Robert Lindsay Stevenson (he would later drop the ‘Stevenson’ for the stage) was born on December 13, 1949, in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, the eldest of three children in a close-knit family.
His father, Norman, who passed away last year, was a retired carpenter – a man who Robert describes as “blunt and direct” and for whom he retains huge affection. “I’m very proud of my dad,” he comments. “He was a trade unionist and very outspoken – a trait I think I’ve inherited.” Norman was a veteran of the Second World War who served in the Royal Navy onboard one of the first boats to reach Normandy in the D-Day landings. Ten years ago Robert and his brother, Andrew, took Norman back to the beach at Arromanches to revisit those wartime experiences.
Robert’s mother Joyce who passed away in January 2000, was a well-liked figure in the Ilkeston community. “She was a wonderful mother to her three children – a life-force, incredibly vital,” remembers Robert. “She saw all of my work many times, and would be very honest when there were parts of it she didn’t like.”
Robert’s childhood in Ilkeston remains strong in his memory. He still follows the fortunes of the ‘Rams’, Derby County FC, and also remembers the strong influence of the region’s literary hero, D.H. Lawrence, who was born in Eastwood, only five miles from Ilkeston. The author had taught English at Robert’s old school, Gladstone Boys, and Robert identified with his aspirations to follow a career outside the local coalmines. It was Sons and Lovers that gave Robert a real buzz for reading and which, he says, resonates with his own life in many ways.
Encouraged by his parents, Robert enrolled on a drama course at Clarendon College in Nottingham after finishing school. He had intended to become a drama teacher, but friends at Nottingham Playhouse convinced him to apply to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in 1968. He borrowed £5 from a friend, travelled to London for the auditions and was accepted on a government grant. Robert graduated two years later with a thorough training in movement and voice (and minus the Derbyshire accent that RADA had coached out of him).
He’s been working ever since, moving his talent between television, film and theatre, ranging from light comedy to serious drama. His career began on the stage, as part of the progressive Northcott theatre company in Exeter in the early 1970s, and he’s returned to theatre periodically throughout his acting life, appearing on the major stages, from the National to the Haymarket and the Palladium. Major roles have included Hamlet at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, Henry II in Becket in the West End and Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company. However, most plaudits were won for Me and My Girl, the show that began in Leicester, moved to the West End and eventually took Robert to Broadway for a year, and for which he won Olivier, Fred Astaire and Tony awards. Robert has also appeared as Fagin in Oliver!, the musical written by his old friend Lionel Bart.
On television, Robert first attracted the public’s attention in 1975 in Get Some In, but it was another sitcom, Citizen Smith, first aired in 1977, that made him a household name. More than 20 years later he returned to TV comedy, starring alongside Zoë Wanamaker in My Family, a show that continues today. Other recent roles in television comedy have included an appearance in Ricky Gervais’ Extras. Robert has also served his time in serious drama, working on five of the BBC’s lauded Shakespeare adaptations in the 1980s, playing Pellow in Hornblower alongside Ioan Gruffudd, and starring in Alan Bleasdale’s GBH and Jake’s Progress, the first of which secured Robert a Best Actor BAFTA in 1991. He’s also played Tony Blair twice on the small screen, in A Very Social Secretary and The Trial of Tony Blair.
Robert has also appeared in several films. He began with That’ll be the Day, starring alongside David Essex, Ringo Starr and Keith Moon in 1973, and followed it a year later with Three for All featuring Diana Dors. In 1989 he played the title role in Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool, before appearing with John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Palin in Fierce Creatures in 1997. More recently Robert made a cameo appearance alongside Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany in Wimbledon.
When he’s not working, Robert spends his time at home in Buckinghamshire with his wife, TV presenter and dancer Rosemarie Ford, and their sons, Samuel and Jamie. He also has a daughter, Sydney Laura, who has followed Robert into the acting profession. Robert also devotes a large amount of time to charity activity, working closely with Great Ormond Street Hospital and Marie Curie Cancer Care, and helping other causes close to his heart. In October 2009 he published his autobiography, Letting Go.