Cast out by the Tory party and awaiting trial accused of perjury and perverting the course of justice, Lord Archer takes comfort in his writing. Interview by Catherine O'Brien
The scene: a millionaire's luxury penthouse overlooking the Thames.
The time: mid morning. Enter, stage left, Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare wearing Nike trainers, blue shorts and a House of Commons cricket jumper.
Archer (proffering hand): "Excuse my sweaty palm, I've just been for a workout."
Interviewer (transfixed at the sight of Archer's sinewy thighs): "Not at all."
Archer: "Now I'll just go and get changed and we'll begin. When I return, I shall sit there (points to expansive armchair) and you can sit there (points to one end of sumptuous sofa adorned with silk cushions)."
Interviewer: "Fine." Nods warily and perches upon sofa as Archer exits.
Jeffrey Archer has never been one of those public figures who avoids allowing journalists into his home. Why opt for an anonymous hotel lobby when you can direct seating arrangements from a personalised set displaying all your accoutrements? Here are the Lowrys, a Pissarro, a Monet and a Renoir; here are the photographs - Jeffrey with Mary, Jeffrey with Diana, Princess of Wales, Jeffrey with his two handsome sons; and here is the liveried butler, who could have come straight from Central Casting, with a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice for his master.
A couple of minutes behind the scenes and Archer is back, his shorts replaced with joggers, but his hair still tousled with perspiration and his skin flushed pink. People say that he has become older and greyer with his recent troubles, but he is having none of it. "You saw me take my shirt off the other night," he says teasingly. "I'm not in bad shape for a 60-year-old."
This is true. Along with several thousand others, I have watched Archer strip to the waist in The Accused - the courtroom drama that he has written and in which he stars as a doctor charged with murdering his wife. Whether his character is guilty hinges upon whether he had an affair with a nurse: in an attempt to prove his innocence, he reveals a scar upon what the nurse has already claimed to be an unblemished back.
Sounds familiar? Well, Archer has never had a problem blurring the fine line that divides fact and fiction. He is also an audacious self-publicist, which is why jaws dropped last September when his play premiered on the day that he was charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice. Similarly, the timing of The Accused's West End opening next Tuesday - a week before Archer is due to appear at the Old Bailey - stretches credulity.
"Hee, hee hee, you couldn't fix it in an Archer book, could you?" he chuckles. No, frankly, you couldn't. So can it really be coincidence? "Totally. You couldn't say 'I'll write a play and I'll be arrested on the opening day'. Of course you couldn't. If I had written it in a book, I'd have arranged the arrest for a month later to make it more convincing. I can see my editor saying it now..."
Archer is facing two counts of perjury, two of perverting the course of justice and one of using a false instrument, offences which, if proved, could result in a three to five-year jail term.
Last November, the News of the World ran a story alleging that Archer had persuaded a friend, Ted Francis, to provide him with a false alibi for his celebrated libel case in 1987.
It was widely anticipated that this furore would prove the final straw for Archer's saintly and long-suffering wife. The fragrant Mary has, over the years, been plunged into several controversies of her husband's making - the Monica Coghlan case, in which she had to testify that his back was not spotty, his near bankruptcy in the mid-1970s, and his Anglia shares fiasco in 1994, which was deeply embarrassing to Mary as a non-executive director of the company. The latest was surely a humiliation too far.
Did he worry that she might desert him? "Well, I couldn't blame her if she did. Would have every right to," he says, staccato. "But not her style. Not mine either." What is her style, then? "Well, immensely loyal. I couldn't be more in awe of her. I still think that, at 56, she is stunningly beautiful...a stunning woman." So he really hadn't thought she would leave him? "No."
He removes his spectacles, twiddles with the sides. "I have a friend who is going through divorce and he sits here crying with me. It is dreadful...and I don't know what to do, where to look. He still loves his wife, but she doesn't love him. She has had an affair." Has he ever experienced that sort of catastrophic rejection? "Not like that, no. He doesn't know what he is going to do with the rest of his life, you see."
This is not a predicament that has ever preoccupied Archer, even in his darkest moments. With typical elan, he emerged in March after five months of purdah, to tell the TV interviewer Martin Bashir that the allegations had left him in "total despair", oh, and by the way, he had written a new play.
So how was it this time - how long did he languish in that pool of despair? "Oh I think I got out of it pretty quickly," he says. "If your diary has been cancelled and all your appointments have gone, you can walk around the garden looking at the fish one day and the next and the next. But no, I picked up a pen, and thought 'Where do we start?'"
It is an illuminating example of Archer's famed ability to bounce back. "I get lots of letters and calls from people who are in distress and I always say the big thing is not to sit around," he says.
"If you say life is terrible and the world has treated you badly, you will only become more despondent. I have wives ringing about losing their husbands, people with cancer, people who want to commit suicide. And I tell them: 'Get occupied'."
It comes as little surprise to learn that he has never felt suicidal himself. "No, no." Nor has he ever sought any kind of professional therapy. "Not my world," he says. Does he think he immerses himself in a pretend world? Archer's eyes widen and I fear for a moment that he is going to flail with temper. Instead, he remains rigid, save for a pulsing movement that stretches from his right temple to his jaw. (It is only later, by experimenting in front of a mirror, that I realise this quiver is achieved by his clenching his teeth with the force of a blacksmith's vice).
"Do you think that play is a pretence?" he says. "Do you think that cheering is a pretence? Do you think selling 120 million copies of my books is a pretence? It is total reality."
Certainly, he doesn't appear to dwell on what might have been. Would he agree with that? "Yes, but I would add what I always say to young people, which is that if you spend your time thinking about what went wrong, you don't actually gain anything. I think it is tragic when someone aged 50-odd says to me, 'You know, I never recovered from that situation 20 years ago...' If something has gone wrong, I say don't worry about it, put it down to experience, you'll make it back, just don't look behind you."
This approach goes a long way to explaining why the man, who was once so desperate to be Mayor of London that it hurt, is not weeping in Ken Livingstone's wake. "Well, I am disappointed, but I realised from the moment Ken went independent that no one was going to beat him. We never admitted it to anyone, but we saw the polls and we knew what was happening. I had walked the streets with Ken. I knew how popular he was."
Archer still has his seat in the House of Lords but his attendance record isn't what it once was. "I don't enjoy Opposition, not actually making the legislation, waiting to vote against something but knowing that it will make no difference. That is not exactly productive."
So he has placed his political career to one side rather than behind him, he says. But doesn't that ignore the fact that William Hague has pronounced him "finished" politically? Another teeth-clenching moment. "Did he?" Well you know he did. "Fine," he replies, barely moving his lips.
Moments later, his tension dissolved, he is explaining that there has been no time to miss politics - he has been too busy with the play. "As my driver says, 'We go everywhere and get cheered. This is a bit different'."
The populist twist to The Accused is that those in the audience get to be the jury. For the provincial run, they have had to vote by displaying cards, but at The Haymarket in London, there will be a Pounds 16,000 push-button system - as seen on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
Archer says the idea came to him while watching TV. He mentioned it to Gilbert Gray, QC, whose career spans 504 murder trials. Gray advised that a poisoning plot would be best, because they always leave the most scope for doubt, and gave him the rudiments of four of his most fascinating cases. Archer researched them all, and within a couple of months had completed his first draft. It was only then, he insists, that he thought of casting himself as the defendant. "As you can see, it is the fifth biggest part - but I thought, 'Yes, that would be a challenge'."
He had no previous acting experience, but he has been "privileged" to have been schooled by a cast of accomplished RSC and National Theatre players. "They reckon I have done the three-year Rada course in the space of three months."
Already, he claims to have been offered two other stage roles and three film parts. He has just played an extra, with Salman Rushdie, in Bridget Jones's Diary. "It is a literary cocktail party scene - we play ourselves," he says. "I went along because I wanted to watch Hugh Grant doing his thing. But in the end, I just got bored standing there for six hours with a drink for a scene that will be in the film for two minutes."
I wonder whether he might be tiring also of appearing in his play, night after night, but no, he says: "I'm enjoying it tremendously. It is very interesting to be that disciplined." He thinks he is "very lucky" to be embarking on a new career at his age. But don't people generally make their own luck? "Nine times out of ten, I agree with you. It is up to you to get up and do it. I do find that attitude of 'if it is going to happen, it will happen' complete drivel. Hard work is what counts. I see it at every level. Even with this cast, I can see already which ones are working the hardest."
A capacity for hard work is a trait that he shares with Mary, a Cambridge don who, after 18 years of research, is about to publish her first book, The Photosynthesis of Solar Energy. "I understood the preface," he says. "But I didn't understand the first paragraph of chapter one - a minor disadvantage. But she says there are several people who will and she knows them."
Her book, the first of four planned volumes which will total 600,000 words, is expected to become the definitive academic text on her subject. Archer, too, has plans to continue writing - he has a three-book deal with HarperCollins worth a reported Pounds 10million. The trouble is, he can't tolerate the thought of being only a novelist. "It is people like you who think of writing as a career on its own," he says. "That is why I drive journalists mad - by saying I don't think it is a proper career, it is not what grown-ups should be doing. I don't think at the end of your lifetime you should say 'I have been a novelist' - you should say 'I have done something else'."
But what else exactly? All his life, Archer has striven to be a man of gravitas. It is the reason why, initially, he pursued careers that conferred status (soldier, policeman, school teacher, councillor, MP) and the reason why he went on to network so assiduously at the highest levels.
He says his good friends have stuck by him, but, although he and Mary will be holding their customary New Year's party, there will be none of the celebrated shepherd's pie and Krug gatherings this year. Like the rest of his social life, he says, "they have been knocked backwards by the play".
Up here, in his 13th-floor eyrie, the lavish splendour appears hollow. Politically Archer is an outcast; as an actor, he is a gimmick. It is hard to imagine now how he might be fulfilled.
Copyright (C) The Times, 2000
O'Brien, Catherine. "Fact and fiction; Interview." Times [London, England] 30 Nov. 2000: 3. Academic OneFile. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.
Gale Document Number:CJ67465731
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