NOW in his eighth decade on this planet, Kenneth Cranham has arrived in his anecdotage. He has filled all those years with stories and if you ask him, he’s happy to tell you them. Stories about British theatre in the 1960s, when Joe Orton and Harold Pinter were kings, stories about Paul McCartney and Hylda Baker (unfortunately, not together), about the Prague Spring and Georgie Best and Helen Mirren, stories about his earliest years in Lochgelly and his life in Islington where he lives now.

Anything and everything can prompt him. “I’ll tell you who was a good friend of mine. Terry Jones,” he tells me as we sit in the Lord Palmerston pub in Tuffnell Park, north London. It is the day after the announcement of the Python star’s death. “I shared a house with him. That was the first place I ever lived in London. He was a sweet man.”

Draw a Venn diagram with Cranham at the heart of it, and it’s possible you could encompass most of the names of those who have gilded British culture over the last 60 years.

Right now, for example, Cranham is about to appear in a new film Mr Jones, alongside Peter Sarsgaard, Vanessa Kirby and the actor of the moment, James Norton (who has just played Stephen Ward in the Trials of Christine Keeler on BBC and is touted as a possible future James Bond).

Mr Jones, made by Polish director Agniesza Holland, is a film about the Welsh journalist who uncovered the famine that killed millions in Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s. Cranham has a small but important role in the film playing David Lloyd George. “I think it’s quite a special film,” Cranham says.

“I watched it last night and I was elated. I’m pleased to be associated with this. I thought there was a real atmosphere to those decadent scenes in Moscow. I was slightly put out that I didn’t get anywhere near them.”

Ah yes, the party scenes that see Sarsgaard wearing cigarette smoke and nothing else. Would you have taken your clothes off, Kenneth, if the part demanded it?

“Not anymore. Not anymore. I was offered a part in Benidorm and, had I done it, I would have got to karaoke an Elvis song, which appealed to me. But I would also have had to wear a thong. And I’m not doing that. The thong days are gone.”

Cranham is 75, a little stiff at the edges, but still alert and engaged with the world. He has a bruiser’s face – perfect for all those London gangsters he’s played over the years – and a gently amused demeanour.

Look back over his CV and there’s a Kenneth Cranham to suit everyone. If he’s probably best known for playing the title role in Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks’s 1980s comedy drama Shine On Harvey Moon, he’s also worked with Tom Cruise (in Valkyrie), Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) and Frankie Howerd (Up Pompeii; he’s credited as “First Christian”).

He also turned up in Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s cop comedy Hot Fuzz and slapped on the gory make-up for the Clive Barker 1988 sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser II. Thong or not, he’s a trooper.

But it’s his early days in theatre that perhaps have the greatest cachet. He was lucky enough to be part of that 1960s revolution in theatre, performing in radical new works by the likes of Edward Bond and Harold Pinter. He was also friends with Joe Orton and was even on stage in Orton’s Loot the week the playwright was killed by his partner Kenneth Halliwell.

Read More: Joe Orton's sister Leonie on why she will never forgive his killer

I think it’s fair to say he had a good 1960s. An interesting one, certainly. In 1968 alone (the year he turned 24) he was touring two Edward Bond plays behind the Iron Curtain. “I actually played Prague when the Russians were occupying it with their tanks. My character had to commit suicide. [Czech student] Jan Palach, just months before, had set himself on fire in protest against the Russians. So, when I did that, I was playing to a tsunami of tears and wailing.

“In that same year I did Joe Orton’s Loot on Broadway, I met Jimi Hendrix, I chatted up Janis Joplin … Very badly. Got nowhere. Absolutely nowhere. In the three months I was there with Loot, Martin Luther King got shot.”

At which point he could be forgiven for looking around and asking himself how he got here. Cranham was born in Dunfermline and spent his first years in Lochgelly before moving to stay with his father’s family in Essex. There were many trips back to Scotland though. This was before the Forth Road Bridge (the first one) had been built. “We’d have to cross on the ferry.”

His grandfather was a butcher in Hill of Beath. Cranham would sleep beside him in a double bed, his grandad in long johns yellowed by nicotine (he smoked full-strength Capstans).

Cranham’s memories of Scotland are a mixture of food and movies. He talks lovingly of eating morning rolls full of Lorne sausage and fried egg “with a deep orange yolk” every morning and of going to the cinema three times a week. “There was nothing much to do at home. I was saturated with cinema.”

He still has links with the old country. “My mother’s cousin still lives in Inverness. She’s coming up to 91. She had a 90th birthday and she let me know that she was expecting me to be there. It was completely Viking. There were these really nicely dressed professional women in black dressed all totally arseholed falling asleep over you. It was wonderful.”

His mum, he says, was gregarious. His dad, a very quiet Englishman who had been to public school and then in the army throughout the Second World War. He only ever made it as far as staff sergeant in the ranks, Cranham points out. “This man did not put himself forward. I sort of imagine that if you went to public school you were more liable to become an officer.”

Still, Cranham’s father came back from the army, did night school and got himself a degree (albeit at the second attempt).

Cranham’s own educational career wasn’t quite so glittering. Because he failed the intelligence test in the 11 plus exam, Cranham became a comprehensive schoolboy. He was at Tulse Hill School in south London, a contemporary of Ken Livingstone’s. The same school also gave us Linton Kwesi Johnston and Tim Roth. (“More interesting than anything the Bullingdon Club came up with, isn’t it?”)

Cranham wasn’t academically inclined. Rather, he was the class clown who was encouraged to do drama. His teachers were steeped in what was happening in the Royal Court theatre. One of them, Ray Jenkins, wrote a two-hander, The Boy Dudgeon for the radio and Cranham was given a part. To take it he had to miss his first couple of days at teacher training school. When he finally made it in on day three, he was told he shouldn’t bother coming back for day four.

Cranham was 19 at the time. He got himself a job in Foyle’s bookshop in London where he would spend his lunchtimes drinking himself into a stupor and dream about getting a place at Rada.

What he didn’t know was the die was already cast. Joe Orton had heard Cranham in the radio play and was soon to cast him in one of his own, The Ruffian on the Stair.

“I’d never seen anyone like Joe,” Cranham says now. “He had the whitest T-shirt I’d ever seen. He was like something out of West Side Story meets some other element I didn’t know.”

Things were looking up. Cranham got his place in Rada. When he finished there, he left on a Friday and started at London’s Royal Court on the Monday. “That’s where I wanted to be.”

But the association with Orton continued. “I got Loot in the West End, which set me up for all the hoodies in Softly, Softly, Z Cars and New Scotland Yard.”

At this point Cranham was filming Oliver during the day and rushing to the West End at night. “Joe put it in his diary because I was getting £50 a day [on the film]. This really impressed Joe.”

Having a West End show was like having a flat in the West End, Cranham says. “Hylda Baker was the only one who had the imagination to book a table for lunch. If you wanted lunch, you had to deal with Hilda. And that wasn’t easy. We’d all be sitting there in our costumes and there was a swinging London film being made at Shepperton which was called Salt and Pepper, with Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. And they came over to us at the restaurant and introduced themselves.”

That gave Cranham a story to tell in the theatre that night. “Joe topped it because Paul McCartney actually played him Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields before anyone had ever heard them.”

Orton, by this point, was on the rise. This was the year of Sergeant Pepper, and Orton had been approached by the Beatles to write a screenplay. Jane Asher had even brought Paul McCartney to see Loot before it transferred to the West End.

Cranham got to see this all at first hand. He saw Orton’s ascent, but also the disquieting noises off from Halliwell.

“They interviewed me on the radio, and they said if you could choose one word to describe Joe Orton what would it be? I said ‘twinkle’. Kenneth didn’t twinkle.”

Cranham read the news that Halliwell had killed Orton and then committed suicide in the Evening Standard before going to the theatre for the evening performance of Loot.

On the drive in with his co-star Simon Ward, he saw the car in front run over a dog (“we saw the wheel go over its head”), then had to go on stage and carry around a dead body as part of the play. “All the lines suddenly started to come from somewhere else and mean something else. They all had to encompass this event; Joe being murdered and Kenneth killing himself. That was suddenly present.”

And yet, the tragedy of Orton’s death did not define the decade for Cranham. Truth is, born in 1944, Cranham was in the right place and the right time to enjoy the sixties to the maximum. “I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was having a wonderful sixties.”

He married young, to the actress Diana Quick (it didn’t last), partied late and was up early (such are the advantages of being in your early twenties). He met everyone. Even Georgie Best.

In 1968, Cranham was working in Manchester and started hanging about with the footballer. “I was not far from him in age, so he was quite pleased to see me,” Cranham suggests.

“One night in the rain in 68 I was standing in the rain and his white Jag pulled up and he drove me to this pub, the Brown Bull, and no one saw me get in and no one saw me get out. It wouldn’t matter who it was, I just wanted there to be someone. Because he was the fifth Beatle.

“He had a very good mind actually. He was very good at pub quizzes. He knew who [French avant-garde playwright] Ionesco was.

At the same time, Cranham adds, he visited Best’s club Slack Alice. “It was like watching money being put on a barbecue.”

Where – or who – was Cranham in all this, you might ask? He’s not really one for self-reflection. How do you look back on that young man? “I was just at the right place and was able to ride my luck,” he says simply.

Maybe we can get a sense of him from those who knew him at the time.

For a while he and Helen Mirren were an item. In her autobiography, Mirren writes of how sex was a source of heartache for her in her youth. It was meeting Cranham, she writes, that “restored my self-esteem and romantic tendencies … He was so lovely to me, and I am indebted to him.”

When I read this out, Cranham is quiet for the first and only time in our hour together.

“I was with her for two years. She was based on Brigitte Bardot and she could carry that one off …” He begins, but her words have thrown him. He is tongue-tied, can’t find the words. “I am amazed,” is all he can manage.

That was then, of course. These days he is married to Fiona Victory, also an actress. He met her while filming Shine on Harvey Moon. His daughter Kathleen has also followed in his footsteps. He didn’t discourage her? “It has the opposite effect. She’s really good. It’s much more difficult for women, it really is.”

Cranham, though, is still going strong. Four years ago, he won an Olivier award for his role in the play The Father. “It was a play about all of us. It was about Alzheimer’s, but it was also about dying in a hospital bed and I’m afraid that’s what happened to both my parents.

“They both died alone. I had my dad for seven years after my mum died. He ended up in this … bloody garage. On the last weekend of his life I went to the station and they said, ‘There’s works on the line.’ And I thought, ‘I can’t face that. I’ll go on Monday.’ He died on the Sunday.”

Cranham is trying to embrace old age. “What you have to do, and which you can do some of the time, is turn your deterioration into an advantage. I’ve become a much braver actor on stage because I can no longer see indifference. When I was young, I could see indifference at 100 yards, and I would overdo the next bit. It never had any effect. I don’t know why I bothered.”

His theatrical CV is hugely impressive. Does he regret that he didn’t get to work with some of the great film directors, Stanley Kubrick, say? “Who knows? Malcolm McDowell got to do those things. But at the same time, I’ve worked with Jimmy Jewell, Beryl Reid and twice with Max Wall. Now, that’s got its own texture. It sort of connects with my grandparents.”

All these connections. All these stories. Before he goes, I say, isn’t it time you wrote your memoir, Kenneth? “Oh, what for? For it to be stacked up for sale for three quid? I’ve seen them. All those Tony Sher books.”

Kenneth Cranham is not ready to be remaindered just yet.

Mr Jones goes on selected release this Friday

With thanks to the Lord Palmerston, Dartmouth Park Hill, Tufnell Park, London, NW5 1HU: