Derek Ja­cobi

He’s been in ev­ery­thing from Doc­tor Who and Gos­ford Park to Vi­cious and Glad­i­a­tor. As he cel­e­brates his 79th birthday, though, Sir Derek Ja­cobi has no in­ten­tion of putting his feet up, and his new film, Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press, re­unites him with old

Gay Times Magazine - - Contents - WORDS joshua win­ning

In a cab­i­net at his home in Hamp­stead, Sir Derek Ja­cobi has a col­lec­tion of tro­phies that would turn Meryl Streep green with envy. His ac­cou­trement of Tony, Emmy and BAFTA awards is im­pres­sive by any­body’s stan­dards, and when Derek speaks of them, his voice low­ers to a hushed reg­is­ter as if he’s not quite sure what to make of them. “I sup­pose they’re sym­bols of stages of my ca­reer, in which I was very lucky to be con­sid­ered good enough to be given a prize,” he tells us, “but I don’t set too much stall by them. They’re re­ally mark­ers of dis­tance trav­elled.”

That’s some dis­tance. With more than

140 screen cred­its to his name alone, plus a Golden Globe nom­i­na­tion, two Lau­rence Olivier Awards and a dou­ble knight­hood, Derek has forged a for­mi­da­ble ca­reer from hum­ble be­gin­nings. Even now, such ac­co­lades are clearly a shock to this Ley­ton­stone lad, whose mother was a sec­re­tary in a drap­ery, his father a sweet shop owner in Ching­ford, and whose schol­ar­ship to study at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge was just the start of what, from the out­side, ap­pears some­thing of a charmed life.

It’s per­haps no sur­prise that, when he speaks of sus­tain­ing a healthy re­la­tion­ship with his part­ner Richard Clif­ford, Derek’s pre­scrip­tion of laugh­ter above all else could also be his mantra for life. “A sense of hu­mour is es­sen­tial!” he says. “Oh gawd, yes. You stay much health­ier if you can laugh. A sense of send-up and not tak­ing things too se­ri­ously, see­ing the funny side of things... It’s a great help be­cause it makes one less pompous; it takes the pom­pos­ity out of ev­ery­thing.”

That could ex­plain how, af­ter so many suc­cesses, he re­mains so af­fa­bly grounded. De­spite a brief bout of stage fright in the

80s, he’s that rare breed of ac­tor who’s as com­fort­able on the stage as he is on TV and in the movies. His grace and charm have warmed up ev­ery­thing from his por­trayal as Ian McKellen’s part­ner in Vi­cious and Russell Crowe’s shrewd ally in Glad­i­a­tor to a role as a scream­ingly aw­ful thes­pian in an eighth sea­son episode of Frasier.

And if you thought 60 years in the in­dus­try was enough for this newly 79-year-old ac­tor, think again. “Good heav­ens no!” he shrieks at mere men­tion of the word “re­tire­ment”. “I’m for­tu­nately in a pro­fes­sion that, un­less you’re ill or you can’t speak or some­thing falls off, you can go on for­ever. As long as you have the en­ergy and the health and the stamina, and the where­withal to learn it, you keep go­ing. It’s re­ju­ve­nat­ing. Act­ing is a re­ju­ve­na­tor. You have to keep one foot in the cra­dle through­out your life be­cause you’ve got to re­mem­ber what the child was like.”

When projects like this month’s Agatha Christie adap­ta­tion Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press keep chug­ging his way, it’s easy to un­der­stand the con­tin­ued al­lure of em­ploy­ment. It’s this film, in which Derek plays Johnny Depp’s manser­vant, that we’ve met to dis­cuss to­day, and while he de­scribes Johnny as “very nice”, Derek lights up when dis­cussing re­unit­ing with direc­tor Ken­neth Branagh. “I’ve known Ken since he was 18-years-old,” he says. “He came into my dress­ing room at the Old Vic when I was playing Ham­let in the late 70s, and he came in to interview me for a piece in his drama school’s mag­a­zine. At the end of the interview he said, ‘One day I’m go­ing to play Ham­let.’”

Ken­neth went one bet­ter, not only es­say­ing Ham­let on stage, but di­rect­ing a canon­i­cal film ver­sion in 1996 and cast­ing Ja­cobi as King Claudius. “He’s kept me in work!” chuck­les Derek, whose in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the char­ac­ter was lauded as the defin­ing por­trayal. He’s teamed up with Ken­neth nu­mer­ous times since, but it’s their latest pro­ject that per­fectly bridges the duo’s love for both the stage and and screen.

“It’s all set on the train, so it very much felt like a the­atre com­pany,” he says of film­ing in the UK. “And of course it was full of stage ac­tors, too. My­self, Judi Dench etc, who knew each other and got on well. We played a lot of games! Judi’s a big game fan and so am I. Word games, mainly, be­cause we didn’t have cards. Very in­tel­lec­tual! Oh, very in­tel­lec­tual. It was a very jolly time for all of us. Al­though we were do­ing a mur­der mys­tery, we had lots of fun.”

Derek’s unas­sum­ing na­ture makes him an un­usu­ally mod­est in­ter­vie­wee. When asked about the real-life gay figures he’s played over the years, he rules out any grand sense of duty to the com­mu­nity. “I went into them as an ac­tor be­ing of­fered two won­der­ful parts,” he ex­plains of first por­tray­ing Alan Tur­ing in 1996’s Break­ing the Code, for which he re­ceived a BAFTA nod, and then artist Fran­cis Ba­con in 1998’s Love Is the Devil.

“We love each other. We’re great friends, we sup­port each other; what­ever I’ve lacked he pro­vides and vice versa. We just get on.”

“I wasn’t pros­e­lytis­ing at all,” he adds.

“That wasn’t in my head. If that was a con­se­quence of what I did, and what peo­ple saw, what peo­ple took from it, what­ever it gave them, how­ever it added to the cause of gay lib­er­a­tion, then that was fine, that was won­der­ful, but it wasn’t my prime mo­ti­va­tion.”

Soft-spo­ken but un­afraid to voice his thoughts (“you say these are per­sonal ques­tions but you keep ask­ing them!” he gen­tly ad­mon­ishes Gay Times at one point), Derek ad­mits he’s never been “deeply politi­cised” about the gay move­ment.

“I knew I was dif­fer­ent,” he says of re­al­is­ing he was gay at a young age. “I knew that as soon as I be­came a think­ing crea­ture. That to me was the deck I’d been dealt. That was fine. I ac­cepted it and car­ried on. I didn’t fight against it. I ac­cepted it and took what it of­fered.”

He also re­mem­bers well the part de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in 1967. “I was... Hold on, I’m count­ing,” he says. “Yeah I was 29! Cer­tainly I hoped I’d see it in my life­time. I sup­pose like ev­ery­body I felt re­lief. I felt a sense of re­lax­ation, of not hav­ing to be wary, a sense of ac­cep­tance of be­ing part of the whole, which I hadn’t been be­fore. I knew what I was and who I was. All my friends and fam­ily knew and that was it, you know. I sup­pose when it be­came le­git­i­mate, that I could join the big­ger fam­ily, that was a great re­lief and a great com­fort.”

Fam­ily, it seems, is im­por­tant to him. This year marks the 40th an­niver­sary of Derek’s re­la­tion­ship with Richard, whom he met in a pub on Water­loo Road in the mid-70s. “We’re quite proud of it,” he says of the an­niver­sary. The pair qui­etly en­tered into a civil part­ner­ship in 2005, just six months af­ter the leg­is­la­ture was passed through govern­ment, and now that gay marriage is also le­gal, they plan to tie the knot. “We’re do­ing it be­cause we want to,” he says. “There’s no pub­lic rea­son. We love each other and we want to. We’re great friends, we sup­port each other; what­ever I’ve lacked he pro­vides and vice versa. We just get on.”

In re­cent years, of course, he’s more vis­i­bly flown the flag. In 2015, Derek and long-time friend Ian McKellen were in­vited to grand mar­shall the New York Pride, in part be­cause of the suc­cess of their TV series Vi­cious.

“I loved it!” Derek en­thuses. “It was ex­haust­ing ‘cos it was also rain­ing and we were sit­ting in an open-top car for three hours, wav­ing fu­ri­ously. It was won­der­ful... all the way down Fifth Av­enue, all the way down to Green­wich Vil­lage.”

With re­tire­ment off the cards, Derek has a typ­i­cally busy year ahead. Af­ter Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press, he has a role in Hip­pie Hip­pie Shake, star­ring Cil­lian Mur­phy as counter-cul­tur­al­ist Richard Neville, and then he’s ap­pear­ing op­po­site Ru­pert Everett in 18th-cen­tury drama Swords and Scep­tres, about the Queen of Jhansi. “The great thing about the­atre and film and tele­vi­sion, any per­form­ing art, is that they cater for all gen­er­a­tions, so you just grow into your age and the parts that you can play,” he says. As for to­day... “I’m go­ing around to see a house into which we’re mov­ing later this year,” he tells us, “and then I’m go­ing to two re­cep­tions, so it’s quite a busy day!” Even when you have a cab­i­net full of tro­phies, putting his feet up is the last thing on this thes­pian’s mind.

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