“I don’t watch anything I’m in,” reveals the Love Actually star, who’s gearing up not to sit down and enjoy the new Agatha Christie three-parter, Ordeal By Innocence, that he stars in. Nighy’s reticence to watch his performances began with his first appearance on television in the late-1960s police show Softly, Softly.
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“I actually robbed a bank in it. My family all crowded into the front room to watch it. I was bloody awful and I thought, ‘It’s not going to get any better’.” He adds: “I thought about quitting acting daily or weekly but I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
We can be grateful he didn’t do that in 1976 because he’s gone on to create dozens of memorable appearances on both the large and small screen. In television, these include The Men’s Room, The Canterbury Tales, State Of Play, The Girl In The Cafe and Gideon’s Daughter.
More recently he played Johnny Worricker in David Hare’s triple bill for the small screen, Page Eight, Turks & Caicos, and Salting The Battlefield.
Bill Nighy stars in Ordeal By Innocence but he hate watching himself on TV
Once Richard and Judy had me on their show to promote something. They showed my whole episode on a small television in the studio. I didn’t believe anything I said.
He’s been more prolific on film, from Billy Mack in Love Actually (“I didn’t expect it to be such a big Christmas film”) to his manic Davy Jones in Pirates Of The Caribbean. “I had a great time playing the squid,” he says nostalgically.
“There was a fleeting glimpse” [of Davy] at the end of the last Pirates film. He sighs: “I would willingly get back into those blue pyjamas.”
You must, I suggest, enjoy performing at least? “Enjoy? It’s work. I think, ‘Don’t **** it up’. There are lots of things to consider.” Nighy, now 68 and a former partner of Brideshead Revisited star Diana Quick, expands some more on Softly, Softly.
The wounds clearly run deep. “One issue was that I had to play an accent. And my hair, obviously. “Once Richard and Judy had me on their show to promote something. They showed my whole episode on a small television in the studio. I didn’t believe anything I said. I long to be typecast now.”
Nighy’s not known for doing a huge amount of television. “I would like to do a big TV series,” he says. “I used to get offered more. I was surprised to get this. I don’t mind how big the screen is, really.”
Bill never expected Love Actually to be such a hit Christmas film
Bill Nighy praises Sarah Phelp’s writing for Ordeal By Innocence
Ordeal By Innocence, based on the murder mystery queen’s 1958 novel, almost didn’t make it to any screen. After one of the original cast, Ed (Gossip Girl) Westwick, was accused of sexual assault – which he denies – the BBC decided to reshoot his role. He was replaced by Christian Cooke, who spent 12 days recreating no fewer than 35 scenes.
Since we haven’t seen the original version, we will never know if the result is better or worse. Nighy certainly won’t have seen it either way. “I play Leo Argyll,” he says, “a very complex and multi-layered character.
“I actually thought the script was first-rate and I like the genre and the whole English thriller vibe of that period very much. I loved the part of Leo as he is a multi-faceted character. The whole project was very attractive to me.”
In typical Christie fashion, the family seem locked in the post-war period in which the stiff upper-lip predominated. “Apart from them being singularly messed up,” says Nighy, “I suppose that’s not an unfamiliar phenomenon all over the world in this period and in different societies.
“They all have different ways of papering over the cracks and structures that will allow everybody in the family to survive. But when they break or snap it’s catastrophic, which is the case in our story.”
Bill Nighy is married to Anna Chancellor’s Rachel Argyll in the latest Agatha Christie whodunnit
He plays opposite actress Anna Chancellor’s controlling Rachel. “Leo and Rachel’s relationship is not sunny! They’ve seen better days in terms of their marriage. I don’t quite know when it started to corrode but I should think Rachel’s habit of going out, without telling Leo, and coming back with one or two stray children may have had some damaging effect on their marriage!
“The fact that she controls everything, because it is all her money, I suppose in those days that would have emasculated Leo. Paired with him being an unsuccessful writer, he doesn’t really have a leg to stand on in terms of economics. In those days I think that would have been particularly corrosive to the relationship.”
The adaptation is by respected screenwriter Sarah Phelps. After working on EastEnders, she went on to write The Witness For The Prosecution and And Then There Were None, together with Dickens’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, then JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.
She has a habit of bringing modern grit to an otherwise cosy period drama. Explains Nighy: “Sarah has really hit that cool spot between the period and the modern in her use of language. There is something that she has created in the dialogue between the characters that reflects a combination of the periods, making it more accessible to an audience but never betraying the period in which it was originally conceived.
“If you were to perform it in the way they used to speak I think people would turn over within the first 10 minutes. It would seem too extraordinary or too extreme to us now had it not been refreshed.
Bill Nighy stars alongside Alice Eve in Ordeal By Innocence
“Sarah’s writing is a great achievement, it’s only when you start to work on it that you realise how layered it all is. She is playing around with time throughout the story and to schedule that all into the writing, peppering those scenes throughout the script and at the same time keeping an eye on where the audience might be is a great achievement.
“Sarah has to make sure the audience doesn’t guess the end but also give them plenty to be suspicious about, so at some point the audience suspects everyone in the story and it creates a very elaborate puzzle.”
He also believes there’s something intrinsic about Christie’s works which makes for compelling TV. “Everyone seems to have read Christie when they were younger. If you discover Agatha Christie then you tend to carry on and read the lot.
“I think there is an element of nostalgia and I understand that throughout history people have always been nostalgic for a period about 60 or 70 years before their time.
“The Agatha Christie novels are also depicted in very British places involving very well-to-do people where they come a cropper, which is perhaps part of the appeal.
“The veneer cracks and you get to see how it all falls apart but, ultimately, they are just very clever mechanisms and Christie is really brilliant at keeping you guessing. That is the delightfulness of Agatha Christie.”
We have established that he doesn’t watch television himself but is he a fan of any other TV genre? Only one, it seems… “I only watch football,” he says.
“I’m a Crystal Palace fan… and their glory days are just around the corner. I watch everything – La Liga [Spanish football], Serie A [the Italian league], as much of it as I can get. “That’s what I do… I’m a TV guy.”
Ordeal By Innocence, BBC One, 9pm, tonight