Words by Mr Mansel Fletcher
Forget astrophysicists, if anyone has unlocked the secrets of the universe it must be Mr Ian Kelly. As well as being an actor who's appeared on stage (he's currently in The Pitmen Painters in London's West End but has previously acted on Broadway), on the big screen (in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I) and on television (most recently in Downton Abbey) he's also an eminent biographer. His back catalogue consists of the life stories of three extraordinary 18th-century characters, Mr Antonin Carême, Mr Beau Brummell and Mr Giacomo Casanova.
In his books Mr Kelly has, with rare skill, laid bare the incredible lives of the world's first celebrity chef (Mr Carême), Britain's most famous dandy (Mr Brummell) and the Western world's most famous lover (Mr Casanova). Over the course of the books Mr Kelly reveals the three skills that every man would do well to learn: how to cook, how to love and how to dress. "I do believe in walking the streets as best you can," Mr Kelly says of his research, an approach that meant he learnt to cook like Mr Carême and dress like Mr Brummell. Disappointingly, he says his research for the book about Mr Casanova was more intellectual than practical: "I learnt from Casanova to live every day for what it's worth," he tactfully explains.
It is hard to maintain sartorial standards with baby food down your lapels
It might seem like a stretch to go from Messrs Casanova, Carême and Brummell to the school run, but Mr Kelly recalls a relevant aphorism of the 19th-century French poet Mr Charles Baudelaire: "The only true death of dandyism is fatherhood." It was a point made forcefully to Mr Kelly when he gave an interview to Bloomberg TV to promote his book Beau Brummell. "My daughter, now five, had just been born," he remembers. "I had been up all night feeding her with a bottle and half way through the interview the presenter said to me, 'This is fascinating, but you clearly got dressed in the dark.' It is hard to maintain sartorial standards with baby food down your lapels."
Mr Kelly says that the only way to ensure a modicum of respectability on the school run is to think about it the night before, "Because I know that in the chaos of breakfast there isn't going to be a lot of time. I don't shave until later in the day, so I concentrate on the clothes and aim for an air of artistic disarray." It's a sentiment with which many fathers of young children will sympathise. Mr Kelly's current lifestyle as an actor in the West End doesn't lend itself to early starts. "The other day I was told off by my son, who is eight, for wearing sunglasses on the school run. I asked him if he wanted me to look incredibly tired or quite cool. He said, 'You don't look cool, so you might as well look tired.'"
Our interview is conducted backstage at The Duchess Theatre in London. Mr Kelly has arrived early to work on his next book, about Mr Samuel Foote, while he waits for the evening's performance of The Pitmen Painters to begin. He describes Mr Foote as, "A one-legged comedy superstar of the 18th century," and reveals his book will be "about the birth of celebrity and notoriety in the first modern city, London." Mr Kelly's latest theme also reaches across the centuries to touch us today.
The Pitmen Painters is playing at The Duchess Theatre, London, until 14 April. nationaltheatre.org.uk/pitmen
Mr Foote's Other Leg will be published by Picador in the summer