Local actor Jim Carter, best known for playing Carson the butler in Downton Abbey, broke all records at West Hampstead Library on Wednesday night by drawing the biggest crowd for a Friends of West Hampstead Library event since Stephen Fry in 2001. The “house full” notice went up at 7.30pm, just as the event started.
The evening, hosted by FoWHL Chair Simon Inglis, began with Jim playing a guessing game with the audience based on key elements of his acting career. With typical generosity he handed a bottle of champagne to the winner.
With Simon as a foil, the two of them made a fine comedy turn as Jim embarked on a riot of anecdotes, starting with his story of how he abandoned a university degree in English for a career in street theatre in Brighton. One early performance for kids, he recalled, was interrupted by an invasion of Mods and Rockers. Punch and Judy ended up in the sea while Jim, dressed head-to-toe as a thistle, ended up being chased along the beach by a psychopath in a leather jacket. An unusual seaside memory.
He then took us on a tour of America. His first visit was to enrol with a circus school. He then returned with the legendary Ken Campbell and his surreal roadshow. All he needed at that time, he said, was a rucksack and a pub. Then it was back for the National Theatre’s triumphant run of Guys and Dolls and a meeting with fellow actor, Imelda Staunton. They married a year or so later.
Clearly Jim is a proud resident of West Hampstead, with a long record of community and charitable work. He spoke with particular pride of his six years as president of Hampstead Cricket Club in Lymington Road – especially the setting up of a women’s team – also of the fundraising evenings he is putting on at, and for, the Tricycle Theatre. (Note, Jim’s event with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench is sold out, but there are still tickets available for Danny Boyle on March 26).
Finally, as no doubt many in the packed audience were hoping for (one fan had reportedly come over from Germany especially for the evening), the conversation arrived at Downton Abbey. Jim entertained us all with stories of life upstairs and downstairs (for the actors as much as the characters), and a recollection of George Clooney’s visit to the set. Apparently after he kissed Maggie Smith’s outstretched hand she affected a theatrical swoon and fell off her settee. Asked if a Downton movie is on the cards, he revealed that the actors were all in favour – they had all enjoyed working together – but that the script would have to be good.
The evening was an hour of theatre, full of nostalgic generosity and Falstaffian humour. It’s a long way from his roots in Harrogate to West Hampstead, but Jim Carter took us with him every step of the way. And to cap it all, Simon was able to announce at the conclusion that Jim had kindly consented to follow in Stephen Fry’s footsteps by becoming a patron of the Friends group.
The author is FoWHL writer in residence