With Summer barely over, plans are already underway at Richmond Theatre for their annual Christmas extravaganza, which, this year, will be Peter Pan with television sitcom favourite Robert Lindsay as Captain Hook and rising musical theatre actor Harry Francis as Peter. Coming straight from a photo shoot on the Golden Hind, the two stars took time out to chat with The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates.
Harry is part of the Francis acting dynasty. Grandfather Raymond was Detective Chief Superintendent Lockhart in hugely popular television police dramas of the ‘50s and ‘60s and father Clive has had prominent roles on stage and screen for several decades. “I still haven’t worked with my dad, I would love to…” he says, smiling ruefully. After a year in the West End in The Book of Mormon, he spent last Christmas playing Tom Thumb in the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Barnum. This year, he is looking forward to spending what little time he has off work at his family home near Richmond.
Asked if he has taken flying lessons in preparation for playing Peter Pan, he replies: “I haven’t for this, but I have flown a few times before. This is the second time I’ve played Peter…in panto nine years ago… and also, as a child I did Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang and, aside from flying in the car, I had a moment when I flew solo…I love it, it’s so much fun..you do really feel like you’re flying after a while, the more you lose the fear of it. That and sword fighting are the things I can’t wait to do again”.
Harry claims that the little boy who didn’t grow up is “completely me; there are photos of me as a kid in the park in a Peter Pan outfit and I grew up with the Disney cartoon and with Hook, which is a fantastic movie, I was obsessed for a while, it’s just such a magical story; I remember my parents taking me to the National Theatre to see the play, it must have been Daniel Evans playing Peter…I think panto is fantastic…the best thing about it is that it’s the first chance for many children to come to the theatre…” Harry enthuses, adding “nowadays when children are introduced to their mobile phones from early on and they have iPads…to have someone there and talking directly at you…it’s so important”.
Robert’s popularity springs largely from the television sitcoms Citizen Smith and My Family, but his other television work includes the gritty dramas of Alan Bleasdale, playing Edmond opposite Laurence Olivier’s King Lear and even an appearance as Tony Blair. In theatre, he has two Olivier Awards and one Tony Award to his credit, with roles ranging from the leads in musical comedies to Hamlet and, before heading to Richmond, he is starring at the Theatre Royal Bath in Terence Rattigan’s In Praise of Love.
Sitting back in a comfortable armchair, being interrupted by calls from his wife about a missing dog (happily later found) he recalls: “as an actor, when I was at RADA, I made the decision that I was going to be as diverse as I possibly could; we’re all pigeon-holed, all actors; when you do a sitcom for a long, long run, like I did on [My Family]…it was very comfortable, it enabled me to do all the theatre jobs that I wanted to do, but it’s slowly slipping out of people’s consciousness now; I’m just thrilled [about the panto], it’s the perfect pantomime, the perfect theatre, the perfect cast”.
For all the diversity in his work, Peter Pan, will mark Robert’s panto debut. “People seem to think that pantomime is some kind of down level from things that you normally do” he explains, adding “well I’m a great admirer of people that do pantomime; if they do it well, it’s brilliant, it’s a great British tradition and it ain’t easy, it’s graft. I used to go and watch my wife who was a principal boy” he remembers and jokes, “I fell in love with a boy!”
Does he see panto as important for introducing children to theatre? “Yes, oh my goodness and also for adults to have a Christmas treat” he replies and then expresses concern about the controversy which erupted last year over a panto thought too lewd. “That’s the danger” he warns, “I went to see one last year when I felt exactly that, a lot of the jokes were going over the kids’ heads”.
“The reason I’m doing this is that it is Peter Pan and I just love the story and also…” he points to the line on the poster that shows Great Ormond Street Hospital as a beneficiary and adds: ”they saved my daughter’s life when she was…four, the most amazing place, so I just feel that it’s a nice thing to be doing at Christmas”. He recalls “when I was ten, I went to see [a panto] at Nottingham Theatre Royal, I think it was Harry Worth; I love variety, I’ve always admired people who can get up and sing, dance, somersault and so on”.
With a swashbuckling Captain Hook under his belt, Robert’s phenomenally diverse career will have taken yet a further turn. So what next? Bearing in mind that Ian McKellen went from playing dame in pantomime to his current King Lear in the West End, can we expect a Lindsey Lear at some time in the future? He smiled, but refused to be drawn on that one.
Peter Pan runs at Richmond Theatre from 8 December 2018 to 6 January 2019
Stephen Bates | Images: Craig Sugden