2002- "The Great and the Good - Profile: Michael Jayston" by Patrick Newley

With a long and varied career working alongside many British stars on stage and screen, this per former is well placed to tell Patrick Newley what he thinks makes an actor admirable

One of Britain's most magnetic actors, Michael Jayston has had a rich and varied career that has encompassed the RSC, the National Theatre, television, major films and countless voiceovers. His acting strengths are subtle and diverse - he possesses a superb gift for comedy as well as the dramatic. He has steered clear of typecasting and any suggestions of the predictable in his portrayals, making him one of the most sought after performers of his generation. Films such as Nicholas and Alexandra made him an international star and he became a household name in Quiller plus other TV series such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Darling Buds of May. This year he brought a touch of unexpected class to Eastenders as Barbara Windsor's latest beau.

Born in Nottingham, Jayston originally became an apprentice accountant before deciding to become an actor.

Before training at the Guildhall School of Drama, his early theatrical influences were a mixed bag.

"I didn't really go to the theatre much, it was people on film that influenced me like Laurence Olivier, " he says. "On the radio the voice of Valentine Dyall hugely impressed me. He was The Man in Black and to this day I still think that voice influences my own. I did go to pantomime and I saw a rather elderly Dorothy Ward and in variety I saw Max Wall, whom I met years later.

"I suppose at one time I wanted to be a stand-up comedian, which is the most diabolical job you could think of."

He made his acting debut at the Salisbury Rep. Later he joined the RSC at the Aldwych playing such roles as Exeter in Henry V and Laertes in Hamlet.

"It was a great grounding for me and there were marvellous people there like Ian Holm. Malcolm McDowell was a walk-on in some of the plays." From the RSC he went to the National Theatre, then under the auspices of Olivier, an actor with whom Jayston was to be associated on several occasions.

"Olivier was a very generous actor to work with, " he says. "I've always said that he was the sort of man you would have gone over the top with in the First World War.

He was a great actor and I think that all great acting is a form of madness. Tom Baker once said to me that all great actors have peculiar voices and that's true. Gielgud, Richardson, Scofield, Olivier.

They don't do it deliberately and so I think that great acting has something to do with the voice."

Jayston's film career began in 1968 playing Demetrius in Peter Hall's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream and three years later he was cast as Tsar Nicholas II in the sumptuous epic Nicholas and Alexandra. He gave an astonishing performance which won him wide praise from the critics, though Hollywood did not bang on his door afterwards.

"No, the only thing I got offered was a truly terrible film, a musical version of Lost Horizon with Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann, which I turned down. I read the script and said I couldn't possibly do this. I went straight back to the theatre. There were one or two films I was offered but I had no regrets turning them down either because they were complete nonsense.

"I prefer working on stage - if it's good. I like an audience if you've got a good part because if you're in a bad television show it doesn't really matter. If you're in a bad play, well, it comes off."

He gave a major performance as the psychiatrist Martin Dysart in Peter Shaffer's powerful play Equus, a drama acclaimed as a reflection upon the conflict between rationality and instinct both at the National Theatre and a long West End run but he lost out to Richard Burton in the film role. His early television work included Mad Jack, a superb film about the First World War poet Siegfried Sasoon and his singlehanded protest against the carnage on the Western front.

Jayston majored on adaptations of the classics - he was Edward Rochester in the BBC's eighties version of Jane Eyre - and dramas such as The Power Game and Callan. He was later one of a distinguished cast that included Alec Guinness, Ian Richardson, Beryl Reid and Sian Phillips in John le Carre's intellectual spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as well as spells in Dr Who, The Good Guys and Outside Edge.

Yet despite his popularity on TV, Jayston is far from happy with the current medium. "Television in my lifetime has got far worse for an actor. In the old days you had things like Play for Today but nowadays, if they put on a 'blockbuster' like Dickens, it's billed as a fantastic event. It never used to be - it was the norm."

Jayston also believes it is becoming increasingly difficult for young performers to get a foot in the door. "There is nowhere to learn your craft like reps because most of them are now gone and there is no real training for TV and so you just go in there. They put you on a set and say 'okay, well you be a Cockney', " he argues. "There are some good actors in soap opera and some who just behave, people who are just themselves - which of course isn't really acting at all.

"I have to say with EastEnders I get very fed up with listening to not particularly good Cockney accents.

Nowadays we have casting directors who go on what you look like and not whether you have any talent. When people say 'when he came into the room I knew immediately. . .'

it's complete rubbish. But don't get me wrong, some soaps are excellent. But I can't stand that awful Neighbours.

The dog, however, is marvellous - so he'll probably get a Bafta."

Sitting in his dressing room at the Chichester Festival Theatre, Jayston reminisces about the good and the great of theatre with charm.

He was recently in the town starring in Jean Anouilh's Wild Orchids, a play originally seen in London under the title Times Remembered.

Anouilh's whimsical themes of innocence and make believe are ideally suited to Jayston's brand of subtle acting.

"I don't know why Anouilh is not as popular these days because he is a marvellous playwright. I think that the Festival Theatre has a sort of safe image, obviously because audiences are slightly older than they would be in the West End. But you do get a lot of youngsters coming to the Minerva next door."

So any unfulfilled ambitions as an actor? "No, not really. As long as I get good parts I don't mind and I don't think I'm one for King Lear, " he says. "I'd love to do a pantomime because pantomime is an art form. I'd love to play the dame - but nobody's asked me. I once played Widow Twankey in rep and I got quite good notices. I was a sort of very northern dame. Dougie Byng and Billy Dainty, both dames of note, came from my home town of Nottingham."

Prospective panto producers take note. A consummate performer in whatever medium he chooses, no doubt Jayston would look quite fetching in a mob cap and skirts.

Michael Jayston is appearing in The Rivals at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness