Classic Interview: David Haig

David Haig

David Haig is one of our great comic actors both onstage and onscreen. Unfortunately his latest project, The Wright Way, is not so great. Here is a frank, funny interview with Haig from December 2008 when he was starring in the revival of Joe Orton's black comedy Loot onstage. At the time I speculated that Haig does his best work when he is sporting his trademark moustache. Have a look at the picture on the left from his current sitcom – I can't help noticing that he is clean-shaven in The Wright Way...

The Cheshire Cat had his grin, David Haig has his moustache. The 53-year-old actor with his famously neat whiskers looks as if he was born to play Inspector Truscott in the latest revival of Joe Orton’s Loot. Leonard Rossiter and Michael Bates sported formidable dead slugs on their upper lips in the role, as did Richard Attenborough in the film version.

Of course, Haig has the requisite talent, as well as facial hair that enters the room before he does. It is easy to imagine him as the explosively volatile corrupt copper who arrives at the house where the young thieves Hal (Matt Di Angelo of EastEnders) and Dennis (Javone Prince) have stashed the cash from a recent robbery. As the inspector calls, the money is secreted, in typically anarchic Ortonish fashion, in the coffin of Hal’s dead mum while the corpse is jammed into a wardrobe.

Truscott is a part Haig has admired for years. Removing his red-checked winter jacket and relaxing in the office of the Tricycle Theatre in North London, he is friendly and mustard-keen as he explains that he feels as if he has almost played it already in the sitcom The Thin Blue Line. “I must ask Ben Elton this, but I’ve always wondered if he based my Inspector Grim to an extent on some subliminal memory of Truscott. I reread Loot after doing Grim and thought wouldn’t it be nice to play him onstage.”

There are vital differences, though. Grim was a simple buffoon, there is a vicious streak to the bribe-taking Truscott. Haig leans forward in his chair and concurs. “One of the fascinating things about the play is that some of the issues may no longer shock, but there is an amorality and greed to the play that is as shocking as ever and it should be played to the hilt, otherwise it becomes just another farce.”

Loot has a colourful history. The first run, starring a miscast Kenneth Williams as Truscott, flopped and it was only after substantial rewrites that it gathered momentum, awards and notoriety. In the hit 1966 production, with Michael Bates as Truscott, Orton mischievously put his recently deceased mum’s teeth in the fake corpse’s mouth. A year later Orton himself was dead, his head smashed in by his lover Kenneth Halliwell.

Revivals have also been notable. In 1984 Paul McGann accidentally dropped the corpse into the stalls on the opening night at the Ambassadors Theatre. Leonard Rossiter, an acclaimed Truscott, died suddenly of heart disease in his dressing room after it had transferred to the Lyric.

By coincidence, another Orton play, Entertaining Mr Sloane, is about to be revived at the Trafalgar Studios, starring Mathew Horne from Gavin & Stacey. Maybe, in the weird world of Little Britain and Ross/Brand, where comedy is saying the unsayable again, these plays tap into the Zeitgeist. The downside is that they may not shock as much as in the Sixties when, Haig says, “a large percentage of the audience was sitting open-mouthed”.

Loot can still cause discomfort, he insists. “We are very used to dark comedy now, but Truscott beats the s**t out of two kids, and one in this production is black. He says, ‘I will do whatever needs to be done to get my conviction’ and if it entails violence that’s fine. He’s corrupt in every sense. At one point Truscott says he is going to investigate the least important of the crimes first, which is murder, while the most important is stealing public money, which feels very contemporary with what is going on with the banks at the moment.”

This is a rare chance to see Haig hit out. Usually he is a master of repressed rage. He constantly seems to be on the cusp of exploding, whether as the cuckold Pinchwife in The Country Wife or as Inspector Grim. He is so good at it, is he drawing on his home life in South London, with his actor-cum-professional cook wife, Jane Galloway, and their five children, ranging from nine to 23? “I don’t think my children take my rage that seriously and I don’t think other characters take it seriously, either. That’s the trick, to get that angry with no ultimate danger.” If you want impotent exasperation, Haig is your man. “I’m very rarely laid-back. I do recognise the neurotic fever in myself.”

Loot also has a whiff of sex about it, with the young crooks being lovers as well as criminal bedfellows. Haig keeps his macintosh on, but sex seems to be a motif in his CV. He came to prominence in 1994 as Bernard in Four Weddings and a Funeral, who indulges in a spot of postnuptial nookie while Hugh Grant hides in a bedroom wardrobe.

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