Deep in the bowels of London’s Noël Coward Theatre, Edward Fox points out a framed portrait of the venue’s distinguished former manager, Sir Bronson Albery. ‘Someone once told him how lovely it was to see a full house in the middle of the war,’ Fox tells Weekend. ‘To which he replied, “Yes, they’re wearing out the bloody carpets!”’
It’s exactly the sort of anecdote you’d expect from a man who was literally born into the business – his mother was an actress and his father a theatrical agent – and who remains the de facto head of arguably Britain’s most celebrated acting dynasty.
That said, the young Edward Fox’s entry into the family firm was by no means a given. He recalls a director at the Royal Shakespeare Company informing his father that his son was ‘completely hopeless’ with ‘no talent at all’. And besides, he wasn’t exactly burning with ambition. ‘When I was 21, I just wanted to be a dissolute,’ he admits. ‘I didn’t want to do anything at all, except behave extremely badly. Though I suppose, subconsciously, I was always drawn towards words, towards poetry.’
Almost six decades on, the lure of words and poetry has led Fox, who turned 80 last month, back on to the stage to star in Sand in the Sandwiches, Hugh Whitmore’s lyrical celebration of the life of John Betjeman.
Mixing wry anecdotes with many of the former Poet Laureate’s best-loved verses, the one-man show – which Fox performed on a sell-out tour last year – finds Betjeman looking back over his life, evoking a lost England of church bells and steam trains, evensong and high tea, and dwelling on former muses like the hearty Miss J Hunter Dunn, ‘furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun’.
‘It’s about a great poet, a great mind,’ says Fox. ‘It’s about a life, really. It charts his life through poetry – what he said and what he thought and what he felt, in sadness, but mostly in laughter. He was a very melancholic character – a man fighting against the winds of life, but fighting bravely and amusingly.
‘What we all do is fight the winds of life, the cold winds…’ he adds, with a sigh. ‘I was coming here in the car and thinking, all these people, they’ve all got a life. Every single one. And they have to live in this city...’
Is he prone to a touch of melancholy himself? ‘I think I’ve seen every single decade get worse,’ he says. ‘Lots of things about living have got better – people don’t die of diphtheria any more. But how people live, how they’re asked to live, and how we judge what’s good and important about living… I think we’ve gone backwards.’
When Fox looks back on his own life, as Betjeman does in the play, what does he see? ‘Someone who’s been jolly lucky’, he says. ‘I can eat two times a day. I live in a nice house. The roof doesn’t leak. And the work I do… If you’re an actor who’s able to keep going on, and keep doing the sort of work you might like to do, you’re terribly lucky. Terribly lucky.’
Despite dropping out of RADA, Fox found steady work on stage and screen throughout the 1960s. He won the Best Supporting Actor BAFTA for the 1971 film adaptation of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, which led to him being chosen over more bankable box office names like Michael Caine and Roger Moore for the lead in political thriller The Day of the Jackal (1973). His turn as the eponymous hitman hired to assassinate French president Charles de Gaulle was well received, but he declined to cash in on it by moving to Hollywood.
‘It never appealed, absolutely not,’ he says. ‘The idea of living an American life…’ He visibly shudders. ‘Anathema.’
As such, though he remained an in-demand actor (winning another BAFTA for Richard Attenborough’s classic war film A Bridge Too Far), he never became rich or too famous.
‘I’ve never had any money, and never made any money,’ he shrugs. ‘I’ve made enough money to live, enough to eat, to marry, to educate my children privately, but always scraping my fingernails on the bone to do it. I think that’s the right way to live.’
Post-Jackal, his most famous screen role was playing Edward VIII in Edward & Mrs Simpson, ITV’s Emmy Award-winning dramatisation of the abdication crisis. Though he counts Prince Charles as a friend, and once had tea with the Queen Mother, he says ‘the Royal Family have never expressed any opinion about it, and one would never expect that they would.’
Fox once admitted to keeping the clothes he wore as Edward, and today he cuts a dapper figure in tweeds that give him the air of a country squire (he’s never worn jeans). He says his children – Lucy, from his first marriage to the actress Tracy Reed, and Emilia and Freddie, from his wife Joanna David, also an actress – view him as ‘a fossil’. ‘If your children thought you were up-to-date and on the mark and worth listening to, you’d really have to worry,’ he grins. ‘The fact they think you’re a fossil, due for the scrapheap, is normal.’
But both Emilia and Freddie are successful actors in their own right – he must have inspired them in some way? ‘They pick up what they want to pick up,’ he says. ‘They’re lucky. They’ve found themselves in demand. They both have talent. But lots of people have talent – it’s less important than the determination to develop it in the right way.’
How closely does he follow their careers? Does paternal duty compel him to watch every episode of Silent Witness, for example? ‘Oh god no,’ he says. ‘I find it too gory.’
Factor in his brother James, whose success has proved as enduring as his own, and James’s son Laurence, and it’s not hard to see why people always reach for the word ‘dynasty’ to describe the Foxes. ‘Well it’s not un-understandable that progeny of mine and progeny of James’s have become actors,’ he says. ‘But I don’t think it’s so very exceptional. Carpenters and roof thatchers and doctors follow on – they just don’t get noticed. We’re written about by kind people like you, when we shouldn’t be.’
Like James (and later Laurence), Fox was a boarder at Harrow School. ‘I loathed it,’ he says. ‘I’m a bohemian – that’s where I like the feel of life. Harrow was full of privilege, but I found it cold.’
Afterwards, he served as a second lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards for his National Service – an institution he would ‘bring back tomorrow’. ‘I was a very bad second lieutenant and my platoon was pretty hopeless,’ he says. ‘But through being disciplined, severely, they braced up and, instead of being rather floppy, hopeless youths, became more like the men they were going to have to be.’
Today’s young people, by contrast, he finds ‘lost and spoilt’. ‘They’re materially over-indulged, which is hopeless for anyone, particularly the young. And the accent on academic achievement is an unutterable waste of time, in my view.’
If this makes him sound crabby, he isn’t – Fox, who was made an OBE in 2003, is the very model of old-world charm. But he’s not afraid to speak his mind, and last year raised eyebrows when he suggested men were naturally drawn to cheat and ‘wander’.
Weekend asks if he stands by that assertion, and what his wife, who he has been with 1971 (though they didn’t marry until 2004), made of it. He launches into a slightly meandering story about George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, before suddenly bringing himself up short and asking: ‘What is the point of my answer? It’s such a difficult question to deal with. I think probably the way we behave is entirely within our own hands, and according to our own personal standards. And very often, certainly in my case, they’ve been non-existent.’
You’ve behaved terribly?
‘No, I haven’t been terrible. I wouldn’t put that word into my mouth.’
‘What would I say?’ he ponders. Then, with a smile: ‘Why would I say anything? I think that’s my answer. But I’m a man, certainly, with feet of clay.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, May 11, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend