There's something quietly inscrutable and really rather regal about Don Warrington. This is as apparent in conversation with the actor whose long television career began in iconic 1970s TV sit-com, Rising Damp as it is onstage in the touring production of Driving Miss Daisy, which arrives in Edinburgh this week. It's something to do with the perfectly enunciated and ever so slightly plummy drawl of his voice, but there's a presence there too and a sense of containment that suggests a stillness and an air of authority.
Such characteristics make Warrington perfect, then, to play Hoke Colburn, the chauffeur to Daisy Werthan, the deep south matriarch who gives Alfred Uhry's 1987 Broadway hit, filmed by Bruce Beresford two years later, its title. Charting the pair's relationship between 1948 and 1973, Uhry's play sees them move through a changing America, as in-built racism gives way to the civil rights movement while Daisy and Hoke's master-servant status gradually becomes an alliance of equals.
This is made explicit in David Esbjornson's production via a series of sepia-tinged documentary illustrations of Martin Luther King and other icons of the era's black liberation movement. In a play regarded largely as elegiac, this gives a perhaps surprising political undercurrent to the action.
“I think the politics in the play affects people,” Warrington says. “Some people will say it's not political enough, but it's not a polemic. That's not what the writer was setting out to do. It's a very human story. It's so human and unusual, and that's its drama.”
Hoke was originally played by Morgan Freeman, who recreated his role onscreen opposite veteran British actress, Jessica Tandy. As with Freeman and other noted Hokes, including James Earl Jones, Warrington brings a sense of gravitas and sensitivity to the role.
“He's a decent guy,” says Warrington, “but he's a man who has to make a living any way he can, so he's an instinctive survivor. That's based on his sense of hope, and how, come what may, he believes he will survive. He also has this great sense of morality about him. He knows what is right. He's sort of a moral politician, really. He believes that, no matter how unfriendly to him the system is, fate will find a way.”
As the son of Trinidadian politician Basil Kydd, such moral fibre is something Warrington might have witnessed first hand. Rather than following in his father's footsteps, however, Warrington knew he wanted to be an actor from an early age.
“It was just something I wanted to do,” he says now. “I don't know why. When we were still living in the West Indies I saw an Asian film, and I knew straight away that I wanted to do what the actors in the film were doing. All these people singing and dancing, it looked wonderful.”
Warrington's family moved to Newcastle when he was five, where he had another epiphany watching a very different kind of film.
“I remember seeing On The Waterfront,” he says. “it had these huge themes of damnation and redemption, and watching Marlon Brando, he had that elusive quality, but with these incredible depths of emotion, and I just knew again that this was what I wanted to do.
“It was my sort of secret, which I didn't really share with anyone until I was old enough to do something about it. Then when I was sixteen I went to the local theatre, told them my ambitions, and they gave me a job.”
Warrington later trained at the Drama Centre, which, as he notes, in the thick of London's burgeoning counter-culture, was “a pretty revolutionary school at the time. It was a big leap for me, going from Newcastle to this house of creativity, which didn't prepare you for the real world in any way.”
Warrington's first real job as a professional actor on graduating was in a play called The Banana Box. Eric Chappell's comedy, which was first produced in 1971, and transferred to the Apollo Theatre in London's west end two years later, was set in a seedy boarding house, which Warrington's character moves into, claiming to be the son of an African chief. This not only pricks the prejudices of his landlord, but also inflames the passions of a female tenant.
When The Banana Box was turned into a TV sit-com in 1974, the stage play's three principal actors may have been retained, though its original title was ditched in favour of the more evocative Rising Damp. With Leonard Rossiter as landlord Rigsby and Frances de la Tour as the frustrated Miss Jones joining the programme alongside Warrington and new recruit Richard Beckinsale as long-haired student Alan, Rising Damp ran for four series over four years, and in 1980 was adapted into a film version. In 2004 the TV show came first in a BBC poll to name the top one hundred sit-coms.
“It was very well-written,” Warrington reflects, “and the characters were very real. The casting was perfect for it, and even though it was a sit-com, Leonard, Frances, Richard and I, we all wanted to make it as real as we could, which I'm not sure would necessarily happen today.”
While the success of Rising Damp undoubtedly opened doors for him, and helped transform Rossiter in particular into a household name, Warrington maintains that “There was nothing to change, because I didn't have a career at the time. It was a very different time then, and its very hard to say what doors doing Rising damp opened. My interest wasn't in fame, it was in doing what my contemporaries were doing. At the time, there were a lot of offers that seemed to come from my doing the programme, but my interests lay elsewhere.”
Warrington's interests took him to the Royal Shakespeare company and the National Theatre, where he appeared as part of Bill Bryden's seminal Cottesloe company in the Scots director's epic promenade take on The Mystery plays, as reimagined by poet Tony Harrison..
“The first day we opened we only had a dog and a drunk watching,” Warrington recalls of the production, “but by the end you couldn't get a ticket.”
More recently, Warrington has been playing a police commissioner in Caribbean-set cop show, Death in Paradise, gas directed several plays, was awarded an OBE for services to drama, and even notched a stint on Strictly Come Dancing on his belt. Whatever Warrington tackles, it seems, he always applied the same seriousness to each role.
“I've always looked to parts which set me a challenge,” he says. “It's about trying to make something real.”
Driving Miss Daisy, King's Theatre, Edinburgh, March 5th-9th
The Herald, March 5th 2013