Art is in the eye of the beholder says 'posh' Belfast-bound actor Nigel Havers

Ahead of award-winning comedy drama Art opening in the the Grand Opera House this month, actor Nigel Havers tells Gail Bell he has developed a fondness for the simple blank canvas which has caused 'all hell to break loose'

Nigel Havers, Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson, who are appearing in Art at the Grand Opera House Picture: Jon Swannell

HE MAY play the archetypal upper-class scoundrel, but TV’s most charismatic cad, Nigel Havers, is as uncomplicated and clean as… well, as a pristine, white canvas.

The actor, best known for his smooth-talking, loveable rogue roles, is now more concerned with the intellectual value of conceptual art and can be seen seriously debating the beauty of an expensive blank painting on stage in Belfast this month.

Art, like beauty, may well be in the eye of the beholder, but people don’t half take umbrage if they can’t reach the same state of bliss as their (depending on your point of view) deluded or dazzlingly perceptive friend.

And that is the starting point for award-winning comedy Art, by Yazmina Reza, (featuring Havers, alongside actors Denis Lawson and Stephen Tompkinson) which opens at the Grand Opera House on March 12.

As French friends Serge, Marc and Yvan, they allow an intense argument over vague white strips on a white board to strip to the bone their lifelong friendship.

"It is the rift between the friends – with whom I happen to be great friends off stage too – which makes it so funny and just the ludicrousness of the argument, really,” says Havers during a break in performances after a new UK tour opened in Cambridge last month.

“I show them my expensive painting (200,000 francs), which I love dearly, and all hell breaks loose."

What follows, says Havers, is a razor-sharp comedy wrapped up in a delicious war of words and centred around that enduring question to which no-one has yet found a conclusive answer – what is art?

Ironically, the French writer, Yasmina Reza, had initially thought she had written a tragedy – until her play won a Laurence Olivier award for comedy in 1998.

With the drama pivoting on an 'empty' white painting, everyone thought it was a joke and so the play went on to became one of the most successful comedies ever to hit the stage, winning Olivier, Tony, Moliere and virtually every other major award the theatre world could throw at it.

Of course, the real irony is that the play is not about a painting, pretentiousness, or the subjectiveness of taste, but about fragility of friendship and how opinions matter – particularly when it comes to the manner in which they are delivered and interpreted.

For Havers, former star of the long-running Don't Wait Up, The Charmer, Dangerfield and, latterly, Coronation Street – he is also back on our television screens in the new series of Benidorm which returned this week – it is his "favourite modern play" and he is delighted to be reprising the role of Serge in a new “exhaustive” 16-date tour.

"I can't wait to come to Belfast and it will be a bit like coming home, as I performed in Art in the Grand Opera House in Belfast about 18 years ago," he says. "The audiences loved it then and I hope they will still love it now. It really is a smartly written play.

"It's also a great challenge for the actors, as it is a complicated piece and there is a lot of intensity which requires high levels of energy. It’s funny, it’s intellectual and I never get bored with it.”

Off-stage he happens to be a real-life art lover as well, with a penchant for modern impressionism in particular. One of his prized pieces is a Damien Hirst print, and, although, like his stage friend in Art, he can understand why some people might think all modern art is “sh**t”, he trawls through exhibitions and art galleries and “appreciates it all now”.

"Over the years I have also developed a genuine fondness for that white canvas in Art and I would quite like to have it on my wall at home," he gushes in that mischievous way of his that is almost an art form itself.

"I have tried several times to buy it from the producer, but he won't sell..."

He is speaking down the phone from Cambridge, but the polite, clipped English "posh" tones for which he is famed are unmistakable; a sort of artistic affliction he admits he cannot seem to shake off.

"I don't understand it all all," he says, resignedly. "People always assume I'm posh, but had I really been truly aristocratic, I think would have known about it.

“When I took part in the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are I discovered that my relations were decent, hard-working people. I would have loved to have met them."

Now aged 66, he believes he is too old to break the mould of dangerous charmer, but it doesn't bother him too much: "I'm just happy to be working, whether it's theatre, television or panto," he says, with what appears to be genuine gratitude for the hand life has dealt him.

"I did panto at the Palladium last year and I played in Dick Whittington as myself – Naughtical Nige – it was great fun.

"I do love playing the posh bad guy and I seem to have had a few of those roles. I loved being on Corrie as conman Lewis Archer, who duped the Platt family out of a small fortune.

"I received sackfuls of fan mail during my time there, including racy underwear which I had to hide from my wife. I would love to go back to Corrie, but then again, I still owe Audrey £40,000, so I might get lynched.

“I’ve always been a fan [of the show] since I was a boy because my parents were such big fans. People tell me they thought they would never hear an accent like mine on Coronation Street, and I joked that I was there to ‘posh it up’."

Fans will have to wait to see whether Havers hits the cobbles again sometime in the future, but meantime, they can enjoy what viewers have described as his "priceless" performance as a conniving local dentist in Benidorm which returned for its 10th season on ITV on Wednesday evening.

He had a blast filming the previous series – but can't remember much about it: "I am a dentist who is always scamming people. That’s all I can say. All I can remember, really. There is a lot of cheap alcohol in Benidorm."

Married to third wife, George (Georgiana Bronfman), life is a lot quieter now for Havers, with the couple splitting their time between homes in South Kensington and Wiltshire and walking their much-loved dog in the surrounding countryside.

They have a new poodle puppie, Charlie – apparently, the dog was bought for George as a present after Havers went on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories without telling her.

“We walk a lot with Charlie and it’s how I like to relax,” he says. “My ‘ladies’ man’ days are well behind me and I’m just lucky to be alive. I’m at an age where I have to move on.”

:: Nigel Havers appears in Art at the Grand Opera House from March 12-17.

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