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush because in Wuhan for the first time in a generation you could hear birdsong – and because of the idea that there can be hope in a non-human species. The most requested was The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry, a beautiful poem about the calm and importance of nature. Over six months we did 600 poems and had nearly 400,000 listens – it was like a West End run.

Has birdwatching been a solace during lockdown?
Not as much as we’d like. For the last five years on 1 January we’ve toured the birding silk road that runs the length of north Norfolk: we’ve woken up at 4am to drive to Lynford Arboretum by sunrise. And though we are exhausted and hungover, we never regret it. That had to be cancelled this year. But our local patch in N1, the New River Walk, which we walk with the children, is always a comfort.

What work of art would you most like to see every day?
Anything by Frank Auerbach or Bridget Riley.

West with Nicholas Ralph, Callum Woodhouse and Anna Madeley in All Creatures Great and Small.
West with Nicholas Ralph, Callum Woodhouse and Anna Madeley in All Creatures Great and Small. Photograph: Matt Squire/AP

How will the theatre recover from the pandemic?
The £1.57bn bailout is welcome and has been well distributed by the Arts Council. It will save the crown jewels. But unless you look after the people who mine the jewels you aren’t going to have any crowns. The most important thing is: support freelancers and scrap the visa and carnet rules.

I have an idea to help reboot regional theatre. If we could get theatre-filling actors – proper [big-name] telly and film stars – to do a play at the regional theatre closest to where they grew up. They could say: I will come in 2022 for four weeks, and I’ll take the company wage and I don’t need the play to transfer. That would really help. It’s the sort of civic pride that even the Daily Mail could buy into. And those who haven’t done a play for a while are not going to have more fun doing anything than going into a rehearsal room and getting back to their roots.

Is life enhanced by Twitter?
Yes and no, and increasingly no. It’s become a louder, angrier place recently. Having conversations where you can disagree cordially would be easier in the pub, with human closeness and eye contact. That said, I learn a lot from it: I find my trusted news sources on it, and I’ve met some great people I would never have known otherwise.

What is making you angry?
Quite a lot. Putting someone with no knowledge of infectious diseases or public health in charge of testing and tracing. The shrinking of our national identity to a country obsessed with our borders. This phoney culture war, which dismisses any notion of pluralism as “woke”. I remember someone else’s tweet: “There’s something utterly peculiar about a society that sits on its isolated island, fish rotting, exports demolished, amidst a soaring and avoidable death toll, voting for people who won’t feed kids or pay nurses properly, just clapping.”


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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