Madness, monarchy and a missing moustache

With his air of the quintessential English gent, David Haig is a familiar face of stage and screen. Next week he visits Norwich in The Madness of George III. He spoke to RACHEL BULLER about Alan Bennett, losing his moustache and his marbles.

You might not instantly recognise the name, but you will undoubtedly know the face. Having graced the stage and screen for more than two decades – often in memorable scene-stealing roles such as the hapless posh groom in Four Weddings and a Funeral or the obnoxious foul-mouthed Steve Fleming in political comedy The Thick of It – actor David Haig has quietly enjoyed a rather remarkable career.

An Olivier Award-winner, known for his incredible versatility acting in farcical comedies to dark, dark drama, he is on a national tour starring in Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III, a role which has required a very special sacrifice to be made.

For the first time in nearly 25 years his tidy coiffured trademark moustache has had to go. 'My kids reacted very extremely, they have recovered now,' he says with a chuckle. 'They say tactful things like it makes me look younger but I'm sure that it is not always genuine. It is great though, I have had a grade three with the clippers on my hair as well, I really like it.

'I love this part and it is great to be able to change the visual perception that people have of me. I have wanted to do it in the past but it almost became my trademark so directors would often say they'd rather I didn't shave it. Then I worried I might not get any work if I did so I couldn't get rid of it.'

Speaking during rehearsals for the play, which arrives at the Theatre Royal next week, he describes his love of Alan Bennett's writing and joy at taking on the role.

'I love his work. He takes big risks with his writing. He is always funny and also incredibly moving.'

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It is not the first time he has tackled an Alan Bennett piece – he played Wilfred, a paedophile, in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologue Playing Sandwiches. It was a remarkable portrayal, an incredible piece of television for which he won deserved acclaim. 'That was an extraordinary experience doing Talking Heads,' he says. 'I can honestly say I never expected the phone call. There are only two male voices, one in each series, one of which was played by Alan Bennett himself, and I wasn't expecting to be the other one. It was one of the toughest jobs I have done, a 40-minute monologue with one camera which never shifts. We filmed in 10-minute chunks and if you make a mistake right at the end, you simply had to do it all again.'

He believes that Bennett is a master of finding humour and warmth in dark terrible situations, something reflective of the human psyche of us all.

'I think that is true in the portrayal of the paedophile I played in Talking Heads, and also with King George, which should be devastating and bleak but is hugely moving and comical. King George's madness is written really funnily and brilliantly. I think that often we all see humour in bleak situations to get through.'

It is the first time he has toured in a few years and he admits he is looking forward to getting back on the road.

'I always really enjoy it. The last time I was in Norwich was with my own play about Rudyard Kipling, My Boy Jack. It was a dark subject and rather strangely I got more feedback from people who had seen it in Norwich than anywhere else. I'm not sure what to take from that.'

Born in Hampshire, the son of a soldier turned art gallery owner, he attended public school but admits he was 'extremely lazy at doing everything else but acting'.

'When I came to rehearse my first school play, I would have been about eight or nine, I suddenly found that I was prepared to work 24 hours a day on it and I never really thought of it as being hard work, or work at all.

'It is rather ironic that I am considered hard-working these days when I was so lazy during my schooldays – it shows that finding something you really want to do is key.'

After attending the Lamda drama school, where his appearance was more long-haired, long-bearded, bead-wearing hippy than well-groomed, moustachioed English gent, he began what was to be a hugely successful career as both an actor and playwright.

On first appearance, David is impossibly English, with an upright gait, deep commanding voice and of course that moustache, and indeed many of his roles have made great play on this, whether in the classic farce or in modern comedy roles, such as Bernard in Four Weddings and a Funeral or alongside Rowan Atkinson in BBC TV comedy The Thin Blue Line.

He has also been a regular on the television screen, with roles in popular series such as Cracker, Inspector Morse, Soldier Soldier and even Doctor Who.

His own, very personal project, My Boy Jack, won the Fipa d'Or Grand Prize for screen-writing and he is clearly proud of this deeply-moving story which tells the tale of writer Rudyard Kipling and his relationship with his son.

Having written the screenplay and then successfully got it on to the stage, he began looking for ways to turn the story into a film. It was a stage door meeting with Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe which kick-started the project into action.

'I wrote it as a stage play in the mid-1990s and it took a long time to be made as a film. Daniel had come to see me in first world war piece Journey's End at the theatre, as he is really interested in the war. I told him about My Boy Jack and when he learned that we wanted to make it into a film, he read the script and was immediately interested. Obviously, as soon as he showed any interest, suddenly everybody wanted to come on board,' he says laughing.

What does he think about the levels of fame which young actors have to deal with now?

'I wouldn't have coped with it as well as Daniel has, that's for sure. He has a great family around him, he is very interested in life issues,' he says. 'Fame messes up so many people across the profession, just look at the recent death of Amy Winehouse. People go through this huge blast of fame and success at a young age and I think it is amazing when they come through it.'

Despite the current economic climate, he is optimistic about the current state of the industry and believes that despite the financial struggles there are more film, television and theatre projects happening than when he first started out.

However, he believes that television is struggling to compete in terms of what is being made in other countries.

'It doesn't strike me as being in dire straits but it is difficult,' he says.

'I am absolutely loving the Danish show The Killing at the moment which was shown on BBC Four. It is very slow moving and just wonderfully shot and it develops gradually so you really get to know the characters. But it is a long series, maybe 20 episodes and, combined with the slow pace of it, it is also incredibly dark. So it is a risk.

'Because of the financial implications, television-makers here tend to prefer something immediate, it has got to make an impact straightaway, not slowly develop and hook people in gradually. I have got five kids and their generation want things now. How they think about television has changed so much.'

Before David heads out to rehearsals, it is impossible not to ask him about one of his more recent television roles and the likelihood of it being revived.

His role as the shouting, swearing, permanently on-the-edge Steve Fleming in award-winning political satire The Thick of It produced the sort of scenes which will be considered comedy gold in years to come.

Is it hard not to laugh or be put off when you are faced with one of Malcolm Tucker's infamous improvised rants when you are trying to finish a scene, I ask him?

'In order to be funny I think you have to be very serious. If you are screaming in Malcolm Tucker's face, full of anger, that is how you are feeling, you are believing that you feel terrible, that your government is in trouble, things are serious, you are acting seriously.'

He starred in only a handful of episodes of the political satire but there are rumours he, and it, will be back for another series.

'It is considered a cult show and it is fantastic to work on but nothing has been confirmed about a new series yet.'

And with that, he is off to rehearsals.

n The Madness of George III is at Norwich Theatre Royal from September 19-24, �22.50-�5.50, 01603 630000,