ES Magazine, 9 June 2000, by Victoria Coren
 
Don't call
me Darcy
 
 

Six years after Pride and Prejudice, Colin Firth's love-god status rages on.  Never mind that he plays
a gay character in his new film Relative Values.  Adoring female fans are far more interested in his forthcoming role: the brooding love interest in Bridget Jones's Diary.  Just don't mention the wet white shirt, says Victoria Coren
 

Photos by Jason Bell
 

On the internet, there is a countdown to Colin Firth's birthday. Like the millennium clocks of last year, except with a little more salivating love, it currently reads, '93 DAYS TO COLIN'S BIRTHDAY!'

We are also informed that he shares his birthday with Amy Irving, that Nastassja Kinski married on his birthday in 1984, and we can go on to read everything that has ever been written about Colin Firth, said by Colin Firth or done near Colin Firth; links to a staggering number of other web pages called things like 'Firth Frenzy!', and what Malcolm McDowell once said about Colin Firth in an interview (nothing terribly interesting). This is a site which is updated daily. Somebody out there really loves this guy. It even includes, without irony, a quote from Firth a year ago: 'There is too much information out there. I don't think it is appropriate to be peering into what others are doing all the time.' But never mind that; it's only 93 days till his birthday!  Can't wait to find out which underpants he wears on the day.

On 10 September, Colin Firth will be 40. There is no sign that the internet clock-poster is disappointed by this milestone. Firth's blueprint fan would be about 34, professional, middle class, still single (essentially, she would be Bridget Jones) and Firth's sexy authority will only increase as he turns a respectable 40. OK! magazine has officially labelled him a 'SAGO'—Sexier As they Get Older—albeit in the slightly unflattering company of fellow SAGOs Linford Christie and Bono. Authority is crucial because his most devoted fans are those who identify him (of course) with Mr Darcy.

Anyone—any man—who is baffled by the adoration danced on this fairly normal-looking English actor should remember that Mr Darcy was more than just another costume drama heart-throb. He was an island of masculinity in a post-feminist world; a summary of everything yearned for by a certain sort of woman adrift among tearful, quiche- baking men; a vision of dark, brooding, monosyllabic reserve on a big horse.

A million hearts fluttered as he plunged, fully clad, into that infamous lake; and let a million teeth gnash when I tell you that Colin Firth volunteered to play that scene naked but the broadcaster wouldn't allow it. Complaints to the BBC at the usual White City address, please. Never mind the Queen Mother's birthday; they also rejected the offer of Colin Firth's bare rump! Fools, the lot of them, and fools with our money. Although of course it could be argued that the soaked clothes were even more seductive: Firth explains now, sensibly over a nice cup of tea in a Soho members' club, that, 'The Darcy fantasy is the idea of the raw, pulsating animal qualities lurking underneath the stuffed-shirt qualities. Hence the interest in the wet shirt, which starts to reveal that which is imagined to be underneath.'

Darcy's symbolic power is what guarantees Firth's continuing love-god status some six years later. Nobody minds that he's more usually to be found playing someone gay (his first big break on stage in Another Country; his latest film Relative Values) or cuckolded (The English Patient, Shakespeare In Love)—or indeed that the Daily Mirror tried to scupper his 19th-century sex symbolism during Pride and Prejudice by publishing an unflattering photo of Colin arriving home with a new Hoover. Nobody cared. They just thought, 'Ooh, look at his muscles clenched round that Hoover.'

Actually, for my money, Another Country provided Firth's sexiest roles by far (Guy Bennett on stage, then Tommy Judd in the film). Who wants an old-fashioned Strong Silent Darcy when they could have a handsome, vulnerable public schoolboy lost in a world of sexual confusion? Well, just about everyone else, I suppose.

Irresistible, heterosexual machismo is what the nation associates with Mr Firth; hence its delight when he was finally confirmed as Mark Darcy in the new Bridget Jones film. Mark Darcy is the character inspired by Pride and Prejudice— his blueprint fan really is Bridget Jones. Bridget even went to interview him on set in Rome, disguised as author Helen Fielding, and followed him everywhere until he said: 'I'm going to have to go on alone from here; it's the men's toilet.'

Firth's first project after Pride and Prejudice aired was Fever Pitch, in which (as Nick Hornby said) 'the man famous for smouldering in a wet white shirt was forced to wear lurid Arsenal boxer shorts and shout swear words out of windows'.

'It's a great irony,' says Firth, who lives in Barnsbury and is the son of teachers, 'that people characterised Fever Pitch  as a big stretch, asking if I had to do a lot of research to transform myself into this middle-class football fan from North London. I was even wearing some of my own old clothes in the film! Yet that was considered a bigger stretch than playing someone who lived 200 years ago and was the richest man in England. As if it would come very naturally to me, by virtue of my birth, to play the owner of Pemberley in Derbyshire and ride around on a horse.'
 

"A million hearts fluttered as he plunged, fully clad, into that infamous lake;
and let a million teeth gnash when I tell you that Colin Firth volunteered
to play that scene naked but the BBC wouldn't allow it"

He acknowledges that class is a key determinant for any English actor's career. 'Actors are channelled into class categories very quickly. I'm lower middle class really, but I was identified immediately with the upper end of the system and I've benefited enormously from it. Even so, I've noticed critics give more credibility to the working-class end because they like things to "have an edge". And this seems to come from a lot of cosy middle-class people who'll run to the National Film Theatre to see a Tarantino film where everyone's brains get blown out and they use the n-word  for black people. I'm getting a bit weary of the "edge" thing.'

In terms of the watching public, Firth says, 'I think class has screwed us up quite badly, and we have a very confused take on our class archetypes. The upper classes are romanticised if we turn them into a fairy tale of the past, but otherwise loathed. There's a fascination with the world of champagne and white flannels and Brideshead, but very few examples where the upper class today is looked at with any romance.'
 

The new film, Relative Values, is one such champagne-and-romance vision; Firth plays the camp and witty nephew of the Countess of Marchwood (Julie Andrews) in Noel Coward's drawing-room comedy. Thus he suspects that critics will not credit it with 'an edge', although it might be argued that actors are never happy: Michael Caine grumbled rather grudgingly at the Bafta awards that critics respect only posh actors and never Cockney ones. Of this opposite view, Firth says, 'I'm not in Michael Caine's position so I can't judge, but I agree there's a stark contrast between England and Los Angeles. Americans make no distinction between English actors; they can't tell the difference between Michael Caine and Prince Charles. We're all Prince Charles to them.' What's it all about, Colin?
Prince Charles
When in Los Angeles, it's a relief to hear that Firth doesn't run around with the English set there (the Liz Hurleys, William Cashes and Henry Dent-Brocklehursts). He goes to LA specifically to visit his nine-year-old son Will, born of a romantic few years spent living in the forests of British Columbia with a lot of grizzly bears and Meg Tilly. (Meg Tilly was his co-parent, of course. Not the bears. Obviously.)

Firth is now married to Livia Guiggioli, an Italian film-maker described by Nick Hornby as 'joke-perfect: PhD, beautiful in that sultry Italian way, funny and vivacious'. Damn. Half the British nation is obsessed with his romantic status, and he told one interviewer that, 'We had the Diana experience leading up to the wedding in Rome'—by which I assume he meant that the paparazzi would not let up, rather than that his fiancée caught him whispering epithets down the phone to Camilla Parker Bowles.

It's a cosmopolitan life: the boy whose parents travelled between India and Africa, and who went to school in Winchester and St Louis, Missouri, now has an Italian wife and a Canadian son who lives in America. He doesn't  mind that his son won't grow up on the Highbury terraces in the rain because 'I'm not territorial-minded' and this is  reflected in his politics. During our conversation I found myself in the slightly surreal position of chatting with 'Mr Darcy' about asylum seekers. 'Our perceptions of people shouldn't be based on where they're born, and compassion shouldn't stop with national borders. There's only about 98,000 people seeking asylum, which can be made to sound like a very big figure, but only in the way that a "£150,000 flat" can sound like so much when in London it's actually nothing. We're talking about a substantial football crowd in a country of 55 million.'

And yet Colin Firth is so English, and so closely identified with Englishness on screen: the accent, the reserve and  (possibly his strongest quality) the ability to be sardonic, a word which I believe does not translate into any other  language. His Englishness seems unaffected by geography or family. I'm reminded of an old Jeremy Hardy stand-up routine, where Hardy talked about his adopted baby daughter who was not born in this country, and people asking him whether he thought her 'national traits' would come out later 'as if a baby born in England but brought up exclusively in Spain by Spanish parents would wake up one morning and say: "Ooh, very mild today. Still, best wear a cardigan".' Hardy was being sarcastic, and I'm paraphrasing his words, yet it rings oddly true of Colin Firth.

He's affectionate about his English roots: 'Beyond that famous English reserve lies incredible loyalty, and I cherish the English capacity for friendship. Other places have more apparent accessibility, but after five years you've got no further than you did on the first exchange.'

At the end of Another Country, Guy Bennett is asked what he misses most about England, the country he betrayed. All he can reply is 'the cricket'. Firth misses the cricket too, when he's away, but most of all he misses the comedy.

'Sometimes I come back and I've entirely missed a phenomenon—like Vic Reeves or Harry Enfield. This time round it was Ali G, which I then caught up on and thought was hilarious. The English in general are brilliant at laughing at themselves and their country, and there's nothing more pleasing in a person—starting with yourself is the root of all    humour. When I've been in comedies, I've tended to be the butt of the joke. In Shakespeare In Love [where he played Lord Wessex, the heroine's unloved fiancé] my function was to be the one guy who lacks poetry, romance and humour—all the things that the film celebrates. It's an important comic function, and having a sense of one's own ridiculousness is something that keeps me sane.'

I assume his friends must have laughed when he was galloping around on Mr Darcy's horse? 'Oh, they laughed themselves to death. And they continue to. The contrasts to that character are quite extreme if you see me daily over  breakfast.' Well, I'd be happy to give that a try.

It remains to be seen how much Mr Darcy will be sent up in the character of Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones's Diary. Very much an actor, if an unusually clever and articulate one, Firth insists that, 'I have to forget his origins and play  him as a character in his own right.' The day after our meeting is the first day of filming: 'It's a scene where I meet Bridget by the dustbins.' Lucky old Bridget.

  • Relative Values opens on 23 June

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