Richard E Grant is what you might call a mannered actor – and not in any sort of pejorative sense. He qualifies for the description because his bearing and behaviour is so completely and overwhelmingly in the Richard E Grant manner, off screen and on it, that he is probably the first name on a director’s wish list when they’re casting for the sort of role in which he specialises.
Nobody does the parts so often played by ‘Reg’, as he is often referred to by his peers, better. Like that other memorably mannered British actor Noel Coward, Reg is so quintessentially upper class English that he’s practically cornered the market in playing a certain type of flamboyant society sybarite.
So it’s hardly surprising that his career path has eventually wound its way to TV’s sumptuous Edwardian society saga Downton Abbey where, in the keenly-awaited next series, he plays exactly the sort of role which might have been written for him. In fact it probably was written for him – by his friend and inspiration Julian Fellowes, a former character actor who reinvented himself as one of the most successful screenwriters in Britain, and is best known for devising and scripting the multi-award winning Downton.
Their paths first crossed in the hit 2001 film Gosford Park, an intriguing insight into the British class system, scripted by Fellowes who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Grant played an acid-tongued first footman who stole every scene he was in, and there’s every possibility he might do the same in Downton (unless he’s in the same scene as Maggie Smith). But if Fellowes did have him in mind for the part of art historian Simon Bricker, Grant was much too polite to say so when he spoke to Saga Magazine.
“Our paths have crossed socially in the intervening years and he was particularly generous about my writing-directing debut Wah-Wah, having made the leap from being an actor himself”, is all Richard will reveal, although he’s a little more forthcoming on the role itself.
“Bricker is a friend of the Crawley family, invited to Downton Abbey to assess their paintings. He’s well travelled and a gentleman, in the old fashioned sense of the word. He’s impeccably well mannered and charming. When I got sent the script, it was an instant ‘yes.’”
Dame Maggie Smith
And did he settle in immediately with the well-established Downton cast? “I’d worked with Dame Maggie Smith a couple of times before, as well as Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern and Jim Carter. So despite feeling like a new boy at school, everyone was very welcoming. It did feel slightly surreal, having been an avid watcher of the programme, to then find myself actually in it. It was at once familiar and strange.”
It is no surprise that this very English of actors should find himself playing an ‘impeccably well-mannered’ gentleman. But what is a surprise is that Grant didn’t actually set foot in England until he was in his mid twenties, two years after he graduated from Cape Town University in 1980.
In fact he isn’t particularly English at all. His father, Henry Esterhuysen (the ‘E’ in Reg’s stage name) was of Dutch Afrikaner descent, and his mother had mixed German and British ancestry.
Grant was born and brought up in Swaziland, then a British protectorate in southern Africa where his father was minister of education, and attended an independent school which, he says, ‘was mired in a 1960s sensibility. The kind of English spoken where I grew up was a period English sound and when I came to England people said 'how strange'.’
He was once told by the director of Brideshead Revisited that he spoke English ‘like someone from the 1950s.’ But his measured and instantly identifiable enunciation has barely held him back in the three decades he has been consistently in demand as an actor.
His first major role, and still the one for which he is arguably best known, was as the permanently inebriated ‘resting’ actor Withnail, in the cult 1987 film Withnail and I in which he co-starred with Paul McGann and the late and ‘much missed’ Richard Griffiths. ‘Paul and I were scripted to be drunk and disorderly among Cumbria’s finest bone china clientele at Penrith Tea Rooms. The memory of it still makes me laugh. That film changed my life both professionally and personally, beyond all measure.’
Since then he has established himself as one of Britain’s leading character actors in an eclectic choice of roles, from big budget Hollywood productions to small independent films such as Wah-Wah, loosely based on his childhood in Swaziland which he wrote and directed.
A distinctive voice
For someone whose distinctive voice is so much a part of his identity, it is ironic that his wife of 28 years, Joan Washington, is a professional voice coach who has worked on major international productions such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Band of Brothers among many others, but never with her African-born husband. ‘She’s an enormously gifted teacher’, he says. ‘And even though I have had few opportunities to do different accents, her opinion and insight into a role have proved invaluable.’
Reg is shortly to be back on our screens, curling that waspish tongue around his elegantly delivered vowels in characteristic fashion. He’ll be playing his role in the manner of Richard E Grant, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
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