How did you get your latest role as Jack Ford in When the Boat Comes In ? ‘Ray Spencer, Director of The Customs House, had put it on my radar saying this is happening, why not put your hat in the ring? I had a good discussion with Katy Weir, who was lined up to direct the project – she had seen me in a few things I’d done, and we were fans of each other’s work. I suppose the rest is history.
It was a risk, there was pressure – I’d heard of the TV programme but didn’t fully anticipate how engaging and enigmatic James Bolam was when he played Jack Ford. When I sat down and watched the show it was like, wow this is great, we’re getting working class values, women being the heads of households, supporting the miners on strike, shellshock after the war, homosexuality in the Armed Forces…..all in the first episode!
It blew my mind. The programme was made in the 70s but his performance hasn’t aged, and the themes are still relevant today. There was a heap of expectation, but these are the types of roles that you want – the big, meaty characters – one’s that will hopefully be remembered’.
What is your background and how did you get into acting ? ‘I was born on the Leam Lane Estate in Gateshead in the mid 80’s. From 4 years old, I was stood in the street with a ball at my feet. The only religion was football, and we didn’t make ‘future plans’ – we made plans to escape. You see, at the time, the area was seen as an underprivileged sort of place, but we were always happy and had just enough to make ends meet. All the lads wanted to be footballers and make amounts of money they could only ever dream about, so every night after school was football.
Then at Roman Road Primary School, somebody noticed I could hold a tune in assembly. After that, I was asked to sing in special assemblies, concerts, and by secondary school (Heworth Grange) I somehow ended up in the pantomime. It was my first ‘proper’ performance. As well as the football, I was in the rugby team (fly-half) at the time, and the director thought it’d be a laugh to have me and the rest of the team prancing around as Robin Hood’s Merry Men...but then I somehow ended up as the dame!’
Did you watch anything on TV or did you attend any shows which inspired you ? ‘I loved the stories that were being told in films. There were certain actors, like Pacino and Day-Lewis, where you just went wow! But they seemed to be on another planet – they didn’t seem accessible. I never thought ‘I want to be that person,’ because they weren’t even on my radar of what was possible, you know.
Footballers looked more reachable – you could walk past St James’ Park – but Hollywood, and even London, seemed so far away. Also, because of the cost, and the culture of where I was brought up, it just didn’t seem open to someone like me.
Music and sport were ways of expressing yourself – an escapism – and many kids were looking for that. I was lucky, at my school we were all made to do Drama until at least Year 9. Today, you are lucky to get to touch on it for a few lessons! But I got my G.C.S.E in Drama, A-levels in Performing Arts and, with the help of the Local Authority, I was able to afford a place at Bretton Hall in Yorkshire to train in Acting for three years’.
What is it about drama that attracted you? ’I was fascinated at the thought of being able to step into other people’s shoes. Getting a chance to explore the decisions people make – to dive in and experience their lives as well as lead my own. I once described it to a friend as being like collecting souls…we laughed, but it’s not as ridiculous as it first sounds really.
In my work to date, I have walked at least 8 different people’s journeys through World War One, for example. It fascinates me. I quickly started to become attracted to what really matters, you know, deeper theatre over more commercial theatre – though there’s a place for both’.
What was your first professional job ? ‘I moved to London and I got my first professional gig with Chapterhouse Theatre Company, who toured Shakespeare outdoors: castles, stately homes, National Trust sites – that sort of thing. It wasn’t well paid, but they provided accommodation, food, and travel, which is where a lot of money would go anyway I suppose. It was a big adventure – I was a 21-year-old kid fresh out of drama school. I hadn’t travelled much before, so I had nothing to lose.
The tour went around the UK, and we did several weeks in Ireland. It was great, everybody just mucked in. It was all out of the back of 2 vans: we threw the lights up, set the scenes, sorted the costumes, put the show on, then took it all back down the same night. Then, next night, another town.
I remember one night, the rain was pouring down but 6 people still turned up to watch the show, with kagools on and brollies! Very few shows were called off through bad weather. It was great, while some shows would have a few hundred in the audience others only a handful of people turned up – it was an education’.
How long did you stay in London ? ‘About 6 or 7 years, though I was away touring throughout a lot of that. I kept pretty busy. One year I spent about ten months as Scooby-Doo! Warner Brothers and A.E.G produced a feature-length episode to be performed live on stage, and we toured to around thirty #1 venues across the UK. Now, that sounds like cartoony fun, you know, but behind it all was pretty exhausting physical theatre.
It was also my first chance to perform on stages I’d dreamed of playing – Hammersmith Apollo, Sunderland Empire, Glasgow Kings, Edinburgh Playhouse, Birmingham Hippodrome, to name just a few. I had an amazing time, and I gained financially from it – the glitz and glamour of the show was great, but I was hungry for more depth…I suppose you might call it artistic value’.
How did you get involved with theatre at The Customs House in South Shields ? ‘Around 2010, I applied to audition for a part in The Machine Gunners musical. I was cast as Rudi, a German pilot, alongside a large cast of North-Eastern actors. At the end of day one in rehearsal, veteran actor Donald McBride came up to me and said ‘You’ll do well, you. Only piece of advice I can give you: just be nae bother. Be nae bother…and you’ll be reet’.
This is a people business – I’ve been in it now for nearly 13 years and you can be as good or better than anybody else, but if you are a nightmare to work with nobody wants to know. Be nae bother…they were wise words’.
I saw you in The Man and the Donkey at The Customs House, how did that come about ? ’Off the back of The Machine Gunners, I was cast in the Romeo and Juliet play staged in South Marine Park, South Shields. Director Jackie Fielding (RIP) saw it, and later she was looking for a leading man to play John Simpson Kirkpatrick in The Man and the Donkey. Viktoria Kay, a fellow actor and good friend, may have also put me on her radar, but, either way I ended up in an audition. I knew immediately that I’d met a kindred spirit. I loved Jackie – I still do – and I’ll will always be thankful that she took a leap of faith and handed me my first leading start at The Customs House, and in the North-East.
That show was special – it was one of the first times where I felt the heart, and depth, and regional significance, that I had been looking for. It took theatre and performance to a whole different level for me: it changed my outlook. Shortly after that, I came home and resettled in the North-East on a permanent basis. I’ve never looked back’.
What’s coming next ? ‘Well, When the Boat Comes In is having another run early next year (March) before the sequel premieres next September. People are constantly asking when Hadaway Harry is returning – and I’m told it’ll happen at some point, so we’ll see.
I’ve also started doing some directing over the past few years, and I’m currently involved in the development of something in the offing between local production company ION Productions and The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation for next year. So, there are irons in fires – it’s an exciting time to be involved in theatre in the North-East’.
Interview by Gary Alikivi October 2018.
Secrets & Lies, Baron Avro Manhattan documentary, 17th July 2018.
Westoe Rose, Amy Flagg documentary, 19th July 2018.
Zamyatin, Tyneside-Russia documentary, 7th August 2018.
Peter Mitchell, Life In a Northern Town, 9th August 2018.
Ray Spencer MBE, That’s Entertainment, 6th September 2018.
Why not check the ALIKIVI You Tube channel for more North East stories.