ANTHONY Howell is best known for his eight-year stint in Foyle’s War. He tells EDWIN GILSON about the enduring relevance of Gore Vidal’s play, working with Martin Shaw and filming in Sussex.

WHAT makes a good president? It’s a question on many lips at the moment in light of Donald Trump’s increasingly misguided actions.

Gore Vidal’s 1960 play treats the word “best” ambiguously as it seeks to explore the characteristics that every effective leader must possess. In the plot, two presidential party candidates battle it out for nomination and an all-important endorsement from a respected ex-president.

Inspector George Gently actor Martin Shaw plays William Russel, the former secretary of state going for the leader position with Anthony Howell (Foyle’s War and the Royal Shakespeare Company) playing his savvy campaign manager. The Best Man is known to be modelled on the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles in which John F Kennedy narrowly triumphed over Richard Nixon. Both former presidents are referenced in the play.

“Does a good human being make a good leader?” says Howell, lobbing me a rhetorical question. “The play throws up a lot of questions about what kind of man is best suited to the job. Is it someone who is ambitious and driven, or someone who is more intellectual and doesn’t make quick decisions, or someone who follows popular opinion?” Rather than actively update the plot and location to suit this political age, director Simon Evans has made the choice to retain the original’s Philadelphia setting. Vidal himself adapted the script a few times during the 1960s but ultimately went full circle back to his first effort.

“We’re in an age where American politics is on our television screens every 15 minutes,” says Howell. “The American president puts forward his thoughts on Twitter constantly. It’s all so much more accessible now than it was even ten years ago." Howell watched BBC documentary footage from the Kennedy campaign in the 1960s to prepare for the role – as well as a lot of West Wing episodes. Shaw’s character is loosely based on Kennedy, who Vidal was no fan of. While the power dynamics in politics have remained largely the same in the almost 60 years since the time in which The Best Man is set, Howell says the political scene was “a very different animal back then; it wasn’t House of Cards”.

“There’s a reference in the play to ‘pulling a Nixon’, which refers to a speech that Nixon gave to appeal to the American people,” he adds. “That was seen as a very novel thing at the time, whereas now politicians have open debates on television.” The Foyle’s War star sings the praises of Martin Shaw, who he is currently working in very close quarters with. The pair spend a lot of the play hatching political plans and PR spins. Howell is also reconvening with Honeysuckle Weeks, his co-actor in the popular television programme. “Martin is an absolute star, he’s delightful. The whole cast is wonderful and we’re having a lot of fun."

Howell is familiar with Sussex having shot many scenes for Foyle’s War in the county. While the first six series of the drama were set in Hastings, the crew utilised various other seaside locations to portray the impact of the Second World War on the show’s characters.

“We always did a location shoot at the end of each series for all the Hastings specific stuff,” says the actor. “But some of the other scenes – usually where people got murdered or blown up – were shot in other locations through Sussex. We filmed in Midhurst and that general area, there was a studio near Guildford and we shot some exteriors in Eastbourne, too. It was mostly in Sussex.”

It’s a surprise to learn that Howell actually studied for a degree in architecture before treading the boards. “I just fancied trying my hand at acting,” says Howell nonchalantly. “I paused two-thirds through my training and decided to apply to drama school.” The rest is history – almost literally, given how often Howell takes on roles based on pivotal moments from yesteryear.

Without doubt, the Trump era is destined to go down in history. While we all scratch our heads and try to make sense of it, we can watch The Best Man and take solace in the fact that Al Gore was doing the same almost six decades ago.

The Best Man, Theatre Royal Brighton, 
September 25 to 30, 7.45pm (2.30pm matinee Thursday and Saturday). For more information and tickets visit or call 084487 17650