For someone so famous, Nicholas Lyndhurst is remarkably shy. ‘You can hide in plain sight,’ says the co-star of Only Fools And Horses, still instantly recognisable as the hapless plonker Rodney, even after all these years. ‘It can be done. I get the train every day but I’m not bothered by anyone. I wear my cap.’
It’s a trick he picked up in the Nineties – when Only Fools drew audiences of 20 million and more – from David Jason, who played his wheeler-dealer brother Del Boy.
‘David had a pork pie hat and sunglasses and I had a baseball cap and sunglasses. It obviously worked, because one day in Bristol we walked right past one another in the street!’
Nicholas Lyndhurst is remarkably shy. ‘You can hide in plain sight,’ says the actor, still instantly recognisable as the hapless plonker Rodney, even after all these years
Lyndhurst still takes the same precautions, not because he doesn’t like people but because he is so intensely private. ‘I adore being an actor, but I didn’t especially want to be famous. The thing about fame is that you can’t turn it off when it doesn’t suit you. When you’re not in the mood. When you’re busy. That doesn’t stop the next person coming up to you.’
Is his need to disguise himself just normal actorly shenanigans, or does it run deeper than that? ‘Unfortunately, there is a shyness,’ he says. ‘I often find myself in the canteen with the rest of the guys here, but I am reluctant to start a conversation. I’m not super-confident when it comes to breaking the ice.’
We’re at a rehearsal space in north London, where Lyndhurst and a large cast are preparing for a project that seems a surprising choice for him: six weeks at the London Coliseum in the musical Man Of La Mancha, with Kelsey Grammer, star of Frasier and Cheers. ‘I pinch myself every morning because I am going to work with Kelsey Grammer. It’s outstanding. I’ve admired him for decades. I’ve seen everything he’s done,’ says Lyndhurst.
Hang on though: Frasier was great, but Only Fools And Horses has been voted the best British sitcom of all time. Lyndhurst followed it with the time-travelling Goodnight Sweetheart, which was also hugely popular. Grammer is a giant of TV comedy in America, but isn’t the same true of Lyndhurst here? ‘I really don’t see that,’ he says, smiling apologetically. “My wife gets cross with me. She says: “You don’t get it, do you? You don’t see what other people see.” Bless their hearts.’
That’s not just false modesty – he really doesn’t get it. Not in his heart. Today he’s wearing baggy cargo pants and a pale blue shirt loose over a white T-shirt. He speaks more like a theatre-school boy than Rodney’s barrow boy. The hair is greyer and thinner at 57, but it still hugs the long, wry, soulful face. Lyndhurst dropped out of public sight for a while when his son Archie was born 18 years ago, cutting back on work and living with his wife Lucy in the same West Sussex village by the sea where he had been raised. He has returned in recent years for carefully chosen projects such as the Only Fools and Goodnight Sweetheart specials in 2014 and 2016, and the detective series New Tricks, but interviews are rare and this is his first in nearly four years.
‘I can’t bear watching myself. I don’t watch anything I make, though obviously I was there when it was being recorded,’ says Lyndhurst
Nicholas Lyndhurst, second from left, with the cast of Only Fools And Horses
He still avoids public events like the plague. ‘I understand they want us to do the red- carpet thing, but if you could see my toes inside my highly polished shoes, they are absolutely curling up in horror. Every joint in my body is clenched.’
This really bothers him. ‘I’ve tried to say to myself: “Just enjoy it. Relax.” But I can’t. I’m just that way I suppose. People say: “You can’t be shy and be in this business.” That’s not true for all of us. I don’t have many actor friends but the few I do have are naturally shy.’
So how does he perform? ‘By getting into character. I couldn’t possibly go onto the stage at the London Coliseum as Nick Lyndhurst. Not in a million years.’ He laughs. ‘Providing I can go on as a character, that’s great.’
Lyndhurst found stardom as the teenage Adam in the Carla Lane sitcom Butterflies, which made him first choice for Rodney when writer John Sullivan came to make Only Fools in 1981. The show ran for seven series and 15 specials, but Lyndhurst reveals that, while he’s seen bits and pieces, he’s never watched it properly.
‘I can’t bear watching myself. I don’t watch anything I make, though obviously I was there when it was being recorded.’
Only Fools And Horses Scriptwriter John Sullivan (left) and Roger Lloyd-Pack (Trigger)
Lyndhurst with Andrew Hall, Geoffrey Palmer and Wendy Craig in TV sitcom Butterflies, 1979
Lyndhurst in character for Man Of La Mancha. Lyndhurst plays the leading prisoner, who also becomes an innkeeper
But there’s another, more poignant reason why he won’t watch those old episodes now: his sorrow at the loss of so many members of the Only Fools cast, including Sullivan and actor Roger Lloyd-Pack, who played Trigger. ‘I can’t watch it now. I don’t want to see friends who are no longer with us on screen. We used to go and surprise them on their birthdays. We used to wind them up. We used to tease each other. It was a family. So yeah, it’s sad.’
One of the cast predicted this moment. ‘I remember Lennard Pearce, who played Grandad – bless his heart – saying to me: “Have you heard about these new VHS video recorder machines? That means we’ll now live for ever. Did you ever think of that?” I said: “Christ no, I hadn’t.”’
Lennard Pearce (grandad)
He was right though. Even as Lyndhurst goes on stage at the Coliseum, the chances are that someone, somewhere in the world, will be watching his teenage self getting up to no good with Del Boy and laughing. He’ll be 19 for ever now, won’t he? ‘I wish!’ he says.
He says there can never be a reunion show now. ‘We can’t do it. It’s impossible without John. And not just that: we’ve lost Roger, Ken [MacDonald, who played landlord Mike], Buster [Merryfield, Uncle Albert], Lennard, Roy [Heather, the cafe owner Sid]. That’s a big chunk of the cast, sadly, not with us any more. Of course, we can’t do it without them. Wouldn’t dream of it.’
He and David Jason are still good friends but now they only tend to see each other, and the rest of the remaining cast, at funerals. ‘That’s how it’s been over the past couple of years,’ says Lyndhurst. ‘It’s horrible.’
How does he feel about the new musical of Only Fools that is currently running in the West End, written by and starring Paul Whitehouse? ‘I’m totally uninvolved with it,’ he says, flatly. OK, but will he go to see the show? ‘I can’t see it now. I’m too busy. But I wish them well with it.’
That’s polite without being exactly enthusiastic, but then Man Of La Mancha will be on at the Coliseum at the same time that Only Fools is on up the road. ‘I haven’t been approached at all – I only did the telly,’ he adds. Ryan Hutton is playing Rodney – how does he feel about someone else in the role that he made his own for so long?
Nicholas Lyndhurst as Rodney and David Jason as Del Boy in Only Fools And Horses
‘It’s fine. Good luck to him.’ You’ll know the smile he gives now. Resigned, rueful. You’ve seen it a thousand times.
Del Boy was always going on about how he and Rodney would ‘be millionaires this time next year’. Did Only Fools do that for its stars? Lyndhurst smiles. ‘Not with BBC salaries, no. When Friends started and somebody said they were on millions of dollars an episode, I looked across at David and said: “That’s not us though, is it?” But we did OK. Every so often we’ll get a cheque from somewhere.’
But he’s earned enough by now not to have to chase the money, right?
‘You’re absolutely right about that,’ he says. ‘It’s the quality that counts.’
Which means he can be as fussy as he likes. ‘I’m afraid my agent pulls his hair out all the time because I turn down more work than I actually take on, but there’s not as much quality as there used to be. I think we have probably had the golden age of the British sitcom.’
Thirty-eight years after the first episode of Only Fools went out, people still want to tell him what it meant to them.
‘A couple of years ago, a guy came up to me in tears. He said: “You got me through my father’s death. All I could do after the funeral was sit down with the show I used to watch with him. I was still laughing out loud, remembering laughing with him.”’
That seems to touch a nerve in Lyndhurst, presumably because he had a very difficult relationship with his own father, Joe, who was a bit of a rogue, to say the least. Joe met Liz, a dancer, at a holiday camp in the Fifties. He was already married but they started an affair and had a son, Nicholas. When the baby was just two months old, Joe left and tried to disown him. He came back but the relationship was troubled and ended when Nicholas was eight.
‘I worked out very early on that if that was what he wanted to do, then that’s what he had to do. I remember listening to my parents shout at each other. When that stopped, there was a great sense of relief. It was nice and quiet. I did miss him, but the peace was worth it.’
Life for mother and son was tough. ‘We were very poor when he left,’ Lyndhurst has said. ‘Not just hiding from the gas man but poverty-stricken. Beachcombing to find food. I thought it was fun. I wasn’t told that if you didn’t forage you weren’t going to eat. I had the happiest childhood, I really did. Mum had stresses, but I never knew that.’
Lyndhurst as a child star in The Prince And The Pauper, 1976; Left, his son Archie in the CBBC sitcom So Awkward, 2019
Liz only became aware of the shocking truth about her former lover ‘in dribs and drabs’ after he left. Joe also had three children by a waitress at the same holiday camp. And he was still married. Everyone involved in this incredibly fraught, tangled tale lived close to each other in the village of East Wittering, and they were still there when Lyndhurst became famous and the story hit the headlines in the Nineties. Joe was branded ‘the Sussex playboy’ by the press. Father and son were never reconciled.
‘I went to school in London. I saw him a couple of times as a teen,’ says Lyndhurst. ‘A gradual departure. It just tailed off. It was nothing really. There was only a fuss later because I was on the telly. Separations happen all the time.’
Liz gave up all her savings of £60 to send her son to stage school as a boarder, but she could only afford the first half-term’s fees. ‘Fortunately for both of us, I was quite a cute-looking blond-haired kid and I was given the opportunity to appear in a few commercials, so I could earn enough to pay the fees.’ He went on to work as a child actor, playing both lead roles in the 1976 Sunday afternoon drama series The Prince And The Pauper.
‘I was very lucky to grow up at the BBC, getting into the lifts at the rehearsal rooms and there would be Morecambe and Wise, or you’d go up to the next floor and Sir John Gielgud would get in. I loved it.’
Now he’s a star who can pick and choose his projects and is appearing at a grand venue that means a lot to him. ‘The first time I saw my wife dance was at the Coliseum. She was with English National Ballet, which was at home there for the winter.’
Lucy is 12 years younger than him. She and a friend took advantage of a break in their own performance schedule to go and see a comedy Lyndhurst was in and sent champagne and chocolates to the cast as a thank you for cheering them up. That was in 1992. The couple met and married seven years later. When their son Archie was born in 2000, Lyndhurst cut down on work to be at home in a way his father never had – not out of a desire to make up for his own childhood but because it just made him happy, as he said at the time.
‘Since I got married, and especially since my son was born, I drive everybody nuts by looking at everything I’m offered and saying, “It’s quite good, but… I’m just so happy being married I don’t want to be away from home.”’
Then history repeated itself, he says. ‘The weird thing is that my son started badgering me to go to theatre school at eight, exactly the same age as I badgered my mother.’
Archie is now an actor in his own right, having appeared in the CBBC series So Awkward, among other productions. He’ll go to see Dad at the Coliseum, because Lyndhurst has just discovered another remarkable family connection to the place.
‘I didn’t know much about my family history until recently, because my mother and father split up when I was so young. But my grandfather Francis was a set designer at the Coliseum. When war was declared there was the threat of air raids, and most of the theatres decided not to do anything too frivolous. But the owners of the Coliseum said: “We are going to do the best bloody pantomime London’s ever seen.” A huge deal. And Francis designed the scenery.’
Lyndhurst only found this out three years ago when he was approached by a local museum in Shoreham-By-Sea. ‘They asked me to open an exhibition they were putting on about my grandfather’s work. I didn’t really want to, because I don’t like public stuff that much, so I snuck in there one day – with my hat on as a disguise – and had a look around.’
He was astonished by what he saw. ‘There was my grandfather, being a pioneer filmmaker in Shoreham in the early 1900s, before he was a set designer. I read a book called Hollywood-By-Sea that was lent to me. He knew many huge music hall stars of the day. I wonder what the fishermen made of people like Marie Lloyd coming down to the beach in their gloves to make movies.’
Lyndhurst’s new project, Man Of La Mancha, begins with the Don Quixote author Cervantes in prison in Seville ahead of facing the Spanish Inquisition. He puts on a play with the other prisoners and casts himself as Don Quixote De La Mancha, an apparently deranged old man who insists on calling himself a knight. Kelsey Grammer, as Don Quixote, and his sidekick Sancho Panza set out to fight evil and restore the age of chivalry, insisting that it is still possible to be pure and true even in a twisted world. Lyndhurst plays the leading prisoner, who also becomes an innkeeper. But why choose to be part of an ensemble when he could so easily play a leading role elsewhere? ‘It’s always about the quality,’ he insists.
It will mean a lot to him, singing at the place where his grandfather set the scene and his wife danced. And what of his mother, who worked so hard for them both to survive when he was young and gave her last penny to get him to stage school – did she ever live to see the dream come true?
‘Oh yes,’ he says, laughing. ‘She’s still alive! I see her every Sunday.’
She should be delighted – but the ever modest Lyndhurst plays it down: ‘She’s very quietly proud, I think.’
‘Man Of La Mancha’ opens at the London Coliseum on April 26, eno.org