The British actor best known for his role as Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter franchise, looks back on his life and career.
My dad was an architect and surveyor. He met mum at art college. She was a talented artist but ended up becoming a librarian. I have vivid memories of the records we had, like The Beatles’ Rubber Soul LP and Between the Buttons, by The Rolling Stones.
Between the Buttons was constantly being played, and was warped, so the needle would go up and down as the disc spun round on the turntable, which always amused me for some reason.
We lived in Bromsgrove, which is in Worcestershire, but only thirteen miles from Birmingham. My grandad worked at the Austin factory and my maternal grandfather worked at Cadbury’s as an export clerk.
Every other garage had a lathe in it, and as soon as I was fifteen I’d go out and work as an electrician’s mate. Everybody mended their own cars, and Bromsgrove was always a rail centre. Industry was the lifeblood of the region.
…and requesting a copy of RA Buchanan’s Industrial Archaeology. Well, there you are. Alea iacta est (the die is cast) as Julius Caesar said when he crossed the Rubicon. My love of the subject, and of leaning in general, has never dimmed. And a dozen years or so ago I got to make three documentaries on industrial history for the BBC, Mark Williams on the Rails, Industrial Revelations and More Industrial Revelations.
Somebody once called me the “new age Fred Dibnah.” Presenting them wasn’t daunting because my enthusiasm for the subject carried me though. I don’t think we could do it now, clambering around and poking away at stuff. Even in ten years, fear of litigation and health and safety issues have grown.
I was in a school play called The Reluctant Ogre. I played the jester. Mum made my costume and I remember being on stage and thinking: “Great! I can do this!” That was it really.
I read English Language and Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford, and although I never belonged to OUDS, I did quite a lot with them and was in one of their touring parties.
We did Candide, and Troilus and Cressida, in which I played Pandarus, and The Taming of the Shrew, in which I was Petruchio. We did that in the open air at Worcester, where we all jumped in the lake, which was pretty good.
I didn’t get what they call “an actor’s third”, but I must have been perilously close to it.
That was one of the jobs I did during the holiday times when I’d come back from university. It was up there on the board of the Labour Exchange, or what became known as the Employment Office. It was basically mucking out sheds, and it wasn’t much fun to be honest, going into stalls with livestock buyers, to face outraged bulls.
When I left Oxford I joined a fringe theatre company called The Fools, though I didn’t get my Equity card until I joined the Mikron Theatre Company in 1983. We toured by narrow boat, and I worked for them for three years, writing, acting and directing.
I also worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing Touchstone in As You Like It alongside Sophie Thompson and Gillian Bevan. I’ve never lost my love of the stage.
A couple of years ago I played the title role in an adaptation of Moliere’s comedy Tartuffe at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Michael Billington said I brought the house down which, contrary to what you might think, is a massive compliment.
This was in the late 1980s, including a famous one which had the line “We want to be Together,” for Prudential pensions, and also one for Mr Kipling. It was the first time I worked with 35mm cameras, and 35mm cameramen, and the first time I got to spend as much time as you need on scenes and takes. It taught me a lot about timing, discipline and movement, and an awful lot about continuity.
That’s something a lot of actors I work with are not great on when they’re younger, but it’s very much part of your job. Understanding it teaches you about economy of movement in the right way. That doesn’t mean not doing anything, but how to make acting into a dance, rather than just a series of abrupt movements.
I was sitting in the gardens of the Jolly Sportsman pub, which is in the countryside between Lewes and Brighton, looking at the South Downs, and I thought to myself, “I could live here.”
Today I live near Lewes with what I call a bolt-on family, that is, my wife, one biological child, and a half-share in two others.
The thing about some of the older female actors like Dandy Nichols, Hylda Baker, Irene Handle and Beryl Reid is that they are always telling the truth. You never catch them acting. Watch Dandy Nichols’ timing in ‘Till Death Us Do Part. It’s an acting masterpiece.
I was in London at the time, working as a carpenter. I thought “Oh god, it’s just not going to happen.” I’ve done so many part-time jobs, including my fair share of being a delivery driver.
I’ve been a furniture remover, and I’ve worked in a nursery growing dahlias. I describe acting as not so much a career as a series of jobs stitched together by hope and fear.
One of the funniest times was Glenn, Hugh Laurie, John Shrapnel and I trapped in the back of a van while shooting a scene. All the cameras were set up at end of the van, meaning we couldn’t get out between takes. So we just spent the whole afternoon in the van cracking jokes and telling stories.
Glenn and I still talk. She’s great. She’s from the theatre and is what we call a trooper. She, along with Jennifer Saunders, has got one the funniest laughs. It should be bottled.
…Getting the part of Arthur Weasley
I had read one of the Harry Potter books and rang my agent to see if anybody was doing the talking books. Unfortunately, it turned out Stephen Fry had that covered, but I became increasingly interested in the character of Arthur Weasley.
I knew if I played him I’d have to make him more of a jolly hockey sticks type, and build up his enthusiasm. Well, I’d done 101 Dalmatians and The Borrowers by then, big family films, so was already considered an accomplished character actor in America.
In fact, I was better known there than in this country. So I went to a casting meeting with the director Chris Columbus and producer David Heyman. After a while Chris turned to the assembled company and said: “Well, I think he looks as if he’s old enough to play Julie Walters’s husband,” and they all nodded.
I thought: “Bloody hell! I think I’ve got this!” Of course, Julie Walters and I are both from the West Midlands, so making those Harry Potter films was great fun.
For the first couple of Harry Potter films I was in, I dyed my hair ginger, and when I met Stephen in the street, he just stared at me and said: “Is that for professional or sexual reasons?”
That’s how you know he really is a wit, and that it’s not scripted.
We weren’t filming but no-one would give the rest of us an acting job in anything else because we were still involved with Harry Potter. It was a very tricky time for all of us.
Although I’d worked with Alexie Sayle and Angus Deayton, I’d never done stand-up, and was employed on The Fast Show as an actor, not a comedian. In that sense, there wasn’t a huge amount of pressure on me. But those scenes were very tightly scripted.
People would write loads of stuff, but we’d end up filming only about 25% of it. Ken and Kenneth, the two “ooh! suit you sir!” tailors, were Paul’s idea, but my creative contribution was that I’d play my half of the double act as similar to Paul’s as possible. This was unusual as, normally, double acts rely on contrast.
I was filming in Northern Ireland at the time, playing the butler Beach in Blandings, I was lost for words for a moment. I was already familiar with the character of Father Brown because I’d read a lot of the GK Chesterton stories and knew exactly what I wanted to do with the part.
I like him as a person, and the way he is interested, and interesting. He bases everything on the premise that nothing is irrelevant, which is quite a good idea for a detective.
There was the film crew in singlets and sunhats, while I’m wearing a cassock, hat, heavy trousers and boots. I just have to zen out of it. It’s not just me.
The girls are sometimes wearing wool twin-sets. But the thing about the series is that the fifties costumes and cars are fantastic, and the sense of period in the Cotswolds, where we film, is very strong.
A new series of Father Brown starts on BBC1 in January
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