Derek Jacobi on ballet

He‘s 69 and his acting achievements range from appearing with Olivier to starring in ’Doctor Who‘. But Sir Derek Jacobi is also a London ballet school‘s biggest fan

  • Derek Jacobi on ballet

    Derek Jacobi has supported the Central School of Ballet for 25 years

  • I performed as a narrator in a ballet once, about 20 years ago. It was one of the most difficult and terrifying things I have ever done – the words were gobbledegook, but they had to be spoken in time and on the beat.

    I remember standing behind the curtain, centre stage, on opening night, knowing I had to come in on the eighth-and-a-half beat. That was definitely one of the most frightening moments of my career. In the end, I only did three performances because it was 1990, when the ballet dancers went on strike.

    I’m in awe of dancers: what they do with their bodies is extraordinary. It’s so beautiful. They work far harder than actors and are far more disciplined.

    The Central School of Ballet was co-founded by a great friend of mine, the late ballet dancer and actor Christopher Gable. I met him at a New Year’s Eve party in 1969, and he and his wife, Carole, lived with me for a few years in Stockwell.

    I was on the board of governors until my acting started taking me away so I could never get to meetings. These days I’m patron of its touring company, Ballet Central.

    Christopher died ten years ago, but I never considered breaking my ties with the school. I felt I owed it to Christopher to keep going because his heart was here. So this year, for example, I have narrated the poem ‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen, which the students dance to on tour. Now the school is planning to move, after 25 years in a cramped and crumbling place in Clerkenwell.

    It is applying for planning permission for a purpose-built school on the South Bank, which will be so much more convenient. If it works, then by 2010 it will have greater facilities, more room and places where the kids can live on site. I know Christopher would have been so excited.

    They will need to raise £10 million for the move, and that’s where I’ll come in. I’ll help in any way I can with the fundraising. It’s nice to be able to do that.

    I’m 69 now, but the great thing about being an actor is you never have to retire. If you want to, you go on until something drops off or you can’t move – and then, of course, there’s always radio!

    For me, the excitement never fails, although neither do the nerves or the terror. Still, that is what really keeps you on your toes. And acting is a wonderful passport: last year I worked in Budapest, Tel Aviv, Dublin, New York – it was amazing.

    I haven’t stopped for about 18 months. I’ve just finished a film called ‘A Bunch of Amateurs’, with Burt Reynolds. Before that I did a film called ‘Hippie Hippie Shake’ about the Oz magazine obscenity trials, and one called ‘Adam Resurrected’, with Jeff Goldblum. In December, I’ll be playing Malvolio in ‘Twelfth Night’ at the Wyndhams Theatre. I enjoy doing television and films, and my bank manager certainly prefers them, but my heart is in the theatre.

    My middle years – alas – are behind me, and now the third act is coming up. But it’s a great profession because there are new things to try at every age. I recently played my first grandfather, and last year I narrated the children’s TV show ‘In The Night Garden’, which was wonderful. I regressed to my childhood and put on my youngest voice. I’ve done 75 episodes and have another 25 coming up soon. I now have toddlers asking for my autograph.

    The other brilliant experience I had last year was being in ‘Doctor Who’. I did a five-hour signing session with Tom Baker, and the queue was full of all these ‘Doctor Who’ freaks: 99 per cent were male and 90 per cent don’t wash. To followers, that was the apogee of my career; I could have played Hamlet or King Lear, but to them it doesn’t get any higher than ‘Doctor Who’.

    I have always lived in London. Born in the east, lived in the south, and I now live in the north. I’m a townie and I love it – London’s such a great city. ‘Hippie Hippie Shake’ and ‘Adam Resurrected’ are out later this year.

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