At the time of the interview, Jonathan Bailey was appearing as Jeremy Duffield in South Downs, which is part of a Double Bill with The Browning Version playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until July 2012. “They’re two gems that are quite simple but also great writing, two brilliant stories that are really moving, that are told, I think, touch wood, really well.”
Jonathan has many television credits to his name including playing the lead role of Leonardo da Vinci in BBC1’s Leonardo. He has also performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Prince Arthur in King John.
Jonathan took some time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions about himself and his career. Enjoy!
You were born in Aylesbury Vale, Oxfordshire. What was it like growing up there?
I was born in a village called Benton in Oxfordshire and it was typical village life. I went to the local C of E Primary School, and grew up with my three sisters, Mum and Dad. It was good that you could just have friends in walking distance at that sort of age and basically just make mud pies in the street. It wasn’t however particularly productive for performing arts.
What memories do you have of performing in school productions?
I remember one role where I was playing a raindrop in the story of Noah and his Ark. I also remember playing a shepherd in the nativity when I was about four.
Where did you train and how did that prepare you for a career on the stage?
Well I didn’t go to drama school. I started acting when I was really young, about seven in The Christmas Carol at the Barbican in London. They sent out the casting director to the suburbs to find cast and I remember singing ‘Where is Love’ in the church, not really aware of who it was for, and my parents definitely had no idea. After that I had an agent and came within the structure and the rules of not missing school. I managed to do either a play or a little bit of TV during the summer holidays.
I was super lucky. Although I think drama school is really important I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong way of becoming an actor. If I hadn’t had the experiences of working with other actors at a young age I don’t think I would have gone to drama school as those opportunities enthused me and made me passionate about drama. I learnt quite a lot on the job and was able to take risks when playing parts. So yeah I didn’t go to drama school but everything worked out okay.
You have numerous television credits to your name including Channel 4’s Campus, BBC3’s Pramface and BBC1’s Leonardo, where you play the lead role of Leonardo da Vinci. What has been your favourite television role to date and why?
I have just got back from Cape Town where we have been recording the BBC’s Leonardo. Playing Leonardo de Vinci himself is very special. There’s also a lot of cool stuff to do such as artwork on stage, fighting with weapons etc. So actually it’s a bit of playground as the props and the sets they created are excellent.
What do you like most about recording in front of a camera?
You can do the take again and I like that you’ve got downtime in between. I quite like the idea that you get to do it and then it’s there and you can’t really do anything about it. On stage if you do something wrong you can’t make it right for that performance but you can make it right for the next performance. I quite enjoy that.
Where did you make your professional stage debut and what was the role?
Well, on paper it’s playing Prince Arthur in King John for the RSC, and that was when I was about 15 I think. I think that was the first time that I was totally aware of what I was doing.
How would you describe performing in the RSC?
It was great. Everyone was so on top of what they were doing. I remember it was quite physically challenging. There’s also a lot of work vocally and I remember having bits of plastic in my cheek to try and get the pronunciation right. The company of people all work together as a unit and it was a great experience.
Following a successful run at Chichester, South Downs is transferring as part of a Double Bill with The Browning Version, to the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End. What can you tell us about South Downs and about your character Jeremy Duffield, and how he fits into the storyline?
Both the plays are set in Public Schools. For the Browning Version, Terrence Rattigan wrote about his time at Harrow. Dave Hare was asked by the Terrence Rattigan Estate to write a play to be performed alongside The Browning Version as a Double Bill. South Downs is based on his time at Lancing College and culminates in an act of kindness by a student’s mother.
John Blakemore is set apart by the fact that his forefathers hadn’t gone to public school and he doesn’t come from a typical public school family. He is a scholar but he refuses to conform as he considers the environment of the public school to be just a game. There are rules of a very strict hierarchy with the prefects essentially running the day to day matters of the school.
Basically John goes to the housemaster with a problem and that’s just not the way the game should be played. A prefect is brought in, Jeremy Duffield, the chap I play, to sort out this precocious boy. John is really suffering and he’s questioning things like why he’s not allowed to wear a CND badge, when everyone else is allowed to wear a crucifix. He’s also considering why his friends all just shut up and listen in class when they don’t fully understand. Jeremy tries to protect him, and fight his corner but the big act of generosity comes from Jeremy’s mother within a conversation and then it sort of plays out nicely.
South Downs is written by David Hare and The Browning Version by Terrence Rattigan. What unites these two plays and what sets them apart?
Well they fit together because of that act of kindness. South Downs is from a boy’s perspective. The Browning Version is from the master’s perspective and how the master doesn’t get the respect that he deserves.
How do these two plays compare with your own school days?
I think the idea that boys will be boys is an interesting one in South Downs and there’s so much detail. The fact that David Hare based the characters on his school days makes them so real. They’re so typical to anyone who has been to a public school. But for me, specifically similarly to John Blakemore, I had to get a scholarship to go to the school my parents wanted me to go. But there were many differences in the way that the public schools were run in the early sixties where for example there were no locks on the bathroom showers and boys were often forced to swim naked. These things just wouldn’t happen now. But I think I can relate more to the character and the situation and the feeling of going into a school where you haven’t grown up with the boys that otherwise would have grown up together and gone to prep school and that initial feeling of being an outsider and having to fit in and find out who you are.
There are many plays and musicals to see in the West End, why should theatregoers come and see these two plays?
These two plays have some incredible performances and so it’s theatre at its best where people are working hard and they’re putting on plays that are essentially laid quite bare. They’re two gems that are quite simple but also great writing, two brilliant stories that are really moving, that are told, I think, touch wood, really well.
You have a range of roles on your CV including for the RSC, CBBC, regional theatre and the West End. Do you have a particular career path in mind or is diversity the key?
I think diversity is the key. I haven’t reached the time yet where I would say yes or no to anything, everything needs to be considered.
The forthcoming run at the Harold Pinter Theatre ends in July, what plans do you have for the remainder of 2012?
I’m going to be filming a new comedy for the BBC from the writers of Sherlock before Christmas, that’s been commissioned. So that’s going to be quite hard marketing that whilst in a play. It should be a nice challenge and there is a play that is in the pipeline and if that comes off I’ll be really excited.
What would you consider to be your strengths as an actor?
I really enjoy the moments where something goes wrong and I need to improvise and that gives me the ability to act as a ‘safety net’.
What do you like to do away from the stage?
I recently bought a mountain bike, so some cycling, walking, going to Cornwall, surfing. And I’m also studying a course with the Open University because I didn’t go to an arts school. I had a place in it which I decided to surrender having deferred twice.
What message would you like say to your supporters?
Come and see the play and experience it and see what you think.
Thank you Jonathan for a super interview and best wishes for South Downs.
Credit: Jonathan Bailey Photographer Charlie Gray
Updated 27th November 2015