Downton Abbey doctor becomes a Single Spy at Chichester Festival Theatre

Nicholas Farrell, Belinda Lang and David Robb in Single Spies. Photography by Hugo Glendinning
Nicholas Farrell, Belinda Lang and David Robb in Single Spies. Photography by Hugo Glendinning

The last time David Robb – now known to millions as Dr Clarkson in the multi-award winning Downton Abbey – was on the Chichester Festival Theatre stage was a little matter of 43 years ago.

David, who returns now in Alan Bennett’s Single Spies (February 4-13), alongside Nicholas Farrell and Belinda Lang, last trod the boards in Chichester in Treasure Island – a version of the story almost as retold by Sam Peckinpah, he laughs: “It scared the children! It was rather bloody! The director said to us ‘This is not panto. It is a very bloody story! 17 people ended up dead!’”

David had been in Chichester the year before, as part of the 1972 season: “I was very young and in The Beggar’s Opera and Taming of the Shrew, understudying for the remainder of the season. It was a lovely time and a golden memory. It was a very successful season. I remember the weather was lovely, and it was just a different age then. I hadn’t been going for long. I left drama school in 69, and it was a lovely experience. I had my 25th birthday there. It was before the oil crisis. You could fill up your Morris Minor for 30 bob! We were always short of money, but it never felt like we had any real responsibilities,” says David who recalls volunteering to help exercise the horses at the Royal Military Police barracks, just up the road from the theatre: “We ended up taking the horses up to Halnaker. It was a great time.”

David was back again in 1978 when he held his wedding reception at Runcton Mill, having become friendly with the owner during his time in the city earlier. David and his late wife Briony McRoberts were married in Twickenham: “But we then had people in topless red London buses driven down to Chichester for the reception. We just prayed for good weather!”

And so now, finally, David is back in the city: “I haven’t stayed away by choice. It’s just the way it has all worked out!”

Bennett’s award-winning espionage double bill is a pointedly-satirical snapshot of two members of the infamous Cambridge Five, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, both recruited as spies by the Soviet Union during World War Two.

In An Englishman Abroad, Coral Browne receives an invitation to lunch with shunned Soviet spy Guy Burgess. A Question of Attribution gives us a glimpse into Anthony Blunt’s life of espionage within the very walls of Buckingham Palace. His double-life as an art historian to royalty and a Soviet spy culminates in a sharp and candid interrogation from the Queen herself.

David, who plays Blunt, said: “He comes across as an exceptionally-smooth character. He says ‘People find me cold. I don’t gush, I suppose.’ I am not sure he is capable of happiness in his life, and as a person, I don’t think much of the guy, but if you are playing him, you have to find something in him. He says in the play ‘I can tell you at the time I thought I was doing the right thing.’ He says at the time, the choice was between communism and fascism.

“He knew he was always going to be revealed, but there were others who were never exposed at all. He had immunity from prosecution, but has to live his life as a pariah.”

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