By Patricia Spencer, who remembers getting his autograph when he was a schoolboy thespian and predicting ‘You’ll be famous one day’
As I walked across the market to the Town Hall with Paul Opiah, one of the people behind the Ilkeston Life newspaper, and Danny Corns, our much loved local historian, the weather was atrocious. Danny and Paul are the two people who brought the proposal to the Borough council to have Robert made a freeman of Erewash. We had a major storm in the afternoon and it appeared it wasn’t going to get any better, even for our very own Robert Lindsay. The Erewash Museum Tent had been set up earlier to hopefully hold the award ceremony outside, but it was not to be. When we got there about 5 o’clock there was hardly anyone waiting, and who could blame them? We were all ushered inside out of the rain and I was asked to wait in the room just inside the main door along with John our photographer.
There was much confusion from the staff as they tried to decide where to hold the event. By this time one or two people were arriving outside despite the dreadful weather, sheltering under their umbrellas. As we sat waiting a familiar figure appeared at the door, Robert had arrived with his family. He came straight into us and shook our hands, saying, “Typical, I come back to Ilkeston and it’s raining.” The staff by this time had decided the event should be held indoors as the weather had no intention at all of being kind to us, so we were asked to go upstairs to the council chamber where we were seated at the front in the section reserved for the newspaper reporters. I was very nervous as this was the first time I had been to an event like this as a reporter. But as it turned out it was quite informal and it took quite a while to get the audience seated. Robert’s family were seated across from us and many friends and family were coming up to greet Robert and have their picture taken with him.
One of the councillors took charge of the proceedings and the microphones. He had two, one for the people out in the rain and one for the lucky ones inside. There were still people outside in the pouring rain and credit to them for staying put, as there certainly was ‘no room at the inn’ upstairs. Finally the room was brought to order as the Mayor of Erewash, Councillor Abey Stevenson, arrived in his ceremonial robes. Councillor Val Custance our previous mayor had already spoken to us to tell us she was the one who had signed the declaration for Robert to gain the freedom of Erewash but Abey was to present the award being the current Mayor.
Chris Corbett, in his role as leader of the Erewash Borough Councillor, started the proceedings by saying that the conferring of the title of Honorary Freeman of the Borough is the highest honour the Borough Council can bestow and has only been given to the 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, the successors to the Sherwood Foresters, and more recently to Sir Dave Brailsford who has done so much for British Cycling. Chris then went on to talk about Robert’s many achievements on stage and screen. If you live in Ilkeston, especially if you were born here, you cannot fail to know about Robert’s schooldays at Kensington Junior and Gladstone Secondary School where he developed his love of acting. He has gone on to receive many awards including a Bafta, a Tony and three Olivier awards.
Chris said, “Robert is one of Ilkeston’s most famous sons and we salute his incredible achievements here today”.
Robert accepted his award from the mayor and was then asked to speak about how he felt about the honour. He said it was probably the best honour he had received and he was thrilled. When he was asked would it be going up on a wall at home, he said he wasn’t sure about that because when he put up his Bafta it was taken down by his family to be replaced by their mum’s ‘Gotcha’ from Noel Edmonds. Robert thanked Danny Corns for sponsoring him for the award and then talked with fondness about his mum and dad who always supported him in his career and how sorry he was that they were not still here to see it.
He told us a little story about when his mum and dad went over to New York to see him and they went for a walk and found a purse on the pavement. Being the honest people they were, they took it straight into the local police precinct and said, “We’ve found this purse on the pavement, mi duck.” The policeman fetched his colleagues to listen to the Ilkeston dialect and it became a lovely story to be brought out time and again, no doubt.
“I think they thought we were aliens,” quipped Robert. Robert had no qualms about saying that he could not wait to get away from Ilkeston when he was young. He wanted something different from life and although it was scary he had to try. But despite that, Robert has always come back to Ilkeston regularly to see his family and friends who have always remained close. And of course he still loves to go to see Ilkeston football team play. He now has a fondness for Ilkeston he did not have when he was young.
He said, “I now yearn for the old place. People in Ilkeston are always ready to say, ‘Hello, are you alright?’ Or, as Jim Sumner would say,’Ar ya all rayt m’ duck?’ There is a warmth here you do not find in London.”
He described his life as a roller coaster ride and said he had been blessed with the people that had helped him get started, especially Mr John Lally and Mr Brian Levers, two of his Gladstone Boys School teachers. After Robert had finished his speech inside he put on his jacket and went out to speak to the people that had waited in the rain to see him. He still has Ilkeston in his heart. After the hall was cleared we went back downstairs to hopefully get to speak to him. We had to wait for him to finish a radio interview before we could talk to him and they asked him most of the questions we had ready.
When he was asked if he ever got star struck, he said not really. The only time he came near to it was when Barbara Streisand walked into his dressing room when he was on Broadway and he said he called her Babs. When he was asked what advice would he give to young people just starting out he said, “Trust yourself and be true to yourself.”
When Bob and I spoke to him, I showed him two programmes that I have kept for the last fifty-one years. They were Ilkeston Theatre programmes from 1965 when Robert first started acting. He had already mentioned being in “The Boy With The Knife” in his radio interview, so I thought he would be interested to see the actual programme. He said it was when he did this play that he thought to himself – this is what I want to do, and I can do it. And of course he could, he had a special talent even then at fifteen years of age. I was working back stage at the time. The show was at the Town Hall. Afterwards I had done a buffet back at the Theatre Club and I took the programme to him and asked him to sign it.
He said, “Why do you want me to sign it?”
I said, “Because one day you are going to be famous.”
He laughed. He also said it was strange seeing his family name on the programme. He did not want to change his name at the start of his career but he was told he had to and he was also told he had to lose his Ilkeston accent. He recalled being told how to pronounce the word long without sounding the ‘g’ at the end as Ilkestonians would. Eventually he mastered the new way of talking. When Robert went to Clarendon College after school he was planning to train as an English and Drama teacher, which would have been wonderful for any youngster that had come under his tutelage. But it would have been a great loss to the acting profession. Who else could they have got to play Wolfie in Citizen Smith, the role that set him on his road to fame? I asked Robert if he had ever thought about staying in America when he went over to work on Broadway. He said no. He had lived there for two and a half years in the 80s but was pleased to come home.
At the moment Robert is filming in Prague. He would soon be flying over to do his final scene of the film. The film is about Albert Einstein and he is playing his father. The bright spark of talent that was spotted when Robert was fifteen has grown brighter over the years and given him a brilliant career on stage and screen, and long may it glow.