Ah, Bill Nighy. I’ve used phrases like chameleonic before but Bill Nighy is not quite that sort of actor. That doesn’t mean he isn’t versatile though. He has played a wide range of characters: a formerly addicted pop star, the minister for magic, a Regency gent, the embodiment of the oceanic abyss, a Victorian detective, a vampire elder, and an award winning maker of fjords, amongst many others. You always know it’s Bill Nighy but it’s never the same person.
The marvellous Mr Nighy tends, for some reason, to be described with L words…laconic, louche, languid, lanky, lugubrious, lackadaisical, even lecherous have all been used and are all delightfully accurate. Lucent, lovely, limitless, laureled, laudable, and legendary are some more that I’d like to throw into the mix. He is urbane and debonair while managing to keep a friendly, affable aura. He is the epitome of your favourite uncle.
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William Francis Nighy was born in December 1949 in Caterham, Surrey which sits a few miles south of London. Young Billy was the son of a Glaswegian psychiatric nurse and an English garage manager and former chimney sweep. Brought up as a Roman Catholic, Bill’s first audience was when he served as an altar boy. Like me, Bill Nighy was a grammar school boy but, while I ended up making scenery, he joined the theatre group to stand in the spotlight.
He left school with two “O” Levels, English Language and Literature, and an ambition to be a journalist in order to “meet beautiful women in the rain”. Apparently, he was lacking the necessary qualifications for that career path; personally I can’t think what you need other than English. Instead, he decided to try and work his way up that particular greasy pole by getting a job as a messenger boy for The Croydon Advertiser.
An adventurous, teenage streak took him off on a solo trek to the Persian Gulf. Unfortunately, he only made it as far as the South of France and had to be repatriated by the British Consul at a cost of £25, much to the annoyance of his father. A short while later, he was still only sixteen, he went to Paris to write “his great novel”. His intention was to follow in the footsteps of his literary heroes Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. He stayed there for four months and only managed to write the title. Still, he did make a lot of memories.
Bill Nighy – Failed Author
So, journalism and a literary career hadn’t panned out and he needed to find another path. This, thankfully, led to him enrolling in the Guildford School of Acting. This was very nearly another failed career thanks to his innate self deprecation he would say “I used to stand in the wings and imagine the audience’s disappointment when I walked out, that there were other actors they would prefer to see.”
Fortunately, he overcame his inherent lack of confidence and started performing at theatres around the country. Eventually he went up to Liverpool and spent two seasons at the Everyman. This was followed by a transfer to the National where his debut was in a 1977 production of Illuminatus! The two stints in the theatre got Mr Nighy noticed and he started getting parts in the staples of late seventies and early eighties British television and uncredited small parts in the cinema of the period.
Those TV titles, which will resonate mightily for Brits of a certain age, include Softly Softly : Taskforce, Fox, Agony, Minder, Crown Court, Reilly, Ace Of Spies, Bergerac, Boon, and a few episodes each of Play For Today and BBC2 Playhouse. His film appearances included The Bitch, Curse Of The Pink Panther, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Death Watch; some of which he was credited in!
His big breakthrough in the UK came with The Men’s Room in 1991. This was a BBC comedy/drama mini series set in the world of academia. The BBC has quite a pedigree with this genre; The History Man, Oxbridge Blues, The Glittering Prizes, A Very Peculiar Practice are just a few of the better examples. Speaking as someone who went through both sides of the UK higher education system, all of these programmes were very accurately observed and delicately portrayed.
The UK Breakthrough
So, The Men’s Room saw him getting a lot more work on both large and sma ll screens; twenty five roles between then and the end of the millennium. One film was Being Human which was the film debut of Ewan McGregor and saw him working with Robin Williams. A few years later saw him in Still Crazy; the biopic of a seventies rock band trying to reform in the nineties which also starred Timothy Spall.
While on that particular topic, it’s worth noting that Bill Nighy is not afraid to give his pipes a blowing. He has done his own singing on a few occasions. The first time was when he played Sam Gamgee in a radio adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings. The first time on film was in a 1989 production of Mack The Knife when he played Tiger Brown. It’s 1998 when he plays lead singer of Strange Fruit, Ray Simms in Still Crazy.
Bill Nighy Can Sing!
Probably his most famous singing role came in 2003 as Billy Mack in Love Actually, but more of that later. He sang again in The Magic Roundabout (2005), Arthur Christmas (2011), and Their Finest (2017) before going back to the radio. Starting in 2006 and popping up fairly regularly until 2020, Bill played the title role in the Charles Paris Mysteries and some episodes have him singing a couple of songs.
But back to acting. In 2002 he appeared in the popular…very popular TV series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. This series started in 1983 and told of a group of building workers who were fed up of life on the dole in Thatcher’s Britain and went to work on a German building site. There was a second season set in Spain and then things went quiet.
A TV Legend
Sixteen years later saw a reboot with the gang transferring a bridge from Newcastle to the USA. And who should play the bad guy trying to take advantage of what he thinks is a group of thick brickies. And who do you think plays the smooth, oleaginous, con man Jeffery Grainger? Why, none other than Mr Nighy, himself!
His International break came in 2003. We all know which one I mean but, there could have been another film that launched him up into the A list…Underworld and the two sequels. I have to admit that I haven’t seen any of the Underworld series. To be honest, I’m not sure why; how any films that have the dual attractions of Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen have escaped me, I really don’t know.
The Global Breakthrough
Still, I did get to see Love Actually! As, it seems, did half the world. I’ve already rambled on about the film at great length when did the Christmas rewatches so I’m not going to say a lot about it now. What I will say is that I’ve always enjoyed seeing Bill Nighy in a film and now he’s appearing in a lot more.
Love Actually changed his life in other ways too. He went from relative anonymity to being snapped by paparazzi and seeing headlines like “Bill buys a pineapple” after he’d been shopping. Also he still gets people coming up to him and saying “Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!”
A Near Miss
Whether it was the huge boost to his visibility that came with the role of Billy Mack is hard to say but it appears that he was on the shortlist to play the title role in the 2005 revival of Doctor Who! The part eventually went to Christopher Eccleston but I can’t help thinking that a Bill Nighy Doctor would have been an interesting and fascinating casting decision. I enjoyed Chris Eccleston’s Doctor but I miss Bill Nighy’s.
The next year saw Uncle Bill in the first part of the Cornetto Trilogy, Shaun Of The Dead. He also appeared in the other two flavours but, frankly, that’s no surprise. Director and co-writer Edgar Wright was after a rep feel with the same cast appearing in different stories. Star and co-writer Simon Pegg said “Anybody that has been in the two films is in this.” This means that we get to see Martin Freeman thrice as well.
Filming The Unfilmable
The following year saw him in one of the great unfilmable films…The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. I say that H2G2 is unfilmable because of the sheer range of imagination that Douglas Adams poured into it; there were reasons why it was originally a radio show! Still, the 2005 film was a lot better than the 1981 TV series which suffered from the woeful special effects of the period. Also there was the benefit of input from the great man himself. Douglas Adams had died in 2001 but he had been working on a film adaptation up to that point.
Things that Adams insisted on were Arthur Dent had to be English and the voice of the book had to be his friend Stephen Fry. Other plot points were introduced or reworked to get a full story into the span of a film. Maybe if there had been the same fashion for splitting books into two parts then we may have had a different offering. Still, when you want an eons old, maker of planets for the ridiculously wealthy then you need someone laid back, lugubrious, and unlikely to be unsettled like Slartibartfast then you need Bill Nighy. The only other possible actor at the time was Alan Rickman and he was already the voice of Marvin!
Rubbing Shoulders With Oscar
Then came what is, arguably, his first brush with cinematic greatness…the award winning The Constant Gardener. Without wishing to disparage the good name of Mr Nighy, if you need someone to play a duplicitous, superior government official then there are few better! His turn as Sir Bernard Pellegrin is faultless.
That languid larynx has been heard a lot more than it has been seen. Bill Nighy seems to be the go to guy when you need a certain sort of voice work. He has been all over animations and video games; Flushed Away, Rango, Arthur Christmas, A Fox’s Tale, The Magic Roundabout, Astro Boy, Norm Of The North, The World’s End, and many others feature his golden tonsils.
So Much To Choose From!
Obviously, when you’re dealing with the life and work of someone with over a hundred and fifty screen credits some parts have to be passed over so I’m going to stick with stuff that I’ve seen. His next foray into big franchises was a couple of outings in the Pirates Of The Caribbean series…Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. He was barely recognisable under mountains of makeup and CGI but you can still recognise him as soon as he opens his mouth.
After his outings as a Caribbean pirate he had a go at being a North Sea pirate. He played Quentin in The Boat That Rocked, which is one of my go to films when I can’t be bothered thinking. Childhood memories, great music, and Bill Nighy…perfection! Incidentally this is also Mr Nighy’s second collaboration with Richard Curtis.
The following year saw Bill tick off yet another franchise. After appearing in the Cornetto Trilogy and the Underworld and Pirates Of The Caribbean series there was only one place left to go, really. And so he became Rufus Scrimgeour, the Minister of Magic in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. While on the subject of franchises, Bill starred as Johnny Worricker in; what came to be known as The Worricker Trilogy; three political, made for TV thrillers comprising of Page Eight, Turks & Caicos, and Salting The Battlefield.
In between the component parts of The Worricker Trilogy there was a delightful romantic comedy drama with a magnificent ensemble cast; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Alongside Bill there was Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton, Celia Imrie, Tom Wilkinson, Ronald Pickup, and, relative newcomer, Dev Patel. Quite the array of talent in anybody’s books! Enough to warrant a second outing in 2015 – The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Do You Think That’s Wise, Sir?
Then there came what is widely held to be a misstep; the remake of Dad’s Army as a film. Don’t get me wrong, nothing and nobody about this was actually bad…it was just that they were trying to step into some very big shoes indeed. It might not make sense to people not born over here but Dad’s Army ran from 1968 to 1977 and was much beloved over here. To be honest, the original cast made a film version in 1971 and it wasn’t particularly well received. Still, if there is anybody who can take the place of John Le Mesurier then it has to be Bill Nighy.
By now we’re hitting the time that I had reached retirement age and had started going to the cinema several times a week. The first Bill Nighy film I saw in this period was quite a poignant one. It was The Limehouse Golem and the poignancy arose from the fact it was supposed to have starred Alan Rickman but, as we now know, that was not to be. The film is dedicated to Alan and it is interesting to watch Bill Nighy and wonder what Alan Rickman would have done.
If You Can’t Get Bowie…
There seemed to be a flurry of Bill Nighy films coming out. Some of which I even managed to get my wife to come and see! The Bookshop, Hope Gap, and Sometimes Always Never she actually enjoyed. Those films all being people and life films without a car chase or gunfight between them. Pokémon Detective Pikachu was a different kettle of fish and I had to go to that with my granddaughter. The last film I saw him in, at the cinema, was a delightful piece of Regency fluff, Emma. I’m not a huge Austen fan but I quite enjoyed this one.
His latest outing is in a TV Series. Back in 1976 there was a rather surreal film called The Man Who Fell To Earth. It was about an alien stranded on Earth. The director was Nicolas Roeg, which is where the surreal bit comes in and the alien was David Bowie. So it’s 2022. Bowie has, sadly, passed away. Who do you get to play the alien? Bill Nighy…obviously! Oh, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is his rescuer.
So I think it’s fairly obvious that, for me, Bill Nighy can open a film. He’s the sort of chap I’d like to be…suave, urbane, humorous, and incredibly witty. Sadly all I actually have in common with him is my height, hair, and the beginnings of Dupuytren’s contracture. Still…it’s a start.
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!