As a child, Downton Abbey’s Charles Edwards listened to the classic My Fair Lady recording with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. Now he's playing Henry Higgins, with Andrews directing.

By Peter Craven.

Charles Edwards steps into ‘My Fair Lady’

Charles Edwards as Henry Higgins.
Charles Edwards as Henry Higgins.

As with everyone, My Fair Lady is an ancient memory for Charles Edwards, who seems to oscillate from the Rex Harrison repertoire to Shakespeare – Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury in the West End and America, but also Oberon to Judi Dench’s Titania, directed by Peter Hall.

“I was fascinated by it as a child,” he says. “The LP of the original with Rex and Julie [Andrews] I found – I can’t remember how old I would have been, but quite little – but I remember being really fascinated by the wit, even at that stage. I knew it was very clever and very sharp and very English, particularly the way Rex did it.”

Edwards is the new Henry Higgins in Julie Andrews’ production of My Fair Lady. It’s the Hamlet of high-comedy roles and arguably the greatest of all musicals. So what does he do with Higgins’ sprechgesang? Does he follow the notes or does he do what Rex Harrison did on Broadway in 1956, opposite Andrews’ Eliza Doolittle, hitting a note every so often but speaking his way through? “I follow that,” Edwards says, of the latter. “I personally find if you follow the notes in Higgins’ songs, what is revealed to you is that they’re not nearly as much fun. They actually become rather leaden. And what you need with those songs is great lightness and dexterity.

“I’d been playing around with doing it slightly off the beat, trying to maybe be a little bit clever with it. But Guy Simpson, our brilliant musical director, says it’s much better if you can speak as much as you like but just stick to the beat. It’s more real, there’s more of the character. Higgins knows what he’s saying, he doesn’t have to dither either side of the beat.”

Frederick Loewe, after all, wrote it for Harrison, knowing he couldn’t sing. “I think that’s perhaps why if you try to sing more than one should it’s less interesting because it is written for the man who was going to do it like that.”

Michael Redgrave famously refused the role of Higgins because it meant committing to a long run. How does Edwards feel about a longish stretch of phonetics and feminist musical comedy?

“Oh, I could do it for a while,” he says. “I arrived, performed it in Brisbane, and now I’m rehearsing it in a way… for my own satisfaction. Something which would happen in four or six weeks of rehearsal is now happening to me, internally, just myself, finding my way. I feel like I’m still starting out even though the performance is there. I could do it for a bit longer because there is a lot more to explore.”

I tell him I’ve just watched the recording of him playing Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing – the one role Harrison recorded for Caedmon, which is largely in prose and the Bard’s most Shavian play. “It was really fun,” Edwards says of his stint opposite Eve Best at the Globe in the role with a family resemblance to Higgins. “Julie [Andrews] likes comparing Shaw as the natural successor to Shakespeare in terms of that kind of comedy. I’m very drawn to both of these roles. That was a joy to do.”

He adds that he learnt something from the Globe, because it’s rougher, more extroverted theatre. “If it’s done with wit,” he says, “it can be a great crowd-pleaser, without being naff. And I think it has informed my work to such an extent that often since I’ve been told, ‘Just calm down, Charles.’ ”

When I tell him he was very good as the Tory whip in This House, the parliamentary play by James Graham, done by the National Theatre, he says of the author, “I don’t know how old he is, he’s something annoying like… he’s probably hit 30. I hope he has.” But he adds that at 47 himself he’s probably a bit younger than the received image of Higgins from the film of My Fair Lady, even though Shaw describes him as a pleasant-looking man of 40.

It must be odd to inhabit a role with such a powerful acting ghost in the background. I once saw Harrison – very, very old – at an airport sweeping past in what looked exactly like the hat and coat he – and Edwards – wears in the opening scene of My Fair Lady in Covent Garden.

“There’s a lot, I’m sure, in the production we’ve inherited that he insisted on,” Edwards says. “I’m sure that will be true of the hat … And here we are now, probably wearing the very weave he ordered from a particular tailor.”

Of course, everyone likes the cut of Higgins’ cloth and would like to make it their own. George Clooney, of all people, is said to have had an eye on the role when Emma Thompson wanted to make a new film of it with Carey Mulligan as Eliza. And with the old George Cukor film, Alan Jay Lerner, treacherously, wanted Peter O’Toole, still in his 30s, rather than Harrison.

Like O’Toole, Edwards does both ends of the acting spectrum: the light-as-air prose comedy of Shaw and the poetic majesties of Shakespeare. He worked with Peter Hall, the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “I’ve done quite a lot with him,” he says. “I think I auditioned one year when he used to run the season at Bath and he took a shine and kept wanting me back to do this and that.”

His work with Hall included another Much Ado, where he played Don Pedro. “He got it into his head,” Edwards says, “that Don Pedro at the end was like Malvolio or Antonio, the man who gets left alone.”

So Edwards’ Don was a bit in love with Claudio and something of “a real devil”. His Oberon to Dench’s Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream came from another of Hall’s bright ideas.

“Peter put it to me, ‘Look, I’ve got this idea, it’s like Elizabeth and Essex…’ They did a prelude to the evening where the players were assembling to put on a play for Elizabeth I and then Elizabeth/Judi arrives and selects me.”

He says that Dench, like Andrews, is great to be with and “just as nervous and scared as the rest of us all are. They’re very great company people; their fun is being in the company.”

This was the second time he’d worked with Dench because he’d been her fancy man, Sandy, when she played Judith Bliss in Coward’s classic comedy Hay Fever. He loves the lightness of My Fair Lady and the way it can modulate into the gravity of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face”, with its utterly moody interplay between hilarities of exasperation, and something else, something at the edge of heartbreak.

Of course, acting careers have their light and dark. Harrison, high comedian though he was, did Preston Sturges’s Unfaithfully Yours, that demon study of jealousy. Marcello Mastroianni, in many ways his European equivalent, made some of the more serious masterpieces, everything from 8 ½ to La Notte. And Edwards went straight from acting with Olivia Williams in Harley Granville Barker’s Waste to doing a chocolate-box soap TV drama, The Halcyon, with her.

He says Granville Barker stands up very well when you prune him back and you know he thinks this of Shaw, too – the way “The Rain in Spain” crystallises something Shaw takes for granted and talks around – and does so operatically. “I find it very touching, that bit,” Edwards says. “It’s wonderful to do.”

And he’s at pains to defend Higgins, the man who – at Harrison’s insistence – was given another Act II number, “A Hymn to Him”.

“He’s not a snob,” Edwards says. “He’s trying to remove the social gaps. He’s trying to erase them, in a rather perverse way by wanting everyone to speak the same and dismiss regional accents – but he’s not a snob. He’s an egalitarian.”

It’s always a fascinating thing to listen to an actor let his mind roam about the ins and outs, the winding staircase of his career. Charles Edwards went to a preparatory school named Amesbury in Surrey, which he says was “pure Decline and Fall, full of eccentrics, some of them quite dangerous eccentrics”. His salvation was Hamlet. “I was invited by – you know, we all have these teachers who encourage us – his name is Simon Elliot and he’ll still come and see me in shows now. ‘I’d like to talk to you about Hamlet,’ he said. ‘Oh yeah?’ ”

From there, a career. Here he is on Angela Lansbury: “She is in every way fit. In Blithe Spirit she did this extraordinary dance with these jerky movements as she was preparing for a séance. I don’t know what it was but I know every night she loved doing it and changing it.”

And on Maria Aitken, brilliant as the wife of John Cleese’s Archie in A Fish Called Wanda, who directed Edwards in The 39 Steps: “With comedy she immediately knows, ‘That’s what I want for this show.’ And that it has to be taken very seriously. She’s the person you need at the centre, taking it absolutely seriously.”

She insisted that Edwards – who was the production’s original Hannay in The 39 Steps – had to play the role when it transferred to Broadway. “She was lovely. She fought for me and she said, ‘You need the Englishman. You need the backbone.’ And they brought me over even though the rest of the cast was two Americans and one Canadian. It was great, I was thrilled. But it’s the kind of humour that can tip. It’s got to be tasteful, it’s got to have taste. Taste is the key with humour that involves an audience.”

All of which brings us round to the ending of My Fair Lady where Eliza comes back to Higgins. She has sung that she can do “Without You”.

“Absolutely,” he says, “and this is heightened by the ending, the fact that some people would ask why does she come back to him. But there has to be a meeting of minds, a meeting of souls, and that’s what he realises right at the end. She comes back to show him that she has to be there, but she is in charge. And he sees that and accepts that. And all of that we try to do in three seconds of the show.”

Edwards laughs.

So what is it like to work with Julie Andrews as she re-creates the original production of My Fair Lady by the legendary Moss Hart?

“It was a real treat, it’s an extraordinary thing and very touching to see her remembering it,” Edwards says. Obviously the production is a blueprint, which he had to fit himself to, but the man who is best known here for his stint in Downton Abbey adds, “But you have to imbue it with a new texture.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 15, 2017 as "The range in spades".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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