In 1990, the dukedom of Portland died out and my father Henry, as the late Duke's half sixth cousin, succeeded to the earldom. He had always wanted to use the political platform of the House of Lords to further the environmental causes he had espoused for most of his life and his maiden speech took up the theme. He called on his fellow peers to take a lead in the environmental debate and not merely talk about sustainability, but work to create an economy that the environment could sustain. He urged them to help people face up to the fact that civilisation no longer serves our best interests but threatens them. Failing health prevented him from having the impact that he had hoped, but his ideas are now mainstream.
I became Viscount Woodstock, about the coolest title a man of my generation can have, but soon discovered that without money a title doesn't really get you anywhere. When my father died in 1997 I inherited the earldom and a seat in the House of Lords, but no estates or riches. I doubt if anyone expects to receive anything from their half sixth cousins when they die - I don't imagine most people know who their half sixth cousins even are.
Entering the House of Lords as an Earl is quite a peculiar experience. It's a bit like the first day at school, but without the abuse. Suddenly everyone is calling you milord, and quite quickly you start to realise why political power is like a drug - it gets hold of you early on, feels great and is really difficult to give up. Serious people treating you with enormous respect is very different to someone asking for your autograph at the stage door. I'm actually quite glad they threw me out so I didn't get hooked on it.
I attended the House quite regularly and sat in on a number of debates, but I never spoke because I knew that we hereditary peers were doomed and I didn't want to start something I couldn't finish. If I'd thought I'd be there for the rest of my life, and that my son would follow me, I would have had to have taken a number of difficult decisions. Acting is a meritocracy and any fellow thesp who thought I was a rich nob who was just mucking about at acting wouldn't take me seriously and, more importantly, no-one would employ me. I had a frightening picture of the headlines after my maiden speech, "Lord Archer Speaks - no, not the crook, the one from Ambridge!".
The proper use of a title is for doing good, either politically or fulfilling the duties that come with the estate - it's called 'Noblesse Oblige' - nobility obligates. If it can be used or exploited for good - for charities or fundraising, I'm happy to play the part. I have no political power and no estate. I certainly have no respect for anyone who uses a title to show off or try to get a better seat in a restaurant. Incidentally it doesn't work any more because most people don't know what an Earl is. When I first inherited the title, I did have a credit card in the name of "The Earl of Portland" and the usual reaction was, "Is that a pub?" Also you can forget trying the upgrade trick at airports because check-in staff, if you say you're a lord, reckon (not surprisingly) that you're rich enough to bloody well pay for it.
I don't mind being 'posh but poor'. I don't do too badly but it's all my own work and I earn every penny - not from having a title, but from being an actor.