Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Bill Nighy used to be a good actor – here's the proof!

My two main contributions to the housework, now that I’m a man of leisure, are washing up after meals and ironing. My willingness to wash up is really a result of my inability to relax when there’s any kind of mess in the kitchen. And I’ve grown to quite enjoy the ironing because it gives me a chance to listen to Radio 4 Extra and catch  drama series I’ve missed over the years on account of not being much of a radio listener.

Almost every time I hear drama on Radio 4 itself, it seems to be about either (1) The Oirish Troubles, complete with mournful fiddle music - every villain is a Protestant or an Englishman, or both (2) the evils of British colonialism abroad – every villain is an upper class Englishman (3) how simply rotten it is to live on a council estate - everyone in authority is an absolute bastard, apart from the occasional compassionate left-wing teacher, or (4) the dreadful sufferings of immigrants as a result of the vicious, ingrained racism of the English people - all of whom are horrible, apart from the occasional compassionate left-winger. (Honestly, if I hear the word “Windrush” just once more, I may just destroy every radio in the house.) But once upon a time, it seems, there used to be some really good radio drama on the BBC.

Yesterday’s ironing coincided with a superb dramatisation of John Masters’ 1953 novel, The Lotus and the Wind (which I haven’t read), set against the Great Game played between Russia and England in Central Asia at the end of the 19th Century. In the episode I caught, Lieutenant Robin Savage, masquerading as a native, and his loyal Gurkha orderly, become involved in a cat and mouse game with a pair of Russian spies. They whizz around all over the place, trying to figure out what the Russkies – who are intent on killing them - are really up to.

I particularly enjoyed the performance of William Nigh, the actor playing Lieutenant Savage. There was something oddly familiar about him: in fact, now and then he sounded faintly like Bill Nighy – but he was far too animated and engaged, and he wasn’t delivering his lines in a Mayfair cockney drawl with his back teeth clamped together. In fact, this chap was acting, and doing it very well.

When the drama ended (ten shirts later), the announcer informed us that Robin Savage was played by William Nigh – whom we now know better as Bill Nighy.

My flabber etc.

The four episodes of the radio version were originally broadcast in October 1984, when Nighy was 34. Which begs the question, what went wrong? When did Nighy decide to stop acting and instead opt for delivering all his lines in the tired, affectless drone of someone evidently off their tits on quaaludes? Did some highly-mannered but well-received performance subsequently convince him that actually making the effort to act was a waste of energy?

If you have a bit of spare time and fancy a decent radio drama, all four episodes are currently available here on iPlayer (but disappearing fast). 

If you simply want some quick proof that Nighy used to be an extremely decent actor, listen to the third episode (“Levels of Deception”) here, from 23:06 onwards. You'll be amazed!

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