‘I’m very aware of being public school now. All those things you loathe’: Toby Jones on class, character and the cost of fame | Toby Jones

I am waiting on a mezzanine in a fancy establishment in Shoreditch in east London, when I hear a bounding tread, full of enthusiasm, taking steps two at a time. “I wonder why a kid is coming up here,” I think to myself. Then Toby Jones, 57, arrives. I’m surprised by how chic and urbane he looks, the nippy tailoring on his earth-coloured casual wear: but that’s because I’d spent the week watching Mr Bates vs the Post Office. The new ITV drama tells the story of the class action suit that had Alan Bates, a former post office operator at Craig-y-Don, in Llandudno, at its centre. Bates, an unassuming crusader for justice, is a lot of things – his rock-solid moral compass has its own charisma, by the time Jones has finished playing him – but he is emphatically not chic or urbane.

The scandal is one of the largest miscarriages of justice in British legal history: the Post Office, over a period spanning more than 20 years, accused post office operators across the country of fraud and theft, due to accounting errors that were in fact caused by their own software. It’s a story of jaw-dropping corporate mendacity from the start, as Post Office representatives told numerous operators that they were alone in experiencing these errors, which would ultimately land all of them in court and some in prison. Casting every incident as a one-off, the Post Office failed to investigate their own vast screw-up, and, once they discovered it, covered it up. Compensation has been slow and patchy; many are still waiting. And many things – time spent in prison, lives lost to suicide, ongoing struggles with depression and anxiety, both among post office operators and their families – can never be compensated.

Before we talk about that, though, Jones clocks what I’m reading (Lanny, by Max Porter), and has a thousand thoughts about the author – fair play, Jones did voice the audio version of Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, by Porter (please, if you haven’t, stop reading this and go and listen to it now), so you’d expect him to have some thoughts, but not a thousand.

With Julie Hesmondhalgh in Mr Bates vs the Post Office. Photograph: ITV

So, immediately, we’re talking about grief, then death, then mourning – he’s just read a book about how “the way we mourn defines how we live. Philosophers talk about death as the defining, conditioning influence of your life, but I’ve never heard anyone say that of mourning.” Obviously, I start picking holes in this immediately, it’s just how I am. That can’t be right, because a lot of us don’t lose anyone until we’re pretty old, and already defined. He doesn’t argue the point, he goes deeper into it. “My wife lost both her parents; her mum was 51, her dad was 61. And no one we knew had lost anyone,” he says. “I think back to the flailing attempts I made to try to empathise with her, compared with what I go through, my friends go through, my brothers go through now [their father died in 2019, aged 91]. Grieving is so much the lingua franca of our age, we’re all in it now, we will be in it for the rest of our lives. And I want to apologise to my wife and her sister, say, ‘I’m really sorry, I really wasn’t on it. I didn’t know what the hell was going on.’”

Jones is an actor’s actor, so subtle, meticulous, inventive that often it takes a trained eye to pinpoint it, even if the untrained eye can perceive it. He has been the stamp of excellence on a huge number of films and TV shows since the 1990s, though rarely the lead, with a few exceptions – he played Truman Capote in the biopic Infamous (2007); Roger Yount in the BBC adaptation of John Lanchester’s Capital (2015) – arguably, there was no lead in that, but Jones’s hectic, emotional banker was up there; he’s one half of Detectorists (2014-22), the other, Mackenzie Crook. Having discernment and lacking a square jaw, there’s no romantic lunk material, and therefore almost nothing boring on his CV, even if he has sometimes been underused in blockbusters. For people who have worked with him, the top line is always that he’s a genius. But the first thing you notice when you meet him is that he’s incredibly nice.

His performance as Bates is fantastic: from the minute he appears behind his post office counter, he hums with decency, doggedness, unassuming courage, utter determination. Bates had walked away from his post office and had no dog in the fight, but was still sifting through his records, trying to get to the bottom of how the errors had been introduced. When he started getting a sense of how many other post office operators were involved, and called a public meeting in an out-of-the-way place, just because it looked to him to be smack in the centre of the UK, things began to change.

Bates, by Jones’s account – he spoke to him, preparing for the role – is pretty unusual. “Effectively, he was sort of saying, ‘I don’t have emotions.’ I went in with all these questions, ‘What was it … ?’, ‘How did you … ?’, ‘How much time … ?’, ‘How did it affect you?’ And he would say, ‘Yeah, yeah, but the thing is, I don’t really have feelings about things like that.’”

Having hit the brick wall of a character who taught himself how software works yet refused point-blank to emote, Jones was in a fix: on the one hand, that’s pretty much what you would expect a post office operator to be like – “That’s why they’re the right people to be postmasters. It’s their job to be completely invisible, almost.” But, on the other hand, he says: “How was I going to play this guy? I don’t believe a word of what he says to me about himself. I don’t believe any human is like that. Everyone has emotions.”

Portrait of Toby Joes on a set with lots of objects covered in brown paper. Styling: Peter Bevan. Set design: Victoria Twyman. Grooming: Nadia Altinbas. Jumper, universalworks.co.uk. Jeans, uniqlo.com. Socks, falke.com. Shoes, grenson.com. Top image: knit, by Jacquemus, from matchesfashion.com.
Styling: Peter Bevan. Set design: Victoria Twyman. Grooming: Nadia Altinbas. Jumper, universalworks.co.uk. Jeans, uniqlo.com. Socks, falke.com. Shoes, grenson.com. Top image: knit, by Jacquemus, from matchesfashion.com. Photograph: David Vintiner/The Guardian

Then he spoke to former MP James Arbuthnot, who also fought hard to get justice for the post office operators. “And he said, ‘Every moment I spent with Alan Bates improved the quality of my life. I am privileged to know a man like Alan Bates.’”

“He’s like the British qualities I was told about when I was a kid,” Jones says, “modesty and duty and don’t-get-above-yourself. All that stuff that sort of went out the window in the 80s. He was formed by those forces. I just find it so heroic, and it’s celebrated in the drama. That, more than anything, made me want to do it. Just thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great, if there were more of those stories? Rather than these shameless people we have to hear about every day.’”

The scandal is still not resolved: compensation is outrageously slow, some of the impact will take years to heal, some is irreparable – four people caught up in it have taken their own lives. So the drama feels like a very live intervention, as well as a timeless, archetypal piece. “This is the way I learned drama,” Jones says, “the hero falls out of the chorus: either speaks for it or speaks against it. It felt so primal in that sense.”

Anyway, he’s keen to stress, he just took the gig – “Actors are beggars” – and the only decision he’s ever called on to make is “Yes or no”. He must have a little more agency than he makes out, since his highest aim is not to repeat himself, and his CV shows very little repetition – even in the blockbusters Captain America (2011 and 2014), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023), which are similar by definition, he’s never the same thing twice. “You’re always looking for the space that hasn’t been colonised by stuff you’ve done already. If you’re repeating a similar part, in the sense of its function within the story, that can be soul-destroying. The joy of the job is entirely compromised. It becomes like work.”

Nevertheless, he is very clear on this: any employment is better than unemployment. “Where I trained as an actor in Paris, that was literally all it was about: you should never be unemployed. It’s irresponsible to be unemployed.” I’m desperately trying to stifle a laugh, overcome by the irony: he went to the world’s most famous mime school, and they told him never to be unemployed. “At Jacques Lecoq they said that?” I ask. “At Jacques Lecoq they said that,” he affirms. “But it’s a fucking mime school,” I say. “It’s not a fucking mime school,” he replies. He doesn’t seem miffed; maybe if I say “mime” a lot more times, he will be.

With Hugo Weaving in Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011.
With Hugo Weaving in Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011. Photograph: Marvel Studios/Allstar

This sparks a conversation in which I learned more about the brass tacks of acting than I have in the rest of my life combined. Toby Jones, the child of two actors, was determined not to follow in their footsteps. His father, Freddie Jones, was revered on stage and in demand on telly, ending his career with 13 years doing Emmerdale; his mother, Jennie Jones (nee Heslewood) started out acting before raising Toby and his two brothers.

Jones was born in London and grew up in Oxford, where he went to Abingdon, the private school that gave us seven famous people in the space of a few year groups (Jones, Tom Hollander and all five members of Radiohead; he’s sometimes spotted in the queue at their gigs). He went to the University of Manchester, intending to be a director, graduating in 1989. “I got to the end of those three years, thinking, ‘Is there any point to this?’ Because you spend a lot of time discussing the future of theatre, and it seems bleak. Other media are taking over, people’s disposable incomes are shrinking – and this was back then. Things are way more severe now. But then I came across continental photographs of Polish theatre, French theatre, and thought, ‘This doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before.’ It’s a medieval principle: you will make new theatre with people from different cultures. It will generate new physical language just by definition, because you have different body language, different ways of speaking, and you have to improvise together.”

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This, he thought, would survive the modern world, theatre that wasn’t just pretending to be TV. So he went to Paris, “and I remember on the first day, them saying, ‘And now we have acrobatics’, and thinking, ‘No, no, no, no, I’m here to do theatre.’” He says this while almost doing an impression of his younger self: public school-educated, confident on the surface, not underneath. “The revelatory side of it was using the whole other side of my brain, which I’d sort of thrown away from about the age of 12, when I just wanted to read and write. Suddenly, that was not valued. They would literally say, ‘Can you please stop writing notes, stop thinking and play again?’”

There was one other influence, besides Lecoq. “Monty Python, listening to those records over and over again, as a child, thinking, ‘Why does this make me laugh?’ But that’s a real young boys’ thing.” (He breaks to acknowledge that that’s sexist, winningly, then continues.) “We obsessively listen to the same records over and over until we get it. And that sort of gets hardwired into you.”

I say I can’t find Python funny any more, ever since that private school sensibility has been deployed in the service of political evil. “I know exactly what you mean by that,” he says. “Because it felt like, when we were looking at Boris Johnson, one was looking at a man one knew. Thinking, ‘Wow, that’s like the pure form of a lot of people I met at school, and saw in other schools. I know that guy.’ It almost affected me more profoundly because of that. It’s ruined the charm, which was apparently his great currency. It’s so cynical, the way he operates.” I feel like we might settle into whining about the government, which is my happy place, but he hares off. “I once heard someone say that all comedy was conservative. I said, ‘What? It’s anarchy.’ He said, ‘No, comedy assumes there’s a right way to do everything, which is being screwed up or subverted.’ In order to understand it, you have to go, ‘There’s a right way to do everything and this isn’t it.’ Or, ‘They’re all getting it, and look at the guy who isn’t’ or ‘Listen to her accent, isn’t she funny?’ It plays on a certain understanding of normalcy.”

When Jones arrived back in London in 1991, it was as a radical, an idealist: the training was, again, to a medieval model, where everyone did everything – acting, writing, producing, directing, designing – with the goal of setting up a company and making art. “I’d had so much fun, and the possibilities were so endless. But no one knows you, and no one in the world needs you, so you have to find a way of being needed. Defensively, you take up a position: us against the world, and the world is shit. We’ve got to get funding for this work that matters, overturn all that corrupt theatre. You demonise the opposition, rather than just going, ‘We’re another part of that ecosystem.’” He spent a lot of time in the Battersea Arts Centre, south London, watching plays, “pulling apart everyone’s work afterwards. And it was our own sort of little golden age.” He emphatically wouldn’t divide his career into wilderness years and box office, and says, “if someone said to me, let’s make a little bit of theatre in Battersea Arts Centre, I’d go, ‘How much time is it gonna take? What is it?’ It might be that that is exactly what I should do.” He landed a tiny part in the fascinating Orlando (1992), starring Tilda Swinton, that year.

By the turn of the century, a lot of classic British TV and film-making would have looked a bit incomplete without Jones in it, whether that was Doctor Who or as the voice of Dobby in two Harry Potters. He seems quite ego-free, or ego-low at any rate, in the sense that his quest was never for a part that was larger than the last. He has carried films as the lead – such as Infamous– but he didn’t bring anything less than 100% Jones-y-ness as Norman, a smaller role in last year’s Empire of Light.

Is he ambitious? He approaches the question in a roundabout way. “Well, my partner’s a lawyer,” he starts (he’s referring to his wife, Karen – they had been together for 25 years by the time they married in 2015, and have two grownup daughters). “And there’s an assumption of what is expected. When you get good at being a lawyer, then you have to do that, then you have to do this.” Acting is plainly not like that. “There’s no career path, and I do love that. There is no penthouse, there is no top boss, there is no Shangri-la to aim for.” But there are similarities in so far as, “people project their own ambition on to you. Why don’t you have the same kind of ambition? I’m very ambitious. But I don’t necessarily have the same ambition as someone else. I think, after a certain age, fame is a puerile ambition. I don’t feel famous, but I feel famous enough to answer the question. How many times do you need to be told, it’s not the answer? The culture constantly tells you, doesn’t it? It doesn’t bring happiness! And, guess what, it doesn’t. But if you’re someone who’s struggling to make it as an actor, if you’re struggling to be seen, if you think, ‘Maybe I’ve got to give up being an actor’, and you read me saying fame isn’t the answer, you’ll go, ‘Fuck off. Who the fuck are you to say that?’”

With Mackenzie Crook in Detectorists, 2022: ‘No one ever had to change a single word that Mackenzie wrote.’
With Mackenzie Crook in Detectorists, 2022: ‘No one ever had to change a single word that Mackenzie wrote.’ Photograph: Jack Barnes/BBC/Channel X

Possibly the performance I found most surprising was Lance in Detectorists: everything about it, from his delivery to his bones, was just so funny. “I’m very aware of being public school, now. Being modest, self-effacing, charming – all those things you loathe, that loathsome behaviour. But that was funny because the writing was absolutely faultless. No one ever had to change a single line that Mackenzie [Crook] wrote.” Find yourself a friend who talks about you like Jones and Crook talk about each other, is my advice, it’s lovely; and, just as I’m thinking that, he says the same of the characters they play. “This is about two people who don’t go to the football. They go and stand in a field. And hunt the earth. So it’s very easy to go, ‘Ha ha, outliers.’ But, no, they’re not really doing that. They happen to be doing that, they’re passionate about it. But they’re really in love with each other. They really adore each other’s difference.”

Arguably, the more surprising choice of roles are the blockbusters, which can’t possibly use the range Jones has, it’s just not their bailiwick. “It is still exciting to go into bigger productions, because you just look at all of these people who have all had the same struggle as you’ve had. Even on massive-budget Hollywood things, you go, ‘It’s just a shame that this script isn’t as good as it could be, because look at the people.’” He’s not explicitly talking about Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones (the most recent reboots of both franchises), but I think he might be, here. “Some people go to the cinema wanting to be disoriented. But other people go thinking, ‘I want to be more with dinosaurs. I want to be more with adventurous archaeologists.’ The story is neither here nor there. It’s just, ‘I want to be more in that’, like a theme park. And you realise that that’s the roots of cinema. Trains coming towards you, WOW. It’s sensation. So my own preoccupations about what I like in cinema are neither here nor there.”

You know what, it’s probably really simple: he’s nice because he’s not disappointed, having a deep creative curiosity that can’t be exhausted or thwarted – he loves what he does and there’s always more of it. “Talking to friends, actor friends, who have survived this long and are working this long, I’m really aware of the bits of the job I like and the bits of the job I don’t like. And those lists change a bit. This morning, I had to have my photo taken, and I hate it. I fucking hate it. But this morning, I didn’t hate it.” I think of the wardrobe laid out for the shoot, when I first arrived: a pair of dress shoes; pair after pair of Birkenstocks. I would also hate that, people making me wear Birkenstocks in every colour. But, no, that’s not what he hated. “There’s nothing to hide behind.” When is there ever anything to hide behind, I ask. “Well,” he says, patiently. “When I’m playing a character who’s not me.”

Mr Bates vs the Post Office starts on 1 January followed by the factual documentary, Mr Bates vs the Post Office: The Real Story, on 4 January on ITV1 and ITVX.


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