People of a certain age will know Anthony Head as the suave coffee drinking chap from the hugely successful Nescafe ads of the 1980s. Others will know him as the Prime Minister in Little Britain, David Whelan in Dominion and of course as Rupert Giles in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But the London born actor’s long and illustrious career also includes the stage with stints at the RSC and the National not to mention his West End turn as Frank N Furter in Rocky Horror. And it is the stage that is his current focus of attention thanks to a production of the critically acclaimed Love In Idleness which has just transferred to the Apollo Theatre from the Menier Chocolate Factory.
He tells me the play is actually an amalgamation of two – Terrence Rattigan’s original version, Less Than Kind and actor Alfred Lunts’ reworking of it – by director Sir Trevor Nunn. In it Anthony plays Sir John Fletcher, a tank expert in Churchill’s government during the latter stages of World War Two. Sir John is separated from his much younger wife and is now happily living with Olivia Brown, a vivacious and charismatic widow of two years standing, played by Eve Best. It is clear the pair are besotted with each other.
However, their idyllic set up is disrupted and put in jeopardy when her firebrand son Michael comes home from Canada from where he was evacuated a few years previously. A young socialist, Michael disapproves entirely of his mother’s relationship with Sir John, who he sees as representing everyone that is wrong with society. He sets about to destroy their relationship – forcing her to choose between her lover and son – and in so doing allows the play to explore the subjects of love, passion, politics, ideology and loyalty.
Anthony and I chat shortly before the country voted in the general election and it is clear the role and indeed the play has proved to be a fascinating project for him to work on not least given the current political climate.“The play is set in 1944 and at a time when life had changed enormously because of the war,” he tells me. “For the first time things looked as though they were going in our favour and that we were going to win the war.“
At the same time there was a huge political change with the rise in socialism and of course after the war the country elected a Labour government who went on to create the Welfare State and the NHS.“It’s much like today in many ways. We are in the midst of an election, there’s the whole issue of Brexit and it feels as though the political landscape is shifting. “Within the play we see how Olivia and Sir John enjoy their dinner parties and taking part in political discussions. It makes this production very current and relevant so I hope audiences will enjoy it and be entertained but also think about the parallels.”
But he insists it is not just a platform to discuss politics citing the incredible humour within the piece that have had audiences laughing loudly ever since it opened at the Menier.“What Trevor [Nunn] has done with the two plays is brilliant,” Anthony says warmly. “He’s got the best of both and written it really well. When I saw the script it was clear how extraordinary it was. There are so many genres – it’s got themes of love and what it is to find love and keep it, as well as drama, Noel Coward-esque farce, real sadness, passion and political conscience – with clear and obvious references to Hamlet and elements of Chekhov. It’s very clever.“
There is also great characterisation. Sir John is an industrialist, a multi millionaire and minister of tank production. It’s likely he is loosely based on Lord Beaverbrook who was Churchill’s right hand man during the war. “He is separated but not divorced from his younger trophy wife but has now found his soul mate in Olivia – so everything in his life is hunky dory, that is until Michael comes along! “Michael comes back from Canada, a socialist, with an expectation that his mother will be lonely but finds she is living in this nice house with me hanging around. He is petulant and annoying and sees me as a dreadful capitalist, someone who has seduced his poor defenceless mother – so there is a huge head on collision both culturally, politically and emotionally.
“Sir John comes across initially as quiet and modest but he’s got a steely determination and is really a schemer just like Michael and is more than a match for him. You see how underhand he is at the end – though he does what he does with the very best of intentions! “It’s a really meaty piece and it’s been such a joy to be part of. In fact it was a no brainer – when you get a call from Sir Trevor Nunn and find out Eve Best is on board, I couldn’t wait to get to rehearsals!” He adds joking that his enthusiasm was tempered somewhat when he realised that they only had four rather than six weeks rehearsal before opening at the Menier. But he needn’t have worried because the reception it got secured it a West End transfer which he describes as “wonderful”.
“Audiences seem to have found more life in it and have laughed more raucously!” he laughs.He also chuckles as he tells me he now regards himself as something of an “expert in tanks” thanks to the research he did for the role and recommends a visit the Cabinet War Rooms for anyone interested in the history.“Churchill was an extraordinary man, and the Cabinet War Rooms is an incredible place,” he says. “Trevor did a lot of research and got Pathe news footage from that period which is cleverly projected onto the stage at various intervals. It shows images from the war as well as afterwards such as when Labour was elected and the subsequent creation of the NHS and Welfare State – something that is now so current for us all.”
Although he’s clearly fascinated by politics, it’s acting that has always been in his blood. However, given his illustrious career it comes as a surprise that Anthony undertook acting lessons when he moved to LA just before landing his role in Buffy. He credits his partner Sarah with the idea and says it was “absolutely the right thing to do”.
“I acknowledge the fact I’ve been hugely fortunate,” he says warmly about his longevity in what is a notoriously tricky business. “Sarah encouraged me to go to America to work and when I rang her up after two months of being out there she told me to go and get on with it and go and get acting classes. It led to my first job out there and then Buffy, which in turn led to Little Britain and Dr Who, all of which were very different roles.“The bottom line is it’s hard work trying to make sure you are not pigeonholed though.“However, Giles in Buffy was a wonderful step as I’d always been a young romantic lead and he was a real character role. It gave me an ‘in’ to a completely new world. I knew it was going to be good because the writing was so brilliant but I don’t think any of us realised how huge it would be. We had a great time with it.”And he says he’d do the coffee ad again. “It changed my life – and the face of advertising – so yes, I’ve been very lucky.”