Michael Maloney has mixed memories of Yorkshire. On the plus side, he got to play Hamlet. But while he was on stage, someone stripped the wheels off his car.

"When I stepped out of the theatre, it was standing on bricks," he fumes, fully a year after the event.

The experience hasn't prevented him from returning - though when he arrives at the Alhambra in a couple of weeks' time, he's contemplating taking the train.

At 41, Maloney is among Britain's most respected classical actors, counting the RSC's Henry IV (both parts), Romeo and Juliet and two other productions of Hamlet among his credits.

He is familiar, too, from television roles in such recent classics as Truly, Madly, Deeply ("I was the other one, not the dead one," he reminds, helpfully). Currently he is one half of the cast (with Peter Bowles) of the landmark theatrical whodunit, Sleuth.

Yet Maloney is not the cult icon he could have become.

Twelve years ago, he turned down the opportunity to star opposite Richard E Grant in a film which perhaps more than any other has come to define the counter-culture of the Eighties.

"To this day, I have never seen Withnail and I," he says. "Visually, it's probably very good.

"Looking back, I regret not staying in there. It would have helped my career greatly."

He pulled out, deferring to Paul McGann, on the grounds of the film's studied political incorrectness.

"There was a Jewish agent who said, 'My life!' There was a pub full of Irishmen who were thick and drunk and mad. And at the end, the characters were chased around by their uncle who wasn't gay but a poof.

"So I asked for my name to be taken off the list for consideration. Then I realised I was the only one doing it. Everyone else was only prepared to be politically correct up to a point."

Maloney has, he says, no regrets, "but neither any smugness or justification of my beliefs."

Perhaps as a result of the experience, and despite having appeared in some extremely successful films, he has a somewhat jaundiced view of what he terms the movie industry's "rampant capitalism".

Two Kenneth Branagh films in which he appeared, Hamlet and In The Bleak Midwinter, were, he says, crippled at the box office by their distributors' lack of interest in them.

"I've heard this tale from so many people, of distribution companies buying a film and then deciding that it's not going to make money and turning it into a tax write-off. It's such a waste.

"I can't understand why they bother to get up in the morning if they buy a project and then don't put their heart and soul into it."

Commercial theatre (Sleuth is financed by the oil giant, Mobil) is also not immune from commercial pressures, he says. "But it's not on such a grand scale. Once you get into the movies you're in shark-infested waters."

Maloney's entre to professional acting was in the calmer waters of TV; nevertheless, as a newly-graduated drama school student he was pitched in at the deep end.

He landed a role as Peter Barkworth and Hannah Gordon's son in the BBC serial, Telford's Change.

"I was 20 but I looked like a fifth former. That's why I got the part. But in those days it was an extraordinary thing to happen. The union rules dictated that you had to first work in the theatre and do 40 weeks in rep.

"My agent talked to Equity and they relented. All the same I had to get my 40 weeks in before I could go into the West End. I had to play the back end of a pantomime cow in Glasgow."

His debut followed a peripatetic life as the son of an RAF officer. He lived in North Yorkshire long enough to acquire an education at Ampleforth College, but left as soon as he could to go to drama school. His Hamlet at the West Yorkshire Playhouse was his first significant return.

He is, he says, looking forward to bringing Sleuth to Bradford, but the memory of that last visit clearly rankles him still.

If, therefore, anyone knows the whereabouts of four orphaned alloy wheels, Maloney would be grateful if they'd get in touch. He'd like them back.

David Behrens

Converted for the new archive on 30 June 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.