Tom Courtenay: ‘I’m extremely un-woke... You daren’t say anything’

Tom Courtenay photographed backstage at the Globe Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in 1963 - Popperfoto
Tom Courtenay photographed backstage at the Globe Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in 1963 - Popperfoto

‘I’m extremely un-woke,” says Tom Courtenay, with a sigh. “You don’t say ‘actress’ any more… F--- me. If you’re not gay, you can’t play a gay. And if you are gay, you can’t play a straight – well, I’d say that applies more than they realise.”

The veteran star of the Sixties classics Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner stops before he says too much. He’s reminded of something Alec Guinness once said to him: “‘One has to learn to keep one’s trap shut.’ Even more so now,” he adds. “You daren’t say anything.” He was discussing just this with Tom Stoppard the other day. He shakes his head. “I just tend to ignore it all.”

We’re talking via the computer of his wife Isabel, who set up the video call for him. They’ve been together for 40 years, he tells me, since they met on a play where she was stage manager.

Courtenay is now 84; he met Guinness on the set of Doctor Zhivago (1965), where he also made friends with Omar Sharif. Courtenay played the Russian revolutionary Pasha Antipov, who interrogates Zhivago. But it was all the hanging around on that film – “waiting, waiting, waiting for the weather to change” – that made him feel “this is not what I want to do”. That and an anxiety that he had risen so quickly to fame without having paid his dues in the theatre. “I’m not saying I didn’t have talent, but I just felt I needed more experience,” he says.

For the next few decades, Courtenay shifted his focus to the stage, making only the odd foray into film and TV: he’s proud of his performance in the title role of the film adaptation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1970), for instance, though he laments that it’s almost impossible to see it now.

In recent years, however, he has been popping up on our screens more and more: in the superb 45 Years (2015), opposite Charlotte Rampling; as the sinister, secretive Eric Slater in series one of ITV’s Unforgotten; in the film remake of Dad’s Army, as Corporal Jones; and others.

Now we’re about to see him in a role he is perhaps uniquely suited for. This son of a Hull dock worker – “all my family worked on the fish docks” – plays a 19th-century Hull ship owner in BBC Two’s brutal, thrilling new whaling drama The North Water, alongside Colin Farrell, Jack O’Connell and Stephen Graham.

Courtenay as the scheming ship owner Baxter in BBC Two's new drama The North Water
Courtenay as the scheming ship owner Baxter in BBC Two's new drama The North Water

I wonder what his parents would have made of him playing one of the ship owners? “I think it was bad enough being an actor,” he says drily. A wry northern humour surfaces regularly. Yet he remembers “being aware of how hard the ship owners were”.

His character, Baxter, is a smooth-talking opportunist who abnegates responsibility for his dissembling by placing the blame elsewhere. “It’s the munny,” Courtenay says in character, praising the “terrific lines” written for him by director Andrew Haigh in the adaptation of Ian McGuire’s Booker longlisted novel.

O’Connell came over to see him recently, he says. “I’m his spiritual adviser now… when we’re not talking about Derby County and Hull City.” He laughs uproariously. Football and cricket mean a lot to him.

The younger man, most famous for the 2014 Northern Ireland drama ‘71, is one of a newer generation of working-class actors, although Courtenay sees their paths as very different. O’Connell left school at 16; Courtenay went to grammar school and University College London – because it was in the same street as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He then failed his English degree.

“I had a wretched time at university, because it meant so much to my parents, and I just wasn’t interested in Beowulf,” he says. “I wanted to go to drama school.”

He even bluffed his way out of national service to get there. “I had to see a psychiatrist, and I was warned: ‘You mustn’t say you’re a bit loopy because of when you go into industry for a job.’ But I had no intention of going into industry.”

He recalls someone from Rada seeing him in a UCL student play: “He said: ‘You would get in [to Rada]... In fact, there’s a boy here now, you’re not like him at all, but you are like him in some way.’ I said: ‘What’s he called?’ He said: ‘Albert Finney.’”

He and Finney would become best friends many years later, after they starred together in The Dresser (1983), for which both were Oscar-nominated, and Courtenay realised they were indeed “different but the same”. Finney went to Rada because his headmaster suggested it and he thought “this looks a bit of a lark”, Courtenay tells me; not because he had a burning desire to act. “[Albert] was going to be a bookie,” he adds.

The Mancunian, who became a household name after starring in the 1960 kitchen sink drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, had already left Rada, though, by the time Courtenay got in, but he made friends there with another working-class actor, who would go on to star in The Sweeney and Inspector Morse: John Thaw.

There’s a wonderful photograph of them together in doublet and hose in a student play in Courtenay’s 2001 memoir Dear Tom: Letters from Home, which featured his student correspondence with his mother. She died of cancer before his first film was released, he notes sadly.

Courtenay with a young John Thaw in a student play - Katalin Vermes
Courtenay with a young John Thaw in a student play - Katalin Vermes

As he began to make waves of his own, did he begin to see Finney as a rival? “No, I was completely in awe of him,” he replies. When Finney died in 2019, Courtenay talked movingly about the “sunshine” his friend had brought to productions.

Does Courtenay ever think about his own mortality? “Occasionally,” he says, “I hope it won’t hurt. I’ve had prostate cancer [which he recovered from in 2004] and a resurfaced hip. But I’ve done very well. And I’m very fortunate to have Isabel.”

He’s proud of some of the work he’s done: his timing in the wedding anniversary speech in 45 Years; or the one-man show he took to Broadway in 1993, which he calls “my beloved Moscow Stations. It was the best thing I’ve ever done on stage”. He doesn’t want to do another play, he claims, although he’s had fun doing films and television.

He watches the world, he says, and is disturbed by the news. “I’m horrified by what goes on in America. The fact that so many people could vote for that monster Trump.”

I wonder how he felt about receiving a knighthood in 2001 – “It’s for my mother and father,” he said at the time. “They would have loved it.” Does he like being called Sir Tom? “Not especially. I know how it came about actually. Because I’d just done King Lear and my book had been well received, and rehearsing the next show I was in was Tony Blair’s father-in-law, [the actor] Tony Booth.

"He said, 'Have you ever been offered anything?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Has Albert?' I said, 'I know he was offered a CBE, but he turned it down, but I’ve not.' And I think he must have said something, that’s all I can think.”

He’s recently shot a role in the film sequel The Railway Children Return. “I’m quite happy playing a nice old boy,” he says, “then there’s my salt of the earth” – that dry humour surfaces again. He’s neither of those in The North Water, and viewers are in for a treat.

The North Water is on BBC Two tonight at 9.30pm