He may be a veteran of stage and screen but, at 66, Nicholas Farrell is a long way from old age.
Having trodden the boards of just about every theatre in the land and with an impressive list of film and TV credits spanning four decades – from Chariots of Fire, The Jewel in the Crown and Hamlet to The Iron Lady and The Crown – he has amassed a wealth of experience. And he doesn’t plan on stopping.
‘Old age no longer starts in your sixties, it doesn’t even start in your seventies, thanks to lifestyles, to medicine, and the massive progress that’s been made,’ the actor says. ‘I’ve every intention of carrying on until whichever faculty starts to give out. But retire voluntarily? I’ve got no intention.’
Nicholas, married to actor Stella Gonet, 61, feels our growing longevity is changing society’s attitude about old age.
‘I think we’re increasingly aware that we haven’t valued experience in our society,’ he says. ‘When I was growing up, “OAP” was almost a derogatory term but if you look at other cultures, the elders – the wise – were always those with experience.
‘Somewhere along the line we got seduced into thinking that the generation that mattered was the young. And, of course, the young generation is incredibly important, but hopefully things are turning around and people are being valued for who they are and what they have to offer, from the sum of their experiences.’
A longer version of this article appeared in the December 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today
This philosophy has earned Nicholas the role of the new face of Saga, appearing in both TV and print adverts for our travel, financial and insurance services.
‘One of the things I like about the campaign is its message that just because we’re in our fifties, sixties, seventies and upwards, it doesn’t mean life is over,’ he says.
‘I enjoyed filming the ads a lot. At some points it felt as though I was in training for a seniors’ modern pentathlon because I was shooting, then riding, then on a yacht. Sometimes the temptation is just to flop on a sofa but if we can keep active, even just walking the dog, we should,’ says Nicholas, who cycles a 60-mile round trip, from his home in South West London, out into the Surrey hills, three times a week.
He is currently on stage, playing Scrooge in Mark Gatiss’s new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which opened at the Nottingham Playhouse in late October and runs at Alexandra Palace until 9 January.
‘Theatre is one of the last things to reopen since the pandemic and we’ve all missed it, so, when I was offered the role, I thought: “Yes, let’s do it!”,’ he says.
Nicholas was in his mid-40s when his daughter Natasha was born and, although they sometimes needed to hire au pairs, they tried to ensure one parent was home if the other had to be away for work.
Experience, he says, is not only valuable professionally but was one advantage of coming quite late to fatherhood. ‘Financially, I was a bit more settled,’ he says, ‘and I was a bit more chilled than I was in my twenties.’
And, of course, he had been rather busy in his twenties, appearing in award-winning productions including Chariots of Fire and The Jewel in the Crown.
Nicholas got his first big break 18 months after finishing drama school – Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – playing Aubrey Montague in Chariots of Fire.
Nicholas puts me in mind of the shy Aubrey, preferring to look into the middle distance than maintain eye contact as he talks. He admits it is a relief that his career has been built on being a character actor rather than a leading man, as it has enabled him to keep a low profile in his personal life. ‘I’m happiest being a character actor,’ he says. ‘What I love and feel lucky to be able to do is play a human rights lawyer one year, and a serial killer the next.’
He looks back fondly on filming Chariots of Fire and, to this day, feels a rush of adrenaline when he hears the Vangelis theme tune.
‘I had a great time doing it and met some very impressive people,’ he says. ‘We went up to St Andrews, Fife, to film the closing credit sequence, where we’re running through the water [accompanied by that Vangelis track].
‘A couple of weeks later the production team looked at the rough cut and there had been a technical fault with the camera. So we had to go back and do it all over again.
‘As it turned out, the day of the reshoot was quite windy, so the sea had more character, which just made for far better filming. We ran a few miles up and down the beach again and it worked so much better.
‘We [the cast] all got on so well and really felt like a team. A couple of times a week we’d go to the White City track and Tom McNab, who had been an Olympics sporting coach, was given the job of getting us into shape.’
In 1996, Nicholas played Horatio to Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in the film of the same name, though the two men have been close friends since sharing a dressing room at Stratford some years earlier.
Another career highlight was playing press secretary Michael Shea to Olivia Colman’s Queen in The Crown last year. ‘She is totally focused in the scene but her sense of humour is rather delicious and naughty and you can have a real giggle with her,’ he says, smiling fondly.
Last year Nicholas also took on the role of racehorse trainer in the Welsh film Dream Horse, starring alongside Damien Lewis, Toni Collette and Owen Teale.
‘One day I was sitting around in a chilly tent with all these character actors, and Damien and Owen, all in puffer jackets, when they just started singing these Welsh songs. It was so spontaneous, wonderful to be part of it.’
So, after his run as Scrooge, what’s next for Nicholas? ‘It’s a return to not knowing what’s around the corner, and that’s how it’s been for 40 years,’ he says. But, of course, in the spirit of drawing on decades of experience and making the most of the years ahead, the best may be yet to come. So, does he have a dream job, I wonder?
‘Like most actors of a certain age, King Lear is a part I’d love to have a crack at,’ he says. As he stands to leave, I wonder if it would be rude to point out that, as Lear was ‘fourscore and upward’, Nicholas may have to wait a while…
To read more about Nicholas’s time in lockdown with wife and fellow actor Stella, and his impression of Meryl Streep on the set of The Iron Lady – subscribe to Saga Magazine.