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Denis Lill interview

Our first interview with the TV, film and stage legend.

Denis Lill

Denis Lill is a renowned television and theatre actor best-known for his roles as Charles Vaughan in Survivors and Mr Rose in The Royal. Having had a very successful career for over four decades, Denis is a familiar face on screen and stage.

Currently Denis is starring as Sir Wilfred Robarts QC in a touring production of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. This marks the third time Denis has toured with the company. We caught up with him after the show’s Churchill Theatre Bromley debut to find out more about the play, talk about Denis’ remarkable career and find out the correct way to pronounce his character’s name.

So you’re playing Sir Wilfred Robarts QC in ‘Witness for the Prosecution’. Can you tell us a bit about him?

Well, he’s not pronounced Robarts he’s pronounced ‘Roberts’. He doesn’t like being called ‘Robarts’, so consider yourself well and truly disciplined on that one (laughs). He’s obviously a fairly high-powered Queen’s Counsel, and has been around for a while. This is one of the many thousands of cases he’s tried and some you win, some you lose, but generally speaking he wins, and is a fairly forceful personality. It’s a part that was actually played on the screen by Charles Laughton who really hijacked the character. If any of your readers are familiar with the film…

The Marlene Dietrich film?

The Marlene Dietrich one. Charles Laughton really took the part of Robarts and made it very much a play about him, whereas in actual fact it’s a play about the Old Bailey if anything, and the British form of justice.

He’s a very charismatic character.     

Absolutely, absolutely, yes. He has to be. But he wrote in a lovely part for his wife Elsa Lanchester in the film. Suddenly this nurse appeared; and he had all sorts of medical problems as well, which don’t of course appear in the play at all!

This is the third Agatha Christie play you’ve done, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s right. I played a chap who was trying to pass himself off as a South African millionaire at first, but then turned out to be Police Sergeant so-and-so, whose name eludes me now (William Henry Blore), but that was in And Then There Were None; and then the Police Inspector last year with…

‘Spider’s Web’.

What’s it called? Spider’s Web? Yes! Thank you (laughs) – I’ve just come off stage! And now of course I’ve been promoted to Sir Wilfred Robarts QC.

So how do they compare? You seem to have the meatiest part in this one…

I do, yes. Well, either the parts are meaty or I make them meaty, I’m not sure what happens with that in particular. I like playing Agatha Christie generally because as a playwright, she really is very, very good. She wrote something like nineteen or twenty plays specifically for the theatre, and she’s actually a master, or a mistress rather, of her craft. She knows the theatre, understands how to structure a story, and writes very, very good characters. The interplay between the characters is excellent as well.

They’re quite funny too.

Oh, yes. Can be, indeed. There are lots of moments we can find for little bits of humour. In fact the more the merrier, because it’s all pretty intense stuff. There’s a young man on trial for his life, so the more light-hearted moments we can find the better.

How did you get involved with the Agatha Christie Theatre Company?

I’d been involved in the Bill Kenwright organization on a couple of occasions before and toured with him, and he has a staple of actors that he likes and prefers to use, and I quite like working for him as well. He’s a good chap to work for. Put that in large letters!

I like him, I’m an Evertonian…

Oh really (laughs)? Oh right. He did rather well after selling Wayne Rooney, but anyway… (laughs). But it’s always been a very happy association I’ve had with Bill. He’s always treated me very well and I guess it’s through my association with him that along came the Agatha Christie Theatre Company. And Joe Harmston in particular, our director, picked me up. Also I was fairly well known on television as well, so that helps to get the bums on seats that we have to have in the theatre.

You’ve done tonnes of television…

Oh, yes.

How does touring with a theatrical production compare to working on television?

Well, it’s the difference between working for the theatre and working for television, really. Working in the theatre I have a strange sort of love/hate relationship with. I love it because of the immediacy you have with an audience and the feedback you get straight away, which is great. And it’s nice to be able to play an audience and manipulate an audience, if you like, to get a certain effect back from them. Once you get it, that’s very satisfying. But the trouble is it’s very unsociable hours, and the money sometimes is not particularly good, and also the whole of your day is geared up to what you’re going to be doing that evening. Or in some cases, on a matinee day, the afternoon and the evening. So you can’t really cut loose and go and have a nice long boozy lunch with your mates or anything like that. You’ve got to say to yourself, sorry, I’ve got to keep myself for the evening show. Television on the other hand, you start work very early in the morning, for the cameras to be turning over at nine o’clock, so to a certain extent you have to discipline yourself for that, so you can’t go too mad the night before either (laughs). You can do that during the day, particularly if you have one scene during the day and that scene is finished by ten o’clock in the morning then you go and have your boozy lunch, which is always lovely. And of course, the money’s better (laughs).

You’ve done an awful lot of cult television, like ‘Blackadder’ and ‘Doctor Who’, and of course, ‘Survivors’ [the original], which is one of my favourite television shows, a wonderful series. Do you ever go back to Monmouthshire, or the Peak District, where they filmed it?

I’ve been back to Callow Hill, which is just above Monmouth quite a few times. It took me a long time to really let go of the place because it sort of changed my life in a funny sort of way. We were up there for about six months filming, and I met and made friends, and it’s also a very charismatic place. If there is such a thing as special places in the world, there was something about that place that was very special for me, and I just loved it so much that I kept gravitating back towards it whenever I was in the area I’d pop in to Callow and say hello, and how’s everything going? I haven’t been there for some time now, so I guess I kind of exorcised that particular one (laughs)!

I know a few of my friends in Leeds have visited where ‘Mad Dog’ (an episode of ‘Survivors’) was filmed in the Peak District…

Oh, yes, yes. That’s right, by the railway.

They’ve taken a pilgrimage.

Yes that’s right. It’s got quite a big fan following. It has its own website and all that sort of stuff, and a magazine that comes out once a month, a fanzine. Do you get that?

I haven’t got that.

Oh right, well get onto the website and log on to the fanzine, it’s great.

And of course you’ve appeared in many other cult series. Any favourites?

I was in an Emmy-Award winning episode of Red Dwarf

You were an android in that.

I was an android who later became the leader of the gunmen of the apocalypse. There was death, pestilence, famine, and war. I got to be Lee Van Cleef for a week. I’d always wanted to do a western, great fun!

It was a good set as well, wasn’t it?

Oh, brilliant, yes. It’s still there. It’s actually a Western town where people turn up for the weekend and they leave their cars miles away in the car park, and they put on all the gear and toddle into town. There’s the drunken doctor and the sheriff and all that sort of stuff. I think it’s basically an excuse for a piss-up.

Another great series you did was the Granada ‘Sherlock Holmes’ with Jeremy Brett. You were Inspector Bradstreet in a few episodes.

That’s right, yes.

It was a big series.

It was. I think I did about two or three episodes.

Three, yes.

Because whenever you got outside Inspector Lestrade’s territory, you were in Inspector Bradstreet’s territory, so then I was called in. But I’d known Jeremy and I’d known Ted Hardwicke from before, because I worked with both of them at the National Theatre and at the Old Vic under Olivier’s company, so I knew Jeremy and Ted quite well. It was always a joy to work with them, except the very last episode I did when Jeremy was so ill he couldn’t do it.

I was going to ask about that.

Yes, well they called on his smarter brother, Mycroft. Played by Charles Gray (imitating voice). He came along and did it, which was great fun.

Because Jeremy wasn’t at all well in the last series, was he?

No, he wasn’t particularly well at all, and he died not long afterwards, which was a shame, but he had been rather ill. I’ve no idea what of.

I think it was a heart attack.

I think it was, yes, something like that.

He was a heavy smoker.

Yes, indeed. A heavy drinker, too. A heavy everything. Lived life to the full!

You’ve been in all my favourite series!

Did you see Mapp and Lucia? Or Outside Edge?

Outside Edge! You were Dennis in that.

That’s right, I was, yes.

Rather an odious character, leching over Brenda Blethyn.

Oh, yes, really odious, yes. Absolutely, yes. Wonderful time we had doing that. I made a lot of friends, and of course that’s where I first met Robert Daws, and he and I eventually played together in The Royal. He played the doctor and I played the surgeon.

Where was that shot?

The inside of the hospital was in Bradford, it was actually part of St Luke’s Hospital. But the outside of the hospital was in Scarborough. It was originally to have been called Whitby Royal, but they then had to change the whole thing because they couldn’t find a building in Whitby that looked like a hospital, so it was called The Royal and set in Scarborough, so once a month we’d all go to Scarborough for a week, and just, you know (in Yorkshire accent) have ice-cream and fun!

How do you find Yorkshire?

Oh, I love it. Love it in Yorkshire.

I lived in Leeds for a few years.

Oh, right. Leeds is a good town. Some wonderful places to drink and some wonderful places to eat in Leeds. We had the pick of them all, of course. It was absolutely brilliant. Can’t say the same for Bradford, sadly, unless you like curry.

Yes, great curry houses there! Will you be going to Leeds with ‘Witness for the Prosecution’?

Yes, we are. We’re carrying on until about the end of July, which is what we call the first leg of the tour. The second leg of the tour will start again at Theatre Royal Windsor. Play there for a couple of weeks, and then I think the first place we play after that is Leeds, in the Grand Theatre and Opera House there which is a glorious theatre modelled on La Scala, Milan. Some of the big town halls you find in places like Bradford and Rochdale and Leeds, these multi-millionaire wool merchants would go off to the continent, do the grand tour, see a building in Venice and say (in Yorkshire accent), ‘I’ll have one of them. I’ll have one of them. We’ll do one in Leeds.’ There’s a lovely square in Leeds. In fact there are buildings there that wouldn’t look out of place in Venice. Bradford Town Hall is modelled on an Italian building anyway, and the theatre in Leeds is modelled on La Scala, Milan, so it’s really wonderful.

Well, I’d just like to wish you all the best for the rest of the tour.

Thank you very much.

Denis Lill, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Thank you.

Denis is currently starring in a touring production of ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ which is at The Churchill Theatre in Bromley until Saturday 8th May 2010.

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