By Roberto Chuter
“If you’re an actor, even a successful one, you’re still waiting for the phone to ring.”
“My friends call me Pim!” is the line I always remember actor Richard Aspel delivering as Isadora Duncan’s sycophant friend in the elaborate stage production of “Isadora”. I can still hear his voice in my memory even today. Aspel’s voice is unique. His acting talent is highly accomplished and with the combination of both of these gifts Aspel’s career has covered virtually every aspect of the arts industry from docos, films, radio plays, stage, corporate, radio and TV advertisements to the French President and talking emus.
He has also recorded hundreds of audio books, winning several Audie awards. ‘Audiofiles’ review of “Can’t Buy Me Love” – a history of the Beatles, quoted: “Aspel’s splendid narration of the many lyrics pulls the listener back to the time of their creation with his almost crooning intonation”. Aspel laughs: “Everyone in Australia thinks I sound English, and everyone in England thinks I sound Australian!”.
The ubiquitous St. Kilda based actor, originally from England where he studied at the respected Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in South London has since built up a great respect from his peers together with a sturdy resume of work that is incomparable. Just some of his stage and screen work includes: “Entertaining Mr. Sloane”, “The Lion In Winter”, “La Dispute”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Playing Rock Hudson”, “Doctor Blakes Mysteries”, “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab”, “Howzat Kerry Packer’s War”, “Something in the Air”, “The Silver Brumby” and “In Too Deep”. And of course ,poorguy, he has done the usual actor’s rounds: “Neighbours”, “BlueHeelers” and all the rest.
I had so much I wanted to ask Aspel about his life and career and so, over a fine wine or two, I did:
How did you come to live here Richard?
I was born here. Well, no I wasn’t but I’d heard there were great pizzas. In truth, my parents had divorced in 1961 back in London leaving my mother, Dian, single with two young boys. She rather hastily married an older man who was a television writer on a show called: “The Adventures of The Seaspray” being filmed in Fiji. So, at the tender age of 6 [my brother Greg was 7] we ended up on the Fijian islands for 6 months which was great fun for two young lads . When filming ended we moved across to Australia where my mother’s husband had a house between Geelong and Torquay. I don’t remember much except not being able to understand a word anyone said and being mocked for not being able to swim. And thinking a thong was something you wore around your groin. Anyway, the marriage didn’t work and after a few months we’re back in olde London. Fast forward a few years – my mother meets another Englishman who is migrating to Australia for work and voila – off we head again for the month long boat trip to the land of OZ.
What did you do before you became an actor?
Climbed Mount Everest and broke the world land speed record. Which of course I didn’t do but the answer is nothing much really as acting was pretty well my first (and only?) profession. I did get suspended from school a few times though which I’m quite proud of but never managed to get expelled sadly.
How did you become an actor (or thespian as some describe)?
By a great stroke of misfortune. I took a gap year before going to university to study Law/Arts and spent the time traveling through England and Europe. During that time I stayed a great deal with my real father Michael Aspel OBE who was – and still is – a well known radio presenter and TV host on programs such as “Crackerjack”, “Aspel and Company” and “Antiques Roadshow”, etc. Through him I came into contact with some very colourful theatre characters and the seeds of a different life were sown. So I return to Australia to study and fall in love with student theatre. I think it was forlorn love for a gorgeous girl that got me into my first play. Anyway, I took to it like a bull in a china shop, dropped out of law and barely completed my arts degree as all my time was taken up with theatre. A couple of years later I went back to England to study drama at a theatre school and voila! I was suddenly unemployable and devoted to a lifetime of poverty.
Why do you do the work that you do?
What work? I’m an actor? Well, by the nature of the beast most actors have had to do a range of other shitty jobs through their careers just to live which only highlights the joy of acting. Why do I do it? Let me think. Because it’s the only thing that truly makes me feel alive. Really alive. Apart from The Ashes, a bottle (or bottles) of fine wine and a beautiful girl- but not necessarily in that order. There is something about acting that takes you to another place – you inhabit a different world – you escape the mundane and boring. What different world’s actors get to inhabit and what characters you get to play! It’s not always easy, far from it – fearlessness is essential, sometimes it can be emotionally wrenching but it sets you free. Not to mention the wonderful and extraordinary people you get to work with – but I won’t mention them. I do it because I simply couldn’t imagine ever doing anything else – apart from a well paid job. Me? A bank teller or public servant? I think not.
Your work seems to span all kinds of mediums – film, theatre, radio, Richard, can you tell us about these different mediums and why you chose to do this?.
And let’s not forget over 100+ audio books. Ah, the grand old days of radio plays – they were so much fun and you rubbed shoulders with old timers who still spoke like they had a rod up their arse. Well, they may well have. Mine not to ask. But they were fun – sadly now a thing of the past. I’ve always felt that my aim was to conquer nothing but to be mediocre in a host of fields. But really, as a pretty young actor in my day, if you weren’t snapped up by the soapies – the only way to survive was to be a jack of all trades. Every real actor’s love is the theatre but who’s going to say no to a juicy film or telly role? And voice work has quite frankly kept me from starving – my personal favourite, recording soft porn for the American audio market! That and recording telephone messages which is very exciting. But, to survive as an actor in Australia – you really must cast a wide net. And not throw back the little catch.
You have suffered a number of personal setbacks. Do you think these are explored subconsciously in your work?
Ooh, that’s a juicy one. Can I take the 5 minutes? Well, everyone has copped a bit (or a lot) in this life. I had a particularly bad run of losing my only brother, my closest pal, to cancer at the age of 30, my mother (she was a naughy and fun girl) following soon afterwards to a broken heart- smoking had nothing to do with it – and suffering my own bad marriage break up. But I was never sited to marriage really. I missed my mates at the pub. And yet strangely losing my beloved 19 year old Jack Russell Cleo was as hard as anything, heartbreaking – the love that asks no questions. But do I channel it? I don’t think you can help but channel it. Everybody is defined by their experiences and emotions regardless of their profession. I certainly don’t believe you have to starve in a garret to be an artist – hell, I’ve done that often enough. But you simply can’t argue with the fact that emotional experiences , whilst sometimes terribly depressing can only add to the tapestry of self that you have to call on. Doesn’t mean you know thyself – doesn’t make you a happier person but it’s in the register and filed away. As to negatives in my work – where do I begin? Poverty, depression, drinking, rejection, missing out on a great role when you’re down to the final two – nothing is worse than that. Not even haemorrhoids. Long periods of unemployment – doubting yourself, questioning your raison d’etre. Feeling as miserable as shit. But, the next good gig returns you to the land of the angels. Are you listening my agent?
What have been some of the great things in your work? Other than a fine wine and/or a beautiful woman?
None. Okay, meeting some beautiful women. All night cast parties… Next question please. I think for me it’s all about personal changes. I was a bit of a jock at school – captain of the rugby team, destined to study law and end up a boring fart. I’m still a boring fart but not a well paid lawyer fart. But enrichment and meeting people and opening one’s mind. I remember back in the late 80s doing a BBC series of “The Lenny Henry Show” as one of the few white cast members. Set in a pirate radio station – great fun. I’d kind of grown up in London but had no idea at all of “Black London”. I became good pals with (stand-up comedian, actor, singer) Lenny but more so with his offsider actor Vas Blackwood. They showed me a black London I’d never seen- let alone knew existed. And I was richer for that. So I guess the people I’ve met and the emotional journey of discovery. Mind you, along that path there are a lot of utter… twats.
Which people or what inspires you to work in the arts?
Well, I guess I was lucky meeting so many “ famous “ people through Michael, my dad and therefore have never had much of a hero worship thing. I remember watching “Heat” (the first film Pacino and De Niro had ever appeared in together} and debating who won the acting accolades. Who did I go for? I went Pacino – he went De Niro. He was wrong. But inspiration? I’m more inspired by writers than actors for example. I mean I don’t even like Meryl Streep (who does?). And Daniel Day Lewis is as mad as a hatter but a genius – I loved Katie Hepburn and Hitchcock deserved an Oscar and Kubrick deserved his. But inspired? There are so many..
What have been your favourite achievements to date?
Quite frankly staying alive. But I do have to include 26 weeks spent on a Greek Island over 2 years shooting a children’s adventure series. Maybe it wasn’t great and I certainly wasn’t but what a job, what fun and what a beautiful French girl. Mind you I’ll never share a house with the camera department again. Nor ride my motorbike off a cliff the day we arrived. But such things make life worthwhile. Going back a couple of years ago to the very wonderful “The Death of Peter Pan” at the Universal Theatre. To this day I do not believe I’ve worked with a more talented cast or been prouder of a production – beautifully cinematic vignettes and heart searing performances – all under the guiding hand of a visionary director. And, strangely enough a performance as Alan Strang in the wonderful “Equus” when just a lad. But I’m old now – sooo old!
What are you currently working on?
Well, quite frankly that’s just rude! You never ask an actor that question. To be honest a piece in progress called: “ Watching My Belly Fluff Grow”. It’s bound to be a hit without a doubt. Sigh – things are quiet – the life of an actor. I’ve guest cameoed in a couple of great new feature films: “Lilith” and “A Beautiful Request”, and I’m also sporadically shooting a web series spoof on Sherlock Holmes. It’s very funny. I play Dr. Watson, of course, and quite frankly I am simply delightful. Some would say even wondrous… some. Apart from that just generally annoy people.
If you hadn’t become an actor what path would you have followed?
Well, definitely a straighter and narrower one and one paved with gold. There was a time I considered law – barristers they say are just frustrated actors or vice-versa. True. But I have yet to meet a lawyer from my youth who has not become a pompous prick. I’ve managed that without being a lawyer. Journalism was second though, but I doubt I have the intellectual rigueur, although with some clever wit perhaps… I did think of becoming a school teacher (teaching drama?) as I love kids – but the older I get steamed and not fried. Or a radio announcer which I did for a year in my youth and was paid to annoy people. That’s pretty perfect. But no regrets, no tears – goodbye, I am who and what I am and so be it. Acting is my thing. Okay – a lawyer. Or maybe a connoisseur chicken pie maker…
Tell us a funny story or a joke that involves your work or life?
Many years ago when I was young and attractive – yes it’s true – at least the young part and still playing soccer ( I prefer to call it football) I was also recording an animation series. Both were on Saturday. But timing was tight so I’d rush straight to the recording studio still in my shorts and top and plastered in buckets of sweat. One of my characters was Baby Wombat – yes, it’s true- whose scenes were mainly with Papa Wombat. So we would squeeze into this tiny, tiny studio to record – me smelling like a piece of ripe gorgonzola. And Papa Wombat was an older and very gay actor. Hard to record when your armpits are being constantly sniffed with little grunts of delight. Such is the world of theatre. How many tales could I tell – such as taking the voluptuous blonde and rather thick Polish table top dancer to an awards night for audio books and, in the middle of an important speech she says at the top of her voice: “Why is the fat man so boring?’’ We didn’t have a second date. Such is my tale. Don’t put your daughter on the stage but It’s been fun though many arduous journeys. Take a bow, God bless and goodnight – you’ve been a fabulous audience. Now back to belly fluff gazing.
I left Aspel sitting on a bar stool staring into his empty glass and wondered what he was thinking about walking home. But there was one thing I really thought about – Richard Aspel is a St. Kilda original, a St. Kilda personality – witty, talented, clever, annoying, drunken, loveable but most of all a man of deep humanity, of warmth, of generosity and when the chips are down, with no end in sight, Aspel just knows it – guess who materialises in front of your eyes? In your front door? Aspel with his consoling company, his homemade chicken pies and some fine wine in both hands.