Sunday Times, 09 September 2012
The man ladies refer to as a sex god, Colin Firth, is on the phone from Venice, quoting Harold Pinter’s Nobel-prize acceptance speech. “I believe,” the late playwright said, “that despite the enormous odds, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation that devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.”
He sounds a bit embarrassed and swerves from actorish enunciation to Firth hesitancy. “Now that sounds terribly lofty and, er, I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one saying it, but, you know, I think he had the right to say it…”
First the passion, then the self-deprecation. It could only be Firth. He has, as an actor, two primary incarnations — the passionate, wet-shirted Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and the helpless, stammering Bertie in The King’s Speech. His latest project combines the two, and he is as passionate as he is uncertain about it. The People Speak — a book, a show and a cause — is Firth’s big foray into the dangerous territory known as Actors Do Politics.
Most people at some point have wondered why on earth anybody should care what Sean Penn, George Clooney or Susan Sarandon, not to mention assorted Redgraves, think about politics. “Actorly activism”, Firth calls it in his introduction to the book, noting that they are often “implored to shut up about matters of consequence”. Was this, I wonder, an apology for joining the ranks of actorvists?
He has, as an actor, two primary incarnations — the passionate, wet-shirted Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and the helpless, stammering Bertie in The King’s Speech
“I’m not very apologetic about it — I don’t think anybody needs to be told to stick to their knitting. I’m a member of civil society as well. But people feel there are experts out there, whether there are or not, and they don’t like seeing people who aren’t perceived as experts expressing opinions. Political activism isn’t a profession.”
Firth’s project came about via Howard Zinn, an American countercultural historian who died in 2010. He believed that history could and should be told from the bottom, using the experience and voices of ordinary people. The real heroes, he said, were the troublemakers. His ideas came together in a highly influential book, A People’s History of the United States, then became a multimedia movement.
In 2009, a documentary about his work, The People Speak, came out. It included appearances by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Morgan Freeman and countless others. Anthony Arnove, an editor, worked with Zinn to use his book as the basis of a series of readings. It was one of these that Firth saw in New York.
“It was in this rather louche little basement bar, done with entirely unknown actors — and it blew me away. I don’t think I’d ever seen a format like it. To see speeches being assembled into some sort of historical narrative — I don’t know, it was exhilarating. The quality of the rhetoric was so good. One of the things that struck me is that most of what actors perform is written for actors to perform. None of this stuff is.”
With Arnove, Firth staged readings from Zinn in London during the last presidential campaign; then the two of them, aided by the historian David Horspool, started work on a British version. The People Speak: Voices That Changed Britain is the result. The first performance will be next Sunday in Notting Hill, with, among others, Ian McKellen, Celia Imrie, Rupert Everett, Emily Blunt, Juliet Stevenson and the authentic folk singers the Unthanks alongside Firth. More readings are invited and expected.
The book spans more than 1,000 years, starting with the lamentations of the monk Orderic Vitalis about living under the “Norman yoke” and ending with Zadie Smith’s impassioned defence of libraries in March last year: “Perhaps it’s because they know what the history books will make of them that our politicians are so cavalier with our libraries.” The contents are divided chronologically, each age having a theme — religion, democracy, freedom — and an introduction. It is a good read and will, I imagine, make a stirring show. But does it consign Firth to the ranks of actorvist bores?
I don’t think so. The overall theme — which is, roughly, the attainment of justice — is too general, and Firth’s own politics are too tentative. Indeed, he is reluctant to discuss his views at all. “You are,” I tell him at one point, “a very hesitant radical.” (I’m not sure he’s even a radical.) “Yes, I suppose I am. I am very uncertain. If we were discussing this tomorrow morning, I’d probably be saying something completely different.”
The point is that the actor-vists put on their politics along with their Jimmy Choos or red-carpet tuxedos. A cause is an accessory to stardom, a badge worn to suggest a soul beneath. Firth’s engagement is more deeply embedded. He has paid his fight-for-justice dues.
His parents were raised in India and he spent his childhood in England, America and Nigeria. This gave him an awareness that his history teacher’s view was only one among many. “What chimed with me about Zinn was that he was attempting to tell history from the point of view of others. He said we should not accept the memory of nations as our own memory. He wanted to talk about the discovery of America from the point of view of the Arawaks, or the development of industry from the point of view of the mill worker.
“If you travel constantly and you are not in any kind of luxurious bubble, you are going to be subjected to the points of view of others constantly.”
Then there was his father, a history lecturer, who taught Firth an intense scepticism about everything he was told. His travels and his scepticism conspired to make him a bit of an outsider. “I didn’t like school very much. I wasn’t a profoundly alienated or unhappy child, but if you travel around all the time, it’s inevitable you won’t quite fit and you will find your friends among other misfits.” His father made him watch TV and read newspapers with a constant awareness that he was seeing only one version of events. “The wisdom he imparted was a sign of incredible strength. He would not be bullied into a position by anybody. When you feel passionately about some point of view, it starts to compromise your ability to think. You do your cause a disservice. Keeping doubt alive is absolutely critical. Taking one perspective in anything isn’t in my nature.”
“I didn’t like school very much. I wasn’t a profoundly alienated or unhappy child, but if you travel around all the time, it’s inevitable you won’t quite fit and you will find your friends among other misfits.”
He points out that, at school, he learnt nothing whatsoever about Ireland. The texts in this book taught him everything. “Look at the words of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet — every child in Ireland knows who those people are. I knew nothing about Ireland and about how culpable we were in those struggles. That seems an astonishing admission to me.”
Having been brought up to be politically engaged and universally sceptical, he became the actor and the man he is — an odd blend of passion and uncertainty. Now, as a global A-lister, one of those for whom every rope is unhooked and every red carpet rolled out, is he even sceptical of his own success?
“Oh, yes! Profoundly so. I think one has to be careful not to subvert the joy of it all with scepticism, but yes, profoundly so. I think that, in fact, one luxury of being sceptical is that you can be sceptical about your failures as well. It helps me out when things don’t go so well.”
In the end, I suspect the real attraction of this project for all taking part is that the book has a theme — justice — but not an ideology. A thinking Conservative voter could sign up almost as readily as a Labour backbencher. Arnove says something similar. “Over the years, what became apparent was that a lot of interesting artists, entertainers and actors came out of the woodwork, inspired by this book, and would do whatever was necessary to be part of it. They wanted to do something useful with their talent.”
This makes me feel sorry for actors, people for whom a job requirement is that they don’t quite know who they are, so must search for identity elsewhere. Perhaps even the actorvists, with their Jimmy Choo causes, are touching figures.
I wish Firth luck and we hang up. Moments later, he calls back, talking in his superhesitant, almost King’s Speech voice. He’s worried because he said something a little offensive about a prominent non-actor, and wants to take it back. I tell him I wasn’t going to use it anyway. For a radical and a sex god, he’s an awfully nice bloke.