Just who is actor Sam West? In a galaxy of one dimensional, pretty boy actors, West is hard to define or to pigeonhole. He acts, directs, tinkers with politics and goes off to Palestine to conduct The London Choir in the Magic Flute. To that you can add that he is an un-repenting atheist, ‘and doesn’t care who knows it’. Yet he is currently, and very happily, playing an angel, in ITV’s bold new drama – Eternal Law – with a delicious mix of charm, cynicism and masculine vulnerability; oh and a pair of wings to lust after – which have a tendency to ‘pop out at very awkward moments – like an unwanted erection’, explains Sam. The latest offering from Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham – the writers on Life on Mars – Eternal Law is whacky, whimsical and makes very good television. I am sure it will be a hit, and that it will deliver Sam West many new admirers, most of them I suspect – women.
The truth is Samuel Alexander Joseph West belongs to the great, British, swashbuckling, politically incorrect and imperfectly talented tradition of Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Richard Burton. He thinks and worries far too much about the human condition: about beauty, politics, the death of British manufacturing, sex – lots and lots of sex, lest he miss out! – And yes, bird watching (Of which more later) and the peerless, incomparable beauty of the steam engine. He also uses the word ‘fecund’ a lot.
West is clearly talented, so why isn’t he a first-degree Hollywood star? He was very good as Anthony Blunt in Cambridge Spies and his performance in Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company garnered an award for Best Shakespearean Performance. My guess is that it’s because he doesn’t really care to be; he has too many other facets to his life that he enjoys more. Nor does he have the soft, bland, conformist perfection that Hollywood currently craves for its leading men.
Somehow, his features just seem wrong, if not a little outré. Take that mop of unruly, chorister boy curls, and those strong, aquiline features that can make him sometimes look rather fierce and cross on screen. Remember him as Julia Robert’s cold, gossipy, patrician leading man in Notting Hill? What he does possess is animal magnetism – you only have to look on film forums to see how he inspires such devotion in his female fans.
Now back to Eternal Law. In a piece of inspired casting and a superb, madcap, silly, affirming homage to Powell and Pressburger’s delicious A matter of Life and Death – West is finally cast as a leading man, and he doesn’t disappoint. He acts everyone else off the screen as JAK GIST, a deliciously cynical, wise-cracking, world-weary lawyer who has another secret life as an angel, dispatched to earth to clean up the lives of messy humans, when his own life is just as complex, and he can’t be with the woman he is mad for. At last, West has never looked more appealing or quite so fallible; hanging out on the very telegenic pinnacles of York Minster, be-suited, cigar and whisky in hand, and flexing a fine pair of lusciously downy, anatomically correct wings, complete with all the primary feathers – forget vampires! The angelic life is hot.
And so I predict is Sam West. Soon we will have the fascinating opportunity to compare West’s portrait of George V1, with Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning turn in the King’s Speech. West is taking on the shy monarch with a life-long stutter, for his role in Hyde Park on Hudson in the film about the love affair between Franklin D Roosevelt and his distant cousin directed by Roger Mitchell.
When we meet for the launch of Eternal Law, Sam has forty minutes to spare before dashing into town to put the finishing touches to a paper he has written ‘ attacking the Coalition government on the cuts to arts funding’. I detect he rather relishes all this. Then, in a few days time he is off to Newcastle to take a boat trip down the Tyne in preparation to direct Close the Coalhouse Door, a play about the HISTORY OF THE DURHAM MINERS, by Alan Plater.
‘ I’m going up for a little meeting about the play next week, and one of the first things I am going to do is take a boat down the Tyne. There are huge piles of coals on the Tyne – coals to Newcastle – but they are Romanian. So we have exported the union problems and the unpaid labour, and the danger to Russia and Columbia. Meanwhile, there are public sector workers who have just had a pay frieze, lots of ex-miners, and seventy five percent of the coal is still in the ground, and nobody is making anything; it does feel wrong.’
Somehow, I can’t imagine the new pretty boy pack of Brit actors even knowing about the miners strike, or caring; let alone being interested in anything other than the name of their dermatologist and the size of their next pay cheque.
West is complex, interesting, and has lovely manners, and speaks in a tone of mellifluous, rather beautiful, received English. He is also full of fascinating contradictions. He is the son of actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales. In fact he tells me “ I do know The Lady Magazine well. My mother has advertised in the magazine for nannies and housekeepers since before I was born.’
He was educated at Alleyn’s, a private school in Dulwich, and he went on to Lady Margaret Hall Oxford, where he read English Literature. When he broke the news to his parents that he wanted to act, they suggested that becoming a plumber might be a better career. He didn’t listen. On screen he frequently plays, toffs, aristocrats and royalty with ease and aplomb, and yet, he is no Tory. In his twenties, he was briefly a member of the Socialist Workers Party, and he maintains a life long passion and interest in politics and socialism.
Twice a year, since he was seventeen years old, Sam takes the sleeper, around midnight from Paddington to Penzance, ‘a whisky in hand until Reading, at which point he retires to his bunk’. He adds that if he times things just right, ‘ I wake to the view of St Michael’s Mount.’ He then spends a very happy, contented few days cooking, washing up piles of dishes and generally grafting behind the scenes at the International Musicians Seminar in Prussia Cove.
Why, I ask him does he feel the need to do that?
For the first time in the interview, he grows very quiet, and almost becomes tongue-tied.
Is it the contrast between thinking and physical grafting?
‘Yes, it is partly that. I just like washing up… actually I don’t like washing up. But if you have a team of five washing up together, and you get to the end, it is enormously satisfying.’
I said West is complicated.
West’s trips to Penzance, also, happily coincide with the main spring and autumn migration patterns. Originally, he was inspired to study the birds, after a trip to Kenya in his teens to visit his uncle who was a solider working for the British liaison force out in Africa.
‘ I went out on safari, and looked into their garden, and I just loved the fact that birds were either four inches long and bright blue, or seven feet tall and couldn’t fly. It wasn’t too difficult to get the mixed up. I’ve also subsequently discovered that Nairobi is the most fecund city in the world for birds.’
But the years went buy, and he didn’t seriously take up twitching until he took over from Michael Grandage as artistic director of the Sheffield Theatres, a job he candidly describes as ‘reasonably stressful’.
‘ I lived eight miles from the middle of a grouse moor. So at six in the morning, I could just bomb west, and go for a walk before breakfast. And although the birdlife on a moor isn’t amazing, it was the first time I had lived anywhere near the country, as I grew up in south London; and it took me out of myself in a way I found completely captivating.
‘There is also the slightly nerdy, boyish need to catalogue things, to list things. I used to be a train spotter, and very proud one too. My dad had a great interest in trains around the same age. There is something enormously beautiful about steam trains, and the fact that we made them. I do worry very much that we’ve lost the connection between effort and reward that comes from making things. I also think we don’t know how things are made, if we don’t make them ourselves. David Nobbs, who I follow on twitter, said something very funny recently. He said, ‘ a lot of middleclass people regret the loss of menial jobs they wouldn’t last ten minutes in’, which I am sure is true.
‘ Nevertheless,’ he argues, Sheffield is a very good example of this decline. ‘It used to be a city that made things; now it is a city that sells things. And it’s losing its memory. It may be a very nice city; it is certainly cleaner, and there are more fountains. But there is something about the satisfaction of producing things with your hands, the sense of achievement, and pride and indeed all of that.’
West is certainly complicated but the one thing he isn’t is a hypocrite. When he says there is satisfaction in using your hands he means it.
When he isn’t washing up, he goes bird watching. ‘ There’s this valley near Land’s End. It ‘s called Cop Valley – and it must be the most beautiful setting in Britain. It’s like Rivendale. It’s this incredibly damp, warm valley, and the birds are amazing. The chances of seeing a real rarity are quite high, and even if they aren’t, you get lots of black caps and white caps, and spring and autumn migrants, singing, and the weather is wonderful.
‘Going birding gives me a completely different attitude to the year. Now I see the seasons as heralding different, migratory birds. Instead of November and it’s freezing, I think it’s November and the geese have arrived. Migration is one of the great mysteries of nature.’
Several days after interviewing Sam West, I stumbled across this quote from him on his entry for IMDB – the leading information site for filmmakers and actors.
‘Oliver Reed regretted not sleeping with every woman in the world, and Betjeman said he wished he’d had more sex. It doesn’t matter how much sex I have, I’ll be of Olli Reed’s mind when it comes down to it. And so will anybody who is honest.’
I would say that Sam West is a man who frets and thinks and lusts after life – keen to fill up everyday with meaning, purpose and experience – and what’s wrong with that?
Eternal Law is on ITV every Thursday at 9pm. It is repeated on www.itv.com
Close the Coalhouse Door Opens in April to book – www. northernstage.co.uk
Alison Jane Reid – Copyright January 2012
Download PDF of this Sam West Interview for The Lady Magazine Published February 2012