Jeremy Irons on his love for the Isle of Wight, charity work and doing the actor’s grand slam
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He’s a giant of stage and screen, but Jeremy Irons tells Bernard Bale he could have joined the circus, if only the accommodation had been up to scratch
He has been Batman’s butler, sang at the Last Night of the Proms, won an Oscar, created history by becoming the first ever Chancellor of Bath Spa University and mostly lives in Ireland. So what has Hampshire got to do with Jeremy Irons?
“I was born on the Isle of Wight and I still have a home there. I have always loved the place and have very happy memories of my childhood on the island and of our weekly trips to the mainland,” Jeremy explained.
“I was actually born in Cowes and loved being surrounded by the sea. I used to enjoy boating, climbing trees and walking the dog. Then when my sister, Felicity, grew out of her ponies I used to exercise them. I liked doing my own thing and, if I am honest, I was probably a little wild. Perhaps it was the sea but I had a spirit of adventure from an early age and every time we crossed to the mainland, usually Portsmouth, I saw it as a voyage of discovery or to do battle with pirates, or even be a pirate.
“The sea was my playground and growing up with all the nautical history of the island, Hampshire, the Solent and the English Channel was just perfect.
“My father was an accountant and we had to move to Hertfordshire because of his work. Hertfordshire was very lovely but I must admit that I missed the sea. Then I was sent to boarding school in Dorset but I never lost my love of where I had first grown up.”
With a father who was an accountant it might have been expected that Jeremy would follow in his footsteps but he had other ideas.
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“I could not think of doing what my father did, it was definitely not me. I once thought of joining the circus. I wandered round one night to the back of the Big Top and took a look behind the scenes. The circus workers were living in mobile bunk rooms and I didn’t fancy that – I was far too middle class for that kind of existence. The theatre seemed a better option. I looked behind the scenes there as well and loved the fact that you could get up at 10 o’clock having gone to bed at two which meant being out of sync with everybody else. I loved the smells, I loved the attitude, I loved the fact that some of my colleagues were quite insecure as people, which made them quite open. It was theatre for me.”
Jeremy was admitted to the Bristol Old Vic School where he studied for two years.
“I learned a great deal and the best part was that you were doing productions all the time and there was a lot of encouragement to do well. At ordinary school you’re sometimes looked upon as someone a bit strange if you want to act. At a stage school everyone is there for the same reason. I think you get a more rounded education too because you find yourself appearing in all kinds of productions from Shakespeare to farce. I enjoyed my time there and the Bristol Old Vic is not a bad start to your career.”
Conforming to such education seems unusual for a man who has a reputation or being something of a loose cannon. “I’m not really off-the-wall,” he insists. “I am just my own person and I do things which seem perfectly normal to me but seem to be a little strange to other people. I don’t see that as my fault. I just think that some people have an odd way of viewing life and others.”
Early in his career he played John the Baptist alongside David Essex in the West End musical Godspell. A little later he starred in Kingdom of Heaven with Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson and Eva Green. Both were controversial. Godspell was criticised by some as being blasphemous and Kingdom of Heaven was attacked for depicting the Crusades at a time when there is modern sensitivity about tensions between religions.
“There is nothing like raising the passions,” the 69-year-old laughed. “Whatever you do will please some people and displease others. I prefer to listen to those who are pleased.”
In between his many work commitments Jeremy finds time to compere classical concerts and help charities. At one time he read aloud letters from inmates in Canada to raise money and awareness of a prison service to help offenders re-establish their self-confidence and ability to cope with life on the outside when they are released.
“I like to help where I can, “he said. “There are some serious issues out there which need support. They are very real to those involved. They should be taken seriously but not acting, never take that too seriously, it is just a professional game of pretend.”
Among other things Jeremy will be back on our screens this year as Batman’s butler. Alfred. “There is a very small and select band of us who have played Batman’s butler and it is a great honour even if it is a pretend one,” he said.
He is also one of the few members of an unofficial club in that he has done the actor’s grand slam of an Oscar (for Reversal of Fortune), a Tony and an Emmy. He also added a Golden Globe to his achievements for his role in Elizabeth 1.
“I never know what to say when one of these things is handed to me,” he admitted. “There is no doubting the delight that you feel but it is quite humbling and at the same time embarrassing. Since everyone is looking at you waiting to hear what you are going to say as an acceptance of the award, you feel decidedly uncomfortable. Winning is great but not winning is more comfortable.”
The awards are a tribute to Jeremy’s unmistakable talent. From Brideshead Revisited to providing the voice for Scar, the villainous lion in Disney’s Lion King cartoon, he has set female pulses racing, while at other times he has been so horrible that those same women could cheerfully lob a stiletto at him.
“That’s what acting is about,” he smiles. “If your audience can forget who you are and get involved with your character you know it’s working. I like that. A good production will draw on the emotions of the audience so if that audience doesn’t feel anything you should have done better.”
Away from the screen and the stage which he has graced in many productions and in many of the world’s cities, Jeremy Irons is also something of a daredevil. He loves to ski, ride motorbikes faster than he should and also still has a reputation as a fine horseman.
“I like to live life a little,” he said. “I’m not a wild man or out to create an image. I just believe you should explore your passions. My work is one of my passions and I work hard to perform as well as I can.”
That was obvious back in 1999 when he stole the show at the last Night of the Proms by performing five Noel Coward favourites in the style of the man himself. It was a brilliant performance and one still mentioned regularly by annual Promenaders.
“I put the same effort into my leisure time. Enjoy your time off as fully as you can because you have earned it.”
A champion of so many causes, a dog lover, family man, lover of Ireland, theatre and screen actor, singer and brilliant narrator, what does he like best about his life?
“All of it,” Jeremy said. “I am not the sort of person who enjoys celebrity but I try to turn it into something constructive rather than just signing autographs. I love helping and being active for others as well as for myself and, as for acting, I quite enjoy playing bad guys, I think it brings out the real actor in me. I am naturally a nice person – so I have to work so much harder to be nasty.”
Jeremy still returns to Cowes whenever he can. “I have to, I can’t stay away,” he said. “The whole island is as beautiful as when I was growing up and returning to the mainland is still a marvellous experience. As I stand on the boat and watch the Hampshire coastline getting ever nearer I often have the urge to salute – that’s easier than giving it a big hug!”
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