Nigel Havers has thrown himself into the spirit of the Saga Magazine Christmas cover shoot, gamely dodging a barrage of fake snowballs. But when the photographer suggests he has a go himself, a rather different expression comes across those famously charming features. Havers – a cricket fan – bowls a surprise direct hit on the photographer’s head: momentarily obliterated in a snow explosion. ‘Gosh, sorry!’ he cries. Everyone collapses into laughter. It’s been an afternoon of genuine fun.
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More than 35 years after he sprinted onto the big screen in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, fun is very much an essential in Havers’ life. As much in demand as ever, right now he is having a ball rehearsing his 14th panto in a row, this time as Captain Nigel in Dick Whittington, alongside Julian Clary and Elaine Paige at the London Palladium. ‘It’s hysterical,’ he says. ‘I play myself, for some reason always trying to get into the scene. I get to walk from home to work too, which is lovely.’ But it cuts across Christmas? He laughs: ‘Quite handy, that! It gets me out of it.’
Next up is a UK tour of Art, the multi-award-winning comedy, alongside Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson: ‘I like doing Art more than anything. It’s hilarious. I do it every five years and love every minute of it. It’s ostensibly about a painting, but it’s really about male friendship.’ Ever the enthusiast, he says he especially loves touring in the regions: ‘Much better than the West End where you look out on a sea of tourists’ faces’.
Another bonus is that his wife Georgiana travels with him. He and ‘George’, ex-wife of Canadian-American business tycoon Edgar Bronfman Sr, have been married for 11 years. ‘She is just brilliant,’ he says, his face lighting up. ‘She’s the best thing that’s happened to me.’
George was a friend of his second wife Polly Williams (whom Nigel married in 1989) and, when Polly was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, helped Nigel nurse her. They got together after Polly died in 2004.
‘I’ve dealt with it. It’s one of those things. What can you do?’ he says of her death. ‘Polly had years of chemo, and fought hard, but was very, very ill for a long time,’ he says, quietening as he remembers her last days. ‘Then she sort of caved in. She was in hospital and in a coma for a few days. I was living in the hospital, and my mother came to see me and took me out to dinner. When I went back I sat beside Polly and sort of stroked her and said, “Look, just relax”.
‘I just wanted her to let it go, she was in such a poor state of health. But she suddenly came out of the coma, and said, “F*** off!”. The last two words she ever said to me! She died the next day.’
He smiles ruefully and shakes his head. ‘It made me laugh, it was very much her: “I’ll do it my way!” She kept me on my toes. George is the opposite, very calm, totally unfazed by anything. She lets me get on with the acting, although she doesn’t necessarily think it’s a grown-up job, which I quite like.’ He smiles, eyes shining.
‘The casting couch didn’t happen to young men as far as I know. Except a woman did make a pass at me when I was in my twenties. She was going to interview me and said, “Come to my hotel room”. When I got there she was in a dressing gown and it was like something out of a movie.'
With his raffish charm and sense of fun, Nigel has always been catnip to women. We’re talking about the Harvey Weinstein scandal (‘I’m still trying to get my head round that. I’ve never met him, but… just repulsive’) when he pauses. ‘The casting couch didn’t happen to young men as far as I know. Except a woman did make a pass at me when I was in my twenties. She was going to interview me and said, “Come to my hotel room”. When I got there she was in a dressing gown and it was like something out of a movie. One had a sixth sense. It was pretty obvious, although not what I wanted.’ He looks a bit embarrassed. ‘Anyway, nothing happened. We did the interview and that was that.’
That easy style has to stem from his privileged background: his family includes many distinguished lawyers. His grandfather was the trial judge in the Ruth Ellis case, his aunt is retired judge Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, his brother is a QC. His father, Sir Michael Havers, was Attorney-General and the man who successfully defended the Rolling Stones in the notorious ‘Butterfly on a Wheel’ drugs bust.
‘I have been trying to get a film made about that summer of ’67,’ he says. ‘I want to play my father, but I’m getting on a bit. He was only 44, so they’ll probably want Colin Firth! It’s a story about a father and son relationship, quite rocky. I went to boarding school and didn’t really know my father. For nine and a half months you didn’t see your parents. There wasn’t a conflict, he was simply a stranger to me – until that summer.
‘I was 14 and my brother and I were mad about the Stones, though my parents thought they were outrageous. We were watching TV when news of the drugs bust came on. My father said, “Typical!
I hope they don’t ask me to defend them.” An hour later the phone rang and, of course, he was.
‘So he confided in me all that summer: “Tell me about them,” and “OK Nige, what do you think they should wear in court?” From there on in we were good friends. It made a big difference.’
The final appeal was on the last day of July. ‘I went to court with Dad, and as we crossed over Fleet Street, Dad held my hand and I realised that his hand was all sweaty – he was nervous.
‘But he stood up for two hours and that was it, got them off. I loved it. There was a big party after at my parents’ flat in the Temple. Marianne Faithfull came and she was so beautiful. I was sitting on the floor talking to her and she crossed her legs and she had no knickers on. It was the most wonderful moment for a boy!
'When I went to bed that night, on my bed was Mick [Jagger]'s suit, which he’d worn in court, so I put it on. It fitted!'
‘Mick went off in a helicopter to do that famous interview [with an establishment panel that included The Times editor William Rees-Mogg and the Bishop of Woolwich for Granada TV’s World in Action] and had changed into a kaftan. When I went to bed that night, on my bed was Mick’s suit, which he’d worn in court, so I put it on. It fitted! In the back pocket was a wedge of 200 quid, which I gave to Dad to send back to him.’ He grins. ‘I wore that suit all day the next day.’
Nigel has starred in many TV productions from Downton to Coronation Street and worked solidly in the theatre, but confesses he would have liked to be in more films. ‘You’ve really got to put yourself about and be quite aggressive. Probably my fault, I’m just not ambitious enough. I’m a bit naughty, could never really be bothered.
‘In LA when Chariots won the Oscar people said, “You must stay, there are so many meetings”. I said, “I can’t. I’ve got to go home, I’m doing Jackanory!” Anyway, does it matter if you become rich and hugely famous or not? If I had millions it would just worry me, I’d just feel guilty about it – it would be a burden. I just want enough to get by.
‘Over the years Chariots made me a million, but it all went on three marriages and this, that and the other. Also I like to spend it, I’m a great believer in making money circulate! My accountant used to say to me, “Can you please try to not spend it before you get it?” I would celebrate and spend it the day I got the job, when I was filming, and then again when the cheque arrived. Three times.’
Handsome and twinkly, he looks remarkably boyish and nothing like his 65 years: ‘I’m so glad you said that,’ he laughs. ‘I’ve been really lucky. It’s handy as an actor, you can still sort of get under the radar.’
Dressed in immaculate Paul Smith blazer and jeans, he is lean and athletic: ‘That’s my job’. He keeps the years at bay with discipline: he eats sparsely – no fatty or sweet things – gives up wine for Lent and has just done Sober October. He’s been going to the same gym in Chiswick for 35 years and walks miles every day. ‘The Mercedes is in the garage and I doubt I’ve done 100 miles this year,’ he says. Which is how he came to be such a fierce anti-pollution advocate. ‘I went on the Eddie Mair show on Radio 4 to talk about fumes from cars sitting with their engine running. I knock on windows and say, “Excuse me, do you mind turning your engine off?”’
He laughs. ‘You can imagine the reaction I get sometimes! But Westminster council printed up these cards for me to hand out that say 115 balloons full of toxic air, which includes cyanide, is released every minute from an idling car. If all the idling engines were shut off now in London, pollution would be reduced by a third. Just like that.’
Hobbyhorses aside, he is in little danger of becoming a Grumpy Old Man (‘Although I did the series, great fun!’). He is much too upbeat for that. And retirement does not figure at all. ‘What would I do with myself? My life is now set. It consists of me and George and our dog Charlie. We have a lovely flat in London, a place in the country and a little place in France. When I work I like what I do, and when I’m not working I’m at home with someone I love. That’s pretty good. I can’t complain about a thing and I don’t. If I hadn’t met George I don’t know what I would have done after Polly. It’s very hard to find someone who fits into your ways when you’re older. But I’m proof that you can.’
He uses the word older, but doesn’t feel it. ‘I used to be the youngest everywhere and now sometimes I’m the oldest,’ he laughs. ‘But this is my very happiest time. I can see why. You get to a certain age and you relax more.’
He pauses and reflects. ‘I’m a late developer. I think I’ve grown into myself.’ Has he grown up though? ‘Not really, no. I don’t want to do that. Maybe I’ll have on my tombstone: Never Knowingly Grew Up.
‘Still, better than that screenwriter in Hollywood who never really made it and he’s got on his gravestone: “At last, a plot”. I love that!’
And off he goes, leaving laughter in his wake.
Dick Whittington runs at the London Palladium from 9 Dec to 14 Jan. Book tickets via the Saga Box Office, saga.co.uk/panto
Art opens on 14 Feb at Cambridge Arts Theatre then tours the UK. See ents24.com
This article was first published in the December 2017 issue of Saga Magazine.
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