HE may be in his early seventies but actor Christopher Timothy seems to be busier than ever.
After two eye-catching West End performances in Graham Greene’s The Living Room at the Jermyn Street Theatre and Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse at the Trafalgar Studios, Christopher is once again on his travels, playing Inspector Hubbard in Lucy Bailey’s production of Dial M for Murder.
Even in this digital age, a lot of actors’ time must be occupied waiting for the telephone to ring or more likely chirrup.
And actors can never be sure what is lying in wait for them when they press the right button on their mobiles. The offer to join the cast of Dial M for Murder came out of the blue, as Christopher explains.
“I’d never met Lucy but what came down the phone was a feeling of dynamism in the way she talked about the play and she sounded delightful, which she is.
“When I was first asked to play Inspector Hubbard in this production of Dial M for Murder, my first reaction was to wonder if it wasn’t rather old hat. But when I read it, I realised that in fact it’s a really good play. I was still a bit unsure of what to do when I ran into a friend at Chichester and he said that he hoped I’d be playing the detective because he thought it was the best part.
“On the other hand, it would be a fair amount to learn and a lot of his lines are intended to establish the plot in the audience’s mind. He addresses the other characters with questions such as ‘But I thought you’ and ‘But you said’. Then I watched Hitchcock’s film of Dial M for Murder and I really enjoyed it. But I was worried about how posh John Williams was. He was the actor playing Hubbard. But Lucy reassured me, pointing out that he’s an ex-Army officer who has risen through the ranks. So that was fine.”
Christopher may be comfortably beyond official retirement age but his enthusiasm for acting remains undimmed.
“I need to work both for financial and psychological reasons,” he says. “I enjoy touring and with this show about two thirds of our dates are within reach of home and since we don’t play Mondays, we have a longer weekend. It’s preferable that we all get on when you’re touring.
“Ideally you have a company of actors who care more about the product than they do about themselves. In my experience actors who believe the opposite – that they are the people who matter rather than the show – are rare in the extreme. Most of us would say that it’s not about being the best, it’s about doing your best.”
Given the number of police dramas that have regularly appeared on television over the years, actors will inevitably find themselves cast as coppers and Christopher is no exception.
Audiences with long memories will recall him in the BBC’s Murder Most English, as oppo to the late Anton Rodgers’ senior officer, a series which Christopher remembers as ‘a joyous experience and a quality programme’.
“I played a bent copper in The Bill and there was talk of making him a running character but it didn’t happen,” he continues.
“What Lucy said about Hubbard being in the army gave me a clue to him. I felt that he’d be older than the rest of the characters in Dial M for Murder and not as posh. I saw him wandering around the set, picking up objects then replacing them, a bit in the style of Columbo, as played by the wonderful Peter Falk.”
Christopher’s recent flurry of West End work saw him working with such talents as Simon Russell Beale and John Simm in The Hothouse. He has seldom been unemployed for long.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate,” he says. “A modicum of success gives your confidence a boost and it helps your energy levels too. I do enjoy working but I get more frightened than I used to be. I found doing The Living Room especially terrifying. I was still on the book quite late and I was panicking a bit. However, my process often resembles the fable of The Tortoise and the Hare. It was the Tortoise which won the race and like the Tortoise, I get there in the end.”
As a young boy, Christopher had a tenuous connection with show business through his father, an announcer on The Goons, the anarchic radio comedy that dominated the airwaves throughout the 1950s. He remembers a special visit from Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe, two of the show’s stars to his prep school. But it was an experience in the cinema that set Christopher on his career path.
“I saw the police thriller The Blue Lamp and I remember realising the power which Dirk Bogarde as the gangster exerted over the audience simply by his expressions in the close-ups. I could see how the people around me reacted to him and I realised that I wanted to have the same effect.”
As a young man, Christopher was cast by director John Dexter in his production of Chips with Everything, the play by Arnold Wesker about a group of National Servicemen. The show was so successful at the Royal Court that it transferred with him and a group of other theatrical young bloods to New York where it attracted a showbiz crowd.
“You’d come out of the stage door and there would be people like Burt Lancaster and Anthony Perkins.”
It was Dexter who brought Christopher with him when he moved from the Royal Court to Olivier’s National Theatre Company.
“John was quite a bitter man but he was always very good to me and cast me in his film of The Virgin Soldiers,” recalls Christopher.
“He could be very unkind to people who’d done something wrong but he was a great director, in my view. I was completely in awe of Sir Laurence Olivier and I remember thinking that he was a very clever man.”
Christopher, of course, remains identified in the public mind with the role of vet James Herriott in All Creatures Great and Small which held sway over the BBC’s Sunday evening schedules for more than a decade in the 1970s and 1980s.
“I was very ambitious as a young actor but I wasn’t good at being ambitious. I was never much of a networker. But I’m glad that the success of All Creatures Great and Small happened when it did. I hope I was able to handle it well for I did enjoy being famous for a while.
“Ironically, I only got the part after John Alderton turned it down, describing Herriott as ‘a cipher of a part’. But I quite enjoyed being at the centre, surrounded by all these eccentric characters. And I have always believed that in acting, it takes two to tango.
“I remember doing The Shoemaker’s Holiday in rep and there was one scene with another actor in which he was the feed and it was a laugh a line for me. I came off stage thinking to myself that I was rather good, wasn’t I?
“Then my fellow-actor added that he loved getting the laughs to me. It was very satisfying, he said. And he was right.”
Dial M for Murder will perform at Theatre Royal, Nottingham from April 22-26 April. Tickets are available by calling 0115 989 5555 or logging on to www.trch.co.uk
For more information visit www.dialmonstage.co.uk