Toby Jones on new film version of cult TV Dad’s Army

Toby Jones. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
Toby Jones. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown
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HAVING added Captain Mainwaring to his growing legion of memorable characters, Toby Jones reveals his battle of nerves with each new role, writes Janet Christie

WE SIMPLY can’t get enough of Toby Jones. About to hit cinemas in the remake of Dad’s Army as Captain Mainwaring, this year he’s also in a mixture of big and small screen offerings including Anthropoid, The Secret Agent, Alice Through The Looking Glass and Morgan, while last year saw The Coolest City, Capital, Detectorists, By Ourselves and Tale Of Tales. His back catalogue of 20 plus films includes Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, numerous TV shows and theatre. Sorry to list, but Toby Jones is a busy man.

Toby Jones (left) as Captain Mainwaring in the film version of Dad's Army. Picture: Contributed

Toby Jones (left) as Captain Mainwaring in the film version of Dad's Army. Picture: Contributed

If you’ve seen any of the above, you’ll know that whether he’s the lead or a supporting character, he brings something unique and absorbing to every single performance. He out-Capote-ed Philip Seymour Hoffman in Infamous and out-Hitchcocked Sir Anthony Hopkins in The Girl, and his voice will always be that of Dobby, the House Elf, in Harry Potter.

But it’s a very different voice that greets me down the phone in the middle of his busy Dad’s Army promotional schedule. It’s not Capote, Hitchcock, the spun-glass coiffured Hunger Games announcer Claudius Templesmith, or even Captain Mainwaring, but it immediately draws me in.

“Can you do something for me?,” it says. “Hold the phone very close to your mouth. Speak right into the phone mouthpiece.”

“Secret agent style?” I say. It’s a bad line, but I feel I am getting into character.

It’s good if things remain tricky in life, because that helps define who we ae. Otherwise you disappear into the sofa

Toby Jones

“Yes, secret agent style. Exactly like that. Yes, that’s better.”

Immediately we’re back to 1944, with the Allies about to make their big push with the invasion of mainland Europe. Spies are at large and I’m wondering if I’d suit my hair in Victory rolls and if he knows where I can get a pair of nylons.

In the remake of the 1970s TV sitcom that attracted 18 million viewers at its height and still has two million tuning in to the re-runs, Captain Mainwaring’s Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard is on the fringes of the war effort until MI5 discovers a radio signal transmitting to Berlin. With a spy in their midst and a glamorous journalist keen to write about the Home Guard, could Mainwaring’s men finally make a difference to the war effort?

So why did Jones agree to be in the big screen remake of the beloved TV classic, with its catchphrases of “Don’t panic”, “Stupid boy!”, “They don’t like it up ’em”, and most popular of all, the perennial “We’re doomed” from joyfully morose Scots undertaker Private Fraser, played this time round by Bill Paterson?

“One’s first instinct, when there’s a remake of something that is so fondly remembered and is still on now, is don’t go near that because it doesn’t need it. But the screenwriter is a very good friend of mine, whom I worked with on The Play What I Wrote [a celebration of another British comedy classic, The Morecambe & Wise Show], and when I read his script and heard who they were thinking about for the other parts, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to act with them.”

The ensemble cast includes Bill Nighy, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Blake Harrison, Danny Mays and Catherine Zeta-Jones and is written by Hamish McColl, who wrote Johnny English Reborn and Mr Bean’s Holiday, and produced by Damian Jones of The Iron Lady and The History Boys.

“Their track record speaks for itself and any doubts I had were allayed by the fact they were involved. Also the situations with the platoon honoured the original and had a scale that was appropriate to a movie, so it’s a new version. The catchphrases are there, but slid in unexpectedly, or played with in some way.”

So not so much a repetition, more of a homage and progression then. As for his own performance, Jones avers that it’s impossible to judge. He’s not one for sitting down and watching himself.

“It’s hard to assess what I have done. It is Captain Mainwaring and it isn’t him at the same time, and that’s what I was trying to do. He’s pleasing to play because he’s funny in all the ways you’d expect: pompous, pretentious, a bit of a snob, accident prone, short-sighted, all of those comedy things, but when you extrapolate out a character from half an hour to 90 minutes, you see more. He gets up time after time, is indefatigable, and that characteristic has a certain nobility to it. There’s something touching about him in our version and I find that appealing because it gives space for the character to exist beyond the original.”

If the Second World War was one step removed for Jones’s generation – the actor turns 50 this year – it’s even more distant for some of today’s cinema audience, more au fait with The Hunger Games than the Home Guard.

“The film has to explain, and also entertain those who do understand, and I think it does this quite elegantly – smuggles an explanation into comedy and plot.”

“Everyone watched Dad’s Army when I was young. There wasn’t much choice on the telly and we were watching it with grandparents who were involved in the Second World War. For my generation that had a poignancy, reminded us how close to the war that time was. My grandmother was an actress who performed for the troops and my grandfather served in Burma, but he wouldn’t talk about the war. He was silent about those events.”

We talk a bit about that generation who habitually took their trauma unspoken to the grave and were prepared to endure astonishing hardships as well as make the ultimate sacrifice. Is it possible to communicate that to a generation who can’t make it through a screening without guzzling buckets of popcorn and mainlining fizzy drinks?

“Well, it’s staggering,” says Jones, “the idea that you’re going to hand over your life for an idea, for the greater good. We understand it theoretically, but it’s very hard for us to imagine doing it now.”

For what cause would Jones hand his life over?

“Oh! That’s a complicated question,” he says, then gamely addresses it. “Radiating out from my wife and children, probably less and less these days, diminishing returns as I get older. It’s very easy when you’re young to think there’s a lot of things you would do that for, but as I get older, I’m sceptical and can’t imagine the circumstances under which I would go and fight for my country.”

Jones’ family includes his wife Karen, whom he recently married after 25 years together, and two children, Madeleine 14, and Holly, 12. He grew up in an acting family – his mother, Jennie Heslewood, was an actress and his father is Freddie Jones, who has over 50 years of screen and stage credits including the baleful ringmaster in The Elephant Man, and is currently in Emmerdale at the age of 88.

Brought up in Surrey and Oxfordshire, Jones went to Manchester University to study drama, then physical theatre at the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, where he learnt mime and clowning. With the unspoken more important than the spoken, this is surely where he laid the foundations of what makes him so fascinating to watch on screen today.

“I learnt an awful lot there,” he says. “It was fascinating, inspiring, integrating words with movement and trying to physically transform yourself. And then we change as people. I’m sure my acting came on in leaps and bounds when I became a father, when I played a lead. Actors dream of opportunities to extend themselves and that feeds back into their work. Actors who don’t want to extend themselves – that’s worrying.”

Jones started off in bit parts, like Julia Roberts’ stalker in Notting Hill. That wound up on the cutting room floor and he wrote a play about the experience, Missing Reel, that he performed in Edinburgh. Then came his big break with Infamous in 2006, where he played a lisping Truman Capote to great acclaim, following it up with the likes of Frost/Nixon, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the Captain America films. There are numerous TV roles too, including The Girl, his film about Hitchcock, which saw him nominated for a Golden Globe, the BBC’s Bafta-winning Marvellous about Stoke City’s kitman Neil Baldwin, and the BBC Four television series Detectorists with Mackenzie Crook.

Amassing 20-plus films since his appearance in Orlando in 1992, along with stage and TV work, Jones is prolific. Is that because he says yes to everything, fearful of taking his foot off the accelerator when the offers come in?

“I would rather be working than not working and I would rather be getting good projects,” he says. “If one comes along, you take it because next year there might not be so many good scripts. You might be making a huge mistake, you don’t know, but you make your decisions and then live with them.”

As for what casting directors see in the incredibly versatile Jones, who has made a name for himself playing characters as well as real people, like Capote and Hitchcock, Hogarth and Blake, he’s at a loss to say, finding it hard to pin down what it is that he does.

“It’s not in my hands, that’s the strange thing about my job. You hear actors talking about why they’re doing things, and I have absolutely no idea why. My sole criteria is if the script is offering new ways or opportunities to explore a new area, I’ll do it. But why me and not anyone else? I don’t know,” he says.

“Understanding why is not something I’m sure I want to do. I can be Captain Mainwaring, but I will never be Arthur Lowe. Each job is different. Most start off the week before shooting with a feeling of absolute terror. I’m going to be found out. They’ve got the wrong guy!”

His voice shoots up in pitch as he speaks and his nerves crackle down the phone line.

“But that’s as it should be,” he continues calmly. “This way you avoid being complacent.”

When it comes to dealing with his pre-shooting meltdowns, does Jones turn to his wife for sympathy or advice?

“No, she’s got her own meltdowns being a criminal defence barrister,” he says, and laughs, making it clear which profession he regards as the more onerous. “But there’s a necessary sense of trying to find a neutral position to start the next character from, to create something unique. But it doesn’t get any easier. It’s good if things remain tricky in life, because that helps define who we are. Otherwise you disappear into the sofa.”

Jones needn’t bother looking to his children for counselling either, because despite his unease about the red carpet treatment and the attention actors get, they take it all with the nonchalance of the adolescent.

“My children are indifferent to all of it. I may have given voice to Dobby, but for them, that’s when dad was away for a few days. It means something completely different to them.”

Despite Jones’ prolific past record, and acclaimed leading man roles, there have been disparaging allusions to his appearance, which rather miss the point. The very fact that he isn’t 6ft 4in and chisel-jawed, but 5ft 5in with an aureole of flyaway hair, a broad forehead and hugely expressive eyes has in fact played to his advantage.

“I always say there’s only one 6ft 4in chisel-jawed person part, which means many more parts for everyone else. And they’re hard parts to play. Harrison Ford is so popular because he has something of the character actor about him as a leading man. There’s some anxiety, irony, cynicism in his eyes, as well as that essential ‘of course I can’.”

With Dad’s Army in the can Jones is preparing for the film adaptation of Nordic Noir writer Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, with Michael Fassbender.

“Tomas Alfredson [the director] asked me to do a cameo in it. I’m very happy to play very small parts in good projects with really good scripts because the director or story is interesting to me. When you play the lead and are carrying the story, if you keep doing that back to back, you become time poor and it’s exhausting to have that on every single film. You’re lucky to be offered that opportunity, but it takes a lot out of you to do a film.”

There are film projects in the pipeline that Jones can’t discuss yet, but he is excited to talk about a radio play by Gogol that he’s in this month, in the role of a politician who loses a part of his body every time he lies.

He also stars in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, with its relevant terror plot, filmed in Edinburgh last autumn, with the city standing in for 19th century London.

“I really enjoyed that, was blown away by Edinburgh,” he says. “We filmed in the New Town and at a stately home just outside. And it wasn’t as cold as it looks!” he says, bubbling over with the enthusiasm he obviously feels for his job.

“The thing I love most about my job is the unexpected encounters with projects and people that it throws up. It’s an amazingly privileged position. You work by being surprised. It’s a great gift and when work is inconvenient and you have to leave the family, or you’re waiting around while making a film, you have to remember the immense bonus of the rejuvenating qualities of these surprises and encounters with texts and people.”

With a birthday milestone beckoning, what advice does Jones have for his 50-year-old self, given that he contributed to a book of letters by celebrities to their 16-year-old selves. His advice to Toby Jones the teenager was to stop being so earnest and to go and see the Clash. So what would he say to the man he has become?

“Wow!” Long pause. “No, wow’s not what I would say. I’d say ‘stay curious’. It’s important to stay involved, to play. Don’t take yourself too seriously, don’t be theoretical, be practical.

“When I was 16 I wanted to change injustice and the ghost of that lives on and the spirit lives on. I loved the world of ideas and this is a variation of that. There’s no point to it on one level. I don’t do pollarding, mining, joinery, grow food, any of these things there’s a point to, but I’m part of a diversion industry and I’m very lucky to be part of that. It’s a great social function. I didn’t realise, but what I enjoy is to examine behaviour.”

And who would this versatile character actor like to see play him in the film of his life if such a thing were to come about?

“I don’t know!” he says, panicked. “You can’t just throw these things in!” Then he regroups and gives it some thought. “They’re all dead, the people who would play me,” he says.

I’m about to ask him to name them anyway when he catches me unawares:

“I know! What about Keith Chegwin?”

Perfect. Or what about Jones playing Cheggers? If anyone ever did make a biopic of the Multicoloured Swap Shop star and recovering alcoholic, Toby Jones would nail it.

• Dad’s Army is on general release from Friday