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26 November 2023

Bertie Carvel’s Q&A: “Our world would be poorer without Sesame Street”

The actor on Star Wars, his past life as a sailor, and living inside a pointillist painting.

By New Statesman

Bertie Carvel was born in London in 1977. He has appeared in stage shows including Matilda the Musical and TV programmes such as Doctor Foster. He plays Tony Blair in the current series of The Crown.

What’s your earliest memory?

My father is driving me to nursery school. I’m three years old, practising reading: words like “the” and “though”, typed on tiny strips of paper, stored in a sardine tin. It’s autumn. We pass the BP garage, which has a larger-than-life cardboard cut-out of a policeman, waving and calling out (according to the speech bubble), “Mornin’ all!” We wave and call back: our daily ritual.

Who are your heroes?

As a child I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, to discover I was strong in the Force and that I had a great Destiny. As an adult I’m drawn more to Han Solo or even Darth Vader. Their heroism cuts against the grain of their flawed humanity, which rings true somehow.

What book last changed your thinking?

I’ve always been attracted to blank notebooks, then feel self-critical as soon as I mark them.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

I’d be rubbish on Mastermind: I’m a generalist. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, as I found out at school, where we had a general-knowledge class taken by the headmaster. On the blackboard he spelled Marx like the supermarket. I knew enough to correct him but not enough not to.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

I most look up to individuals who live up to their politics in spite of the challenges that throws up. It’s these people who give democracies their backbone.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’d like to live in a place out of time: somewhere rural and remote, where things go on quietly just as they always have.

What TV show could you not live without?

A world without Sesame Street would be a poorer place. 

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m hoping to persuade Lili Lion to paint me. She has an extraordinary gift and has known me all my life, so I feel sure she would capture something beneath the surface. Failing that, it would be nice to think that one of my grandchildren might paint me one day.

What’s your theme tune?

“I’m Lucky” by Joan Armatrading.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

I have followed it, with very few exceptions.

What’s currently bugging you?

My eyesight is deteriorating. It’s been pin-sharp for most of my life, but I now have the sense that my mind is making educated guesses about a lot of the details, like living inside a pointillist painting.

What single thing would make your life better?

Reading glasses.

When were you happiest?

Whenever I have been lost in a good story.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

In a future life I hope to be a conductor. In a past life I’m pretty sure I was a sailor.

Are we all doomed?

Undoubtedly. That’s what gives life its shape.

Part one of “The Crown” season six is available to stream on Netflix now. Part two will be released on 14 December

[See also: Social media’s brand problem]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now