Interview : Sir Derek Jacobi

Nicola Venning 4 August 2021

The lively legend of stage and screen, Sir Derek Jacobi, opens up about the beginnings of his career, the meaningless of awards and meeting his now husband, Richard Clifford

Sir Derek Jacobi is feeling a bit chipper. After a terrible year which has devasted the entertainment industry,  things are looking up. Lockdown has now ended, venues are reopening and Derek is itching to get back to normal. “I cannot wait to go to the theatre and have dinner with friends afterwards.  I cannot wait”, says the scion of stage and screen. Despite his advanced years (he is nearly 83),  he has already been offered a film role, shooting this July. “I think it would be silly to say no after all this time, so I think I will say yes…”.  

Softly spoken, charming, with a dapper sense of dress, Derek has been acting royalty for decades. He had already forged an illustrious reputation in the theatre before he shot to fame playing the stuttering, reluctant Roman emperor in the TV series I, Claudius for the BBC in 1976.  Despite skimpy sets and a low budget, it was an unlikely hit and kept the nation entranced. “Having hardly done any telly, I was  suddenly being fed into people’s homes twice a month (in the TV series).” The role and his performance, poured rocket fuel on an already sparkling career.

“Within 2 years of I Claudius, I was starring on Broadway,  that’s the kind of game-changer it was. Every actor wants a few peaks like that; but I have had a couple of big ones (Hamlet, Cyrano de Bergerac), but the really big one was I Claudius.”

"The role and his performance, poured rocket fuel on an already sparkling career"

Jacobi in I Claudius

I, Claudius: Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, and George Baker 

Big stars as diverse as Charlton Heston and Ronnie Barker had been mooted for the title role and the then relatively unknown actor was low on the list of contenders. However, hungry for the part, he produced one of his best performance ever – off-screen "at an Italian restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush, when I had to charm the arse off the American producer (who was making I Claudius for the BBC). We finished up the meal and they gave me the part.” Derek went on to play a gamut of screen roles from the medieval monk Cadfael in the eponymous TV series, to co-worker Mr Wheen in the children’s film Nanny McPhee.

His work on stage, particularly in classical roles (he has played Hamlet over 400 times, the first occasion was when he was still at school), is equally renowned. His performances in Peer Gynt, Lear and Uncle Vanya are legendary. He was a founder member of the National Theatre (in 1962) having been invited to join the new company by Sir Laurence Olivier. “That company was gold dust”, says Derek. “Laurence Olivier directed me and I got to work with John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, and Bob (Robert) Stephens. I was fresh from The Birmingham Repertory Theatre and suddenly in the company of people who were huge outside the theatre: film stars and knights of the realm.”

It wasn’t long however, before Derek was earning equal recognition and as his career progressed, a Bafta, a Tony and numerous other theatre acting awards, all followed – although speaking to him, you would never know it:  he comes across as unfailingly modest.  “Acting awards are a bit hit and miss really; do you know what I mean? It’s in the eye of the beholder. I have never really been easy with critics and for someone to say, “OK you are best actor this year, for this part” – well,  I just find it all a bit strange.  The only good thing is that it enhances your reputation and possibly you get more work.”

Derek Jacobi as Hamlet at The Old Vic, London, 1979

Two accolades which do mean a lot to him, are his knighthoods: one Danish and the other British. The only other actor to be similarly awarded was Laurence Olivier, “so I am very proud of those”, he says. The British award was particularly fun. “I was sent a letter, saying I was being considered for a knighthood. Would I like one? There is  a little box to tick “yes” and a little box to tick “no”. I wonder who ticks “no”?” he asks mischievously.

It is all a far cry from the working-class world of East London where he grew up. His father ran a sweet shop and his mother was a secretary in a drapery store. Derek was a doted-upon only child. A grammar school boy, Derek won a scholarship to Cambridge to read history. His contemporaries included theatre director Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen who had a crush on him: “a passion that was undeclared and unrequited”, as McKellen relates it.

"It is all a far cry from the working-class world of East London where he grew up"

His performance of Edward II at the university, led to him being invited to join The Birmingham Repertory Theatre after graduating in 1960. And even though an acting career was as unlikely as flying to the moon for someone from his background, his parents were always very supportive.  “If you want to do it son, you do it”, my dad would say. But Shakespeare was way, way, beyond anything they knew. When I was at the National it didn’t mean anything; then, when I was in I Claudius, (and on television) they could see it and my mum could talk to all the neighbours ‘cos they knew about me. I owe them a great deal,” says Derek.

He lives with theatre director, Richard Clifford, in West Hampstead, London. Richard first approached him after a play, saying he was a fan. Derek was in his forties, living alone and Richard was seventeen years his junior. They have been together over forty-three years. Their age difference “has not been a problem so far”.  The secret to their successful relationship is, Derek says because “we are friends. We have gifts to give each other”.  Did they ever want to adopt or have surrogate children? “No. I like other people’s children and I have several god-children but no, I didn’t want children. At the end of the day, I like to put them in the cupboard…away”, he says.  They entered into a civil partnership in 2007 and were married three years ago on Derek’s 80th birthday.  

A scene from Othello, 1965

Kenneth Mackintosh, Laurence Olivier, and Derek Jacobi in Othello, 1965.

They spent much of lockdown reading (Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, Napoleon by Adam Zamoyski and Mr Cadmus by Peter Ackroyd, were all favourites), gardening and walking with their beloved Irish terrier Daisy. “She makes people smile she has a lovely nature. And they are a doggy size; they are not small and not huge they are just the right size,” he says.

Inevitably, despite the constrained times, Derek was called on for the occasional role. Under lockdown he was the Narrator in a filmed theatre production of Romeo & Juliet and he also narrated the audiobook of Captain Sir Tom Moore’s biography. “We have a house in France and some of the recordings involved sitting in a wardrobe with duvets”. Once back home in West Hampstead, things were easier. “My other half has very cleverly fitted up a recording studio at the end of the gardenit’s very good. There is no need for a taxi or the tube. I just walk to end of the garden.”

Life then, is generally good. However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. In 2014 he had prostrate cancer, (he’s now in remission) and then later the same year,  a bad fall while on holiday in the Maldives. “I ruptured (the tendons in both) knees. When I did it, I thought this is paraplegic; this is wheelchair.” He had to spend eight weeks in hospital  but “fortunately I fully recovered.” And Richard was there of course to help him. “I am finding the older I get, the more I get, in a way, reliant on him. I am coming up 83 so little bits are dropping off.. I dedicated January (2021) to maintenance.. my back, teeth, eyes… all that carry on”. Not that Derek allows old age too slow him down too much.

Derek Jacobi and his husband Richard Clifford in 2015

With husband Richard Clifford at the 2015 NYC Pride March

Prior to lockdown, he was working on Last Tango in Halifax, the BBC series by Sally Wainwright which finished its fifth run in early 2020. Derek plays patient, decent, Alan Buttershaw who marries his childhood sweetheart, rather bossy Celia played by Anne Reid.  Working class “Alan”, tapped into a part of Derek which he has not normally played.

“Whatever acting reputation I’ve got, is for rather posh, classical theatre, costumes and lots of wigs,” he says. “But the lovely casting director (of Last Tango in Halifax), said let’s give Derek something ordinary. And that is, in fact,  my background: ordinary East London. It was rather lovely to do a Joe Bloggs character.” Originally the show was about love at any age and it has proven to be a huge hit. One critic summed it up as a “triumph against TV’s ageism” – much to Derek’s delight. “I don’t feel my age thank goodness. (The entertainment industry) is one of the professions that if everything is working you can carry on.”

"I don’t feel my age thank goodness"

So much so, that Derek and Anne ended up making a debut album together:  You Are The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me, a collection of duets from The Great American Songbook.  “Anne does cabaret here and has done it in America and there was one episode (in Last Tango) where I serenaded her. She said, I didn’t know you could sing. Let’s make a record! And so we did. And I loved it, I just loved it” he says.

So  does he never tired of the world of  work? “I heard a phrase apparently used by Clint Eastwood (when he was directing) when he was asked how he coped with old age and all the rigours of a film studio. Apparently, Eastwood said, “I don’t let the old man in”, which is my watchword,” says Derek. And without doubt it is.  

Read more: Why Amy Winehouse's death still carries lessons for society

Read more: Anoushka Shankar: I Remember

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter