FROM NEWCASTLE WITH LOVE – part one of an interview with actor & musician Brian Rapkin.

Life in the North East started in 1973 in a basement flat in Leazes Terrace near St James Park, Newcastle. Waking up each morning to a kitchen sink full of slugs was not ideal, so I moved to Fenham sharing a flat with fellow-teacher Ged Grimes, guitarist in Hedgehog Pie.

I was teaching at John Marley Upper School where I entertained Bob Smeaton (former vocalist with Newcastle band White Heat, now music TV director, link below) and his class by reading chapters from The Exorcist.

Later in the ’70s came the North East punk scene, when I was living in Brighton Grove, Newcastle singing and writing songs as Brian Bond with Punishment of Luxury. We had a single out on Small Wonder records then got a major deal with United Artists – an album Laughing Academy and three singles – and toured UK and Europe. EMI dropped us in 1980 and I left soon after to form Punching Holes.

In part two Brian will be talking more about his music, this post will focus on his acting career. I asked him when did you start acting ?

My brother, sister and I used to put on short plays for mum and dad when I was small living in Staines near London where I was brought up. That thrill of performing to an audience had begun. There was no school drama even though I tried to get my English teacher to organise it. All that remained was sport, and boxing was mine.

My dad trained me and I won two cups in school, read books about it and loved Henry Cooper, Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston and Mohammed Ali. I was obsessed. At 13 I won a bronze medal and made the school boxing team.

Training was dire in the bad winter of ‘63 – endless gym circuits, cross-country runs in the snow wearing boots and heavy backpack. I got flu and they dropped me from the team after two matches. I lost them both, along with my killer instinct. Sometimes an illness jerks you into making changes. This one dragged me out of a rut into acting.

I was in an all-male school, so at 14 my acting debut was in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, along with Stephen Milligan, the Tory MP who died naked with an orange in his mouth and a plastic bag over his head.

The first paid acting job was at 20 working for Bowie’s mentor Lindsay Kemp at York Arts Centre. This was soon followed by a role in the 1970 Edinburgh Festival as the virgin Sir Galahad in Mort d’Arthur. I trained method-style for the part by remaining chaste until 21.

1971 involved acting in a different role. I found an ad in The Stage and applied to be a clown in Cottle & Austen’s Circus. The first performance in Surrey was adrenalin-packed but they didn’t like my ‘grotesque’ make-up so they toned me down and made me an auguste, a tramp clown. It lasted three days, the ringmaster went into a sulk after I spurned his advances, so he refused to give me the training he’d promised.

Brian as a young clown in 1967 at Warwick University.

When did you sign professionally?

I signed up as an Equity actor in 1975 whilst as a variety performer singing and playing guitar and keyboards in Mad Bongo theatre group, based in the North East. As a stage actor, the best roles were in a production about the trial of Oscar Wilde. We toured it around North arts centres and colleges. It was a disastrous opening night in Kendal but then we pulled it all together and it was much praised.

The first speaking part in film acting was in BBC’s Machine Gunners (1982) as a Polish officer.  I didn’t have to audition but chatted to Colin Cant, the director, a lovely man who gave me the part after I told him of my Polish ancestry, which was almost true.

In 1995 Brian appeared in Tyne Tees TV programme Stranger than Fiction, associate producer was Vin Arthey who features in an earlier blog. (link below)

How did you get the part ?

Dave Holly was my agent and they liked my Russian accent, the role as a 1920s Soviet intelligence officer was a dream. In a sense it was like going back centuries to revisit my family’s Russian roots as a Rapkin.

The scene involved interviewing William Fisher, the Geordie Russian spy born in Benwell, and decide his suitability as a Soviet agent. I thought smoking a cigarette would help the atmosphere and it probably did, but as a lifelong non-smoker it was hard to do.

The location of the scene was the main assembly hall in Heaton Manor School, where ten years previously I’d been a teacher. My son was about to enrol at this school and the location was ideal – dark, polished wood everywhere, and a floor where footsteps could echo, perfect for a top-secret meeting between a spy and his handler.

What other roles did you have on TV ?

Byker Grove allegedly cost £1000 a minute to shoot, and this may be why most of my role as a sadistic supervisor – in black clothing, brandishing a long stick – ended up on the cutting-room floor.  I was overseeing a group of youths doing community service and had to shout at them. We did the scene twice.

Take 1: The sound meter leapt into red and distorted, so had to be done again.

Take 2: One of my lines was marred by a slight fluff. Mathew Robinson the director said ‘Next scene!’

I asked if we could do it again. No was the answer, we gotta move on. The only line of mine that survived was ‘Oy! Back to work!

Ant, Dec, and Jill Halfpenny, were just kids. I was watching the filming at one point and they were performing a scene. Mathew said ‘Cut! Let’s do it again but speak more slowly this time.’  Jill said ‘But that’s how real Geordies speak!’ and he said ‘Yes, but this is being networked all around the UK, from Cornwall to Scotland. Everyone in the country’s got to understand everything that you’re saying. OK? One more time. Action!’

I was a cockney detective in Spender in 1990. I was in the opening scene with Jimmy Nail and Amanda Redman in a train carriage. Nervy, with the crew squeezed into the aisle between the seats, Mr Nail chivvied the crew along.  ‘Come on everyone, the actors are on tenterhooks here.’ That helped my nerves. I was the new boy on the block.

During a move from one location to another, I missed the coach for Less Important Actors and had to share a trailer with Jimmy and Amanda. They chatted about past experiences. She mentioned that she’d toured with the Rocky Horror Show. I tried to join in the conversation ‘I love that show. What part did you play?’  She turned towards me, stared at an empty space and forcing a smile, said ‘I’m sorry?’  There was an awkward pause.

I repeated it, this time less confidently. Jimmy Nail waded in with a put-down reply ‘What part did you play?’… ‘The lead, of course!’. End of conversation. Cue to look out of the trailer window. Tumbleweed floats by.

Playing a Maitre D in ‘The Round Tower’ by Catherine Cookson 1998.

Have you any stand out memories from filming ?

One day as an extra for a TV drama I had to get costumed up at 7am in the Rex Hotel, Whitley Bay. I wasn’t used in a scene until 4pm, so the best thing was to watch the filming and chat to others involved. One of these was Jimmy Garbutt, a leading actor in When the Boat Comes In and one of the elders in the Superman film with Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando.

He regaled us with tales from Superman. On the first day of filming Brando was shaking each actor’s hand saying ‘Hi, I’m Marlon Brando’ – as if they didn’t know. When it came to shooting a scene, one of the other elders was Trevor Howard, who’d been with Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty. Howard was furious because Brando hadn’t bothered learning any of his lines, and he’s had them written out in large letters, sellotaped to their set.

Doing a couple of Catherine Cookson films, The Round Tower and The Man who Cried, was challenging, and it was enjoyable to dress up and play Sir Walter Raleigh to Charlie Hardwick’s Queen Elizabeth I in CITV’s Kappatoo, elegantly laying a cloak on the puddle for her majesty to step on.

Once I was an extra in Supergran in a crowded pub scene. We had to drink from pint mugs and our glasses were filled with shandy. One of the extras, a stocky Geordie actor from Walker, took a look at his glass and barked at the Production Assistant ‘Ah’m not drinkin’ that!’  

The PA – a slim, well-groomed man from the South East of England – bellowed in a high-pitched voice: ‘Remove this man from the set, please! Take his costume, thank you!’ Great days.

What are you doing now ?

I stopped acting for a living at 35 – too precarious, always touring in vans, no money, nowhere decent to live. I got married, started a family, taught in Cairo for a while then went back to Newcastle to teach and do whatever film or TV work came along.

From 1985 I taught drama in schools for 5 years, then post-16 students in a college for 30 years. Last year I took voluntary redundancy and now there are possibilities of work linked to the acting world.

In part two soon read about Brian’s alternative career as a musician in the bands Punishment of Luxury and Punching Holes.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  March 2021.

Interview with Bob Smeaton:

THE BOY FROM BENWELL – with Film & TV Director, Bob Smeaton | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)

Interview with Vin Arthey:

RUSSIA’S GEORDIE SPY with author Vin Arthey | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)