Those blessed with a long memory will remember actor Graham Seed from his short stint as upper-class buffoon Charlie Mycroft in Crossroads in the late 80s but he will be best remembered as series regular Nigel Pargetter in The Archers. However, a veteran also of the stage, Seed is now touring in Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path.Glen Pearce spoke to him about taking to the skies.
The tour’s started already – how’s it gone so far?
We opened a couple of weeks ago at the Connaught, Worthing. Then the beautiful Oxford Playhouse and we’re really settling down. We’re having a lovely time and the audiences have been very appreciative. What is interesting is it’s a very nostalgic piece obviously. The elderly, and people who see it, enjoy the period feel and the way people behaved in the 1940s, which of course Rattigan is a consummate expressionist for. His writing is so precise and clear, like Noel Coward, who is the only writer I can compare it to. He writes of the period and there’s a lot of repressed emotion.
You’ve appeared with your co-star in this play, Audrey Palmer, in another Rattigan play – Separate Tables.
That’s right – yes! It’s a very small world, isn’t it? I was with Audrey a year and a quarter ago at Salisbury.
What is it do you think made Terence Rattigan such a good playwright?
Well, when I was at RADA, Rattigan was incredibly unfashionable but I still think of Deep Blue Sea as being one of the great English plays of the last century. He wasn’t fashionable, because of the Royal Court and John Osborne and all that, but the 50s had some wonderful playwrights. He went out of fashion but now he’s back. There was a big revival of his work I think on the centenary of his birth and indeed, Flare Path had a huge success about five years ago with Trevor Nunn’s production starring Sheridan Smith at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
As an actor, the impressive thing about his writing is that every character has a backstory that you can invest a lot of thought in. You don’t get tired of playing the characters because they seem to grow the more you play them. For example, this is clearly a love story between three people; who’s the woman going to go with – her husband or her lover?Because it’s set in such a highly charged environment of the Second World War, and a bombing squadron, there’s a lot of a lot of tension around too and energy, and my squadron leader character, he’s very fatherly and he’s aware of all these things going on but he’s more concerned about will his boys come back from every trip. There’s a telling line in which he says ‘you know we do owe these boys something’. There was a lot of sacrifices, especially the bombers – a huge mortality rate.
You’re playing the role of Squadron Leader ‘Gloria’ Swanson. What appealed to you about the part?
He’s fatherly, he’s avuncular and he’s also got a great sense of humour!I’ve tried to flesh him out and make him three-dimensional, because on the page you can imagine him with a handlebar moustache. And the lingo that he comes out with is quite ‘stiff upper lip’. I just wanted to be a part of the project. I worked for Original Theatre many years ago in a lovely production of Journey’s End. It was nice to be able to slot it in after Christmas. I’m working with three really talented young actors, so it’s nice to be in a company with them. Lynden Edwards, Hedydd Dylan and Daniel Fraser are quite excellent. Everyone’s excellent, but they have to carry the show. I’m just giving good solid support and, incidentally, feeling a bit older than everyone else.I’m in my 60s and I’m the old man of the company! For years, you’re the youngest then, suddenly, what happened to all those years? But it’s a good thing to do and I’m enjoying it enormously.
Perhaps audience members, evenif they don’t recognise your face from previous work, will recognise your voice, obviously from your long run in The Archers. Is there a real difference between acting for radio and for the stage?
Well, of course! Radio is the most intimate and immediate of all media I think because it’s only the voice. And you’re in control. I’m now talking to you as if I’m in front of a microphone. I rather like microphones. On stage, of course, you have to project. But that’s okay – I trained at RADA and I’ve always done stage work. I mean every medium is a bit different. On television, you were told to do less. In theatre, you do need an energy and you need to be heard, it’s the most important thing. If you can’t be heard, there’s no point, is there? In this, I have to shout over a lot of bombers flying off and flying back.
The show is quite meticulous in its detail. How much research as a company have you had to do in ensuring you’re faithful to the period?
That’s a very good question! Before we started work our director suggested a few films to look at. We also went along to the Imperial War Museum. But personally speaking, I feel I know that period very well. My father’s generation all fought in the war and I was brought up on film such as The Dambusters, so I feel very attuned to this English suppressed emotion and not allowing them to really say what they feel. I mean it’s always keeping their emotions checked so they speak in a certain way. There’s a lot of dramatists of the period who cultivated it even to the extent that you get that likeness in Noel Coward too.
Is it achallenge taking over from another actor in a role to make it your own?
I’ve taken over one or two roles. I don’t particularly like taking over roles but, with a project like this, we’re all new – a completely new cast. You pinch things. I saw the show at Richmond and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I can’t remember anything that Philip did. I have a huge respect for Philip [Franks] but he’s a different actor. As I say, actors are always playing other people’s parts! I’m just wearing Philip’s costume, slightly tapered in and giving my version of Swanson but you can’t do too much to it. You just stay faithful to the play and the work.
You could say, should I not play Hamlet because it’s been done by someone else? It’s exciting when you do a modern play and I did a couple of new plays – world premieres – last year at the Park Theatre, one of which, called Dead Sheep about Geoffrey Howe and Margaret Thatcher, is going on a tour in the Autumn. That’s exciting because I created the parts of Ian Gow and Nigel Lawson in that. But you know, every acting job is a challenge and a bit terrifying.It doesn’t get any easier!
Flare Path is on quite a large national tour. How important do you think it is for the UK theatre industry to have a strong regional theatre network and strong touring products?
I believe passionately in good theatre outside of London and it is getting a bit forgotten. Everyone concentrates on London openings that have six weeks’ rehearsal and 10 days of previews before the press come. Well, this is a different ballgame. We had two weeks’ rehearsal and then straight out there because of funding and money and we have to nurture the play in the provinces. I mean the big musicals sort of look after themselves, in that they’ll go to the big cities, but to take a professional – and I mean a professionally run company with good professional actors who are hopefully being paid a living wage – is another matter. The big companies like the RSC occasionally take things out but good plays in the provinces are so important for the country and they should be cherished. But you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you! [laughs]
Actors mustn’t subsidise the theatre, but it’s getting a bit like that when you’re playing some theatres that are so run down and the facilities backstage are quite honestly unacceptable. You think ‘I’m getting a bit too old for this’. Why should we be subsidising the arts and I want a decent wage. I’m not a student and I won’t behave like a student. You get pride out of your work and I think the arts are an essential part of the wealth and standing of our country. Actually, it was it was William Churchill who said: “Why are we fighting this war if it’s not to keep our theatres open?”
Flare Path is touring until 7 May 2016
For further information:www.flarepaththetour.com