Edward Fox is back in the West End to take on a one man show, and he’s certainly not phased by it – even at 80…

‘Too many people in the modern world view poetry as a luxury, not a necessity like petrol. But to me it’s the oil of life,’ said the poet, John Betjeman. And one man who believes this is Edward Fox, so much so that he is willing to step into the shoes of Betjeman in a one-man play that explores the life of the former poet laureate.

Quite a feat to take on at the age of 80, some might say. But Fox has an infectious excitement about it when I put this to him. ‘It might be a huge thing to take on, but I’ve done it before so it’s not new territory,’ says Fox. ‘You take something new away from every different role. If you think you can contribute something to it, then just do it. Anyway, with this one the poet made me do it. He really was a great mind and a dear man, a lovely, extraordinary, highly intelligent man.’

The play, Sand in the Sandwiches, is centered on the life of Betjeman – a man with a poetic legacy perhaps as highly regarded as the acting repute of Fox. It does strike me that this could be a perfect casting. Penned by Hugh Whitemore, the show will run from 30 May-3 June, and is described as a journey through memory and verse that collates the work of the 20th century’s most treasured poet.

Fox is taking on the play at the age of 80

Fox is taking on the play at the age of 80

Fox fills me in on the last few years of his life. He has a certain way with words and I find myself encapsulated and drawn into the world of everything he is narrating to me – a good omen for the actor taking on a one-man show. He makes no secret of the fact that his passion for theatre means he waits for the right show to come along and doesn’t hold back on his critique of modern theatre.

‘I haven’t been doing anything of great interest recently, if I’m honest. The theatre now, you can’t get people to do it your way any more, it’s all musicals and depressing stuff,’ he says.

If you think of Hollywood now, it’s about making money, so it’s fraudulent. That is putting the cart right before the horse. The horse is the only thing that matters about what we do on the stage

‘So I’ve been sitting and holding back. I got a letter from an American fan recently who said: “You never disappoint.” I thought, that’s what I always want to do. If you pop out of the jack in a box, make sure they like what you do while you’re up there and then pop back in.’

The theatre is always important to Fox, despite his work in film. He believes that films are great to do rarely, but that a lot of filmmaking isn’t worth turning a camera on for. ‘If you think of Hollywood now, it’s about making money, so it’s fraudulent,’ he says. ‘That is putting the cart right before the horse. The horse is the only thing that matters about what we do on the stage. With stage, an audience won’t let you get away with that.’

Fox in rehearsal

Fox in rehearsal

I can’t help but think it must be a scary prospect to get behind the character of a man who you admire so much. ‘The biggest challenge was finding the courage to do it. You have to find something inside you and work really hard,’ says Fox.

‘That’s one of the good things about theatre is that every performance demands courage and that’s a wonderful thing to be demanded of. Everyone has courage and it’s only when they are asked to consider that they haven’t that things go wrong. I taught that to my children the few times that they listened to this silly old fool!’ From the success of his children within the Fox acting dynasty, perhaps we should all listen – it doesn’t sound foolish to me.

So what can people expect from the show? Fans of Betjeman can rejoice because a lot of his poetry is included. Fox hopes that people can, too, expect amusement. ‘I think just to have fun with thinking about what it is to be alive and to be amused in your intellect and in your heart,’ he says. ‘That people who say they’ve never read poetry but were really taken by it – I have heard that said.’

That’s one of the good things about theatre – every performance demands courage

Another sentiment that both Fox and Betjeman seem to share is sadness in the loss of bohemia and the rise of gentrification. As Betjeman stated in his poem, Inexpensive Progress: ‘Let no provincial High Street, which might be your or my street, look as it used to do, but let the chain stores place here.’

Fox was born in Chelsea, but worries the area is losing its heart from the place he used to know. ‘I used to love Chelsea when it had this bohemian thing, but it’s now just quite rich,’ he says. ‘I do worry that it has become obsessed with material acquisitiveness. Notting Hill is good, as it’s still a London village instead of its high street linking to another. That’s the London I remember and love.’

But Fox is thrilled to spend some time in the area doing what he loves. ‘We are asking a lot of people to sit and listen to a man telling you about himself, and we are asking them to sit for a long time and want to listen,’ he finishes. ‘It’s a challenge, but I’m excited.’ As are we. Something tells me that Fox might just come even more alive in this show.

Sand in the Sandwiches runs from 30 May-3 June at Theatre Royal Haymarket