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Lindsay, Robert (1949-)


Main image of Lindsay, Robert (1949-)

The theatre and the musical stage have been far more perceptive in employing the talents of Robert Lindsay than has British television. One of the great underused TV actors, he has spread himself across various small screen genres with only a handful of peaks-of-performance to mark his passing. The bafflingly popular domestic sitcom My Family (BBC, 2002-) may be seen as something of triumph etched on a tombstone.

The Thames TV sitcom Get Some In! (ITV, 1975-78) was his big break in TV. In the vein of brash service comedies like Carry On Sergeant (d. Gerald Thomas, 1958) and ITV's The Army Game (1957-61), its setting was an RAF training camp during the post-war period of national service, and it provided Lindsay with an opportunity to excel as a cockney wide boy with a persuasive line of patter.

He left in 1977 to become the inept urban revolutionary Wolfie Smith in John Sullivan's well-liked Citizen Smith (BBC, 1977-80). Played with touching exuberance, the role allowed him to perfect a character with fragile self-confidence masquerading as bravado while seducing the audience with deranged charm. His timing here was impeccable, and he sometimes scored with lines that were a good deal less than witty.

Wolfie's popularity opened other avenues, too. Producer Cedric Messina's ambitious and hugely rewarding presentations of BBC Television Shakespeare productions (spanning 1978 to 1985) saw Lindsay's RADA study finally come to fruition in adaptations of Twelfth Night (tx. 6/1/1980), All's Well That Ends Well (tx. 4/1/1981), Cymbeline (tx. 10/7/1983) and Much Ado About Nothing (tx. 22/12/1984). In 1983 he played the villainous Edmund opposite Olivier in Granada TV's King Lear (Channel 4, tx. 3/4/1983).

That he won the BAFTA best actor award for his megalomaniac left-wing council leader in Alan Bleasdale's surreal political drama G.B.H. (Channel 4, 1991) should have been of little surprise. He played with all the stops out, creating an extraordinary, unrealistic, chimerical figure as Michael Murray; prancing, twitching, anarchic and unrepressed. In the end, a tragic, corrupt figure destroyed by his own past, Murray succumbed to a writhing, wailing mental disintegration as events around him spiralled out of control. This may well have been Lindsay at his television finest.

The irregular role of the old seadog Captain Pellew, grimacing with telescope-to-eye, in the often exciting Hornblower (ITV, 1998-2003) gave him too little to do. On the other hand, the short-run Jericho (ITV, 2005), a police detective drama set in an unglamorous 1950s London with Lindsay as the psychologically overburdened film noir hero, over-reached the character's possibilities. From the grainy immediacy of the streets, cars, shop windows to the off-focus shots of Jericho's panic in his personal life, touching off the details of fear and guilt, there was always a thread of colour that kept one watching.

In its early days, the seemingly perennial comedy series My Family (BBC, 2002-) used his talent for nervous confidence mixed with resigned defeat to great effect, even while its production team of think-tank writers strained for a new twist in the US-style sitcom formula. Lindsay, an anything-for-an-easy-life dentist, and co-star Zoë Wanamaker as his screwball wife had their work cut out for them. This exceptionally unfunny comedy makes it very hard to understand what, on any level, has contributed to its popularity. A formal dinner party episode, not by any means devoid of farcical possibilities, was so appallingly mishandled that it emerged as an almost classic example of how not to amuse while apparently trying. It is Wanamaker who, even with her boisterous characterisation, steals the show through sheer personality and an ability to make a mediocre line sound like a pearl of humour.

It is interesting that his singular skill for portraying controlled panic created two amusing roles as Prime Minister Tony Blair: in A Very Social Secretary (Channel 4, tx.20/10/2005) and The Trial of Tony Blair (More4, tx. 15/1/2007). Made by the team behind the 2005 programme, The Trial of Tony Blair was a satire that speculated whether the former Prime Minister, at some future date, could end up being tried for war crimes in Iraq. In spite of the enormous odds against it, all the old jokes come off again quite well (Alexander Armstrong's testy David Cameron, Peter Mullan's dour Gordon Brown, Phoebe Nicholls' airhead Cherie), while Lindsay is forced to give a relatively sedate performance because he is given no opportunity for invention.

Tise Vahimagi

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of That'll Be The Day (1973)That'll Be The Day (1973)

David Essex is teen rebel Jim Maclaine in this 1950s rock'n'roll fable

Thumbnail image of All's Well That Ends Well (1981)All's Well That Ends Well (1981)

Visually striking BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

Thumbnail image of Citizen Smith (1977-80)Citizen Smith (1977-80)

Robert Lindsay stars as Wolfie Smith, the Che Guevara of Tooting

Thumbnail image of Cymbeline (1983)Cymbeline (1983)

BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

Thumbnail image of G.B.H. (1991)G.B.H. (1991)

Alan Bleasdale's ambitious satire about corrupt Northern politics

Thumbnail image of King Lear (1983)King Lear (1983)

Laurence Olivier's farewell to screen Shakespeare

Thumbnail image of My Family (2000-)My Family (2000-)

Long-running sitcom about a dentist's fractious relationship with his family

Thumbnail image of Nightingales (1990-93)Nightingales (1990-93)

Underrated, often bizarre sitcom about a trio of security guards

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