Palate meets veteran character actor, raconteur and self-proclaimed king of the Sunday roast Phil Davis
Phil Davis is a veteran star of stage and screen, having appeared in films ranging from Quadrophenia to Vera Drake (for which he was nominated a BAFTA) and TV series such as Whitechapel, North Square and Sherlock Holmes. Most recently, Phil played Scrooge in the RSC’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol. He has also turned his hand to directing and writing. Palate’s co-founders C Ley (CL) and J A Smith (JS) caught up with Phil at Noble Rot restaurant and wine bar on Lamb’s Conduit Street to discuss his career, his views on food and drink, the problems faced by young people today and everything else in between.
As we worked through the white wines on the Coravin board and tucked into some Norfolk asparagus, we started by discussing his career to date…
JS: When did you decide you wanted to become an actor?
Phil Davis: When I was very young. 9, 10 or 11 – something like that. It was kind of weird because we hadn’t gone to the theatre or the cinema very much. I could read out loud and all that. I think a teacher had said to my mum at a parents’ evening “oh he’s a born actor” when I was about 10. And I got it into my head and that’s all I ever really wanted to do, but it made for a strange kind of adolescence because it wasn’t very likely really.
CL: And the trouble is the younger you are with the aspiration, the less other people take it seriously. Perhaps not your own parents in this case?
PD: My parents were great. My dad was just a factory worker. They weren’t terribly aspirational parents, but they let me follow my own path. A lot of people who cared for me tried to talk me out of it because they thought I was going to hit the wall, you know.
CL: Who was in your stable that you’ve grown up with?
PD: I didn’t really have one to be honest. Some of the kids at Anna Scher’s school, like Phil Daniels and Trevor Laird, they were a kind of stable and I flitted in and out but I’m a bit older than them and I started before Anna started her school in Islington. I got going in 1972 with Joan Littlewood at Stratford East. She took me on. I hadn’t been to drama school and knew fuck all! I kind of met my Waterloo when I left. I stayed with her for a year and then I went up north to Lancaster to do some street theatre and weird things up there. Then I came back and everything kind of settled down for me a bit. I did bits and bobs. My first film was a musical of The Old Curiosity Shop with Anthony Newley. And then in the mid-70s before Quadrophenia I did a play at the Soho Theatre just around the corner from the BBC called Gotcha and that sort of established me as an actor.
CL: I was going to say, Gotcha is regarded as the moment isn’t it, the turning point?
PD: It was sort of a turning point but it was a modest one. It meant I was going to work, but it didn’t make me into a star. It wasn’t that kind of spectacular success, but thank God because I’d probably be dead! I wasn’t terribly restrained when I was in my early twenties…
JS: If you were in your twenties and thirties now, would you be going out enjoying everything London has to offer with its restaurants and bars, or would you be saving up for a deposit on a flat?
PD: Oh well I don’t know. I wasn’t terribly sensible. After Quadrophenia I had a little bit of money you know, a little bit of safety. And I could have got a mortgage and bought a flat. But I didn’t. I went out and had some fun. When you’re young you want to enjoy yourself and have fun.
CL: Yes. The difference maybe is that the pressures now are immense. I welcome your view, but there’s a generation conflict. Looking at my dad’s generation, my dad was an evacuee in the war, brought up in London slums. He’s done quite well, relatively, but the economic pressure for people between say 16 and 25 is unprecedented
PD: I’ve got a 16 year-old daughter and a 21 year-old son and I feel for them. It’s really really tough. In my business, when I was starting out, there were lots of little fringe theatres dotted about that paid very modest fees but there was work. They were doing 16/17 productions a year and now there is half of the volume of theatres and they are only doing 5 productions a year. And so there isn’t the work for you to sort of learn on the job. When I started out I wanted to do this thing for a living. I thought, “oh you can earn money doing this.” I wasn’t really thinking of stardom or success or celebrity, I really, really wasn’t. Of course one dreams about being a success and all that but really, practically, I just wanted to go from one job to the other, which is what I have done.
CL: I think there’s, if you don’t mind me saying, an enjoyment to be had in the fluidity of that. I can imagine being a player, in the Noel Coward that week and in the Duke of York the next. If you’re getting a half decent role, when that life is available, that’s probably quite a nice life.
PD: It is. And it makes for an interesting life. The worst thing about most jobs is you do it every fucking day! I do a job. It might last a fortnight. It might last six months. But it’s finished and then I go on and I’m with a new bunch of people and you start all over again and also a different character to play.
Quadrophenia was weird. It wasn’t a big success when it first opened. Over the years it gradually developed into this cult film… I screen tested for the lead part. Three of us: me, Phil Daniels and Johnny Rotten
JS: Do you prefer acting on stage or screen?
PD: Well I love them both but it’s like choosing between your kids isn’t it? But most of my work really has been predominantly on the screen. I started out in the theatre and I enjoy it but I think of myself really as predominantly a screen actor.
CL: Yeah I think a lot of people would see you in the same way. You must get a bit of the old stopped on the street fame?
PD: Oh yeah. A bit. Not like a soap star or something. People are really very nice to me and say “oh I loved you in this or that, like your work” and all that, or they go “Chalky”… It’s an affectionate thing to them.
CL: It’s the right kind of stop. It’s not some kind of numpty who wants a selfie, it’s actually like “oh I rated you in such and such.”
PD: It’s nice and it is very gratifying. I don’t find it a problem. I’m not shy. Sometimes it can be a pain in the arse when you’re hungover and you’re going down the shops for some milk and someone says “oh what were you in” and you think, oh leave me alone.
JS: So what would be your advice be to anyone wanting to go into acting and drama?
PD: I don’t know. Don’t listen to any advice. That’d be mine. I never did! It’s tough, you know. I would say go to drama school because at least you’re doing it for three years and you find your tribe. You’re with like-minded folk. But if you look at how many people come out of drama schools every year and what kind of percentage get any kind of meaningful career. Some come out and don’t ever get a job, you know. Unless you’re staggeringly good looking, which I never was, you need to have a bit of luck, get an opportunity, find a part like Gotcha like I did that kind of makes a little dent in the consciousness of the nation and then you’ve got something to build on. But even after Gotcha it was still tough. There was a great deal of suspicion. I think Ray Winstone had the same thing after Scum. They said, “have they just found the right kid and bunged him in the part and that’s all he can do, you know, this deranged adolescent?” It’s a thing they’d never say if you were doing a Shaw or an Ibsen play but because it was a modern play about a kid in a comprehensive school having a break down. In fact, when I was in the National Youth Theatre, I did 3 seasons and it was only in my third season that I got a decent part. They were doing Romeo and Juliet and I found a little part that I could play. I went to Michael Croft and I asked, “can I play this part?” and he said, “let me think about it.” He took a week and then he said no. He said, “We don’t think you should take up a career as a professional actor. We are worried that you don’t have the range.”
CL: He really said that?
PD: Yeah. Of course I was very upset but a couple of weeks later I got an audition for Joan Littlewood and she gave me the job. I was kind of used to it. Because everywhere I’d gone people had said “oh you’re kidding” so there was a core of self-belief that I could, given a chance, I could make something of it.
CL: It goes a long way doesn’t it, self-belief? And what about the gap between Gotcha and Quadrophenia?
PD: Yeah I was busy. I was doing stuff. I did a play at the Royal Court, a play at the Hampstead Theatre Club. I did What the Butler Saw at the Young Vic. Quadrophenia was sort of in the middle of it. Because Quadrophenia was weird. It wasn’t a big success when it first opened. Over the years it gradually developed into this cult film.
CL: Not an unexpected success. Because we all think of it as seminal.
PD: It was a big thing and obviously was for Phil Daniels: it led to other movies for him. But there wasn’t much of a British Film Industry at all then. There were only three or four films being made every year.
CL: Everyone in that film went on to do well didn’t they it’s fair to say? A springboard for everybody that was in it?
PD: It was. Yes.
CL: Do you see those guys?
PD: Yeah. I do. We are all good friends. Phil Daniels used to live nearby when I lived in Stoke Newington so we saw each other. We used to meet for a drink occasionally. Mark Wingett lives down in Portsmouth now. I see people occasionally and we have a reunion every so often.
CL: Lots of people are going to recognise you now from Sherlock aren’t they? And the creepy taxi driver. What was that like? Benedict is now a massive star, and don’t get me wrong, you’re a star in your own right, but it’s a different kind of fame.
PD: It turned him and Martin Freeman into stars. It did. I did the very first pilot so when we made it nobody had any idea of the beast it was going to turn into. We originally made a 60 minute pilot. And everyone thought it was great. It really works, you know the updating of Sherlock and all that, but the BBC said they wanted 90 minutes so they had to remake it. And rather than just go away and film some extra bits, they wanted to re-think the whole thing. So it was a year later they went away to shoot it. At first I wasn’t available because I was doing something else but they waited for me. Then they released it and it turned into this phenomenon. I mean, I get fan letters from China you know!
PD: Yeah, all in pigeon English. From just one appearance in the very first episode! So it was a great part.
JS: You’ve had this sneaky habit of always being part of something big, haven’t you? You might say you choose your roles well.
PD: No, no it’s not. It is pure accident. I’m like a ball in a pinball machine going voom voom voom voom voom. And you remember the ones you remember. But that was certainly a good one.
CL: What are they like those fellas? Does the fame go to their heads at that height?
PD: I don’t know them terribly well. They have changed obviously but you do when suddenly you are getting offered million dollar movies and all that. I worked with Martin Freeman again relatively recently. I used to be a director as well and I sort of retired from that but someone asked to do this short film about Steve Marriott from the Small Faces and I asked Martin to do it. He prevaricated for a while but eventually he said yes – we had to fit it in his schedule. There was no fuss. We didn’t have a big caravan for him or anything. He understood we were making a no budget film. He did it for no fee. We shot it over two days and it all turned out really well. I mean, you can’t expect people to have that kind of exposure and not change. Everyone is going to change and you know they choose their roles very carefully. I haven’t really seen Benedict. I saw him once, there was a Sherlock convention thing and he was there and I saw him. He was very nice and all that.
CL: I think fame is going to bring money to a degree and money brings you options and options can change you
PD: Of course and they are movie stars now.
All manner of alcoholic beverages slip down very easily but there’s one particular favourite beer I discovered in Stratford: the Long Horn IPA
JS: So why did you decide to stop directing?
PD: A combination of reasons. One was I couldn’t get the projects off the ground that I wanted to make. I had a disastrous experience in America. I went out to direct a film in America which I will tell you about at length if you like but it’s a long story…
CL: Are you contemplating a glass of wine to follow that one?
PD: Yes. I know I shouldn’t but I’m going to. I don’t usually drink during the day but I’m making a special exception today. And this wine is very good.
JS: A lot of these use the Coravin device. It’s this thing that allows you to drink vintage wine without opening the bottle.
PD: Oh really? So you don’t have to finish it?
JS: You don’t have to spend a fortune and just have a glass. It’s an amazing device.
PD: Well this white Rioja is very good.
CL: Are you into beers too?
PD: All manner of alcoholic beverages slip down very easily but there’s one particular favourite I discovered in Stratford; the Long Horn IPA. Very fine!
CL: I’ve had it. Long Horn’s very good. Have you been to The Cask in Pimlico? I do recommend it. It’s not too hard to get to on the Victoria line. It’s like a beer festival every day. I daresay you’ve been to some?
PD: They have one up at Alexandra Palace every so often.
CL: That’s right and they do about seven guest ales a day so I do recommend it if you get the chance. As I said it’s just like going to a festival: you can get through a lot with all your golden ales, session ales, best bitters.
PD: There are lots of little breweries now aren’t there in the East End and all over the place.
CL: What would you drink indoors, Phil, like just with your dinner or in front of the TV or whatever?
PD: Oh I get these mixed cases from Laithwaites and try them out. Not all of them are very good but some of them are. There was an Australian red called the Black Stump that I was quite fond of. But I don’t spend a lot of money on it. I don’t get expensive ones. At Christmas we might a bottle of Margaux or something.
CL: So are you in the restaurant scene in London much?
PD: Yes we eat out quite a bit but we tend to eat out locally in Crouch End and there are a couple of decent eateries.
CL: It has come on quite a lot hasn’t it?
PD: It has. There are a couple of decent places and lots of middle range places that if you don’t want to spend too much money you can still get a decent dinner. But no mostly we cook.
JS: Is there anywhere in Central London you would go to normally, say for example if you were in a play or maybe looking for somewhere to eat?
PD: Well, I’m a member of a couple of clubs, such as Soho House, but I don’t go there very often to be honest. It’s somewhere you can get something to eat late at night. When I was in Stratford, I had a little cottage just across the road from the theatre so you’d maybe go to the Dirty Duck and have a pint and then you’d go back to the cottage and maybe crack open a bottle of wine, but we didn’t go out very much. Maybe if I was younger I’d be out rocking and rolling and all that but not anymore.
CL: What about when you are with the luvvy types? You must move in those circles, producers and directors as well. They want to do all the West End bit don’t they?
PD: Well I don’t know; I suppose. Most of my friends are actors or are in the profession but the truth is I lead a very quiet life. I live in the real world same as everybody else.
CL: Is that by your design? Do you like your reclusivity?
PD: Yeah it’s not a big kind of game plan for life but it’s just the way it sort of panned out. We potter about at home and I’ve got lots of friends who aren’t actors. I play a bit of golf so there are lots of people up at the golf club and they all know I’m an actor but it’s not a big thing anymore. I’m just a shit golfer as far as they’re concerned.
I’m the king of the Sunday roast!
JS: So what about in the home then? Who is the cook or is it a joint effort?
PD: It’s a joint effort but I do most of the cooking. Unless I am working of course. Just because I enjoy it really.
JS: Any particular favourite dishes?
PD: I’m the king of the Sunday roast! I did roast pork on Sunday and on Tuesday I made a kind of pork in lemon and garlic thing with the leftovers and that was all very nice. I mean I don’t follow recipes very much –
CL: Nor do we.
PD: I don’t take it terribly seriously but we find the things we like. You know when you’ve got kids, they are a bit fussy, so you find things they are going to eat. My daughter won’t eat my casseroles. My beef in red wine, she won’t touch it, even though it tastes delicious!
CL: The family house sounds to me like a homely home. Lots of cooking being done and people around you…
PD: Yeah people around and we have a house guest – my wife’s half-brother from Australia is staying with us. He has been staying on and off for about a year and that’s very comfortable because we like each other enough and it’s a big house. And my daughter brings her school friends back so there is always something going on and I have a little room at the top of the house where I can go and disappear and do some writing.
CL: Tell us more about this writing if you don’t mind us interrogating you as you eat?
PD: Not at all. Well some years ago I did a film a little film called Borrowed Time. I was doing a bit of press and this journalist said I should write a biography. What he was saying was “I should write a biography of you and ghost write it” and I thought well if anyone is going to write my story it should be me. So about 3 years ago I started reinvestigating the past and not just show business but growing up on a council estate in Essex in the fifties and sixties. I’ve got 150 pages so I’m doing that. And I wrote a sit com about a golf club which we couldn’t get made. We got very close. It was commissioned by Sky but then Sky dropped it and we took it to the BBC and they gave us what they call a ‘table read’ where they cast it and everyone comes in and reads. And then the commissioner for BBC One came in and went “hate that”, so we were out.
CL: That’s not a goer at the minute?
PD: No but I’m doing something else for a company called Sid Gentle films. I’m writing something for that, so I’m just filling the time like that really.
CL: The other thing I enjoyed was the short King Lear piece.
PD: Oh yes.
JS: How much Shakespeare have you done?
PD: Not much to be honest. Do you remember when they did the little things on the South Bank; excerpts from different Shakespeare plays. I did a bit of Much Ado about Nothing. But that and King Lear, they are the only pieces of Shakespeare I have done.
CL: You suit Lear. It works doesn’t it? Works very well.
PD: It does yeah. He’s a very talented director that boy Billy Lumby who made it. Because I didn’t know what was going on. I rather thought it was going to be a mess and then I saw it and I thought oh I get it. I mean you never really know. Yeah he had a real vision for that.
JS: Are there any characters you have wanted to play but you haven’t played yet
PD: Funny you should ask me that. It’s weird because most of my work has been new work, you know. I’m not classical. I’ve never done a Shakespeare play professionally. I mean Scrooge was on my list I suppose, Fagin maybe if you know Dickens. People often say what do you want to do next? I often thought it would be really interesting to do a legal series about a really down at heel proper high street solicitor. The kind of guys who are going out and bailing people out in the middle of the night. Human life is like that. All manner of different stories. The prostitute who claims she was raped – you know, that is really complicated for a solicitor to try and do that. The drug dealer who has been set up by somebody. Just to unzip the underbelly of London life.
CL: I think you’re right. And also in London especially it could be very visually appealing. You know from North Square that the legal world is punctuated with interesting buildings and arcane stuff and it can be quite interesting to delve into that I think. I mean that’s been done but it can always be done in a different way.
PD: The thing people don’t realise is the chaos of the courts, not the Crown courts but the amount of time that evidence doesn’t turn up because they have messed it up at the Crown Prosecution Service. That’s why everybody, everybody pleads not guilty and then before the evidence turns up and the witnesses turn up they change their plea, but the solicitors always say “no plead not guilty” because they will probably mess it up and the amount of money that costs.
Mike Leigh is a fantastic film maker and great director… I think personally some of my best work has been with him and I love the way he puts it together without a script
CL: Is there any role you have gone for that you didn’t get? That you were gutted about, like “I really wanted that”?
PD: Yeah, a few. I mean I screen tested for the lead part in Quadrophenia. Three of us: me, Phil Daniels and Johnny Rotten.
CL: I didn’t know that. That’s a good bit of trivia that.
PD: I don’t know if they had wanted Johnny to play it whether they would ever have been able to insure him! You have to have insurance for films. So I don’t know what happened. Anyway Phil got it and I was offered the other part shortly after and I was perfectly content with it. It wasn’t like I went into a tiff.
CL: And what about the other way round. Something you have agreed to and then regretted?
PD: More numerous to mention! Like everybody else I’ve got my share of mongrels. But you know what happens is that after a while they just sink into the swamp. I didn’t always have the freedom to pick and choose the work that I wanted to do in quite the way I would have done had I not had the financial imperative to. So it’s not a complaint but if I could go back and do things differently, I would probably work less. Sometimes you are surprised the things you thought were going to be amazing turn out to be crap and vice versa, you know, so you never really know and also the other thing is there is no correlation between the amount of pleasure you derive from doing something and how good it turns out.
JS: Who else has influenced you other than Joan Littlewood?
PD: The other really big influence on me and my career, to whom I am eternally grateful, is Mike Leigh. I met Mike in the mid-70s and we have been working together on and off ever since. I feel like we have sort of grown up together really and I admire him greatly. He is a fantastic film maker and great director. When I first came across his films I was watching one called Nuts in May. It was on the television about a camping trip and I remember thinking I had never seen anything like it because they were like real people, not characters in a TV programme but like real people out of life. It didn’t look like it was being acted or performed. I thought I’d love to do something like that. And then I got the opportunity and I have done six or seven of his projects over the years. I think personally some of my best work has been with him and I love the way he puts it together without a script.
CL: Could you pick out a few highlights?
PD: Vera Drake and High Hopes.
CL: You were BAFTA-nominated for Vera Drake, no?
PD: Yes. I didn’t win but I did win the London critic circle and a BIFA British Independent film awards best actor for Vera Drake.
CL: Did 2005-2006 feel different for you with the big award nomination… not to say you weren’t a household name already… What I mean is, did it feel any different at all in the wake of that?
PD: Well, I thought there might be more of a feature film career after Vera Drake having won these awards and having been nominated but it didn’t work out. I had a fantastic ten years from the year 2000 to 2012. It was a real fantastic proper run for me. There was North Square and there was Wall of Silence which was a wonderful film with me and James Nesbitt and there was 20,000 Streets under the Sky, The Curse of Steptoe, and Rosa Maloney. And Vera Drake in the middle of it with all the fuss and all the awards.
CL: Does the fuss matter to you? Be honest.
PD: Well it’s nice to be patted on the back and I do a lot of press in the Observer and the posh papers and all that. It keeps you kind of up there but really all that matters to me is the work. But for its own sake I don’t give a fuck.
CL: So if you see 2014 to now as more of a self-confessed dip, do you think things might just come around again. A little upwards curve?
PD: What matters is what comes next you know. Touching wood, I’m still fit and healthy and I can still remember the lines. But I do stuff all the time. People ask “are you working?” and I say no not really but I am doing the voice for Who Do You Think You Are. I’m doing this radio thing. I’m doing play reading. Someone has written a play and they want to do a play reading and will I do that and there’s no money, well 25 quid or something and yeah I’ll go and do it. So I am busy all the time. I’m not idle. And I’m writing my things.
CL: You don’t strike me as a person who would actually at all enjoy being idle. You want to be on the go a bit, don’t you?
PD: I can’t bear it. I want to be doing something every morning. I want a reason to get up and my wife will tell you if I am not doing anything I am a pain in the arse! I’m hoovering the carpet or something and she goes “sit down for Christ’s sake”, so yeah, I like to be busy.
CL: So, what lies in the short term ahead?
PD: The truth is I don’t know if they want me to go back and play Scrooge again at Christmas so I’m mulling that over. I would like to do it. I don’t like the thought of anyone else doing it really!
CL: Nice grub wasn’t it?
PD: It was lovely, really very good. Lovely pork chop. I couldn’t eat the crackling. It was probably just as well as I’m a man on a diet. It was a lovely meal thank you very much.
CL: Would you come here again? To Noble Rot?
PD: Is it different in the evenings or is it much the same?
CL: The lights dim, it’s busy. There’s a real hubbub.
PD: It’s a nice street isn’t it, Lambs Conduit Street? I’ve never really walked up here before.
JS: It’s probably my favourite street in London.
PD: I pass Theobald’s Road all the time because I do my voice thing on Grays Inn Road, but I have never walked down… Funny name isn’t it for a restaurant, Noble Rot.
JS: It’s the name of a fungus you get on grapes that’s used for making sweet wine.
PD: Oh right I see. I said to my friend and he said “oh it will be all mushrooms.” Well, it was a delightful lunch and it was nice to meet you both.
JS: Thank you.
CL: Thank you.
Phil’s ‘flight’ of wines included:
- Lopez De Heredia Tondonia Rioja Bianco Gran Reserva 1996
- Evening Land Seven Springs La Source Chardonnay 2014
- Ramonet Bouzeron 2014
We ate: burratina; asparagus; pork chop; and pigeon
This interview took place in May 2018.