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Sam Neill’s diary: Back in Blighty, remembering drinking binges of yore

Plus: why Nigel Farage has progressed as far as he can

I am back in the UK for work. Great time to turn up — after the grim, grey grind of the British winter. Here in Manchester, people stroll in shirtsleeves or T-shirts, though it’s still only 15 degrees. They are, in truth, dazzlingly white. Their semi-nudity strikes me as a tad premature, but then I’ve only just left my Indian summery vineyard in New Zealand via Bondi Beach.

I’m here at the behest of BBC2, for a second season of The Peaky Blinders. If you didn’t see the first season, you should. And if you don’t … I know where you live. And having played Chief Inspector Campbell, I know how to remove your fingernails. Be warned. Campbell is the psycho cop from hell (well, Belfast), and is more fun to play than any part I remember. This is in large part because our writer Steven Knight gives him such graphic, biblical dialogue. But also because Campbell is complex: mad, sad and utterly beastly. What sport.

At the craft Baftas this week, the Peaky Blinders director Otto Bathurst and cameraman George Steel got deserved gongs. But for the actors, not even one nomination. We feign indifference, not terribly convincingly. Naturally, if we actually won a Bafta, we’d keep it in the lav — this is de rigueur. Of course, it’s also the one place in the house where one can guarantee that guests will see the gong.

In fact, nothing beats the pleasure that comes from working with actors from this part of the world, and on Peakys we have a very smart young cast — Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, Annabelle Wallis among others. They are brilliant. However, actors are curiously abstemious these days. Gone are the times when it was considered good manners among British thesps to sink at least three pints at lunch in the Pinewood bar.

I think my liver is still recovering from a shoot in Paris with the delightful Michael Williams and Warren Clarke. And that was in 1981. Michael was utterly devoted to his wife Judi Dench, and their daughter Finty, and would talk about them ad infinitum. One would slip away after four or five drinks; much as we loved Michael, there were only so many times you could show interest in what Finty liked for breakfast. In those days, things would go into rapid decline. I’m appalled to say I did wake one morning, wretchedly hungover, in a bed I had no recollection of, beside a woman I’d never seen before in my life. In my defence, it was when I was a much younger man. None of that here. Not these days.

It’s a distinct pleasure to read the papers here of a morning. For all the pressure they are under, British papers are still, by a mile, the world’s best (the New York Times an honourable exception). Since I don’t live here, I can follow British politics in the broadsheets with a kind of amused detachment. I am puzzled though, by how Nigel Farage has put the frighteners up so many. I want to encourage them to relax. The man will never make it to the top. Why, you ask? It’s that name. No, not Farage. That other fatal name. Nigel.

I know this because I am myself a Nigel. Unlike Farage, I had the good sense to change it at the age of ten. Sick of all that tiresome bullying, my best friend and I, another Nigel, decided we would adopt new names — in my case Sam. I saved myself a lifetime of pain. I have, however, a ready empathy for other Nigels, knowing what they’ve been through — all those Nigel no-mates. I once met Nigel Lythgoe, the vastly successful television entrepreneur and producer of So You Think You Dance, and I asked him how he got on with the name. He said ‘You try growing up working class in Liverpool, being called Nigel and being a dancer.’ He had a point.

The only other Nigel that I can think of in politics that did OK was Nigel Lawson. Chancellor of the Exchequer was certainly way over the odds, spectacular as Nigels go, but that was as far as he’d get. There is a glass ceiling for Nigels, and Farage will hit it soon enough.

Wait — this cutting just in from the Guardian — ‘Farage attended … a rally … in Paris where he received a rapturous reception with the crowds chanting “Nigel! Nigel!”’ This defies belief. “Nigel! Nigel!”? Pull the other one. And if true, don’t the French understand how funny that is? Good Lord.

Sam Neill is an actor and vigneron.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 May 2014

The Spectator

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