INTERVIEW: Joss Ackland on King Lear and his Clovelly roots
THE voice is so booming and deep, it's in danger of making the floorboards resonate; the laser-like eyes so piercing you're convinced they can see the back of your skull, perhaps your soul.
Little wonder the camera has always been somewhat partial to Joss Ackland.
At his beautiful 18th century Higher Clovelly home, the spirited and entertaining star of stage and screen chats about achieving a life-long ambition. The actor, famous for films such as White Mischief and Shadowlands, recently took on the role of King Lear in a star-studded theatrical event which included the likes of Tony Britton, Greta Scacchi and Sir Tony Robinson (more on that later).
He is also divulging the fascinating set of circumstances that led to him settling in North Devon: a spur-of-the moment decision compelled Joss and his wife Rosemary to check out the charming white house they spotted in Country Life magazine.
Despite the property being hundreds of miles away, they jumped in the car and drove through treacherous weather across moorland to see it.
"It was pouring with rain but as we drove down the hill and we saw the house, we took one look at it and shook hands with the estate agent and bought it," says Joss.
Amusingly, the couple didn't realise at that point that it was near the cobbled streets of the iconic fishing village.
"We didn't even know the house was by the sea," he confesses.
Not long after moving in, Joss was going through a box of old family letters when he made a remarkable discovery. "There was a letter that my brother – who was killed at the end of the war – had sent to my mother in 1941. It said: 'Dear mother, I am sitting in the lovely village of Clovelly'. It turned out he had been sent here as a young officer to train the Home Guard."
Joss's feeling that he had come home didn't stop there. Not only did he find out that his sister had stayed in Clovelly for her honeymoon, he also discovered that generations of Acklands before him had walked the village's steep cobbles.
"I hadn't even heard of Clovelly before I moved here. I then found out that my ancestors all came from Clovelly – I had literally come back to my roots," he says.
Despite having been in more plays than any other living actor, until recently there was one part that had eluded the 85 year old: King Lear.
He was therefore overjoyed to be invited by actor Lisa Paterson to take part in two charity readings of the Shakespeare tragedy.
Not only did he snap up the chance to portray the king's descent into madness, he also called upon a few famous friends to act alongside him. No less than Tony Britton, Greta Scacchi, Tony Robinson, Michael York and John Nettles joined the cast, under the direction of Sir Jonathan Miller.
Not surprisingly, with such a glittering line-up, the readings at St James Theatre and the Old Vic played to packed houses and received standing ovations.
"It was not only the applause but the silence that was created," says Joss. "That is something that is much more enjoyable to create."
The actor was thrilled the production brought together four generations of actors.
"This is the tragedy today," he says thumping his walking stick on the floor. "It's very tough on the young. There is no repertory, there is no training ground. They achieve instant fame and then are tossed aside after three or four years and never heard of again."
As a young actor, he was lucky enough to be mentored by top actor Sir Ralph Richardson, and then later by the great Shakespearean actor Paul Schofield.
"I learnt by watching Paul. Nowadays kids aren't encouraged to watch anybody. They just think 'I'm there'. And this madness of trying to be stars rather than actors!"
Not that he thinks there's a lack of potential out there.
"The maddening thing, watching younger people, is that you can see so much talent there but you know it's never going to come out. Nobody plays anybody but themselves these days. That's not acting."
He seems particularly proud of the way the King Lear cast worked together.
"The joy! That is something that is rare nowadays. Instead of wanting to push yourself, you are actually wanting to work as a unit."
The rehearsed readings raised money for Motor Neurone Disease Association, a cause close to Joss's heart. After 51 years of marriage, his wife Rosemary died of the crippling disease. Her diaries, My Better Half And Me, which Joss edited and published after her death, are an intensely moving read.
At his Clovelly home, where he has lived since 1989, he is kept busy these days with keeping up with all his 32 grandchildren and his 13 great grandchildren.
"I am a London boy and have been all over the world, non stop, but there's something here of being at peace, very settled. I don't know what it is."
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