Hustle star Robert Glenister talks about his West End “meltdown”

Actor Robert Glenister. Picture: IAN WEST / PA WIRE

Actor Robert Glenister. Picture: IAN WEST / PA WIRE - Credit: PA

Hustle star Robert Glenister, appearing at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, this month, opens up about his “meltdown” during the West End run of Glengarry Glen Ross and his career highs and lows.

Robert’s new five-month-old cockapoo is proving a handful when we chat. The family’s first dog, the Hustle star says it’s like having a needy toddler.

“It changes your life a bit but we live in a fairly doggy street, the kids have grown up, we’ve got time, why not? It gets us out. He’s a sweetheart but he’s got far too much energy for an old git like me.”

He wonders if age played in a part in his headline making West End nightmare last year. Robert froze midway during a production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross at London’s Playhouse Theatre, forcing stage managers to bring the curtain down for half-an-hour.

It followed reports of him collapsing mid-show two weeks earlier.

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“I had a bit of a meltdown. I’m in my late 50s and you go ‘how am I going to remember all this?’. You start to worry about it… what happens if I forget and all the rest of it. Bottom line, I think it was stage fright; good old-fashioned getting up in front of 800 people and losing your bottle.”

Robert laughs at speculation it was brought on by his failed legal battle with HM Revenue and Customs over National Insurance Contributions.

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“Most of us are fairly adept at, whatever’s kicking off outside, switching off and getting on with the job; that’s what being professional’s all about.

“It was just stage-fright and a lot of people have gone through it to a greater or lesser degree,” he adds, recalling the famous story of Frank Finlay having to push a stricken Laurence Olivier on stage at the Old Vic during a run of Othello.

He admits there were a lot of things happening which he’d kept the lid on, only for it to finally come off for a couple of nights.

“I had that awful actor’s nightmare where you don’t know where you are, you don’t know what you’re supposed to say next and in a play like that, which is complicated anyway and you have to take it at a certain lick... it’s one of those things that can strike anybody at any time. There’s no rhyme or reason for it particularly.

“It hadn’t happened to me before, I hope to God it never happens again. It happens to a lot of people, some of whom go ‘right that’s it, I don’t want to work in the theatre again’. I know people who have literally gone ‘I can’t carry on with this’ and they’ve walked off stage, gone home and haven’t come back.

“I got messages from people, some of whom I knew and some I didn’t, to say ‘it happened to me and I had to take some time off’. I thought I do want to work in the theatre again. I had to stop but thought if I don’t get back on the stage the chances are I never will so with a lot of help and support I was able to do that.

“I had a great understudy who went on for a week while I was off. I got it back together, went back and started to enjoy it again. Ultimately the bottom line is it’s only a play. Yes, it’s important to you but nobody died.”

Robert, who’s been in series like Soldier Soldier, classic Doctor Who, A Touch of Frost and Spooks, is one of several stars appearing at The Love Gala. It’s a fundraiser for the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds and the My WiSH Charity which supports West Suffolk Hospital.

He laughs he hasn’t a clue what he’s doing yet.

“I got an email today suggesting I might come up with something. I thought they were going to give me something to do so I haven’t got the faintest idea. We’ll find something.

“They’re both great causes... I worked at the theatre once, years ago. I did a tour of Long Day’s Journey into Night and we did a week at Bury. It’s a lovely theatre and absolutely worth preserving and nurturing.”

Apart from the obvious austerity measures affecting the NHS, Robert thinks the arts are the first to suffer because they’re not anywhere near the top of people’s priorities.

“They’re cutting back drama and arts subjects in schools, it’s terrible. If you think about the income the arts earn for this country... London’s just heaving with people and lot of those people are going to the theatre on a regular basis and it’s not cheap, certainly in commercial theatre. It’s a hugely important aspect of our society.

“I think theatre doesn’t, perhaps, embrace as wide-ranging a social section as it could but we had people coming to see Glengarry Glen Ross who hadn’t been to the theatre before apart from going to the panto and stuff like that.

“That’s very gratifying where you’re giving them a new experience and they’re relishing it, so hopefully they go again. I don’t think anybody knows how it (Brexit) is going to affect tourism or the arts… it’s just a suck and see sort of time isn’t it really.”

Robert was bitten by the acting bug when he a kid, appearing in school productions, local youth theatre group shows and then the National Youth Theatre. The 1977 play Killing Time – an angry, state of the nation tirade piece – got a lot of attention. It led to him getting a part in the ITV play Little Girls Don’t.

“Strictly I shouldn’t have done it because I was going to do a not very impressive degree having left school but I screwed my A-levels up because I was doing too much acting so I went to retake those and got this play in the interim.”

Those days you couldn’t work in TV unless you’d worked 40 weeks in the theatre because Equity was still a closed shop. He had to get special dispensation and a temporary card to do the play. Roles on Crown Court and 1980s BBC sitcom Sink or Swim followed.

“Funnily enough, I worked in television more than I did anything else when I first started professionally. Having not gone to drama school I thought I best start learning how to ‘do it properly’. I’m not saying working in television isn’t proper but technically I wasn’t that well equipped to work in the theatre. That’s when I started to do a lot more.”

Robert does at least one play a year if he can.

“I’ll never let it go because, ultimately, it’s why I got into acting. Not because I wanted to be a movie star but because I loved the theatre. I sort of knew what I wanted to do when I was pretty young. I think Phil (his brother, star of Life on Mars and Mad Dogs), didn’t make that decision until he was much older.”

Their father, John, was a successful TV director during the 1960s-1980s, whose credits include Rumpole of the Bailey, Dennis Potter’s biopic of Casanova, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates and A Bit of a Do.

“I think that kindled an interest… dad wasn’t particularly bringing his work home with him the whole time but it was there to be seen because it was on the television so I suppose you were surrounded by it (the business) in a sense.

“I’m not sure (I’d) necessarily end up as an actor because in terms of the things one could do within this industry acting’s probably the most precarious to say the least. Dad was never involved in theatre, it was my major interest when I was younger so I don’t think there was an inevitability about it. There are lots of offspring of people involved in the industry who’ve gone into it in a different capacity or done the same thing as their parents.”

Robert’s daughter Emily went to drama school but decided it wasn’t for her, so channelled her love of reading and writing into job for a London publisher. His son Tom is carrying on the legacy.

“He’s in his last year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on the acting course so he’s going to join the dynasty so to speak,” he laughs.

There have been some incredible highs and lows during his long career. Robert particularly remembers auditioning for Adrian Noble while he was an associate director at Bristol’s Old Vic.

“I was pretty terrible and he told me to go to drama school unless of course I wanted to be a television actor. I’ve worked with him a few times and I reminded him of that. Hand I reminded him of that and he was very funny and he said ‘oh did I say that, I’m terribly sorry’.”

Working at the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, with the cast of Hustle for eight were all happy times. Going to America to Live By Night with Ben Affleck was a recent memorable moment.

“It was one of those things where you put yourself on tape, think ‘I haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of getting this’ and forget about it. Then three months later you get a call saying you’ve got the gig. That was an experience. It was unexpected, certainly when you’re in your 50s because you think those opportunities have passed you by.

“So just to experience that whole Hollywood studio film and that amount of money; it wasn’t hugely expensive in comparison to some of the mega superhero films or Star Wars and such like. It was the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in, in terms of budget and just the enormity of it. Even if it never happens again I think ‘I’ve done it’.”

• See The Love Gala at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, on March 25. It’s a night of comedy, cabaret, readings and West End show routines featuring Sammy Kelly, Matthew Croke, Yvonne Howard, Britt Lenting, Alex Jennings, Frankie Dettori, Diana Quick and Chris Clarkson with Christopher Biggins as master of ceremonies.

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