Bill Nighy: "I know what it's like to want to live in a film"

Bill Nighy, who lives alone and finds sleeping difficult, says he passes the time by watching YouTube clips of Christopher Walken on his phone – when he isn’t working, that is.

Bill Nighy: A curiously self-conscious way of living. Photo: Spencer Murphy/Contour/Getty Images

Bill Nighy is unmistakable even at a hundred yards: a long streak of navy blue fabric, a pair of black specs and a mobile phone. He lives by himself near Savile Row in London and it’s tempting to imagine that his flat has been fitted with a dumbwaiter enabling a fresh bespoke suit to be sent up to him each morning.

He’s just got off the Eurostar from Paris, where he was recording vocals for a computer game. It was a surreal activity that involved reading various vocal “instructions” from a script – “scream”, “die”, “cackle” – to cover any situation. The instruction that intrigued him most was “aware”, which he re-creates now as a kind of grunt, like a man rousing himself from sleep to look at something that doesn’t interest him very much.

Drowsiness is an innate part of his onscreen energy. A reviewer once wrote, “No one does tired like Bill Nighy.” “Which was strange,” he says, as we enter a café, “because often when I think I’m at my most strident and energised, people think I’m tired and disinterested.”

Nighy spends his life “pursuing sleep” but doesn’t get much of it: he has made 11 films in the past two years and is often accused of workaholism, which he thinks is ridiculous. Before any important job, he lies awake most of the night. “The minute you sit up in bed and go, ‘This is so unfair!’ you’re not only wide awake, you’re angry, too,” he says. “So I lie there without emotion – as a lump.”

To pass the time in the hours before dawn, he watches YouTube clips of Christopher Walken on his iPhone. He’s seen them all: Walken on Letterman, Walken reading the lyrics of Lady Gaga, Walken’s Jackanory appearance on Jonathan Ross’s Saturday Zoo, in which, dressed in a chunky-knit sweater, he reads “Three Little Pigs” (“Arrivederci, porco numero due! Buongiorno, salami . . .”).

The pair recently worked together, in the upcoming sequel to David Hare’s political drama Page Eight, but there are deeper connections between them. Both are said to “play themselves” in every film they make. Walken once confessed that those long, alarming pauses of his – those shifty scans of the eyes – are simply him forgetting his lines. Nighy has also spent a lifetime undercutting his acting: pinning him down today on what he does and why he is so consistently successful at it is almost impossible. “I learn the lines and I try to say them like someone would if they were in that situation,” he says, calling to mind Ian McKellen’s actorly turn in Extras (“I imagined what it would be like to be a wizard . . .”). “You walk and talk the best you can,” he continues, deadpan. “The idea is to try to appear as relaxed or normal as possible.”

Nighy has turned what he calls his “chronic, comic self-consciousness” into a valuable commodity. He doesn’t watch his films, because he can’t bear to see “all the little bits of cowardice, the things I didn’t quite pull off”. Yet it’s not quite true to say he is just playing himself. For a start, while his characters are often lovable failures in the gentle decline of middle age, he achieved sudden international fame at the age of 53 in 2003 with Richard Curtis’s Love Actually.

The floppy and delightful father he plays in the new Curtis film, About Time, seems to be living a more comfortable version of midlife than Nighy is. While the character has retired at 50, apparently “in order to play more table tennis with his son”, Nighy still pushes himself through theatre work, “standing behind the set on the first night, waiting to go on and vowing that I will never, ever allow this to happen again. Why would I do this? What am I trying to prove? It’s not going to make me rich, it’s not going to make me anything . . .”

Although he admits that he has Curtis to thank for “making him castable”, it niggles him to talk about late-career success. “I’d like to say that prior to all that, I had a very enviable career and worked with most of the people I’d ever want to work with,” he says: “David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Anthony Hopkins and Dame Judi Dench . . . I played leading roles on television and in the theatre and had a very familiar, recognisable English career. I just feel compelled to say that.”

Still, there was a wilderness period in the 1970s when, having trained as an actor in Guildford, he worked as an assistant stage manager and spent much of the decade shuttling around in a van painting theatre sets. He was born in Caterham, Surrey, in 1949 to Alfred, a garage owner whose family had been in the chimney-sweeping business, and Catherine, a psychiatric nurse from Glasgow. After a brief stint as a messenger boy on the Fieldmagazine he applied todrama schoolon the advice of a girlfriend.

Acting appealed to him because it was “a way of being legitimately out of work” – and he was: for a time, he ran a women’s clothing stall at Sutton Market and there were stints as a manual labourer, building bridges on the M2. Not cut out for heavy work, Nighy was sent down the middle of the concrete pillars to clean their wire interiors, a job that struck him as particularly absurd, given that no one could ever see the result of his labour.

Talking to him for a couple of hours, you get the funny feeling that Nighy might be living in a strange little film – something lowbudget, rather funny and very English. His obsession with music is well known but it is more than a hobby. He has a constant soundtrack, which he plays out loud on speakers in hotel rooms and trailers, with different playlists of songs for morning and night. Music seems to provide him with a sense of cinematic unity: an obscure pop song from 1993 called “Koochie Ryder” by the Peckham band Freaky Realistic became his anthem for a successful opening night. He first played it while working on Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia at the National Theatre, running round the house because the show had gone without a hitch. He plays it now for “those beautiful moments when you do something difficult at work and then you feel better. And you want that feeling back – the feeling where it’s all OK.”

He admits to being particularly fond of his washed-up rock-star creation Ray Simms in the 1998 film Still Crazy, “a reasonably nice bloke and challenged in similar ways to me, I suppose”. Nighy fitted the character with a permanent sniff to suggest his wilder days. Earlier in the decade, like Simms, Nighy had kicked a long drinking problem, helped by his partner Diana Quick, the mother of his daughter, Mary. The couple split up in 2008 – he notes that he’s able to listen to songs on speakers all day because he’s often alone – but he now counts coffee and M&M’s as his only addictions.

It is a strangely self-aware way to live, with a rotation of suits and songs and moments invested with happiness, but it makes an odd kind of sense for someone whose life has changed so rapidly in recent years. “I have been lately trying not to allow all the static in my head [to] steal the day, because I lost a few days like that and I don’t want to lose any more,” he says.

It’s a theme that runs through About Time, in which the time-travelling main character learns that he can relive each day with a better attitude the second time around. There’s a certain pleasure in the expectation of the inevitable and it’s one of the reasons we go to see Curtis’s films. I spent half of About Time aghast at how unreal it was – a kind of Christmas Carol with Oyster cards – and the other half deeply moved by its portrait of familial love and struck by the woeful realism of its settings – First Great Western trains, Pret A Manger.

“Richard’s approach is not in any way tactical,” Nighy says today. “I know what you mean about ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ and it is quite something to pull off, to get that kind of particular world – this eternal world – in movie after movie. He writes from what he knows about, which is his background, a white, middle-class-stroke-English existence. I guess I’m trying to answer on behalf of him but I know what it’s like to want to live in a film.”

Curtis brought Nighy to charity work through his long-time involvement with Comic Relief. “He made a decision when he was a very young man that whatever else his life included, it would include this work,” Nighy says. “He and his wife determinedly cordon off a percentage of their year in which to concentrate on their charities and he has been doing so quietly, without a fuss, for years. He got hold of American Idol recently and in one hour raised $70m.

“He is somebody you can point to and say, ‘That man has saved – literally saved – millions of lives through his activities.’”

In 2005, Oxfam approached Nighy to lobby at the G8 and he has attended every summit since. In 2011, again working with Curtis, he became the figurehead for the “Robin Hood tax”, a campaign for a levy on financial transactions now going through the European Parliament but still resisted by the UK. He must be expecting every journalist to tell him that celebrities shouldn’t get involved in politics, because when he talks about this side of his work, he sounds more turbocharged than he does about anything else.

“I am not an expert on international affairs,” he says, “but I don’t need to be to know that the Robin Hood tax is simply and uncomplicatedly a fucking good idea. It will institutionalise charity and you’d never have to listen to people like me banging on ever again. It’s a tiny percentage – 50 pence in every £1,000 generated by the kind of speculating that precipitated the financial crash, for instance. It’s not punitive. It’s the same idea as the Tobin tax [a currency transaction tax, designed to manage exchange-rate volatility] 35 years ago and that worked.

“People say it’s not worth it unless every country takes part,” he continues. “I say: of course it is. They say it’s very complex and I say: so is space travel. There are many salaried experts who will tell you that I’m a wellmeaning but profoundly mistaken man. But there are also people in this world who are philosophically opposed to any kind of aid and I had no idea they existed.”

It’s getting late and his mobile phone starts to buzz: the ringtone is David Bowie’s rather haunting comeback single “Where Are We Now?”. “It’s become acceptable to sit around and say that the money will never get through,” Nighy says, ignoring it. “If you’ve ever been to Africa and seen what Comic Relief is doing, it makes it impossible to make any of those remarks again. It seems crazy that you have to prove it but it’s true.”

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman’s pop music columnist and arts editor

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser