From Edinburgh University lecturer to Star Wars hero, actor returns to unlock King's Theatre

It was Star Wars that changed Oliver Ford Davies' life. Accepting the role of Sio Bibble, governor of Theed on the planet Naboo, won him a global following, just as his friend, Ian McDiarmid, had warned him it would.

Oliver Ford Davies in Star Wars as Sio Bibble
Oliver Ford Davies in Star Wars as Sio Bibble

Likewise, his experiences after appearing in The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith prepared him for the attention that his Game of Thrones' role, that of Maester Cressen, brought him some years later.

Now 81, Ford Davies returns to the Capital next week to star in A Splinter of Ice, the first piece of live theatre to be staged with an audience in any of the city's four main theatres. It's a big moment for the actor who last trod the boards here in the Capital.

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"I was actually last on stage with a production of Peter Gynt for the National Theatre. We came to the Festival in 2019 and played the Festival Theatre," he reveals, "So it's wonderful to be back on stage and returning to Edinburgh as, very understandably, the King's Theatre has been uncertain for some weeks about whether A Splinter of Ice would go ahead."

Oliver Ford Davies, who lectured at Edinburgh University between 1964 and 1966

A spy thriller set in Moscow, 1987, the play charts a meeting between novelist Graham Greene, played by Ford Davies, and his old MI6 boss, the traitorous Kim Philby, played by The Crown's Stephen Boxer. Under the watchful eye of Rufa, Kim’s last wife, the two men set about catching up on old times. How much did the writer of The Third Man know about Philby’s secret life as a spy?

If Ford Davies' face is a familiar to Star Wars and Game of Throne fans all over the world, it is also well kent to a generation of Edinburgh students as, before becoming an actor at the age of 27, he was an academic, spending from 1964 to 1966 lecturing in History at Edinburgh University.

"From 1964 to 1966 I was an assistant lecturer in history at the university," he recalls. "I shared a flat in Abercromby Place, the first crescent built in Edinburgh's New Town. I wouldn't be able to afford it now. I had a teaching room in the Old College, which I think is now the Law department."

It was while teaching here that he made the life changing decision to follow his dream and take to the stage.

Oliver Ford Davies and Stephen Boxer in A Splinter of Ice

He explains, "I was set on this academic path. Then to my surprise I got the Edinburgh job. Three weeks into that I had what I call my 'Damascene moment' where I thought, 'This isn't what I want to do with my life'. I saw the next 40 years where I might never leave Edinburgh; why would you want to leave Edinburgh? Indeed, a number of contemporaries who started at the same time did remain in Edinburgh University for 40 years, however, though I loved teaching and history, I really wanted to be an actor.

"I talked it through with a very sympathetic professor called Dennis Hay and he said, 'If you leave it you'll maybe get a mortgage, maybe you'll start a family and then you won't go. If I were you, I'd go pretty soon if you want to. If it doesn't work out I'll try and find you a job back here. So I stayed two years and then went into the theatre."

It's a decision that he's never really regretted, although he admits, "There have been times when I have been out of work or doing what I call 'mere rubbish' and thought life would have been much more worthwhile had I been a teacher like my father, but when I meet my old colleagues they say, 'No, I think you made the right decision'."

All through his short academic career, however, Ford Davies' love of performance was never far away. He fondly recalls early appearances on the Fringe with the Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Company, who he is delighted to discover are still in existence.

Oliver Ford Davies as Maester Cressen in Game of Thrones

"I did a number of productions with the Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group, we used to do productions in Adam House, Chambers Street, where I directed The Cherry Orchard and The Relapse. I have very happy memories of that.

"Actually, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, I came to the Fringe in 1961 and 1962. We played in Cranston Street Hall, off the Royal Mile, which belonged to the Parks & Burials Department - they stopped allowing us to use it as a theatre venue many decades ago. I remember we came with a very interesting political play called Songs For An Autumn Rifle, about the clash of the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian uprising put down by the Russians, and an absurdist play by Adamov called Paolo Paoli.

"In 1964, our group, The Oxford Theatre Group, came with the very first production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which lots of other people had turned down, and I saw that at Cranston Street. When the Observer on Sunday called it the best theatrical debut in nine years since John Arden, the National Theatre gobbled it up. Faced with a cancelled production at the Old Vic Theatre, they put it on with a minimum budget for 25 performances and it became this great success. So you never know what's going to happen.”

It won't be the first time Ford Davies has played The King's either, in 1974 he starred in The School for Scandal but it is Star Wars for which he is best known today, Sio Bibble being a role that follows him around.

He laughs, "I was warned that the autograph hunters will never go away; you're doing a wet matinee in Darlington and there are two at the stage door. It's been the same on this tour, so it stays with you and, of course, it was the prequels I did, so because there hadn't been a Star Wars for some time there was enormous expectation of this particular film."

Sounding slightly bemused, he adds, "I remember being told that when the trailer was shown in New York there were queues around the block, simply to see the trailer."

He was equally bemused by his death scene in Game of Thrones, he confesses, "My character decided that the only way I could get rid of this young priestess called Melisandre was to put poison in a loving cup, which we would both drink. So we did this and blood came out of my mouth and I died... but she didn't. So between takes I said to her, 'Why don't you die?' and she said, 'I'm 400 years old', and I thought, 'Oh silly me, I should have checked, you can't poison somebody who is 400 years old.' "

A Splinter of Ice, King's Theatre, Leven Street, July 13-17, 7.30pm, (Matinees Wednesday & Saturday, 2.30pm), tickets from £18.50, https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/a-splinter-of-ice

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