LOCAL ACTOR AND WRITER ON TWO VERY DIFFERENT WORLDS
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
How long have you lived in the area?
I moved to Cobbold Road in ’88, then to Loftus Road until the mid-90s, ventured to north London for two decades and moved back here a couple of years ago.
Favourite local haunts?
Ravenscourt Park and Chiswick House. Most of my food shopping is done around Askew, though I like heading down Uxbridge Road to Damas Gate for the fresh stuff and Ochi for the chicken and salt fish.
Where did you grow up?
A small village near Bakewell in the Derbyshire Peak District.
What or who inspired you to act?
Some remote inner voice, then a couple of very inspirational drama teachers.
Always keep seven plates spinning because six will come crashing down
Were you the playground show-off?
Not at all. But I did find a way to infiltrate the various playground alliances and kept friends in all corners.
Are your parents performers?
They were both schoolteachers, now happily retired.
Did they advise against acting?
Very much so. When that didn’t work they were immensely supportive.
Where did you train?
Guildford School of Acting, when I was 18.
How did you find London compared to the Peak District?
It took a while to fall in love with its intensity and noise, but once we’d overcome our differences there was no letting go. I still adore the Derbyshire Moors but feel like a Londoner now.
You've acted in many well-known films (Darkest Hour, Sense and Sensibility), TV (Sugar Rush, Is It Legal, Millie In Between), theatre (White Teeth at the Kiln), and radio (Clare In The Community). Which is your favourite medium?
I like the range, but I do love working on a good TV series. Earlier this year I went to Malaysia to film a drama about the fall of Singapore in 1942, which I really enjoyed.
Which actor's filmography do you covet?
I realised early on that envying other people’s careers is a one-way street to misery. There’s many acting jobs I didn’t get and would have loved to have done, and plenty that I’m thrilled I did. I love working with good people who know the ropes. Gary Oldman, in Darkest Hour, had an extraordinary presence as Churchill, but he was also amazingly generous to everyone on set. I have a huge respect for anyone that does both.
Your first novel has just been published this year, The Six Loves Of Billy Binns (featured in the autumn issue), about Europe's oldest man. How long did it take you to write?
Twenty years, give or take. Billy goes through his memories to recall all the people he’s ever loved, to try and get that feeling back one last time. I wrote the first part, then abandoned it after a year because of the amount of historical research required – it’s mostly set in this neighbourhood throughout the entire 20th century. I had help from the Shepherd's Bush Local History Society who used to meet in St Luke's church hall every month and kindly shared their stories about growing up here. A few years ago I knew I had to finish it, so I picked it up where I’d left off and it took two more years to complete.
You’ve also written for TV. Which is easier?
I’d hesitate to describe any writing as easy. A TV script is possibly quicker, but still takes a long time to structure well. On a good day a page of script goes by with relative ease, whereas a page of prose still feels like a daunting amount of space to fill.
Do you to write parts for yourself?
I wrote a series for ITV called Wonderful You in which I played the central character, and I’ve cropped up in a few other things I’ve written for radio and theatre. I also read the audiobook of Billy Binns. But it's too limiting to write just for myself. I enjoy creating stories that don’t necessarily revolve around someone a bit like me.
You're also a composer. What have you composed?
Orchestral film scores, TV themes and plenty of music for plays. I played in bands for years and worked as a musician and songwriter to earn extra money. I used to play piano on Friday nights at the Gate restaurant in Hammersmith back in the 90s, improvising jazz, et cetera. Those four hours went by very slowly but the pasta afterwards was great.
Would you rather spend the day acting, writing or composing?
I’m happy when I can work some writing hours around a filming job – it’s a good combination of two very different worlds: social and solitary. I’ve mostly retired myself from composing these days because I’d like to write more novels.
Your two sons are starting their careers. What advice do you wish you'd been given at their age?
Ernie (22) designs and brands his own clothes; Walt (19) is studying photography in Paddington. The best advice I read regarding the media industry is William Goldman’s: Nobody knows anything. Aside from that, you make your luck by working hard, right? I’ve always tried to keep seven plates spinning because six will come crashing down. Both boys have a good work ethic and are lovely people to be with. They know to trust their instincts.
How and with whom do you relax?
My partner Emma is local too. Walking to the river or Chiswick House blows away the cobwebs. Dinner out still feels like a treat. I go running two or three times a week under the pretence of keeping middle-age at bay!
Thank you, Richard. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
We have two signed copies of The Six Loves Of Billy Binns to give away. To enter, email email@example.com by midnight on Wed 18 December. Two winners will be drawn from a hat and notified in time to collect from Finlay Brewer before they close for Christmas at 1 pm on Sat 21 December.
Interviewed November 2019
Photo: Sukey Parnell