Nigel Havers boasts an acting career that spans six decades. He spoke to Jeremy Taylor about mastering the art of the dashingly handsome charmer – and the occasional cad.
‘There’s nothing difficult about being charming, but you’ve either got it or you haven’t,’ says Nigel Havers. He may be 25 minutes late for our appointment, but it’s difficult not to warm to an actor who has mastered the art of the dashingly handsome charmer – and the occasional cad.
Still boasting his famously boyish good looks and thick, flopping hair, 66-year-old Mr Havers, recently heard on Today bemoaning his Christian name (no babies were christened Nigel in 2016) – ‘I hate it’ – has made a career from playing Englishmen who have an eye for the ladies. From a seducing conman in The Charmer to a male escort in Coronation Street, he’s ticked every box.
‘Kenneth More [the actor] once said to me that if you’re charming with women they ask you to bed, instead of you asking them,’ he explains. ‘I think I got it from my parents. It’s just a matter of being kind, generous and interested in other people.’
Mr Havers’ career has now spanned six decades, with major film roles in Chariots of Fire, A Passage to India and Empire of the Sun. His small-screen credits include Don’t Wait Up, Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey and A Horseman Riding By.
He’s the younger son of the late Baron Havers, Attorney General and briefly Lord Chancellor in Margaret Thatcher’s government; his aunt is Baroness Butler-Sloss, once the highest-ranking female judge in the country; his grandfather, Sir Cecil Havers, was also a prominent High Court judge.
‘Even my brother, Philip, is a barrister, so I’m sure the family expected that I would go to Eton and follow a legal career path. Instead, I went to school in Suffolk and discovered it was much more fun, if less well-paid, on stage.’
The young Mr Havers did try his hand at enforcing the law, as head boy at Nowton Court prep. ‘I decided the best way forward was to be incredibly liberal. It was rather advanced thinking for a young teenager and didn’t quite come off.’
With diplomatic skills far beyond his age, Mr Havers then persuaded his father it would be much better
– and cheaper – for him to continue his education at the Arts Education School in London, perhaps setting up digs at the family’s little-used apartment in Temple. ‘Suddenly, I found myself with my own pad in London at the height of the Swinging Sixties. I was learning to act at this really cool school, which had 45 boys and 200 girls.’
More had also provided useful guidance on the matter of the schoolboy’s education. ‘He was a big ally of mine and best friends with my dad – they served together on the same ship during the Second World War and were often found down the Garrick Club. Once, I was at home watching The Adventures of Robin Hood on television. Dad and Kenny rolled up and had “Robin Hood” [the actor, Richard Greene] with them. He was very famous at the time and I thought that was pretty cool.’
It was while visiting the family home in Wimbledon in 1967 that Mr Havers came across another side of London life, in the least likely of circumstances. A newsflash confirmed that Keith Richards and Mick Jagger had been arrested for drug offences.
‘Dad said he was glad he didn’t have to represent them in court – he and Mum were more into the clean-cut image of the Beatles. Half an hour later, he took a telephone call, after which he announced: “I shall be defending the Stones.”
‘I met Mick at my father’s chambers and was totally in awe. Later, we became friends and partied together. Dad was impressed, too – he never wore a stiff collar again.’
One of Mr Havers’ first professional roles was in the long-running BBC radio drama series Mrs Dale’s Diary. ‘I was the only actor with an RP accent and I think the casting director thought “he’ll do”.’ His big break was appearing in BBC hospital drama Angels, with Fiona Fullerton and Pauline Quirke. It landed him the lead role in the channel’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, watched by 18 million viewers on a Sunday evening.
‘I became a leading actor and the work started to flow in. Every thesp wanted to be in Chariots of Fire, but I was so arrogant, I wanted the main role, as Harold Abrahams. Initially, I turned down the part of [aristocratic runner] Lord Lindsay, but I’m very glad I changed my mind.’
Training was tough, with former Olympic coach Tom McNab putting the cast through their paces. ‘On the first day, he looked us in the eyes and said: “As far as I’m concerned, all actors are poofs.” We totally won him round in the end, though.’
Mr Havers has a daughter, Kate, a TV producer, from his first marriage, to Carolyn Cox. His second wife, the model and actress Polly Williams, sister of his friend Simon Williams – best known for playing James Bellamy in Upstairs, Downstairs – died in 2004 from ovarian cancer. Three years later, he married Georgiana Bronfman, former wife of Canadian millionaire Edgar Bronfman. ‘George was a close friend of Polly and she was there when I needed her,’ he tells me, as we talk at the Milestone Hotel, in Kensington.
‘We get on extraordinarily well together, although she thinks I’m far too independent.’ They live mostly in Kensington, but also have a place in Wiltshire. Earlier this year, Mr Havers was approached for an interview with chat-show host Piers Morgan: ‘My wife told me she would leave if I did it. I kept it quiet until the day before, but she was furious.
‘The deal was that if I did the interview, George could have a dog. We now own a very smart, eight-
month-old poodle called Charlie and I’m very glad that she got her own way. She’s quite divine and I’m totally smitten, although, naturally, I always fall for the ladies.’
Nigel Havers plays Capt Nigel in Dick Whittington at the London Palladium (until January 14, 2018, www.londontheatres.co.uk; 0844 412 2957) and stars in a nationwide tour of Art, opening on February 14, 2018, at the Cambridge Arts Theatre (01223 503333; www.cambridgeartstheatre.com)
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