What did you know about the play The Habit of Art before you were cast?
I haven’t seen the play but Richard Griffiths, who was in the original production, and I were in college together. Then in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys I played Hector, the role Richard originally played. I started rehearsals for that the week Richard died. And we have the same agent. We’ve always been very close and actually his wife has been lovely about it because I said, ‘I hope you don’t mind I keep doing Richard’s parts’. She was very kind and said, ‘I can’t think of a worthier successor’.
What’s the attraction of playing W H Auden?
He has a razor sharp wit and we have a very similar outlook about work which is the habit of art. I am the same. I have to keep working – I’m nearly 70 now – not because I need the money but because the theory comes into play that the longer you hang on the longer you will hang on. Otherwise you fall off the perch.
In the play you are an actor playing an actor playing a real person in a play– is that confusing?
No, it actually clarifies things. It’s a very clever device because it means you can be funny about what you do, you can comment on it and you can explain stuff. You can come out of the play Caliban’s Day, which the actors are rehearsing, and then it’s a play about the fictional meeting of Auden and Britten. What’s wonderful about Bennett’s play is not only have you got the finest composer of our time and the finest poet of our time but you also in my opinion have the greatest playwright of our time. So you’ve got all those words being sewn together by our greatest playwright who’s kind, accessible, very erudite and talks about sex in a very earthy way. He also gives a voice to the unregarded who don’t usually have a voice. Generally the great people, the stars of our time, get the final word and the people who look after them, what are commonly called the little people, really don’t get any say at all. They are the forgotten heroes who nurtured these stars.
What research did you do on Auden?
One of the characters in the play is Humphrey Carpenter, who wrote biographies of both Auden and Britten. He talks a lot about Britten’s work because Carpenter was a great musician. Of course he doesn’t talk about Auden’s poetry at all because he knows b***** all about literature. I’ve just got his book on Auden, which is over 500 pages of the tiniest print you’ve ever seen in your life. I got it and my heart sank. But you know what? There’s enough information in the play without needing to read any more.
You’ve appeared in two other Alan Bennett plays; Kafka’s Dick twice and The History Boys. Has he ever commented on your performances?
Now here’s the thing. We were hoping he would come to York when I did Kafka’s Dick, because Alan Bennett lives in Leeds and it’s only a hop and a skip away. But he didn’t come. A couple of years later I met him at Heathrow in the domestic terminal – which sounds like a Bennett line – and he came up to me and apologised for not coming to the York production, which I thought was a splendid thing to do, He was terribly kind about it. Years later I did The History Boys in Sheffield, then Kafka’s Dick again in Bath. On both those shows he sent champagne and a good luck postcard. He always knows what’s going on and he’s terribly kind and encouraging which I love.
Do people still remember you as presenter of the hit TV show Stars In Their Eyes?
Funnily enough I don’t mind anyone coming up to me and saying ‘Tonight Matthew I’m going to be…”. I was rather proud to be the Matthew in that sentence. There’s no point in me saying it because I’m the Matthew in the phrase. To be honest there’s a whole generation of people, mostly under 25, who have no idea what Stars In Their Eyes was. They don’t remember it. The people who do remember it are very nostalgic and kind, having grown up with it and other shows like that. I’ve just gone back to what I know – acting in the theatre. It’s difficult working on telly because your suspension of disbelief on television is much less, so your perception is ‘it’s that man who is six inches tall in the corner of our room who used to do that Saturday night show’. On stage, I can do anything.
Didn’t you do a one-off charity version of Stars In Their Eyes recently?
It’s 15 years since I did the TV show but four weeks ago I was persuaded to do a one-off revival on stage in Manchester for Prevent Breast Cancer. I really didn’t want to go back but it was fantastic. They did a wonderful job. They had old film from the original series, seven winners from previous series and seven newcomers that Coronation Street people had auditioned. People went mad for it, so everyone said, ‘We have to bring it back’. It’s great nostalgia but I stopped it because my heart wasn’t in it for a while.