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Tom Conti will be passing judgment at the Theatre Royal

One of Britain's best-loved actors is starring in Twelve Angry Men, a play which has entranced audiences for 60 years

Tom Conti in 12 Angry Men
Tom Conti in 12 Angry Men

Tom Conti will be a member of the jury at the Theatre Royal next week. Last time he was here, a little under two years ago, he was in the dock.

These are, indeed, trying times for one of Britain’s most popular actors.

Except that’s not strictly true. Speaking from Llandudno, the picturesque Welsh resort, Conti – 73 now – says he enjoys touring in a play.

“I like the country and this is a very good way of seeing different parts of the country that perhaps otherwise you wouldn’t see.

“There are two questions I always ask myself when I’m asked to tour in a play. Will I enjoy doing it? And, more importantly, will people enjoy watching it?

“If there’s any doubt in either case, I won’t do it.”

In the case of Rough Justice, the play which last brought him to Newcastle in 2013, and Twelve Angry Men which brings him back next week, the answers, clearly, were yes and yes.

“Both, of course, are courtroom dramas. When Rough Justice came to the Theatre Royal – beautiful theatre you have there – it was packed out, so I expect it’ll be packed out this time.”

It might well be. Twelve Angry Men is a famous piece of work, tried and tested on stage and screen. Written by the American Reginald Rose, it was first seen as a television play in 1954. The stage adaptation came the following year and the first film version, which was nominated for three Academy Awards, appeared in 1957 with Henry Fonda in a starring role.

But really it’s an ensemble piece, as the title suggests.

The similarities between the theatre and a courtroom are obvious. Gripping tales are told and heard as people hang on every word, although one arena deals in fiction and the other in fact.

But Tom Conti points out the difference in this play, focusing on a murder trial: “It takes place somewhere that people rarely get to go. It is set in the inner sanctum of the jury room. In this country, the deliberations of the jury are secret. Nothing is supposed to be divulged.”

We are flies on the wall and that’s the appeal of the play.

In Terence Frisby’s Rough Justice Conti played a man defending himself against a charge of murder. Here the fate of the accused is in the hands of the randomly chosen twelve, including juror number eight who is the first to suggest that the correct verdict might be not guilty.

This is the Fonda role, played by Jack Lemmon in the 1997 film version and now, successfully, by Conti who also played the part in the West End last year.

He says he understands the implications of what his character is engaged in. “Putting someone in prison is a very big thing to do. People say prison is such a doddle but prison is not a doddle.

“I remember chatting to the bobby where I grew up in Scotland and asking him about prison. He said he had been a prisoner-of-war so the last thing he wanted to do was to help imprison any human being. For that reason, he wanted to be absolutely sure of what he was doing.”

In a long and distinguished career, Tom Conti has appeared in umpteen films, notably Shirley Valentine. He is a familiar face on television and among special achievements in the theatre was the Tony Award he won in 1979 for his performance in Whose Life Is It Anyway?

More recently, he and Dame Judi Dench were voted the most popular actors in the West End.

He says he became acquainted with the theatre at a young age. “My parents loved the theatre. They went to London on business trips a couple of times a year and we would go at every opportunity.

“I loved the West End. After the war the theatres were packed every night and there was a real magic about it, especially to a youngster from Scotland.

“As far as I’m concerned that magic has never gone away.”

But at first he thought his vocation lay elsewhere.

“I loved music throughout my childhood and I expected I’d be a musician but I went to college (the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) and turned a corner.

“There is an element of laziness,” he says, modestly assessing his own character. “If you’re going to be a musician you have to put in hours and hours of slog every day and if you’re going to be a flute player, you don’t want to be a middling flute player.”

He was drawn instead to acting, becoming fascinated by the craft and surviving, as he sees it, the early influence of a lot of “dodgy” directors. A lot of things in the theatre, he says, are badly done.

“A lot of directors don’t know what they’re doing and it makes it difficult but you persevere. It is a dodgy profession. There’s an amazing amount of luck involved. Not only do you need the break that will get you noticed but you need the skill to be able to use it to your advantage.”

Conti says he would have liked to have become an orchestral conductor but, above all else, a tenor. “People like Pavarotti and Caruso gave people so much pleasure.”

In his field, though, Tom Conti does the same. Audiences love to watch him and young actors must surely do the same.

Talking about the repetitive nature of theatrical performing, he says: “You have work to do when you go on stage. You are not just going on to say the words you have learnt.

“You have to remember that this might be your 100th time but for most people in the audience it will be their first. You have to grab them every single night because that’s your job, the seduction of the audience.”

A true professional. If you fancy being seduced by Tom Conti, Twelve Angry Men is at the Theatre Royal next week, from Monday to Saturday (June 15-20). Tickets: tel. 08448 112121 or online at www.theatreroyal.co.uk

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