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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The life and times of the London cycle courier

Bike messengers no longer comprise the militia they resembled when the Tories were turning London into a city of finance. But they still trail a thrillingly reckless air of romance.

It was as if I’d accidentally stumbled into some secret cell from which an insurrection was being planned. The four or five mechanics and cycle couriers loosely clustered around the counter, costumed in black clothes that seemed, impossibly, to be skinny and baggy at the same time, had an arachnid quality to them. Static crackled from the radios clipped to their shoulders on the tarpaulin courier bags that arced over their backs like a carapace. They looked like the conspirators of an anarchist revolution, rebuilding bikes from greasy cogs and oil-stained bits of metal as if they were bombs. I was almost disappointed when the one standing behind the counter proved to be cheerfully friendly. Suddenly, they looked endearingly like twentysomething Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the heroic phase in the history of the bicycle courier. London’s roads were arteriosclerotic with traffic, so courier firms that had once despatched vans, motorbikes and scooters across the city increasingly resorted to bike messengers, who were as nimble as they were cheap. The internet hadn’t yet made them half redundant, relegating them to the role of delivering documents that ­require a signature from Soho to the City, or  conveying portable corporate gifts from the City to Mayfair.

In these years the messengers visibly became a tribe. They acquired a more uniform appearance, albeit one that accommodated individual eccentricities; they devised a dialect to lubricate radio communication between couriers and controllers; identified an unofficial headquarters, a bar in Shoreditch called the Foundry; and developed their own rituals of belonging, including the Cycle Messenger World Championships. This annual event, inaugurated in Berlin in 1993, was hosted in London in 1994, when approximately 500 couriers from Europe and the US as well as the UK attended. This is roughly the number of couriers who still fling themselves along the streets of London today, in far more embattled conditions.

It was in 1993, at the acme of the profession and its associated subculture, that the then prime minister, John Major, speaking to the Conservative Group for Europe, made an infamous prognostication about the future of Britain, in which he misused George Orwell’s reference to “hiking” from his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). “Fifty years on from now,” Major prophesied, “Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and Pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ . . .” In contrast to this pastoral fantasy, bike messengers seemed to herald a feral future in which, at evening rush hour, as traffic fumes thicken, the congested lanes and streets of cities are convulsed with semi-vagrant, rodent cyclists, all of them addicted to danger, competing with suicidal energy in so-called “alleycat” races.

Major’s imaginary old maids, ideologically speaking, were the sisters of those honest, industrious Englishmen whom Norman Tebbit invoked in 1981 when, as Margaret Thatcher’s employment secretary, he made his notorious claim that, instead of rioting like the current generation of unemployed, his father had “got on his bike and looked for work”. When a cycle courier got on his bike, he wasn’t looking for work, he was working. In this sense, the bike messengers out-tebbited Tebbit. Yet their untamed appearance and their countercultural attitudes aligned them with the sorts of people who relished a riot – the New Age travellers and class warriors who, in the pages of the tabloid press, threatened to stain Thatcher, Tebbit and Major’s pristine vision for Britain. At a time when cycling, in Britain’s political imagination, seemed in danger of becoming an emblematically Conservative activity, cycle couriers were fifth columnists.

Bike messengers no longer comprise the ragged but glorious militia they resembled when the Tories were assaulting London and reconstructing it as a centre of finance. They no longer look like desperadoes or mercenaries among the armies of conventional commuters that traverse the city. But they still trail a derelict charm and a thrillingly reckless air of romance as they hurtle through the streets. Indeed, in some respects, their piratical appeal has grown.

Cycle couriers have managed to survive in the city’s increasingly competitive ecology, subsisting even though a deadly combination of emails and Uber cabs threatens to render them extinct. Such is the persistent value of the autograph (as opposed to some kind of electronic fingerprint, say) that signed documents still need to be ferried from door to door; such is the capital’s ongoing road congestion (and the congestion charge) that it is still quicker to cross it on two wheels than four. Their heightened appeal, though, can perhaps be explained by the fact that they look so attractively fierce and undomesticated beside more rarefied species of cyclists that have evolved in London over the past couple of decades. Among these, the most prominent are middle-aged men in Lycra shorts on racing bikes; commuters in suits on fold-up bikes; and tourists, foreign and domestic, in chinos on bank-branded public hire bikes. (A recent addition to this list is the newest subspecies of courier, employed by the food delivery service Deliveroo. With the only job requirements being to own a bicycle and a smartphone, they can be seen in increasing numbers, huffing and puffing up mild inclines and wobbling under the weight of their giant backpack-boxes full of chow.)

The cycle courier also looks far tougher, far better adapted to the remorseless daily demands of urban life, than another, rather more populous metropolitan species: the hipster. The hipster may or may not be a cyclist: if he rides, it will most likely be a showy, courier-aping, customised “fixie” (fixed-gear) bike. But whether on wheels or on foot, with his spindly legs rigid in drainpipes instead of agile in tights and cut-off combat pants, his beard absurdly sculpted instead of attractively disordered by the force of the elements, the hipster is an ossified, etiolated, even decadent descendant of the cycle courier. In the contemporary capital’s mythological bestiary, bike messengers, their lower bodies inseparable from the sleek metal frames of the machines on which they balance, are the city’s centaurs; hipsters, its plodding satyrs. Messengers, as Emily Chappell explains in the glossary that concludes her new book about being a courier, have a portmanteau term of contempt for “urban cyclists who adopt the supposed style and attitude of cycle couriers without ever having worked as one”: “fakengers”.

Chappell’s book, What Goes Around: a London Cycle Courier’s Story (Guardian Faber), which is fascinating for offering a ­female courier’s memoir of a predominantly male culture, is one of no fewer than three to have been published by couriers or former couriers about the city’s cycle-life in the space of six months. The others are Jon Day’s Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions), a learned handbook on cycling that dignifies cyclists as psychogeographers; and Julian Sayarer’s Messengers: City Tales from a London Bicycle Courier (Arcadia), the most combatively political of the three.

Sayarer’s memoir drily characterises couriering as “the best of all the worst jobs in the world”. In his prologue, he describes a phone conversation in which his agent tries to persuade him to produce a manuscript “about bicycles, and the city”. When Sayarer expresses his reluctance to write another book about “punctures and brakepads” at a publisher’s insistence, the agent admonishes: “If you don’t, mark my words, they will find a name instead of yours to put on that spine!” It transpires that they could have put the names of at least three authors on the spine, all of them highly accomplished prose stylists and compelling narrators.

All three books read a little like threnodies; and it is tempting to see them as symptoms of a subculture that is becoming increasingly conscious of the need to memorialise itself precisely because it is under threat. Chappell, Day and Sayarer feel like anthropologists scrambling to record the language of a threatened tribe; they are compiling a semiotics of urban cycling in the face of its fatal transformation. As the appearance of boutique bike shops, cycle superhighways and bank-sponsored hire bikes implies, if bicycling in 21st-century London is being promoted by politicians, it is also being sanitised, rationalised and privatised.

Revealingly, in his “mayoral foreword” to a document published by Transport for London (TfL) in 2010, Boris Johnson underlined his determination to turn London into what, in a clumsy and faintly sinister portmanteau term, he called “a cyclised city” – “a civilised city where people can ride their bikes safely and easily in a pleasant environment”. Everyone wants to be able to ride their bike safely, and the vast majority of cyclists want Johnson to stop orating and instead introduce stringent legislation to prevent HGVs from killing them at traffic junctions. But not everyone who wants to cycle safely wants London to become a “pleasant environment”. I don’t; and it certainly wouldn’t still be London if it did.

***

In the civilised city of TfL’s “Cycling Revolution”, the commuters, fakengers and sightseers pedalling along the superhighways are inadvertently erasing the record of cycle couriers who pioneered them. The books by Chappell, Day and Sayarer restore the record. Each contains detailed, often vivid descriptions of, for example, the punitive physical discipline that the job demands, which quickly becomes an addiction; the jerry-rigging of equipment fatigued by the road; the encounters with blank-faced representatives of corporate offices; gatherings of the tribe at the likes of the Foundry; the run-ins with black-cab drivers; and, most gripping of all, the alleycat races.

Day recounts one particular race, designed by his brother, also a courier, to be “an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme”. Attaching a fox’s tail to his belt loop and strapping a plastic container filled with liquid to his back, his brother set off through the traffic on his bike, sputtering a trail of white paint through his rear wheel. After a short time, Day himself signalled the beginning of the race with the blast of a horn. “We followed the paint that lay in a splattered line on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings and tracing a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey,” he writes with characteristic flourish.

Sayarer provides a second-hand account of the same alleycat race in his own book. Day’s brother makes an appearance under the identity used by controllers on the couriers’ radio system: “Two-Four brings me up to speed with his life and tells me about his last alleycat: the fox hunt.” Day also plays a cameo role in Chappell’s book, in the guise of the courier “who was now waiting for his DPhil viva to roll around before finally moving on to lecture in modernist fiction at King’s College”. At times it really is as if the names of all three of them appear on the spine of the same book.

Reading these absorbing accounts of bike messengers’ struggle to subsist on the roads of London, the only thing I felt was missing was a sense of the angry inner monologue that, surely, shapes their consciousness as they cycle through the relentlessly hostile traffic. For the most part, admirably, and aside from a few vituperative references to cabbies or cops, Chappell, Day and Sayarer seem “to float above the chaos and ­friction of the city with an unfailing smile” (as Chappell puts it, describing another female courier). When I cycle, I maintain a constant, resentful running commentary, at times all too audible, on the confrontational or careless drivers who threaten to knock me on to the road. It seems hard to believe that professional couriers don’t suffer from the same psychosis: cyclosis.

Matthew Beaumont is the author of “Nightwalking: a Nocturnal History of London” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle