From Idler 24, Summer 1998
Hutch is alive and well and living in Maida Vale. And he’s got a few things on his mind, as Louis Theroux discovers.
I drove to my appointment with David Soul in a car I bought only the day before, a 1993 Yugo Tempo with 35,000 miles on the clock. I got it at Used Car Supermarket in West London for five hundred pounds. It was missing its passenger-side seat belt, so I shunted the passenger seat all the way forward to make more room in the back where the seat belts are fine. After the interview, David asked for a lift to a shoe repair shop on the Edgware Road.
I warned David that my car wasn’t fancy. He said he didn’t mind. The photographer climbed in back, and before I’d had time to adjust his seat, David was in front. This was the first time I’d had two passengers simultaneously, never mind that one of them was an international television celebrity, one of the biggest stars of the Seventies, and a byword for spectacular cop show car chases. As I pulled out, I looked over. David’s knees were around his ears. “I’ve got Hutch in my Yugo!” I kept thinking. He looked so funny all scrunched up that I started laughing out loud, lost my concentration and nearly hit a parked car.
We’d spent the afternoon running errands for David’s partner, Alexa ~ picking up groceries, drink, some dry cleaning ~ and then chatting in David’s local pub. David lives close to Warwick Avenue tube and everyone in his local shopping arcade knows him and calls him Dave. It was the day of the gay pride rally, and one of the barrow boys in the local greengrocers said, “I’m surprised you’re not in Hyde Park.” Another one said, “Dave, this girl’s got a question for you.” “Excuse me,” said the girl, with a slight continental accent. “Do you have some free cardboard boxes?”
David has lived in London for the past two years. He said he enjoys the sense of community. “I know the people in the neighbourhood and I like that. It’s always great to belong somewhere.” He’s about to star as a washed-up surfer in a stage production called The Dead Monkey, which opens at the Whitehall in September. When I met him at lunch time one Saturday, he was wearing dark glasses, chain-smoking and looking slightly unkempt. He was friendly, a little distracted. I’d hoped to get a walk round his flat; I’d brought my guitar so he could teach me the chords to his 1977 hit “Don’t Give Up On Us Baby”, which I dimly recall seeing him perform on Top of the Pops when I was seven. But it wasn’t to be. “I don’t think we’re going to have time to do anything that creative,” he said.
After we’d run Alexa’s errands, David disappeared inside his flat to drop off the shopping. He came out five or so minutes later wearing a hangdog expression.
“Well, we fucked up,” he said. “We didn’t get the right stuff so she’s going to have to go out and get it.”
“What did you not get that you were supposed to get?”
“She said, I can’t use this hamburger meat!”
“I was going to say something . . . Because what we got are patties.”
“Well, she said they had hamburger meat, but they don’t.”
“So you have to take it back?”
I don’t know why, but I took this as my cue to lower my voice, and say: “She’s got you by the short and curlies.” David seemed affronted.
“How’s that?” he said. “I bought it. She’s not dressed. I’m going back that way. Might as well pick it up.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Yeah, quite right. Take it back.”
“Short and curlies. What do you mean, short and cur lies?”
“It’s just an expression.”
There was a long pause and just the sound of our footsteps on the pavement.
“Do you, um, can I ask you about the play you’re working on?”
We dropped off the frozen hamburger patties at the grocer’s. David got his money back. Then we hit the pub, where I stood David a white wine spritzer.
LOUIS: As someone who has lived such an amazing life and who has been at the top, what have you learned? Are you pleased with the way you handled things?
DAVID: No, but I’ve stopped flagellating myself for my mistakes. I’ve started to accept them.
LOUIS: What were your mistakes?
DAVID: Myriad of them. A lot of them weren’t my fault. That’s a very important recognition. Some of this is not your fault. You can be making a fuck up because you haven’t learned anything. Who is ready for that kind of high-powered high-visibility bullshit? Not me! So it’s not like you ease into it. I have an easy style with people. I’ve never had a problem with that. But it’s a hell of a lot different to deal with once you have the success that I did experience back in the Seventies and early Eighties. I didn’t know how to handle it. I just didn’t know. It scared the shit out of me.
LOUIS: Didn’t know how to handle what exactly?
DAVID: I didn’t know what to expect from anybody. “What do you fucking expect from me?” “What do you want from me?” “What is it?” You play a game. You go along. You play according to their rules. Then something else is expected of you, and somebody says, ‘Hey, this all goes with it!’ But I mean I’m not getting anything out of it! “Get these cameras out of my face!” What right do they have to go and inveigle their way into my house and into my life? It’s none of their business! You know and: (nerdy voice) “That’s the price you pay for fame.” Look at this kid Owen, what’s going to happen to him in two years?
LOUIS: Is he your son?
DAVID: No, no, Owen.
LOUIS: Oh, Michael Owen!
DAVID: Michael Owen. Any one of these kids that comes along. The big difference between then and now is that at least then there was much more of a support system within the business. Now it’s catch as catch can and dog eat dog. If I had to do it over again I wouldn’t start. I wouldn’t do it.
LOUIS: How could you have handled things differently. I don’t mean in the sense of looking back and saying you have regrets. I mean in the sense of . . . what I’m trying to get at is what you’ve learned. How does one conduct one’s life? Do you know what I mean? It’s one of the hardest things and no one’s really giving us the answers.
DAVID: If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s really to . . . rather than to put things in terms of external success or internal failure, the two extremes, is to learn to acknowledge and accept yourself for who you are. And I think that is maybe the most radical thing I could suggest at the moment. The most difficult, the most simple and the most difficult. We’re not talking about blame or guilt or fear or success or a new set of clothes or a new phase of life or a new lifestyle. That’s not what it’s about; it’s about accepting yourself and living with that. And I think that’s what I didn’t do. Particularly in this business, you’re only as important as your last record or your last hit or your last great story, or your last television show or your last this or your last that. Celebrity is a lot like ice cream, you know, it melts and then you’ve got to live with yourself. [Chuckles ruefully]. And I think to be able to accept that, with the greatest awe, is the key. It’s not a big wise statement, but it’s the only thing I know of to talk about.
LOUIS: At the pinnacle of your fame you were probably one of the most recognisable people on the planet. What was that like? Was it awful? Fantastic? Mediocre?
DAVID: Frightening. It was all those things. It was exhilarating, it was frightening, lonely. It was frustrating. Thinking, that’s not who I am, guys! This is who I am. Not that guy. Am I what you think I am? Or am I what I know of myself, you know? Never having the courage or the balls to be able to say this is who I am. Wanting to please everybody. Because they expect you to please everybody. So I tried to please everybody. But I couldn’t do it. If you don’t do it then you’re a bad guy. So I’m a bad guy. But I look back on it. It’s thirty years now I’ve been doing this. And one thing I can tell you is that I’m as excited and as passionate about what I’m doing now as I have ever been. And it’s because I love what I do. So tomorrow is another day, another opportunity. And it feels good.
LOUIS: Does the size of the audience matter?
DAVID: It does. It does from the standpoint of the industry . . . the business itself. But I’m not part of that. I’m in it, but I’m not of it. I’m in it but it doesn’t define who I am. So if I’m in it and my show isn’t as successful as it would be by the standards of the television network to be running it for ever and ever, the show’s going to get cancelled, it’s not the end of the world. If I make a record that doesn’t sell more than x number of albums, it’s not the end of the world. That’s the way I feel about it.
LOUIS: So then what are the things that are of value in the world? You can say, I’m in this world because this is how I ply my trade, as an actor and a singer, but it’s not going to be my life because that would destroy me. But what is your life? How do you enjoy your life? Is it relationships? Is it your friends?
DAVID: It’s all those things.
LOUIS: Is it your car?
DAVID: No. I don’t own a car. Don’t own a house. Don’t own anything. It’s about good experiences. I’ve lived all over the world. It’s an appreciation of the experience of others, the way they view things. I get new life and new breath from diversity, someone different from myself. I love it. It really keeps me alive. That’s my ideal. You’ve got to be willing to look around to say where are my opportunities, what are my choices?
LOUIS: I’m reading the Tao Te Ching at the moment, and it sort of says, if you want to be happy then don’t try and be happy, kind of thing.
DAVID: There’s another one. What do you want to be in life? I want to be happy, I want to be happy, I want to be happy, I want to be happy! You push push push push push. Happiness, it seems to me, is you kick back and you say “I’m happy!” It’s not something that you make, it’s something that you realise, that you come to. And it can be in a moment, it can be in a relationship, a day or a lifetime, but we’re not always happy, so why do you try to be happy? It’s trying! Trying! Pah! Don’t!
LOUIS: How is it living in London?
DAVID: Before ending up here I lived in New Zealand and Australia. Both were work-related. And then I went to France for a year, and I did a film over there. Then I got an offer to do a play here. It was part of a circuit. I’d had it with L.A. and I think L.A. had had it with me. And I probably did the right thing by leaving. I’d kind of burned it at both ends.
LOUIS: In what sense?
DAVID: Well, I’d been used up to a large degree by the business. There was no more attraction. I had done too much television to be working in film. They didn’t want television people working in film. There were some questionable behaviour patterns on my part. The way I was perceived, the bad boy image.
LOUIS: People thought, oh we don’t want to hire David Soul . . . he’s bad news?
DAVID: Yeah, that kind of stuff. I’ve always pressed for quality work. I know there were a number of producers that when I came walking into their office were like “oh shit, here he comes.”
LOUIS: Really? So what about say Steven Bochco [creator of Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue] and . . .
DAVID: Steven’s a great friend of mine.
LOUIS: You couldn’t go to him and say . . .
DAVID: I wouldn’t do that. I’ll do it another time. I’ll do it when it’s right. Yeah. That’s exactly what I hate about L.A. relationships: so much of this shit is based on who you know, opportunities based on that. I suppose I could go knock on his door and say, ‘Steven, I’m here, I’m available to do a job.’ But the networks are run by kids. It’s a whole other era. I now probably have a better chance of going back having been away. Because I’m still very viable . . . they don’t quite know who I am anymore, but they know me from their childhood and there’s still the vitality there and we haven’t seen him around. But what I’ve done in the meantime is fill it with theatre, sort of utilising one thing that L.A. did give me which is international visibility, whether it’s France, Italy, Spain, Hong Kong, China, Japan, South America. But it’s very important for me to do theatre because that’s where I come from. I came here for that. And Alexa was with me and she needs to do something and it becomes important that she contributes.
LOUIS: How does it feel doing The Dead Monkey, which seems like an exciting project, compared with what you were doing in the Seventies, early Eighties. Better, worse, different?
DAVID: Different. A different time of my life. I’ve been there, done that. It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be. It’s not. By definition. It can’t be. There’s only a handful of people that control twelve to fifteen to eighteen million dollars per picture. And this business chews you up and spits you out pretty fast. And if there’s an award given it should be for persevering. You know? And I’d rather, at the end of my life, be able to say, I chose something, I took an opportunity by the tail, and have lived my life doing that. I mean, the sale of the records, being a top-notch artist, terrific. But it’s not something that lasts. And I’ve found a lot more satisfaction doing things that I enjoy doing, like this. I mean, we’re producing! We’re not just acting in it. We’re producing it. No actor in the West End produces their own shows.
LOUIS: If you had the Seventies to live over, would you do the same self-sabotaging stuff?
DAVID: No, because you’re defining that after the fact. See, I didn’t know what was happening when I walked into it. I don’t have to answer for that. And I don’t need to be questioned by that. This is one of the insipid things that the press does. They categorize your past behaviour as if that’s who you are, thereby judging you by standards they themselves don’t live up to. It’s just stifling. It’s just [mimes choking].
LOUIS: How do you decide who you are?
DAVID: I think we talked about that before. You accept yourself, you know. I mean, I hate the kind of focus in the last couple of days since that World Cup game where Beckham kicked that player. That was a dumb, stupid thing to do. That’s all, guys. That’s all.
LOUIS: Don’t give him a hard time?
DAVID: Yeah, that’s all, a dumb, stupid thing to do. Now what are you going to do? You’ve got headlines everywhere. I mean, come on! Give me a break! That’s one thing I hate about this country. It’s so provincial, because it’s an island, it’s small, and everybody knows everybody else’s fucking business. It’s none of your fucking business! You know? It’s small and contained and provincial. But fight against being small and provincial! Live and let live! Acknowledge that it was a stupid thing to do and move on. These guys are going to razz him next time he steps on a field. [Nerdy voice] “Remember that kick that Beckham did?” And pretty soon it’s going to be all his fault.
LOUIS: Yeah, don’t give him a hard time about it.
DAVID: Well, call it for what it is. And leave it alone. Walk away from it. It’s a football game, guys. I know it’s a lot more than that. I know it represents a lot of things.
LOUIS: Yeah, it’s a big deal, but I think he gets the message.
DAVID: Yeah I think so.