Nigel Betts in an English actor whose career spans over 30 years. From the National Theatre’s War Horse, to almost every British soap, Outlander, Doctor Who, Killing Eve, Harlots, Pennyworth etc. We chatted about his growing up in York, starting out in acting via a dance troupe, voicework, some of his many roles on stage and screen, lots about working on Outlander (he played the role of Aloysius Murphy in season 3), history, writing, rugby, hobbies and more.
DB: You’re a Northerner aren’t you?
NB: I am, by birth, from York. It’s a very beautiful place but changed a lot, I think, over the years. When I was there it was probably one of the dullest places to be a teenager because it’s beautiful, there are lots of museums, but in the ‘60s and ‘70s it was quite quiet, for a teen. Although I suppose it added to my love of history; I grew up with a love of history because you are literally surrounded by it, everywhere – it spans hundreds of years, Roman, Viking, Georgian York.
DB: So history is very much a passion of yours because of that?
NB: I think so, yes. My father was also very interested in it, so we used to have holidays, just him and me, going around Scotland. I used to go to endless castles when I was young, it set the roots I think and because it was on my doorstep it was possible to see it as well.
DB: Were you in the centre of York or the outskirts?
NB: Just outside. In fact I was brought up in a little village called New Earswick which was the village built by Rowntree for his workers (my father worked at the factory). It was the old, Quaker, paternal, cradle to grave, everybody that worked at the factory lived in the village, you’re all given a house and literally all the way through: education, sport, everything.
DB: Did you travel into York for school?
NB: No, they built a primary school in the village and a secondary comprehensive. We were one of the first comprehensives, which was walking distance from the house all quite self-contained, and interesting because we got a strange mixture of teachers because it was an amalgamation of a grammar and secondary modern, some were very obviously grammar school teachers and some very obviously secondary modern teachers.
DB: As you were growing up, who was at home with you? Do you have siblings?
NB: My dad and two older sisters because my mum died when I was about 6, so I don’t really have any memories of her. My sisters were 9 and 10 years older, so it was more like having two aunts than sisters.
DB: Your dad obviously did a good job of bringing the three of you up, that must have been quite hard.
NB: Well I think he just got on with it really, you did in those days, that’s what you had to do, so he just did it. We were quite self-contained, we had to be because he was at the factory from 8.30-4.00. He provided a home, a hearth.
DB: Did you have relatives in the area as well?
NB: I had an aunt, my mother’s sister, but my father, I think, didn’t take my mother’s death very well, so he didn’t really go out and see anybody after she died; he basically looked after us and went to work. Having been brought up a Catholic I think he found it very difficult having the one person in his life that he loved taken away from him. Again, it was a time before grief counselling, the “grief counsellor” was the priest who would be talking about God. Her being taken away from him totally knocked his faith, that was the thing that made him question the entire thing. He survived in his own way, I suppose.
DB: But he took you on holidays?
NB: We used to go to Scarborough, which was the local seaside, that was our holiday. Then I have these vivid memories of two years when we went up the East and down the West coast of Scotland, just me and him, staying at bed and breakfasts. We always used to finish off at the Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle, we’d go and watch, I would fall asleep and he would drive back home to York; he wasn’t scared of the long drive.
I remember driving to Scarborough from York, which is 60 miles, now we’d do it in just over an hour because the roads are great, but we used to stop half way and have tea and sandwiches in a lay-by because it would take 4 hours to travel 60 miles. A strange mix of being able to drive constantly up to Scotland and having to break a journey to Scarborough.
DB: What was your experience of school?
NB: Difficult to say really. You experience it at the time and take out the good things and try and forget the bad things. It was alright, I always felt a little bit displaced. I didn’t come from a background that would have necessarily ventured into grammar school but I always used to appreciate the grammar school teachers more, the way that they taught me. I just felt more comfortable in that sort of environment. I felt a little bit out of place thanks to my wonderful mother and father calling me Nigel, which wasn’t lets say a common name where I was from, so there was a bit of a target on my back.
DB: I know the feeling.
NB: My aunt not allowing me to have the York accent – correcting it out of me – again places you in a situation where people suddenly have a different idea of who you are, they presume you’re middle class when you’re no more middle class than them. My parents were much older and I think the way they brought you up was different. I suppose I got my love of drama, through a drama teacher, as a result of that; I think drama helped. Probably when I was at primary school I was bullied, a little, and one responds to bullying in different ways and I suppose I went down the making people laugh, the drama and “being somebody else” route.
DB: Apart from Drama were there any other subjects at school that you particularly liked?
NB: History, I was very keen on History and English. I was never, sad to say, really a scientist; I wish I had been. I wish I had been better at Maths. There was lots of Literature, History and Drama.
DB: When did you first start performing?
NB: I wanted to perform when I was at primary school, but just never got picked. When we got to secondary school we had Drama as a lesson and there was a Drama Club after school on a Friday night which I started going to. I made a really good friend and we both started doing Drama together. His mother was connected to the local amateur dance troupe. They used to do shows every term (musicals) but they never had any boys, so they had to ship in a couple of guys who could act and sing and then the girls would come on and do a tap routine. We got into it that way and then myself and him went and did the North Yorkshire County Youth Theatre and started getting involved in more serious drama from that. And we are both still doing it!
DB: That’s not that common.
NB: No, he’s been a little bit more successful than me, his name’s Mark Addy. We did Sixth Form together, I stayed and finished my ‘A’ levels and he went off to RADA.
DB: Could you describe your path from when you left school to when you did your first professional job?
NB: I did my degree at Bretton Hall, in Drama. That was partly a result of the Youth Theatre, there was an actress there called Jane Thornton (now the wife of John Godber), she’d gone to Bretton and said, ‘This college is really great and very practical.’ I applied, got a place and then did three years of a drama degree.
You know The League of Gentlemen come from Bretton Hall – it’s that area of South Yorkshire – and one of the jokey parts of it is their company, Legs Akimbo, which is a group of drama students, well that was Bretton. We were so far from London, you just had to get on and do work yourselves, so we set up a theatre company, four of us, and moved to the Midlands, Nottingham. We were touring out of the back of a Datsun Cherry doing The History of the Decline of the Sioux Nation, with four feathers, four cowboy hats, four sticks. Custer’s Last Stand was the name of the first play we did, which was great fun and definitely a learning curve. Then I got a part, basically as a body, at the local Nottingham Rep in a play called Stags and Hens in which I was the stag. I went on stage, threw up and was laid in a toilet while the play went on behind me. I got my Equity card as a result of that. From then I just started jobbing: applying and getting jobs, doing tours, lots of theatre. And that’s been the same for the last 33 years.
DB: For how long were you based in the Midlands?
NB: Only a couple of years in Nottingham; I’m a bit of a gypsy. I only really ever had a couple of suitcases of clothes and a couple of boxes of books because while I was at university my father gave up the family home and moved in with one of my sisters, so there was no home to go back to. I moved to London for about a year and then ended up in Bristol for five years. I was thinking I should move back to London, so I attempted, kind of missed and ended up in Brighton for about ten years and then finally made my way back to London and I’ve been there ever since (about twelve years).
DB: Brighton’s nice though isn’t it?
NB: Brighton was great but never felt like I had any roots there, it’s a great city but it always feels a little transitory.
DB: It does have a large transient community with the University and the language schools etc.
NB: As a result of that it’s a great, very creative city but I did find it very easy to sit on the seafront, drinking a cup of coffee, talking about what I was going to do and realising the next day, when I was sitting by the sea with a cup of coffee, that I was just talking about what I was going to do and it’s very easy to do that for a lot of time.
DB: I was looking at your CV of plays and particularly the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gunpowder season. How did that run and do you have a favourite out of all the plays?
NB: It was interesting because I think now I’ve done six plays for the RSC and am yet to do a Shakespeare. They were all plays that hadn’t been done for 300 years and, whenever you approach a play that hasn’t been done for 300 years, you kind of go, ‘There’s probably a reason why it hasn’t been done for 300 years.’ Sejanus: His Fall, a kind of Roman epic, and Sir Thomas More were probably my favourites.
Stratford-upon-Avon itself was great, I really enjoyed it, it felt a bit like going back to college because there was Cicely Berry, (an incredible vocal coach) lots of people to do workshops and work on text with, so it was a really lovely refresher, an opportunity to go back to the more pure aspects rather than jobbing, being able to bed down and get back to why you love doing it.
DB: You were also in War Horse, which is obviously a really famous National Theatre production. What was it like working on that production?
NB: It was great! I first took the contract for just shy of a year, but in the end I think I was in it 18 months. I left because I felt I had to leave, not because I was bored of it, and that’s unusual, I get bored very quickly. Because of the amount of people in it it was ever changing: people on holiday, people injured because of the horses, so people moved around. You had your part but also your first understudy role which you knew you’d do because somebody would be on holiday. You also had a second role and 9 times out of 10 you knew you’d be doing that as well, because of the nature of what they call “knock ons”. We used to meet every evening before the show and there’d be a knock on list. We would all be there, do our warm up and they’d come in and they’d say, ‘So and so’s hurt his leg, …. is on holiday, so you’ll be doing…’ It meant it was always kind of fresh and you were never quite sure who you’d be talking to when you went on stage.
The story was also very good, the music, everything about it, it was a really beautiful piece of theatre which wouldn’t exist without central funding. We were talking about it today, it’s one of the best adverts for why there should be central funding for the arts because it’s brought in millions and become an international phenomenon, but it wouldn’t be done in the private sector. Anybody who went to a private producer and said, ‘I’m going to do a play about the First World War, with puppets,’ they wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it. Now there are puppets being used in all kinds of different plays all over the West End, and it’s become a really exciting part of live theatre. To work with those guys from South Africa, they were geniuses.
We used to have a lot of people from the services coming to see it and it was always very interesting to see their response and it was very much being in amongst grown men crying, it affected them because they’d been there, at a different time, they had been through those experiences. I was honoured to do it actually, it was an incredible piece of work.
DB: You were also in One Man, Two Guvnors, which struck a chord with me because when I was at school we did The Servant of Two Masters. You do quite a lot of comedy, how did you feel when you were doing that because obviously it’s very different from the RSC and War Horse?
NB: Well it felt a bit like putting on an old pair of shoes because I’d done a lot of comedy in the past, over the years, and I enjoy it, it’s not something that I find hard, so bizarrely it felt like I was more in my comfort zone doing that. Also because it was so well-written – it’s a modern farce, very fast and furious – it was great to do because there’s nothing better than having a full audience of people enjoying themselves. That’s the wonderful thing about what we do, you know, you can do something like War Horse which is fun but also very touching and affects people, and you can do One Man, Two Guvnors or 39 Steps where you just take people on a fun journey and they go out smiling.
DB: You went back up to Yorkshire, to Sheffield, for the play Steel at the Crucible.
NB: I had just done a play called Albion, at the Almeida Theatre, and the movement director on Albion then directed Steel, so it was really nice to meet up with her again. It was a really interesting two-hander, and I hadn’t done a two-hander for an awfully long time. It was quite a big ask because you were playing two characters, one was sort of 1970s old, Welsh Labourite and then 2018 local Sheffield Labour activist, and literally each scene flipped from one period to the other. Neither of us were off stage for two hours, so it was a bit of an acting gym.
I partly did it for that reason because I thought, ‘If I can still remember all these lines in my 50s then the grey matter might still be working.’ In fact it’s the first time that I’ve ever a director say, ‘How do you remember all those lines?’ You get into the muscle memory but we kind of approached it so it almost became two plays: you looked at the narrative line of one play and the narrative line of the other and then just mixed them together. It was a really good exercise because I played two very different characters, from different parts of the world, different ages. It was one of those sort of things where you knew if you had the jacket on you were a) and if you didn’t have the jacket on you were b). It’s these things that test you, the things that make you grow, that are the best things really, and getting things wrong – the best way to learn is to get things wrong. I’ve always said that to my daughters, getting things “right “ all the time is not necessarily the best thing.
DB: Do you enjoy doing voiceover work for video games?
NB: Yeah, it’s fun, a bit like being a kid again, just pretending, especially a lot of the games because you’re being all kinds of things from goblins to peasants to werewolves to knights. Again it’s like a voice gym, you get to go in and do all kinds of weird and wonderful voices. It is just lines so you’re not watching anything on screen but you have to do that same line three or four different ways, so they can use it in different aspects of the game. The most strenuous thing is you get to the point where you’ve done all the dialogue, and then you have to do all of the sounds, because by the nature of these games 9 times out of 10 you’re going to end up in battle and have to do the screams, shouts and death rattles.
One of the great things about our job is diversity, you can be doing a health and safety video for British Rail on a Friday and fly out to Budapest to film a drama on the Monday, and that mix of things is why it’s interesting.
DB: You’ve been in so many TV series, I was thinking maybe if we went to the very beginning: can you recall your first ever on-screen role?
NB: The first one I can properly remember is when I played a policeman in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with Michael Caine. I only remember that because we had about three all-nighters. The scene had to be done at night and we never quite got to it, so we were up all one night but didn’t have time to do it, so we went back the next night and again we didn’t quite get to it, and then eventually on the third night we did. That was very interesting because a youngish actor getting to be in the same room as Michael Caine and to see how he approached it was… like I’ve been saying, you never stop learning from older actors, younger actors, there’s always something to steal.
DB: It must be quite an experience being on set with somebody with such a high profile when you start.
NB: Yes, and I’ve been very lucky with that. I did a play in the West End, Pirandello’s Henry lV, with Richard Harris, so I got to spend six months in his company which was amazing!
DB: What do you feel that you learnt from watching someone like Richard Harris work?
NB: He was extraordinary in the ability to be “in the moment” and coin afresh every night. Of course he had the “roaring boy” reputation and he was colourful – all the more interesting to watch as a result of it – but when he was working, he worked. Every night on stage he was there, creating, in the moment, improvising, adapting when, given who he was, he could have easily have just gone on and said the words, treading water, but no, he loved it so much. He was brilliant.
DB: And offstage, towards you?
NB: A great storyteller. He could have been distant but very much wasn’t, whether that was because of his early days with Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop, but very egalitarian in many respects. Obviously we knew who he was but he never made a thing of it, he was very secure in himself and he didn’t have to prove anything at all.
DB: Is there a soap opera you haven’t been in?
NB: Hollyoaks, and with all due respects to Hollyoaks, I’m fine.
DB: You were in Emmerdale for many episodes as Eddie Hope.
NB: Yes for quite a while and that was an education, just in terms of speed of work. At that time, there was a period when it was on every day, so we were doing something like 21 episodes a month. You’d have a day in the pub, The Woolpack, but you’d do the scenes from six or seven different episodes in that one day, and not necessarily chronologically. I had two files because you would have to go, ‘Have we met? Have we had an argument? At what point in our relationship is this scene?’ It was an amazing learning arc and my respect for the guys that do it year in, year out because it’s fast and furious and they really don’t get a lot of time.
DB: What about locations where it’s actually filmed?
NB: They’ve built the village, in a valley, in a beautiful part of Yorkshire and all the interiors are in the studio, so lots of walking down a real street, going through a door and then two weeks later you come through the door and do the scene. There’s some good continuity people who make sure you dress in the right shirt and that but it was like school, I had to have a big coded file.
We say that we work at home and actually do the on-set things for free because you spend an awful lot more time doing your research and learning away from the actual theatre or set. In the old days – he says like an old war horse himself – you’d get to rehearse even on TV but you don’t get that luxury now, you tend just to go in and do it.
I’ve worked with a few directors who know exactly what they want, so you’ll go through the scene that you need to do and he’ll give himself enough time to go, ‘Right, this one’s for you. Do what you want.’ Usually he’ll find things in that scene that he’ll use because you’re suddenly freed up, you can be a little more creative. Bizarrely sometimes on the soaps you can do that because they have to take what you give them because they haven’t the time to do it again. (Laughs)
DB: You do a lot of comedy, in what way does that differ from when you’re doing straight drama?
NB: Well I suppose to a degree it depends on the type of comedy, not to get too esoteric about it but some comedy you are taking a step back because it’ll be about the timing, you know how something works so you won’t necessarily be in the moment of the truth of that. Having said that, comedy works best when you’re basically just being truthful and allow the writing to be funny – you’re not trying to be funny. Each job you take with the material you’ve got in front of you and see what you can bring to it, your techniques, your truth, your knowledge.
DB: And the other people you are working with?
NB: Absolutely, the chemistry. Comedy’s a lot easier to control, from our point of view, on stage because you’re delivering it. Comedy relies on a very sympathetic editor when it comes to television and film because you can time what you know is going to work as a piece of comedy, but unless the editor has that knowledge they can actually destroy the rhythm.
DB: You were also in Doctor Who playing a headmaster, with Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman: are there any extra pressures coming into a show like that which is so iconic?
NB: I think, like most things, you put the pressure on yourself. I was born in October ’63 which was just before the first episode of Doctor Who ever went out. With it came all that history of me growing up watching it and to do something that you’ve always watched and loved was very exciting, but when you actually get there it’s about the character, situation and people you’re playing with.
DB: What were they like to work with?
NB: Fantastic! I had worked with Miss Coleman on Emmerdale, so we had already met and Peter Capaldi was brilliant. Again he was an ideal head because he’s very accessible and made a point of saying hello to everybody in the crew, so it made for a very good working environment. He was a very brilliant, charming man.
DB: Just dipping into Killing Eve, you’re the quartermaster in what is a funny scene.
NB: I actually got to play Q although it wasn’t James Bond. I still live in hope that they’ll bring him back at some point. I’m very blessed, I get to be dropped into these wondrous things and have these little sojourns. I’ve been very lucky this year, I’ve done about ten different things, it would have been nice to have been in one for a bit longer, but I’m not complaining. I’ve just finished filming on All Creatures Great and Small and then straight into doing Casualty.
DB: There’s a couple that have only just come out, Harlots and Pennyworth, which I haven’t yet seen.
NB: When they were making Pennyworth… you get a feeling sometimes that they really know what they’re doing, the scripts are good, the way that they’re shooting it, it’s going to be an interesting thing to watch. I absolutely adored doing Harlots, and again was very lucky because the character I went in with was for one episode and then I got a phone call saying, ‘Well there’s a similar character in this episode. Why don’t we just make it him?’ So I got to go back and do him again, which was great! Obviously, being a history buff, it’s one of my periods as well, so it’s just a joy. If I had any wish I’d love to do a bit more of that, I’m an old sucker for the period drama; I would like to put on a fezziwig more often.
DB: Do you watch yourself on-screen?
NB: I avoid it when possible. I will if I know that there’s something that I want to see if it worked, as a learning tool. When I was in Outlander, from the job I took, to what we filmed, to what was in the episode was very different and some of the scenes I really loved didn’t make the final cut because of time. They did put them all on the DVD and I got a message saying, ‘We really wanted these in the episode, there literally wasn’t time’, so that was nice. I did watch those because I really enjoyed that.
DB: Were you aware of Outlander before you got the role?
NB: Yes (again my terrible curse of history) I knew they were making something around the period of Culloden, watched a couple of episodes and thought, ‘Oh, I’d really like to be in that.’ A long time ago I went up for one of the regulars in it but not being Scots I think it was only reasonable that they gave it to Scottish actors. Having said that, I did play an Irishman, so…
DB: How do you actually get roles such as the Irishman, Aloysius Murphy?
NB: As usual, my agent gets a breakdown of the characters and out of their stable of actors they might put me forward – or sometimes a casting director who knows your work will go, ‘Oh Nigel might be right for that, stick him in.’ You go and audition or more often these days you do a self-tape – very rarely now do I ever get to meet a director or producer.
DB: You didn’t have a beard in Outlander, was that role specific?
NB: That’s because in this period they wouldn’t have had beards on ship, generally beards were out of fashion. When I did Harlots which is around the same period (the Seven Years’ War) again facial hair wasn’t a “thing”. I’ve just done two shows where one needed facial hair and the other didn’t. I didn’t quite finish one of them, so I got half way through filming it with my own moustache, then had to come and do something else, playing an historical character that didn’t have a moustache. Thankfully the makeup girl, who I know very well, made me my moustache, so when I went back I had a stick-on moustache to finish off the filming. Generally I do sport something on my face because I’d always rather have it and take it off. I hate the stick on ones, I always think that they’re going to come off.
DB: Your costuming on Outlander is very specific.
NB: I think it helps such a great deal to wear those costumes because they make you sit, stand and move in a different way. People now tend to wear the most comfortable things, they’ve got out of the practice of sometimes things are uncomfortable but that, in itself, feeds into how people are. I’m a great lover of getting the costume on and it can tell you an awful lot about who the man is.
DB: Also perhaps once you look at yourself in the mirror…
NB: Once you’re all done up, definitely yeah, you go, ‘Oh that’s who he is!’ Sometimes they’ll change the hair, facial hair or whatever, all those different strands help. The detail on a lot of that is brilliant now. The people that are interested have the facility to see all the detail and they’ll be able to tell if it’s not authentic.
DB: How was that as an experience, going to South Africa and joining a show when it’s got a very established cast?
NB: You know that you are kind of coming to visit a family, so there’s a fine balance of wanting to be open and become part of it but also respectful in that you’re only passing through. 9 times out of 10, because of the nature of the people involved in the industry, it’s a lovely experience, everybody’s welcoming, sometimes they really embrace you because you’re new. Very rarely do you find it to be not a nice experience. Especially on that they were absolutely lovely. Everybody was away from home as well, so that adds into it. We were there when two or three other things were filming so I bumped into other people I knew on the streets of Cape Town who were there on different jobs.
You connect with people, I mean me and Kikki [Keith Fleming] sort of clicked quite soon, had a similar sense of humour – you find a pal. Sam and Cait were really warm and welcoming, straight from day one, even though they know and you know you won’t be there very long.
DB: Obviously you know Kikki very well because he was singing your praises…
NB: He was probably drunk at the time. (Laughs) He made South Africa far more manageable.
DB: That’s great because it was a long way from home wasn’t it.
NB: It was. I mean it was extraordinary, a wonderful experience all of it, the work as much as actually being in the country. It’s nice to have a band of people to share it with, it would have been worse if you’d just been stuck there on your own. When you get to have a bit more time with the people you’re working with you get to know each other, you share stories, actually when you then get to work it can be creative in its own sense because you can sometimes come up with stuff and be creative because you have that link. It’s better than just arriving the first day and jumping straight into something, which is also often the case.
DB: How were the scenes that are below deck filmed?
NB: In the studio they built the body of the ship, they could take the sides apart so they could get in, but you still had that feeling of claustrophobia within it. On deck it was the tall ship that I think they might have used on Black Sails, in the lot. That was the bizarre thing because obviously I knew that we were on board ship and that we were going to South Africa, so I stupidly thought that we were going to be on ships on the sea, but no, of course we were on ships, in the desert, with a big green screen behind it. Which made me go, ‘This is amazing!’
DB: What were the conditions when you were filming on the ship?
NB: It was hot, very hot, and we were a bit in the lap of the gods for wind because when it gets very windy there, which it can do, we couldn’t film because on a tall ship with big sails and the green screen. The main thing was the heat, especially when you were in three layers of Georgian wool. You are so looked after, constantly being asked whether you need water, or somebody’s coming towards you with shade. Also you’ve learnt enough, been on enough sets, that when you’re not working you find a little shady corner and sit down quietly until they’re ready for you because you’ve just got to keep yourself concentrated, centred. You don’t want to give the makeup girls any problems with getting a glow. Being a ginger by nature I get a tan in winter, so you’ve got to be aware.
How amazing to be stood with all those people in costume, on a tall ship, bizarrely in the middle of a desert. You’re just very happy to be there, very spoilt and feel terribly guilty because quite a few of us are not very good at being pampered, but you also realise they’ve got a job to do, you’ve got to let them do it, so you can do yours. Also if they don’t do it they’ll get told off, so sometimes you’ve just got to thank them very much.
DB: Had you ever visited South Africa before?
NB: No. That’s the other strange nature of this job, you suddenly get to go places that you’d never have dreamed of. The year before I did Death in Paradise so suddenly I was in Guadeloupe for six weeks. Terrible! (Both laugh) It hadn’t been on my list of places to go but, thank you very much, it was lovely. Again with South Africa, it hadn’t been on my list but it was amazing to visit. When you’re there working I think sometimes it’s even better because you’re meeting local people who can show you a bit of the local life, the real parts of it.
DB: Which parts did you visit?
NB: I didn’t do the townships because I felt a little bit uneasy about that sort of tourism, it doesn’t sit well with me. I got to go up Table Mountain, visited the vineyards, but just generally Cape Town. We sort of wandered round, were told not to go out on our own, but actors are very bad at doing what we’re told, so we did, often – there were enough of us that we felt safe together. We hit some restaurants and the odd bar that were slightly off the beaten track. One day I had free and got a taxi from where we were staying to one of the big museums in the centre, an old fort. Everybody was so welcoming and nice, it’s like most things, places get a bad reputation from the odd incident, whereas as long as you’re not silly and are aware then most places are fine.
I love military history and a friend of mine got me in contact with a couple of guys there who refight battles on the Table Top. One day he emailed me, I got a taxi and went out and met these two historians. The sort of things you would never ever do if you were going to South Africa on a beach holiday.
I did try and walk up Table Mountain, I made about 15 minutes in and dutifully smiled at my other friends who were climbing up and went, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make this in my 50s.’ I did get the lift which was a bit cheating but…
DB: Oh I would definitely go for the lift any time. Do you write as well?
NB: I do. I’m one of those, of the many hundreds and thousands of people, that are writing an historical novel, and have been for years. I have written 7-8,000 words; I just need to do ten times that amount. I always do that thing of starting to research something and that gets in the way of actually writing – the lesson I’ve learned is that I must stop doing that. I’ve found some incredible things, things that I’ve ended wanting to use, but it’s so easy to do that. I haven’t put fingers to keyboard for a while but I fully intend to now.
DB: Can I ask what period it’s set in?
NB: Yes, it’s kind of Sharpe meets Raiders of the Lost Ark, set in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (before he was well known) and has an English spy and French spy trying to find out what he’s doing. Mixing it in with (this is where we go into the fantasy/occult aspect) one of the reasons Napoleon is going to Alexandria is to find Alexander’s spear, which is buried in his tomb, if he owns that he will be unbeatable in battle. Mixed in with some of the historical aspects of his taking Malta, so I’ve threaded in some Templars.
DB: As an actor with years and years of experience, what advice would you give to someone who is considering acting as a career?
NB: Don’t! (Laughs) When you’re young you are going to conquer the world but success is different for different people. I consider myself, although not financially, incredibly successful. I’ve never done anything else, I’ve never ever done any other job, which knowing my future leaves me a little bit worried because I cannot do anything else now. The main thing I learned is disappointment because for every job you do you probably audition, read, self-tape for twenty. Unlike most other jobs you are constantly going up for another job and being chosen or rejected. The other thing is not to take it personally, it’s not about you, it’s you’re not their packet of crisps on that particular occasion. If you can get your head around all those things, and you still want to do it, then there’s nothing better. I’ve never got out of bed and thought, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to go to work!’ It’s been a joy, when I’m working. Forget security, forget wealth, but if you have to do it then it’s not going to stop you but try and go in with your eyes open. My immediate reaction is ‘don’t to it,’ but how can I say that? I’ve been doing it for 33 years.
The other thing with auditions, there are literally thousands of us, so if they’ve asked to see you you’ve got as good a chance as anybody else. It’ll just come down to the person who makes the ultimate decision: do you fit with the other people, or are you what they want, and there’s no rhyme or reason for that. You can be the most talented actor in the world but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get work.
DB: Who would you say has been the most influential person, or people, in your life and in what way have they been influential?
NB: I’d say my dad. He was a painter and decorator, and if he was alive today he’d say he painted it. When all the rest of my extended family were wanting me to do a “sensible job” he was the one person that said, ‘Do what makes you happy, if that’s what makes you happy, do that.’ He gave me the right to do it and the ability to cope.
We had a careers advisor at school, he got me in one day and asked, ‘What do you want to do Betts?’ I said, ‘I think I want to go into the law, Sir.’ He replied, ‘No you don’t! You just want to dress up in costume and make speeches, I’ve seen you!’ It was basically like my father saying, ‘If that’s what you want to do, do it!’ Better to have a life working in a job that makes you happy than doing a job that doesn’t.
DB: The “Tweedy” bit on your social media: where does the “Tweedy” come from?
NB: I hit 50 and thought, ‘Now is my time!’ (Laughs) It’s not unusual, even today, and especially at this time of the year, to find me in tweed. I’m the antithesis of modern life: I won’t be seen in joggers or indeed trainers; I’m usually wearing a pair of brogues and a tweed suit. Hence the Tweedy.
DB: You’ve been out of Yorkshire a long time: is there any sense that you have, still, of being a Yorkshireman?
NB: Yes, it’s like “once a Catholic always a Catholic”, you can take the man out of Yorkshire but you can’t take the Yorkshire out of the man. I’m not bigoted, not a “professional Northerner” but I’m proud of being from the North and I can get quite defensive when things are levelled at them. I was at university living amongst the miners during the ’84 miners strike, I saw what was done to them. There is a North-South divide. I’m living down here because I have to for work but I can understand the reaction over the last 3 or 4 years and why the country voted the way it did on certain things because I understand the sense of dislocation, they felt that they had been forgotten and I totally understand that feeling.
DB: What would you say is a “Yorkshire” quality in people?
NB: Directness. There’s a funny thing about people saying that the Yorkshire folk are “friendly”, I think they are but I think they’re more “nosey”. The difference is, down here nobody wants to know who you are, everybody’s terrified; in the North everybody wants to know your business because they want to know if you’re “alright”. It can be perceived as friendliness but I think it’s based on incredible nosiness.
DB: How has being a husband and father changed you as a person and also perhaps your relationship to your career?
NB: I have a complicated life when it comes to my children and my marriages, because I’ve had more than one. I’m aware of the impact of what I do with my ability to see them and on their lives and I try and find, as best I can, the balance that allows me to do both. They don’t live with me, so I travel to see them a lot but when we have time together it’s as productive as I can possibly make it. I miss the boring downtimes but I’m active as I can be. With my eldest girl, whenever I see her, I try to be as normal as possible and don’t try and do the absent father thing of overcompensating; I try to let us just be together and do things together because time together is more important than time doing things together, if that makes sense.
DB: Absolutely and not putting on some kind of lavish entertainment programme each time.
NB: No, it gives a false sense of reality of who you are, it’s better to do the things you do normally, but together, so you have a better idea of their life and they have a better idea of your life and you have those shared moments – not to say that you don’t do lovely things but…
DB: When you aren’t working what do you do to relax? Have you any hobbies and passions?
NB: I read a lot of history books, mainly factual but the odd historical fiction. I like rugby, I do watch lots, this time of year I watch a lot of rugby. That was also how Mark [Addy] and I connected up, at one point we were both playing for York rugby and at the same time were rehearsing The Rite of Spring, so two days a week we’d be doing rugby practice and two days a week we’d be doing ballet. I’d like to say D.I.Y. but thankfully I don’t have to, somebody else can. I paint military figures because I find it very relaxing: when you’re concentrating they are so small you cannot think about anything else, so anything that’s happening disappears for a moment, or you get moments of clarity. And because I live in a nice part of London with lots of green, I go for walks, and after Christmas I’ll be going for a walk with a dog!
DB: Oh a dog! What are you getting?
NB: We’re getting a cocker spaniel, so we’ll just have to try and stop it chasing the deer in the park. It’s not yet born but it’s about to be, my wife wants a dog and I want a bitch. We’ll have to make that decision closer to the time. I just think bitches can be more manageable, quieter and just less insane (as in life), so when I’m not working my time will be largely walking with the dog. Terrible. In my tweed.
DB: I was going to ask you, rugby or football? So Rugby Union…
NB: Bizarrely because of where I’m from, because in the north Rugby League was on the table. When I was at school we had two teachers arrive for P.E. one was Welsh and one was an ex-Zimbabwean international, so suddenly the school changed from a football school to a rugby school and given my ample size – which I’ve always had – rugby suited me better. I miss playing, thankfully now I’m too old, but I’ve always followed it.
DB: Did you watch the Rugby World Cup Final? Silly question…
NB: Yes, I was horribly disappointed. One of my good friends from One Man, Two Guvnors, his cousin plays for England, George Cruise, so we were all very much excited after they did such a beautiful job against the All Blacks, by playing lovely rugby. I said to him, ‘It will depend on if South Africa come to play rugby, or come to win.’ And they came to win.
Interestingly when I went to see George play for Saracens and seeing them afterwards in the bar, they are giants! They’re not human, it’s like being amongst gods. I’m about the same size as a scrum half now, in the old days I was a prop.
DB: What’s your earliest musical memory?
NB: Oh God, I think it’s Godspell. I think my sister took me to see David Essex in Godspell when I was very young: David Essex, Jeremy Irons and Julie Covington.
DB: What was the first single or album you ever bought with your own money?
NB: See this is damning, this is all damning, it was “Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves” – I was a strange child.
DB: Is there a song or songs that take you back to a particular time in your life?
NB: Joe Jackson and Madness take me back to the first few years at college; I loved college. They have very specific visions of leaving home, being totally self-reliant and having rather too much fun.
DB: What types of music do you enjoy listening to?
NB: Very eclectic, anything from classical through to… well I’m not terribly good at music because I didn’t have a radio when I was young, so I kind of listen to whatever I’m listening to and go, ‘Oh I like that,’ or, ‘Don’t like that,’ but never make a note of what they are. I do have a secret love of (keep it very quiet) folk music [whispers]. Funnily enough the squeeze box player who was in War Horse with me is in a band called Faustus, they’re very good; I like a lot of their stuff and the Albion band.
DB: Do you ever go and watch live music?
NB: After the terrible debacle of the English match, I went to see Jeff Goldblum play jazz piano – he was doing a gig for his new album – incredible listening to him telling stories while playing a bit of jazz piano in between. Generally we come across small bands playing in pubs around Richmond, we don’t tend to see the bigger bands.
DB: If there’s a party and music’s playing, would you get up and dance or would you have to be dragged up?
NB: Oh sadly, as much as my wife hates it, I would probably be one of the first up there, especially if it was Northern soul. Much to the embarrassment of those around me.
DB: Imagine it’s your final meal on planet Earth, what would you choose to feast upon and what would be your preferred drink to accompany your meal?
NB: Given where I live, I do like venison, I’m afraid. I drive past them everyday and wave at them but I do see them on my plate. Venison burger, venison steak with a very fine red wine, that would make me very happy.
DB: Have you got a red wine you particularly like?
NB: Um, I’ve succumbed to Malbec just because it goes really well with venison. Gin is the other… We’ve a lot of gin, I think 38 bottles of all kinds, so it’d be gin and tonic followed by a bottle of red wine.
DB: Could you tell me about the book, or books, that you’re currently reading?
NB: The book I’m currently reading – it’s a real page-turner (laughs), is called Lobositz to Leuthen: a History of the Austrian Army in the Seven Years’ War. It’s a period of history I wasn’t totally up to speed on, so I’ve been reading books about the Seven Years’ War, as you do.
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
NB: Walk the dog that hasn’t arrived yet, go to the pub with friends and watch England win the World Cup, at rugby. Followed by going round to a friend’s for dinner, probably eating venison and drinking large amounts of red wine, and laughing a lot. Then being told that we had a socialist government and that Donald Trump had eventually come clean and just walked to the nearest penitentiary and given himself up. Followed by, probably, a large bottle of whisky as a result of Kikki because I never drank whisky before (it was the Devil’s drink) and it’s his fault, all his fault, he introduced me and now he’s wronged me forever.
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