Derek Jacobi is slightly irritated to find he’s becoming a celebrity at the unlikely age of 76. “Yesterday Ian McKellen and I were filming Vicious on the streets of Hackney in east London, and this lady came by and said, ‘Ooh, ooh, you’re those celebrities!’” He sounds half-pleased, half-exasperated. “She didn’t refer to us as actors, we were ‘celebrities’, and that’s sort of what it’s become, I suppose. I haven’t yet been asked to be on The Graham Norton Show, but I don’t think I could do it. You have to perform, you have to have a kind of act, you have to be able to tell stories and jokes and all that carry-on. You know, I’d rather do almost anything than do that…”
Jacobi has been famous for decades, of course, but his long and illustrious career has tended to feature lots of classical theatre, with occasional, high-profile screen roles, often sporting a toga – Claudius in 1976’s I, Claudius, for instance, or senator Gracchus in Gladiator (2000). All that changed in 2012 when Sally Wainwright offered him the part of the irascible Alan Buttershaw in Last Tango in Halifax, playing opposite Anne Reid’s sprightly Celia Dawson. Few people expected a show about 70-somethings courting to win a best drama series Bafta or be the ratings smash Last Tango proved to be.
Jacobi followed this with Vicious, ITV’s sitcom about a theatrical gay couple bickering in their dilapidated flat. Suddenly, Jacobi is a primetime star and it clearly sits uneasily with him. “I don’t even like watching myself on TV,” he grumbles. “I didn’t see Claudius till about ten years after we’d done it. I hate the way I look and what I’m doing. I won’t watch Tango till we’ve finished it. I will watch it one day – probably in my extreme old age when I can’t move or speak,” and he riffs a little Shakespeare: “sans eyes, sans teeth…”
Although he’s still in rude health overall, earlier in 2014 he had a bad fall while on holiday at a lavish Maldives hotel with his partner Richard Clifford. “I ruptured the quadriceps tendons on both my knees and it was terribly painful,” he says cheerfully, though it’s hard not to wince. “Both my thighs weren’t attached to my lower legs so they had to drill through my knees and pull me together again. I was out of action for a long time. It was quite dramatic. There was no hospital on the island so they had to commandeer a speedboat to get me to one.
“It’s been just over nine months since the operation, and I’m bending and I’m walking, but I’m not back to normal yet because my knees hurt going up and down the stairs. It is a bit painful and I won’t be going back there in a hurry.” He shudders.
His recovery has been slow and coincided with filming the new series of Last Tango, which made it a struggle. “When we were doing Tango I couldn’t sit down or get up from a chair,” he grins. “You will see me go to sit in a chair, but then they cut… it became quite funny. I was laughing then yowling.”
Indeed, despite his many years in the job Jacobi can be prone to more than a little corpsing. Filming Vicious with his old friend Ian McKellen proved especially challenging. “I recently saw a TV bloopers programme with out-takes from various shows where things had gone wrong,” he recalls mischievously. “There were ten solid minutes of me and Ian getting it wrong: crying, falling over the furniture, whatever, you know, and it was very funny.”
He’s known Ian since they met at Cambridge in 1958, where McKellen had a crush on Derek. “I didn’t know anything about it,” he shrugs. “I found out years later. To be fair, I don’t think it was anything serious.” In the end McKellen got his man, if only on screen – the pair have been a couple for decades in Vicious, though not as harmoniously as Jacobi’s on-screen relationship with Anne Reid.
“The great thing about Tango,” he says, “is that it’s not just two people in their 70s meeting up again – it’s two people in their 70s in a lovely and sexual relationship, really getting on in there.” He gives a slightly dirty chuckle. “And nobody kind of turned a hair. It proved that old people can be as attractive and exciting and fun to be with as the kids.” And having such a camp, bitchy couple living together in Vicious in primetime proves how far we’ve come: “A long way from when I was young and things were very bad indeed for gay people,” says Jacobi. “I mean, Vicious is a bit of a Marmite sitcom – you love it or you loathe it. But enough people love it.”
Jacobi is keen to stress that, despite all his on-screen romances, he’s still very much a one-man guy. He’s been with actor Richard Clifford for 37 years and they registered their civil partnership in 2006 – although he’s ambivalent about gay marriage. “I’ve loved being in the partnership for 37 years, and that’s been great,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you call it. We don’t think of it as marriage, it’s a partnership.”
Despite his reluctance over his newfound TV fame, he agrees that his career owes a great deal to television. His first of many lucky breaks came when, as a young actor in a Birmingham repertory theatre, the BBC chose to broadcast a production he was starring in on the night that Laurence Olivier happened to lock himself out of his house. Olivier checked into a local hotel and caught Jacobi’s performance on TV.
“I think he took a shine to me – so when two years later he was looking for young talent for the National Theatre, he offered me a job and I stayed with him for the next seven years,” he beams. “Now, that’s luck.”
While performing at the Old Vic in London – the National’s first home back in the late 1960s – Jacobi had a chance encounter with Richard Burton that possibly inspired his suspicion of celebrity stardom. Burton came backstage after watching Jacobi in Hamlet and invited him out for dinner – but first he asked if he could stand on the stage again, where the schoolboy Jacobi had seen Burton himself play Hamlet.
“We stood on the deck, and he just wanted to talk about theatre, about Shakespeare,” Jacobi recalls. “He didn’t mention films or the glamour of Hollywood. He just wanted to rap about being a stage actor. He was picking my brains about acting now, just wanted to be a part of it all. It was very moving on many levels.”
It feels as if Jacobi is the same – wanting to be part of it, part of the Last Tango ensemble, messing about with Anne Reid and the rest of the cast, having a laugh on the set of Vicious with Ian McKellen and looking out for theatrical roles that come his way.
“Oh yes, absolutely,” he says firmly. “As long as everything’s still working, as long as I can still learn the lines, I’ll be working. I’ll never quite make my mind up to retire, you see? I’m a true Libran – I can never make a decision. I spend the whole time swinging in the middle.”
Then, realising what he’s just said, he gives a big guffaw. “Don’t print that, I beg you. What will people think?”
Last Tango in Halifax continues tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1