FOR six years he played a hospital chief in Holby City and now Robert Powell is to be seen as another high-flying medic, although they are worlds apart.
He is playing head surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt in the classic British comedy, Doctor in the House, which is touring to the Lyceum Theatre.
The play, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Richard Gordon, co-written by Dixon of Dock Green’s Ted Willis, dates back to the Fifties.
“Yes, it’s a different world,” acknowledges the actor. “There’s a matron in a starched uniform who is all-powerful and Sir Lancelot runs the hospital as his fiefdom.
“He’s formidable but he’s also rather mad. He can never remember things like recognising his own nephew. He keeps walking in and saying, ‘Now which one of you is my nephew?’”
The character of the irascible Sir Lancelot is forever associated with James Robertson Justice from the 1954 film starring Dirk Bogarde. Did that cast a shadow over Powell when he came to take on the part?
“That sort of thing never crosses an actor’s mind,” he replies firmly, “If it did you wouldn’t be able to play Hamlet or do anything. We work from within ourselves. So this Sir Lancelot is me and I’m very different from James Robertson Justice.”
Doctor in the House chronicles the comic misadventures of an inexperienced young medical student, Simon Sparrow, at the beginning of a five-year internship at St Swithin’s Teaching Hospital. He is led astray by a pair of student repeaters, one of them played by comedian Joe Pasquale.
“At the top of the play Joe plays to the audience as Tony Grimsdyke. Because it’s Joe, he does a bit of a schtick and breaks the fourth wall and he does it again every now and again. The audience love that. Otherwise we all play it straight throughout.”
Although known for serious roles down the years from TV’s Doomwatch to Jesus of Nazareth to The Thirty-Nine Steps, Powell is no stranger to comedy, having appeared with Jasper Carrott in Detectives.
“I have probably done more comedy than anything,” he insists. “In recent years on stage, apart from Picture of Dorian Gray, I don’t think I have done anything else.
“I think I am seen as a comedian who can do straight rather than the other way round. That’s certainly how I see myself.”
His stint on Holby City was much longer than he ever envisaged, especially as he worried that the year’s contract he started on was far too long. “But I had a tremendous time and I ended up doing six years because the writers developed my role. I had greater freedom than any other character. You learn very early on if you if you too closely define your part and say, ‘My character would never do that,’ you inhibit the writers.
“I learned that on Doomwatch. If they wanted a character to get pissed and fall off a bar stool, they’d give it to me not the others. It was the same with Mark Williams on Holby City who was a complicated and interesting character. I was happy when he renewed his friendship with cocaine. You should always be open to a change of personality or direction.”
So why did he leave? “I had always worried that Holby was continually on the verge of tipping into melodrama. I kept telling them the soaps do that, we should keep it straight. Eventually the personnel changed and it started to tilt in that direction and I decided that was enough for me.”
He found himself recognised by a wider audience, with 15-year-old girls suddenly hailing him in the street.
“Doomwatch turned me into a national hearthrob and in the Seventies I couldn’t go anywhere and then in the Eighties I was filming a lot overseas, and then in the Nineties I gained a whole new audience with The Detectives. So I’ve managed to be at the sharp end for rather a long time – 45 years – which isn’t bad.”
The actor has the distinction of having a theatre named after him, the Robert Powell Theatre on the campus of Salford University. “I was so touched, I cannot tell you,” says the actor born “a Schmeichel kick away from Old Trafford” as the lifelong Manchester United fan puts it.
His Salford antecedents are so strong the researchers turned him down for Who Do You Think You Are because they couldn’t find anyone in his family for generations who hadn’t spent all their life there. “No pirates or anything,” he laments.
Salford was an appalling place when I grew up there but I am proud of it. Even though I have lived in London for years and no longer have any family up here, I have tried to do my bit by supporting projects like the Lowry and the Media Centre and it has improved out of all recognition.”
Doctor in the House is at the Lyceum Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday.