The set of Upstairs Downstairs at BBC Cardiff is a lavish place in which to have tea. “Milk? No sugar?” offers my host, Ed Stoppard. He is charming, floppy- haired, spit of his equally dashing dad.
It’s rare that the talent offers the journo a cuppa. Maybe it’s being the son of a playwright (Tom, father) and a scientist (Miriam, mother) that has made Ed so understanding of the human condition. I am told to wait. So I wait. And wait. Ed seems to have vanished.
I visit the “upstairs” bit of the BBC’s Upstairs Downstairs set, which Stoppard inhabits as Sir Hallam Holland, and which is about to return to our screens for a second series. The set is rather lovely, all 30s cocktail cabinets and sculptures of half-dressed damsels holding lampshades. It is, however, an empty television set.
After ten minutes, I am ushered into the canteen on Stoppard-quest. Eventually I am put into a holding pattern and told to go to the green room, which is so deserted that I start playing Scrabble on my iPad.
After an eternity, Ed materialises. Sans refreshments. “Sorry for being such a luvvie,” he cries, plumping himself down on the sofa. Oh goodness. It’s all very well for us embittered hacks to call actors luvvies, but doing it self-referentially implies a brazen confidence. And this does not go down well when accompanied by extreme absent-mindedness with regard to tea.
“Are you a luvvie?” I ask, grimly. Stoppard stops beaming and looks a bit worried that I have taken his breezy charm at face value. “Well. Hum. Yes, I suppose I probably am. I try not to be. Before I went to drama school, I worked as a runner on films, and promised that if I ever became an actor I would never behave like an archetypal luvvie.”
Well, I suppose that if anyone is going to know the inside leg measurement of the average luvvie, it would be Ed Stoppard, given that he is the son of one of our most respected and garlanded playwrights. He says he tried to withstand acting for years, reading French at university and doing all sorts of things before bowing, as they say, to the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowds.
Indeed, he had shied away from it so vigorously that apparently his father was somewhat alarmed when his youngest son announced he was going to drama school. “He said to me, ‘Ed, over the years, many hundreds of talented actors have come into rehearsal rooms in London and given very good performances of characters in my plays, and walked out without the job. And that is the reality.’”
He smiles. The charm offensive is working. I’m intrigued. “So many terrific actors. Including Hugh Grant and Ralph Fiennes – who both auditioned to be in Arcadia – neither of whom got it. [The part eventually went to Rufus Sewell.] Although I think that if they had got it they wouldn’t have gone on to do either Schindler’s List or Four Weddings,” continues Stoppard, “so they both owe my dad.”
Yet what was it like for Ed, now 37, to grow up with the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, On the Razzle, Travesties, Arcadia and Hapgood (just to name a few) as a dad?
I mean, did Stoppard senior regularly offer gems of literary brilliance while taking the rubbish out? “Well, it wasn’t like living with Oscar Wilde or Dr Johnson,” says Stoppard junior, “but at the same time… it was something I was aware of. I was aware of his erudition, his wit, the quickness of his mind.”
Medical pundit mother
Although Dad was very much not the famous Stoppard in the village, as it were. That honour went to the doctor, agony aunt and all round medical pundit, Miriam.
“When I was a kid, my mum was on the telly every week,” says Ed proudly. “At a time when there were only three channels. If you were on a hit show, ten million people would be watching. My mum would be stopped all the time in the street or in the shops. No one knew who the hell my dad was.”
Amazingly, Stoppard says it wasn’t until he wrote the screenplay for the 1999 movie Shakespeare in Love that Tom Stoppard achieved, as it were, street credibility.
“I remember being in a taxi and for some reason the driver knew my name. And he said, ‘Stoppard? You’re not related to that… I was expecting he would say ‘…that Miriam Stoppard?’, but he went on to say ‘…that Tom Stoppard?’
I immediately rang my father and said, ‘Dad, a London cabbie has asked if we are related. You’ve made it!’”
Ed has tried, quite hard, not to play the family card. He even considered using his father’s original Czech surname of Straussler. “I don’t want to be defined by any one thing,” he says.
“I understand it, but I don’t really like being the ‘son of…’, whether it’s Tom or Miriam. If I had a quid for every time someone’s called me Tom…” he says. “But I don’t even bother correcting them now. I have kind of dealt with it.”
Has he ever been in one of his dad’s plays? Yes (he played Nat in a recent production of Arcadia), although he stresses his father nobly left the room when he auditioned. Right now, he’s loving being in the BBC’s Upstairs Downstairs, back after a three-episode trial over Christmas 2010.
Upstairs Downstairs v Downton Abbey
Yet could the atmosphere of the production be somewhat more fraught than usual? After all, Upstairs Downstairs has, to a certain extent, been elbowed aside by another sparkly period potboiler on the rival channel. Does he mind the inevitable comparisons with the juggernaut that is Downton Abbey?
“Oh, we have gone through them,” he says breezily, “and unless I have missed something, both series have come through intact.”
Really? What about all those Golden Globes for Downton? The hysteria about Lady Mary? The army of Bates worshippers? The move to make Julian Fellowes a National Treasure? That must sting.
Does he watch it? Not the second series, apparently. “I was doing something else, or maybe I missed an episode, and didn’t want to play catch-up.” He says he is a big fan, for all that. “I don’t think that ITV would have spent that amount of money and got those actors, or employed Julian Fellowes, unless they thought it would be really good.
“I like Downton. I don’t understand the logic that the jungle can only support one beast. Even if it’s a big beast. It’s as if EastEnders and Corrie and Emmerdale have never managed to subsist in the same environment.”
He pauses. “I am not peering over my shoulder, or aware of people in Upstairs Downstairs peering over their shoulders, or wringing their hands. I’m just the f***ing actor,” he says, in that classic public-school (he went to Stowe) way of using swearwords like icing sugar.
We got off to a rocky start, what with the tea incident, but I like Ed Stoppard. He knows who he is, and what he can and can’t do. “I can do intense,” he says, laughing. “I can’t do action, unless there’s a good stunt double. I can do intelligent. I can do tense, and autistic, and I can do latent homosexual. Yeah. That’s my range.”
Tom! Are you out there? Are you listening?
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 14 February 2012.
The second series of Upstairs Downstairs starts tonight at 9:30pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD.