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Interview: John Telfer, actor, musician

19 January 2018

‘I could tell you a future Archers storyline, but I’d have to kill you’

People believe that actors have planned careers. Not so. Most of us take whatever comes next, which often means a feast or famine.


I’ve been lucky over the years, and hardly ever out of work, even if most of it is in more modestly re­­muner­ated work of radio drama and theatre. Readers should perhaps heed an actor’s gag, when the third person quizzed by St Peter at the Pearly Gates on his income (with a view to seeing how much he gave to charity) tells him: “Oh, I had a really good year last year: I earned £20,000,” and St Peter says: “Haven’t I seen you in some­thing?”


Recently, it’s been feast: I’ve done literally dozens of audiobooks in the past few years. In December, I was in The Wizard Of Oz; an evening of songs with Kate McNab; Christmas readings at Bristol Cathedral and for the Bristol Ensemble; and doing three audio­books; and I’m now doing two more. I’ve also just finished a tranche of Archers episodes.


I play the Vicar [Alan Franks]. I do like Alan and his very straight-talking, practical character. I recently heard a Radio 4 interview with a Methodist minister who was very complimentary about the show and the Vicar’s role, because it was very true to rural life as he’s experienced it.


We have to reflect concerns that are current. You can’t be overtly political, but you can raise matters of concern, like domestic violence. The village is a reflection of society. I’d like Alan to be, as originally plotted, a bit feistier, but we’re in thrall to plot lines. One of my old chums is Canon Neville Boundy, who’s chaplain to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and a great man of the theatre. I’d model Alan on him, but he swears — delightfully — like a trooper, and I couldn’t get away with it on Radio 4.


We’re very, very secretive about future storylines. I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.


Soap-opera fees are good for telev­ision — ask Derek Thompson in Casualty — but radio’s a very poor relation, and none of us is on any guarantee. We are just contracted if there’s a need for us in a particular episode. Sometimes, months can go by without; so you absolutely can’t live on the earnings.


It can help, though, being in The Archers. Many people in the business — like Judi Dench and Stephen Fry — love it to bits; but, for some of the actors, their character voice can be an encumbrance if it’s too close to their natural voice.


I took a music and theatre degree at York University, under Professors Wilfrid Mellers and Bernard Harris. I spent the rest of my time there acting, writing music for shows, and playing in a band — which supported Bob Marley and the Wailers when they played at York. Bill Pryde and I even wrote a musical adaptation of Marlowe’s A Massacre at Paris for the Edinburgh Festival.


I trained as an actor in Bristol, and joined Richard Cottrell’s Bristol Old Vic Company. I’d written music for theatre-school shows, and now did the same for Richard.


I’d trained classically in piano with a wonderful old teacher: Edith Ann Redman, in Middlesbrough. When I auditioned for my teacher at uni, Otto Grunfeld, he told me I played Bach beautifully. I had no idea. If I did, it was due to Miss Redman.


I found a facility for pastiche, any­way; so, in later years, when Andrew Hilton set his terrific Tobacco Factory Shakespeare productions in particular times and places — an 18th-century Fragonard As You Like It, a Restora­tion Titus Andronicus, an Eliza­bethan Measure for Measure, and so on — I composed the music as Gluck, Handel, and Dowland, or whatever. But, being a child of the ’50s and ’60s, I was also inspired by early Motown, Stax, and rock’n’roll.


Over the years, I’ve always heeded the call to return to the Old Vic Theatre School, where I’ve taken acting classes, run text projects, and written and directed music for shows. These days, it’s all music for me there, with a few acting tips on the side.


I love directing music theatre and opera. I’ve only recently stopped pro­ducing for the local Gilbert and Sullivan Society, thinking it was time they had a fresh approach. Opera of whatever size or kind should always be based on sound dramatic prin­ciples. If the people aren’t recog­nisably human, inhabiting a real world, it loses mean­­ing and point. I can tell you that Alan was making some very fundamental mistakes dir­ect­ing that Christmas panto.


I was born in Mid­­dles­­brough, Tees­­side, to parents of poor working-class families. My father was a great sports­­man, and won a place to the local grammar, but had to leave school to help sup­port his family. My mother was incred­ibly well-read, and wanted to teach, but she, too, had to leave school and support out-of-work parents.


My brother was born during the war, and chose the Merchant Navy instead of con­­scrip­tion; so he was away most of my young life, though he had a huge influence on me, musically. He ended up working in theatre, lighting shows, and eventu­ally at Thames Television.


He brought back to England a Fats Domino LP, from which I learned to play boogie-woogie; and the first Johnny Cash album — I still remember all the songs from the age of five — as well as Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which was the first classical music I’d heard. My father was a good playing-by-ear pianist, but what he called “heavy classics” were never part of my upbringing. When he died, he left us a little money, and I bought a grand piano: a visual tribute to his love and musical inspiration, and which, thanks to my parents’ diligence and care, I can play.


I was always a talkative person, and probably a show-off. My mother told me I used to perform in early proto-supermarkets by bursting into my favourite song, “The Happy Wan­derer”, and stopping the tills.


I was incredibly lucky in my junior-school headmaster, the wonderful Mr Starling, who believed that every child in the school should play in the orchestra, and played us classical music in our lessons. I only wish his ideas were more generally taken up today. It’s so important for children to be able to hear and play music.


At grammar school, I was captain of hockey, alongside Geoff Cooke as captain of cricket, who later went on to captain Northamptonshire, and once or twice played for England. I started acting under the guidance of my young English teacher, John Fog­gin. So it’s all his fault, really. Or per­­haps my brother’s? Or Mr Star­ling’s?


My daughter, Louise, from my first marriage, had to retire from nursing through bad health. My son, Jack, teaches maths, sings, and writes won­derful instrumental and vocal music. His brother, Harry, is a man­ager in a food-sampling lab. My wife, Lindsay, was a senior lecturer at Bristol Uni­versity, and possesses a beautiful operatic soprano voice. We’re both in­­volved in the Bristol Choral Society, and I used to front a Bristol rock band, A Few Good Men. Though I miss the performing, I don’t miss lum­ping speak­ers and keyboards around. First rule of bands: make sure you have roadies.


If I prayed (I don’t), I’d pray for a kinder, more just world.


Injustice makes me angry. Hearing of the abuse of children is most deeply upsetting. It horribly betrays the basic relationship which we adults should all have of caring for and pro­tecting our children.


To see young people I work with succeed makes me very happy. To listen to great music, and to take part in great music, is a joy. We recently were privileged to sing in Mozart’s Requiem in the Karlskirche in Vienna, with a wonderful company called Run By Singers. It was almost unbearably moving, but joyful.


I hope digital communications will make it impossible for thugs, dic­tators, the incompetent to cling on to power. There are monsters, but they die, eventually, and things evolve, move on. Britain’s had its monsters, too, but we’ve evolved. We must hope that the present crop will eventually wither on the bough, and a gentler, more informed world will gradually emerge. I live in hope.


I’d willingly spend some hours with Shakespeare. If I had a time machine, the Globe in 1595 would be my first stop.


John Telfer was speaking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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