Robert's happy to be scary in comic role
HIS piercing blue eyes have gazed out from our screens as everyone from Jesus Christ (in Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, for which he was nominated for a Bafta in 1977) to a bumbling comic detective alongside his real-life good friend and golfing partner, Jasper Carrott.
But for his latest stage role as Sir Lancelot Spratt in hilarious stage comedy Doctor in the House, actor Robert Powell is adopting a stern gaze of steely grey, which he dolefully directs at his hapless student doctor charges.
"He's a pretty scary character," laughs Robert, who will appear in the role at the Theatre Royal Plymouth for Monday to Saturday next week .
"He plainly strikes fear into all the young student doctors, and he's a fantastic character to play.
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"We're having great fun with the tour, and the audiences seem to love it, especially Joe Pasquale, who plays one of the older students who leads the inexperienced young medical student Simon Sparrow awry."
The play is taken from the original Doctor In the House novel, written in 1952 by former real-life surgeon Richard Gordon, based on his own anecdotes and experiences of pre-war medical school.
The subsequent Doctor in the House film made a star of Dirk Bogarde, and was the most popular box office film of 1954, spawning six follow-ups and a hugely popular TV series in the 1970s, starring Barry Evans and Robin Nedwell.
So is Robert basing his Sir Lancelot on the highly irascible and hugely scary character so memorably portrayed by James Robertson Justice in the 1954 movie?
"I suppose I must have seen the film, although I really can't recall it, nor, I have to admit, did I watch the 70s TV sitcom," he says, somewhat surprisingly. "So no, I'm certainly not drawing inspiration from James Robertson Justice. But I think I'm being pretty scary."
Actor Robert is not unknown, of course, for stalking hospital corridors. For six years he played Holby City boss Mark Williams, before leaving the popular series in January last year.
He left, he says, because he felt being in a long-running soap was a bit "too cosy". He then went straight into a tour of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, a demanding role, as it is virtually a one-man show.
"If you're not scared then it's not worth doing," he said at the time. "I like to terrify myself every now and then."
Married to former Pan's People dancer Babs Lord, the couple have two children, now both in their 30s. They did not follow their father into acting. "They've got much more sense," he laughs.
Another famous role for Lancashire-born Robert came again in the 70s, when in 1978 he took the leading role of Richard Hannay in the third film version of The Thirty Nine Steps.
Looking back over his long and distinguished career, is there anything that the 67-year-old would still like to do? And does he prefer comedy to straight acting?
"I think I'm a character actor, who prefers comedy," he says. "I do love comedy, although I find it the hardest of all. Having said that, maybe I should have concentrated a bit more on building up my classical credentials. I started off in Hamlet, and I love playing Shakespeare roles. Perhaps I should have done more.
"At least I've never been pigeon-holed – but is that a good thing, or bad, I wonder? It might not be a good thing to duck and dive so much... young casting directors are just not sure what you do. I suspect anyone under 40 who saw me in The Detectives thinks I'm a northern stand-up comic."
If he were, he would undoubtedly be a brilliant one.