Jeremy Irons: Why our TV isn’t what it used to be

Jeremy Irons: Why our TV isn’t what it used to be

Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons tells Roya Nikkhah why he fears Britain’s ‘smutty, shower-room’ broadcasting is contributing to the breakdown of society

Jeremy Irons has an almighty bee in his bonnet. “Why are we doing this to ourselves as a society? In the name of what?” he demands in that gravelly voice, banging his fist down on a wooden table.

The spiralling standards of our nation’s broadcasters, in particular the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand “Sachsgate” scandal, is making his blood boil. “I just thought, this is smutty, shower-room nonsense. Why is it on the radio? Surely it can’t be in the name of actually building and nurturing a society that we value and that will be admired by people. I think there is a way of showing manners and behaviour that we would hope people would have in life in our broadcasting.

“It doesn’t mean it all has to be middle-class, shire-orientated behaviour. But good manners and kindness are what hold our society together. And I would think that broadcasting would try and convey that. If we don’t have respect for each other then everything breaks down.”

He is equally riled by the kind of films and television that are deemed suitable for children. “I was talking to a friend the other day whose kids wanted to watch a film. It was rated 15, they were 14, so he looked in when they were watching it and couldn’t believe it. It was all violence, terrible language, several sex scenes. I know children know everything from the age of 12, but still… Now it’s ‘forget about the watershed, forget about what we show our kids’. It’s not good.”

Rant over, Irons sits back in his chair and lights the first of many roll-up cigarettes, hugging his long thin legs to his chest against the cold, which he says he will gladly endure so that he can freely pursue his “favourite vice” while we talk.

Irons had been due to work with Russell Brand next year on a new Hollywood film adaptation of The Tempest (Brand has been aptly cast as the potty-mouthed Trinculo) but tells me he has wriggled out of the production by tactfully finding another project, a film about the love affair between the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe and the photographer Alfred Steiglitz that clashes with The Tempest’s schedule.

“I’ve decided not to do it because they offered me Alfonso, the most extraordinarily boring part in Shakespeare,” he says, laughing.

Today, he’s just finished recording Mr Luby’s Fear of Heaven, a John Mortimer play for Radio 4. He plays Lewis Luby, a writer and critic who doesn’t believe in the afterlife but, after falling into a coma following an accident, wakes in what he thinks might be heaven.

Irons has arrived at the west London recording studio on one of his beloved motorbikes — acting aside, motorbikes and hunting are his two great passions — and says that his bikes have resulted in some near misses. At 60, when he skids around a corner or comes tumbling off his mount, does he, like Mr Luby, ever ponder what may or may not await us when our time is up?

“Not at all,” he replies matter-of-factly. “For me, heaven or hell is what we leave of ourselves behind for other people. That is the afterlife for me. That’s probably what it’s meant to be.”

It is the first time that Irons and Mortimer have been reunited since the latter wrote the screenplay for the 1981 television adaptation of Brideshead Revisisted, in which Irons played Charles Ryder opposite Anthony Andrews’ Sebastian Flyte, a role that catapulted him to stardom.

Despite much prompting, he has remained notably silent on the subject of this year’s film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s classic, starring Emma Thompson, Matt Goode and Michael Gambon. So what did he think when he heard there was to be a re-make?

“Well, about three years ago they actually sent me the script because they wanted me to play Lord Marchmain but I couldn’t get [Laurence] Olivier out of my head, [Olivier played Lord Marchmain in the 1981 adaptation] so I passed on it.

“At first I thought, how come we took 13 hours to tell this story? But later, thinking about it, I thought they’d set themselves a big task. The television series worked because it was allowed the luxury of telling the story at its own pace, which we rarely allow now and I don’t think they could give it the full weight that television gave it.

“Then I thought it might be quite witty to play Charles’s father, so I said why don’t I play him, but they said no, you’re too upper class for that,” he continues, raising an eyebrow. “Actually, in the novel, Charles’ father is bookish but still fairly upper class, but I think it [the film] got slightly vulgarised because perhaps the makers felt that would help the drama — that the audience were not as perceptive now, which is not true.”

So has he seen the new film?

“Seen it?” he repeats with undisguised disdain. “No. It would be a bit like going to a party hoping I could be introduced to my ex-wife. It’s not something I would do. There are a lot of films I would like to see, and Brideshead is fairly low down on the list.”

Since making his mark as Charles Ryder and starring opposite Meryl Streep in the film adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman in 1981, Irons has never been out of work. He is one of those rare British actors who have had their pick of the best roles going in Hollywood, including the leads in Dead Ringers, Damage, The House of Spirits and the 1997 remake of Lolita.

Although he picked up an Oscar in 1991 for his sinister portrayal of Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune, a dramatisation of the story behind how his socialite wife, Sunny, who died only recently, slipped into a 28-year coma, it was Irons’ role in the animated film The Lion King that won him a legion of young fans. His dark brown tones sent shivers down the spine of millions of children when he provided the voiceover for the villainous Scar.

In 2005, Irons won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his role as Robert Dudley in the Channel 4 series Elizabeth I, starring alongside Helen Mirren’s virgin queen. Yet these days, he avoids television as most of it is “just not very good”.

“Television has changed — it has lost its excellence. We used to have really great TV and the Americans used to admire our output, but theirs is better than ours now. They are making amazing dramas for television.”

The current crop of “dumbed-down” period dramas especially displease him, “with Victorians speaking in modern dialogue”.

The son of an accountant and a housewife, Irons was raised in the Isle of Wight and Hertfordshire, and now divides his time between homes in Oxfordshire and Kilmainham, Dublin, with his second wife, the actress Sinéad Cusack. The couple have two sons, Sam, 30, a photographer, and Max, 23, an actor.

After attending Sherborne School in Dorset, he trained at the Bristol Old Vic before joining its repertory company, the traditional route for actors “back then”. Now, however, he is all too aware — and saddened by —what he sees as young actors’ ever-increasing drive to chase fame instead of good, solid roles.

“I think that there is this idea that what you should go after is fame. That is a hugely mistaken idea because fame means absolutely nothing. This whole culture of wanting to become famous is on a hiding to nothing, a sign of a society that’s lost its way and will only judge people as being valid if they’re famous, which of course is all bull—-.

“As Tom Stoppard said, the only thing that fame means is that more people know you than you know.”

I ask him for an example of a young actor whose career he thinks the fame game has played a more important role in than raw talent. “I suppose, what’s her name, um, you know… who was in Bend it Like Beckham?”

Keira Knightley?

“Yes, but it has nothing to do with talent. She is very beautiful, guys like her, and I think probably if she was directed right she might be OK …”

After playing Alfred Steiglitz, his next project will take him behind the camera as director on a film that’s currently under wraps.

“I’m getting on a bit,” he jokes, feigning doddering hands as he rolls yet another cigarette. It will be only the second time that Irons has directed — his first, in 1985, was for the video of a Carly Simon song, Tired of Being Blonde — and is relishing the prospect of bossing around some actors.

“I’m looking forward to it, I need a new challenge before I completely run out of steam.” He quickly adds: “Not that I ever intend to.”

• ‘Mr Luby’s Fear of Heaven’ will be broadcast on Radio 4 at 2:15pm on December 31