Charles Edwards is no stranger to aristocratic dramas, but this is the first time he’s played the king on television – in a production with real pedigree.
Recently the 47-year-old actor played Lucian D’Abberville in The Halcyon, he was Lady Edith’s lover Michael Gregson in Downton Abbey (2012–13), and “Bertie” (King George VI) on stage in The King’s Speech (2012).
And now he plays a contemporary king of England dissatisfied with his lot in Henry IX, a brand-new sitcom from Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the venerated writers of The Likely Lads, Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
So what was it like working with such comedy legends? “That’s exactly the phrase I’ve been using a lot,” says Edwards. “When the job comes your way you think, ‘This is just unbelievable’ and then you meet them, you rehearse with them and you’re speaking the words they’ve written… it really doesn’t get any better than that.”
So it’s fair to say Edwards was a fan of Clement and La Frenais? “Hugely. Particularly Porridge. Growing up, they’re the names you always used to see at the end of something you’d enjoyed. I remember The Likely Lads being a bit grown-up for me but my dad loved it. But then you revisit these things later in life and see the calibre of the writing and the discipline with which they construct a scene.
“They’re very clever guys and lovely people to work with. And there’s no bulls**t. They know exactly what they want and when you get the sense you’re giving it to them, it’s very pleasing.”
In Gold’s three-part series, his character has been on the throne for 25 years and is having a midlife crisis. He’s driven from one engagement to another, and even ferried around the corridors of Buckingham Palace in a golf buggy.
Is the royal-themed sitcom a bit of a departure for the writers? “It is a departure in that it’s set in the Palace,” says Edwards. “However, it’s familiar in that it’s a man trapped. Obviously in Porridge there’s no way out and in this there’s no way out of being king except by committing the ultimate kingly sin of abdication.
“Henry gets guided by people who are his close advisers, and steered through his day, and that leads him to think, ‘What’s left for me?’ and to try to smash out of his gilded cage. He’s very likeable and very human…. he’s just at sea, and doesn’t know quite what’s happening.
“We start the series with a man who is fulfilling his duties very effectively. He’s very well loved, very popular. But he feels his own personal life, his own growth, his own soul, needs nurturing in another different direction.”
So in getting cast for a series about the British monarch, did it help that the actor’s name is Charles? He laughs. “Do you know what, I think that’s what swung it in the end! Er, no it didn’t… The best thing about it is that it’s set in our time, in our world. It is nothing to do at all with our own royal family. There’s no hint of ‘Oh that’s a bit like Camilla’. It’s a completely clean slate. We just have to imagine our world but with a different royal family.”
Edwards heads an impressive, even regal cast in Henry IX, from Don Warrington (Rising Damp) and Annette Crosbie (One Foot in the Grave) to Pippa Haywood (Green Wing), Sally Phillips (Miranda) and Kara Tointon, who follows Edwards hotfoot from The Halcyon to play Serena, a Scottish florist and possible love interest for the already married King Henry.
“The cast is a testament to the strength of the script and the people who’ve written it,” says Edwards.
Although he’s a well-known face in television drama, Edwards has enjoyed comic outings, too. He played Michael Palin in BBC4’s brilliant biographical comedy Holy Flying Circus in 2011, a role he admits he was apprehensive about initially.
“When we all assembled for the read-through we were all very nervous. We were all thinking, ‘We’ve got to do our best Terry Jones or our best John Cleese.’ But it became clear the whole thing was so surreal that all you ended up needing to do was a peppering of them. The pressure was off to come up with a very accurate impersonation. The anarchy of the script [by Tony Roche] was in the Python spirit, and that’s what it was like to make it. It was really good fun.”
And he did get to meet Palin, though not until after Holy Flying Circus had aired. It was when Edwards was starring in The King’s Speech, about the future King George VI learning to cope with a stammer.
Originally conceived as a stage play, the story had a theatre run after the success of the 2010 film starring Colin Firth. Edwards takes up the story: “Michael has this Stuttering Centre, because his father had stuttered, and he played the Fish Called Wanda character with a stutter. So he came along to see the play out of interest and said, ‘Come and have a drink afterwards.’ And I had dinner with him and his wife and they had loved Holy Flying Circus. He says I’m better at playing him than he is!”
Edwards splits his time between TV, film and the stage because he enjoys the variety. “It’s very important. Often in stage work you perhaps get opportunities to play roles that maybe television wouldn’t cast you in. I do a lot of work in the National Theatre and the West End. Also you get a real buzz out of it. People say, ‘How can you do the same thing every night’ and it’s not, it’s never the same.”
Next up for Edwards is the role of Henry Higgins in a Melbourne production of the musical My Fair Lady, which is being directed by Julie Andrews. “I’ve never done a musical before. So that’s a challenge and I like a challenge, and things that are exciting like this.”
But before that he’ll finish filming The Terror, an American TV series based on the ill-fated 1845 expedition to the un-navigated Northwest Passage. “We’ve got a full version of the ship The Terror out in Budapest and I’ll be back on there in my surgeon’s apron.”