Robert Lindsay, one of the UK’s most versatile and celebrated actors, talks to Rosanna Spence about the simple escapism of physical comedy, reflecting on his career’s funniest moments as winner of the Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend Award 2024.
Comedy runs through Robert Lindsay’s veins. His hilarious cameo appearances in Extras and Victoria Wood With All The Trimmings are as iconic as his longstanding roles in series including Citizen Smith and My Family. Lindsay lets his adoration for physical comedy and life’s little humours trickle off stage and screen into his everyday. Whether its him and his wife emerging from a limo for a Leicester Square royal film premiere – only to find out they’d turned up on the wrong evening – or watching someone grapple with fitting helium-filled balloons in their car from his local coffee bar window, even when the world and its politics feel heavy, there’s joy to be found if you look close enough.
Though he’s just as comfortable taking on serious roles in dramas and thrillers, and onstage in Shakespeare plays, it’s Lindsay’s ventures into comedy that have won him the Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend Award, which is being presented as part of Bristol’s Slapstick festival.
To celebrate, Lindsay will take to the stage again, at the Bristol Old Vic on Sunday 18 February, only this time to share his favourite stories from an outstanding career in comedy.
Ahead of his appearance, we caught up with the actor, thinking there was no better time to ask about his proudest moments from a glittering, multi award-winning and much-lauded career. We hope you enjoy reading his memories and anecdotes in his own words – relayed to us between bouts of laughter and a deep fondness and respect for those he has shared stages and screens with so far – as much as we enjoyed hearing them.
I’ve always been fascinated by comedy from an early age.
Laurel and Hardy were my Christmas treat when I was kid. I was mesmerised as a child by silent comedy, the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I think that was the inspiration to start it all. When I was at school I was always the joker, making people laugh. I found physical comedy a good way of reaching people and making friends, and solving fights. I remember once when I was in the school yard, being confronted by some guys looking for a fight. I feigned madness and frightened the life out of them. My real passion is physical comedy, though I never get much opportunity to do it now as I get older. I once studied mime at Le Coq Mime School in Paris when I was younger, and I’d love to do a Jacques Tati silent movie one day.
I was very lucky to perform as Bill Snibson in Me and My Girl at the Adelphi Theatre.
This was the part I really wanted and I loved it so much as there was a real physical comedy aspect to it. [The role won Lindsay both a Tony Award and Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical.] I based all the shtick on Keaton and Chaplin. I watched movie after movie – all the tricks – then decided which ones I’d bring to the role.
In fact, we were once visited backstage by Laurence Olivier. I’d worked with him on King Lear for Granada TV, so he came to see Me and My Girl. He loved what the show was about, so he taught me a few tricks; one of them was a spoon turned upside down with a sugar cube placed on it. You pressed down on the spoon and the cube shoots through the air and it lands in the cup. I put it in the show every night. I had another trick too, where I used to catch a cigarette in my mouth after rolling over a sofa, while wearing a hat. Friends used to come and see the show, just to see if I’d get the cube in, or catch the cigarette. You can always make comedy out of the things that go wrong.
Physical comedy so often comes from glorious mistakes people make. It’s the simple humour of life.
I love watching people – we all do. People-watching is hysterical. You can sit in a coffee shop and watch people trying to park their cars through the window. People walking into lampposts if they’re distracted by someone attractive. All those wonderful little moments. I saw something the other day through the window of my local coffee bar. There was a girl with 10 balloons filled with helium heading to someone’s birthday. She was trying to get the balloons in the car, and she thought she’d got them in, then as she was trying to shut the door, they shot out and she snapped the cables and they went up into the air. That is classic humour. Not for her though, obviously! It’s terrible, but I also love watching people trip; when they pretend they haven’t because they’re embarrassed.
Years ago, my wife and I were invited to a royal film premiere in Leicester Square.
We were very excited about it, so we organised a limo to take us in and I put my tuxedo on. But when we arrived, we realised it was the wrong night. We did look very smart though, so we walked into a pub for a drink anyway. That makes me laugh. My feeling is that with the complexities of life and its politics, stand-up comedians now have to veer into so many political things. If you think back to Morecambe and Wise and Bruce Forsyth, their acts were singing and dancing. Comedy started from the music halls. They weren’t standing up and doing political performances. It was simple escapism.
Don’t forget, there’s humour in every single drama.
Before I was in Me and My Girl, I played Hamlet. Most actors who play him have to make a big decision – are you mad or not? I decided I wasn’t mad, and that I was instead deliberately angry about the situation and also trying to send-up everyone. There was a sequence when for no reason at all when the other actors stepped forward I decided to step back. And they didn’t know I was doing it. Eventually we got so far away from each other that I ended up offstage. The audience were hysterical. The actors loved it and wanted us to do it every night. But I said ‘no, no, let’s just invent something every night’. That’s the great thing about a great play like Hamlet – there is humour in it.
I also did Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company once – some of the humour in there is incredible. [The critic] Michael Billington compared me to Ken Dodd! I did send him a Christmas card that year with a cut-out of Ken Dodd and me playing Richard III. But I could see what he meant. Richard III talks to the audience all the time. He’s constantly asking for their opinions and blessings.
So, I chose one person in the audience. You speak through that person to the entire audience. It has an extraordinary effect on everyone. I’ve noticed stand-up comedians speak to one person in order to speak to the masses, too.
There are writers – like Alan Bleasdale and James Graham – who can put humour alongside very dark things. It’s very clever.
I was in G.B.H. in the 90s with Michael Palin, which was a deep, political drama about the militant left, and I played a character called Michael Murray [in a BAFTA-winning performance. There was a sequence that only Bleasdale could have written – it was in a hotel, where I’m trying to sleep with this beautiful woman, but I don’t know she’s a spy. And this is happening during a Doctor Who convention taking place in the same hotel. And I have physical Tourette’s. It’s completely mad. It’s very dark, but it’s hysterically funny.
I did a chat show once and they played that sequence and the audience was screaming in laughter. It’s a wonderful feeling when you’ve done something on film that’s put in front of an audience for the first time and there’s laughter.
The chandelier scene in Only Fools and Horses is one of the most iconic jokes of all time.
John Sullivan, who wrote Only Fools and Horses, was a great physical comedy gag writer. Likewise, he had done the same when writing Citizen Smith. In one scene, we’re breaking into a factory by trying to climb a fence, and that’s when we realise the gate is unlocked as it swings open. Silly things like that are glorious comedy.
I’m still recognised for Citizen Smith now, 50 years after it first aired – people will shout ‘Power to the people’ at me in the street. It was one of those powerful things you do on TV, and it had 24 million viewers at the time.
One of my comic heroes is Gromit.
I was so thrilled when I was told I’d won the Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend Award. I’m a big fan of Aardman Animations and its work. Getting an award from peers who you admire is very special. They’ve got a massive audience and their work is so wonderful. The Wallace and Gromit series is genius comedy. How they do that with puppets is incredible. I just love Gromit. He is without doubt one of the greatest physical comedians; his eyes, the raised eyebrows, the deadpan looks. In Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the sequence when Gromit traps the villainous dog is pure Keaton and Chaplin humour channelled through the ages.
Keep an eye out for Lindsay on screen, with upcoming appearances in Ben Wheatley’s satirical apocalyptic tale Generation Z on Channel 4. He’s also starring in the second series of James Graham’s BBC show Sherwood. Lindsay also teased details about the very early stages of a brand-new project he’s working on, based on an updated version of Don Quixote (but we’ll have to be patient to find out more about that).
Lindsay will be appearing at Bristol Old Vic on Sunday 18 February at 8.30pm. Here, he will reflect on stories and clips from his exceptional career in comedy before receiving the Aardman Slapstick Comedy Legend Award, made especially for him by Aardman model-makers, and inspired by his portrayal of Wolfie ‘Power to the people’ Smith in Citizen Smith. The show will be hosted by journalist and broadcaster Matthew Sweet.
For more information and to book tickets, head to the festival website slapstick.org.uk
Image caption: Robert Lindsay (image supplied by Slapstick festival)