My interest in history didn’t come from my home. I’m an East End boy from a very loving family, but my parents were not, shall we say, cultured in any way. Somehow I got to the local grammar school and, through that, to Cambridge, where I read history.
I was an only child and a bit of a fantasist. It was the days when kids could play in the street quite freely and safely. I would play with my friends and we’d make up scenarios and act out little pieces. I think the acting gene was there on the night of my conception. And I suppose the acting, the dressing up, the pretending to be somebody else, somewhere else, at a different time, all fed into my love for history.
As an actor, I’ve time-travelled to play some fascinating, complex figures. One of my favourites was, in fact, fairly recent in the film Breaking the Code about Alan Turing – the title, of course, having a double meaning, in that he broke both the Enigma code and the moral code of the time. (In our new world, they offered him a pardon, which made me furious. He should have had an apology, not a pardon.)
I also had the extraordinary task of playing Hitler in the 1982 film Inside the Third Reich. I said to the director: “Why have you cast me? There is nothing about me personality-wise, or physically, that suggests Hitler.” And he said, “This is a particular Hitler, this is a Hitler that Albert Speer wrote about” – because it’s based on Speer’s autobiography. Speer’s take was that Hitler was an actor – that a lot of his rages were acted.
They put me in a film studio in Bavaria, and gave me a pile of tapes of Hitler’s rallies – it was extraordinary to see him go through a speech. I watched him do a two-and-a-half hour speech from beginning to end and the man was a pretty good actor. The director said, “That’s why we cast you. We’ll make you look like him. Anybody can look like Hitler. Do the hair, do the cowlick, do the moustache, you’ll be Hitler, don’t worry. We’ll do all that. But you’ll show how he was a good actor.”
My favourite period, though, is Tudor England. I suppose my love of Shakespeare colours that. One of the greatest parts I ever played was Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. I was a young actor at the Birmingham Rep and I played the role in a kind of fat suit. None of us knew, but one Wednesday matinee Laurence Olivier was out front looking for people for the National Theatre. This was in 1963 when the National first started at The Old Vic, and he liked what he saw and offered me a job. So Henry VIII actually launched my career – in a fat suit.
Despite my love for Shakespeare, I don’t believe he wrote the plays. I think it was the 17th Earl of Oxford, and the deeper I’ve delved into the research, the more convinced I am that there is a question to answer. Of course, history has a habit of not unleashing its secrets and there’s no smoking gun, unfortunately. The quest for the holy grail, to find that irrefutable proof, remains.
It hasn’t stopped me, however, from collecting Staffordshire pottery figurines of Shakespeare. I’m looking at them now. The first one I was given was at least 30 years ago. There were three figures together: Shakespeare, Sarah Siddons and Kemble. It’s still my favourite. I have lots of Keens, and lots of Garrick as Richard III. The famous one of Garrick shows him having a nightmare in his tent before the battle. Most of the Staffordshire Shakespeares show him leaning on a pillar with his legs crossed. I’m told if ever you find a Staffordshire of Shakespeare leaning on his pillar with his legs uncrossed, it will be worth a fortune. Alas, I don’t have one of those.
I always said that two of my ambitions as an actor were to appear in Coronation Street and Doctor Who. I’ve fulfilled both, playing an extra in the Rovers Return in Coronation Street and the Master in Doctor Who. If I had a Tardis like the Doctor, I think I’d travel back to the original Globe Theatre, to watch the first night of Hamlet. And if I could meet anyone, it would be the 17th Earl of Oxford. As to the one historical artefact I’d like to possess? I think the sword that killed Anne Boleyn. I know it’s a grisly, gruesome thing but I find her fascinating. I’m actually a bit in love with her.
Derek Jacobi is a patron of The Mono Box. You can listen to him perform his favourite theatrical speech for free as part of its Monologue Library at themonobox.co.uk/monolibrary.