Radio review: Funny and poignant portrait of a great actor

Dublin-born Michael Gambon as Winston Churchill
Dublin-born Michael Gambon as Winston Churchill

Last Word, Radio 4

The actor Sir Michael Gambon, who has died aged 82, was a man of many talents – of which acting was just one, said his son, Fergus.

This Last Word was a portrait of a great actor, a passionate toolmaker and a man who loved fast cars.

Gambon was born in Dublin then moved to London with his family. He left school with no qualifications and became an apprentice toolmaker. At one stage, he won Apprentice of the Year.

The love of toolmaking stayed with him. They lived in a small flat when Fergus was a boy and his father wanted a lathe but there was not much room. So he built a cabinet on wheels and put the lathe inside, storing it in the bathroom. He’d wheel it out and use it and there would be brass filings flying about the room.

The younger generation may remember Gambon from the Harry Potter films; older people will remember another Potter – playwright Denis – and Gambon’s magical performance as The Singing Detective.

How did he get into acting?

The story goes, said Fergus, that he was walking past the stage door of an amateur theatre and saw what was going on, then someone beckoned him inside.

He was a member of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre and took on many leading Shakespearean roles before he came to wider attention with The Singing Detective in 1986.

He loved clocks and firearms and cars, said his son. Such was his exciting performance driving a car for Top Gear that they named a corner after him.

He also told outrageous fibs.

When he was playing Oscar Wilde in the 1980s, a journalist rang him and asked him what it was like to play a gay man. The question irritated him.

“I found that very easy because I used to be a homosexual,” he said, “but I was forced to give it up.”

“Why” asked the journalist.

“Well, it made my eyes water,” Gambon replied, tongue firmly in cheek. He had no time for journalists asking such questions.

This was a funny and poignant portrait of a great actor.

The highlight was Gambon’s son’s memory of the moment at 17 when he sat in the audience and was stunned by the power of his father’s performance… how that moved him to tears.