Joining the Circus: Actor Stephen Riddle on being one of Smiley's People and his career beyond the clandestine world of John Le Carré
JM: Stephen, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me about your career.
SR: It’s a pleasure Jonathan.
JM: We’ll come on to Smiley's People and Richard II a little later but I wanted to begin by talking about how you got started in acting. On your website you said you considered yourself an actor since infant school – how did that passion for acting begin?
SR: My earliest acting memory is of an infant nativity play in which I played Herod. I don’t think I had any dialogue, just mimed. A teacher who was directing the play asked me to gesture to someone with a combination of two different emotions - I can’t remember what they were, perhaps ‘authority’ and ‘anger’.
The teacher told my mother that she had immediately thought this was a ridiculous thing to have asked of a seven-year-old boy and had been astonished that I did exactly what she asked. It came naturally to me and from then I had a very strong sense, a knowledge almost that I was going to be an actor. People speak about their childhood dreams, their aspirations, but for me it was neither of these. I had a sense of destiny.
JM: Before you left school what other roles did you play on stage?
SR: At the age of eleven I played Mole in a junior school production of Toad of Toad Hall in which the eponymous Toad was played by an older boy who also came into the profession, the actor John Bowe. Then, from the age of fourteen I performed with a couple of amateur theatre groups on the Wirral, where I lived. The Riverside Players has unfortunately folded, but The Hillbark Players continues to present high quality, open air Shakespearean productions in the former grounds of a splendid Tudor-style mansion that is now a hotel. I appeared with the Liverpool Youth Theatre with actress Veronica Roberts and was also in senior school plays, of course. In addition, I attended several residential summer courses hosted by Cheshire County Council, taking classes similar to those conducted at drama school. Each course culminated with a full-scale Shakespearean production, most of these were presented at professional theatres. I was lucky enough to play the Fool in King Lear and Marc Antony in Julius Caesar in these.
Beginners Please. From Repertory Theatre to the West End.
JM: Manchester Library Theatre was where you first went into repertory at eighteen. How did that come about?
SR: My parents supported my ambition to act, but encouraged me to go to university so I would have a degree to fall back on. These days drama schools offer formal qualifications, but that wasn’t the case when I was young. To please my parents, I applied to the three universities that ran courses solely in drama and to please myself I applied to four drama schools. The A-levels that I passed were not at high enough grades for me to gain a university place and my drama school auditions were all unsuccessful, which put a bit of a dent in the idea that I was destined to be an actor. One drama school invited me to audition again free of charge the following year, which offered some encouragement, but I didn’t take this up because I was working in the theatre when their next auditions came around.
Unsure what to do and unwilling to take employment in another field, I wrote to the theatres closest to my home and asked them to consider employing me as an Acting ASM (Assistant Stage Manager). I knew at the time that it was unrealistic to think they might, but nothing ventured nothing gained. I don’t recall whose idea it was to write to them. Perhaps it was my mother’s. Looking back, I should have sought advice from others and there were several people I knew who had relevant knowledge, experience and contacts, who would have been pleased to help, but as we increasingly observe as we clock up the years, life is generally much easier in hindsight.
Although I lived about 50 miles from Manchester, I included its Library Theatre in my ludicrously ambitious mail-shot. To my surprise their Company Manager invited me to meet her. When I did, she explained that the theatre management had been considering employing a Student Acting ASM, but had decided against it. A couple of weeks later out of the blue I received a phone call asking if I could be at the theatre the following day to help run a show that was to open that Tuesday. This was a play called Dingo by Charles Wood. Set in the Second World War it featured many different lighting effects and the technician didn’t have enough hands to manage all of these on the theatre’s large manual lighting board without support.
So, I took my hands to the Library Theatre and joined the company as a Student Acting ASM, earning the grand sum of £5 per week, which even then was not very much. I remained there for the rest of the season, obtaining my Equity card and appearing in small roles in several productions.
JM: Do you have any regrets about not going to drama school?
SR: I do looking back, though even if I had been offered a place there was no guarantee I would have been able to go, as Cheshire County Council were renowned for their reluctance to give grants to aspiring drama students. This may seem surprising given their apparent interest in theatre and the substantial costs of running their annual drama courses, but there it is.
Having found an alternative route into the profession through the Library Theatre, I decided that it might be for the best if I did not go to Drama School. I had some concerns anyway that too much focus on technique might be detrimental to my natural instincts and working in a professional theatre was in itself a training of sorts. I very much doubt that I was mature enough then to fully grasp all the opportunities offered by a drama school training, but I regret not having the intense, shared experience that Drama School offers to groups of young people of similar ages. But that milk is spilled – and who is to say what would have happened to each of us had we taken different journeys through life?
JM: You stayed at Manchester Library Theatre until the end of the season. What happened to you then?
SR: Following an established tradition in the acting profession I was unemployed for a few months. I was then offered a job as an actor in Romeo & Juliet at Swansea Grand Theatre, playing the nurse’s servant, Peter, and a couple of other parts. This was the first contract I received on which I was described as an actor, which gave me a bit of a buzz, as you can probably imagine. I think I still have that contract somewhere. I continued to work in repertory theatre for a couple of years, reluctantly stepping back into backstage work following a fallow period to work as an Acting ASM in weekly rep in Sidmouth. That was an experience and a half, of which I have some amazing memories. The stage management team of two, which included me, did everything from lighting the gas burners in the auditorium’s exit lights before the audience was admitted, to begging and borrowing props, opening and closing the curtains, operating the lights, playing music and sound effects, changing the scenery and following the script, which in weekly rep inevitably meant giving the occasional prompt. As if this wasn’t enough to keep me busy, I also had a few decent parts during the season.
JM: I imagine you couldn’t afford to switch off for a moment.
SR: That’s right. The hardest part was learning lines, not least because I had so much else to do it was hard to find time for this. My summer at Sidmouth left me with many happy memories, not least of the bedroom door that stuck firm in a performance of The Cat and the Canary. Unable to open it, the cast resorted to entering and leaving through the fireplace, of all things. Fortunately, this problem was resolved when the scene ended and we changed the set.
After that season I worked solely as an actor again and imagined my career in stage management at an end, until an opportunity arose to work in the West End, understudying three actors as well as undertaking some stage management duties. This was at the Garrick Theatre on a Chichester Festival Theatre production of Dandy Dick, starring Alastair Sim and Patricia Routledge.
The most entertaining stories about our pasts often relate to things that went wrong and there were more mistakes, mishaps and misfortunes in my stage management career than bear thinking about. I was responsible for a major error at Manchester Library Theatre when I set the wrong gauze on stage in a restoration comedy, thereby putting a glade of trees in a drawing room, but I think a mishap during the West End run of Dandy Dick trumps it. I was responsible for music and sound effects, which were played on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. In one scene actors Gemma Craven and Barry McGinn played a duet. She sat at a keyboard instrument, miming to a recorded track, while he stood alongside playing violin – for real. This usually went off without a hitch, but at one performance I pressed the button to start the music and found the recorder had been set at the wrong speed. Barry manfully tried to keep up, but increasing the speed of the music raised the pitch as well, so keyboard and violin were playing in different keys. Looking back that was rather funny, but at the time it was devastating, very awkward for the actors and more than a little embarrassing for me. To this day I have no idea how it happened, though I suppose I should have checked the speed when cuing the tape.
JM: Eventually you were actually offered a part in Dandy Dick, weren’t you?
SR: Yes. Hatcham, the stable groom. I recall the deputy stage manager asking me one day if I thought I could get more laughs from one of the parts I was understudying than the actor playing it. A few days later I was invited to take over the role, because the run of the show had been extended and the actor I was understudying was leaving the company. The character appeared in several short scenes and had potential for a laugh on almost every line he spoke. As it happened, I got a lot of laughs, not least because of Alastair’s reactions. To watch from the wings as Alastair got laugh after laugh from lengthy, intricate comedy business that sometimes went on for minutes on end without any loss of conviction and sincerity from him was a great lesson for any young actor. If we are inventive enough and all times remain true to ourselves and to the characters we are playing we can do extraordinary things, things that cold logic might suggest will be excessive and unacceptable to an audience. Mind you, it helps if an actor has the malleable features and physical fluidity of Alastair Sim.
Perhaps the most extraordinary experience I have encountered in the theatre occurred the first time I stepped onto the Garrick stage in a performance of Dandy Dick. In an instant the size of the auditorium appeared to shrink, as if something supernatural had happened. Perhaps this was because I was suddenly so much closer to the audience than I had been seated at the sound deck, perhaps it was because the lights were so much brighter than they had appeared from there. Whatever the explanation this was a wholly unexpected sensation, as if I had instantly grown in size somehow by stepping onto a West End stage in earnest for the first time.
JM: Some actors have a preference for stage, film or television work. I think Patrick Troughton once said, when asked if he had plans to return to the theatre, that he didn’t go in for all that ‘shouting at night’ anymore! Do you have a preference?
SR: The second Dr Who, my favourite of the early doctors. Did he say that? Well, it’s certainly easier to give a truthful performance onscreen than it is in a large theatre. It’s also gratifying to see a good performance go down to some form of posterity, albeit a time-limited posterity usually - so not really posterity at all. Sharing a performance with a live audience, sharing a space with them, hearing their responses and feeling something from them that is barely tangible but nevertheless real is a very different experience. Do I have a preference? I’m not sure. Ultimately, the production is more important to me than the medium. I think it is rare for most actors that sufficient criteria come together for a job to be wholly satisfying. For a start we need a good script, an intelligent, sensitive director who we can relate to and a suitable part that is complex enough to maintain our interest and challenge us. I think it’s important too that there is some correlation between the number of people who see and appreciate a production and the amount of time and effort invested in it by those who create and present it, so we feel our investment has been worthwhile. This applies whether a show is onstage or onscreen. I believe Smiley’s People was the only production in my career in which for me all of these criteria were met. I am proud of other work to varying degrees, but looking back only Smiley’s People leaves me with an unconditional sense of pride and satisfaction.
Playing the lead in No Sex Please, We’re British in the West End was great fun and good for my ego. It met many of the criteria I have mentioned, but not all. On my 29th birthday I was working at a theatre ticket agency selling seats for West End shows when I received a phone call from my agent informing me that I had an audition the next morning for the leading role in No Sex Please, We’re British. The ticket agency was in the side of the Palace Theatre, not far from Foyles Bookshop, where I was able to buy a copy of the script. Finding sufficient time to read it was another matter. A surprise birthday party had been arranged for me that evening. Friends arrived, food was consumed and alcohol flowed, rather too much of it down my throat. Consequently, I arrived at the audition the following morning with a dreadful hangover, having read only half of the play. I had no idea that the character I was auditioning for had a lot of physical comedy in the second half, which culminated in him running across the stage and leaping through a service hatch into the kitchen. When asked by the director if I was athletic, I acknowledged that I was. This wasn’t true, but I failed to consider why he was asking this.
Stepping into Michael Crawford’s shoes in No Sex Please, We're British.
JM: No Sex, Please - We’re British was a big break for you wasn’t it?
SR: It was. Within two months I went from unemployed actor with no immediate prospects to leading actor in a record-breaking West End production. During the year that I was in No Sex Please, We’re British we celebrated its 10th Anniversary in the West End with a party at the Houses of Parliament. My character, a naïve bank clerk called Brian Runnicles, was originally played by Michael Crawford and we were told that his role as Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em came about as a direct result of his performance as Runnicles. Both characters were sweet, naïve and well-meaning, but somewhat hapless and both roles involved a lot of physical comedy. It wasn’t the biggest part in the play, but it was unquestionably the best with more than its fair share of laugh lines and comedy business, much of this developed by Michael Crawford. A lot of energy is demanded of the actor playing Runnicles, but the peals of laughter, waves of love and rounds of applause that audiences gave in return were ample reward for this energy. David Jason and Andrew Sachs also played Runnicles in the production – and Ronnie Corbett played him on film.
When No Sex Please opened reviewers slated it in the daily papers, but leading critic Harold Hobson gave it a very positive review in the Sunday Times, observing that audiences were falling about in the aisles, and it became the longest running comedy in the West End. I remember a couple of Americans who came to the stage door after a performance telling me they had enjoyed our show and considered it much better than the two RSC productions they had just seen in Stratford-upon-Avon! I found this surprising, but we should be wary of being grand or snobbish about theatre. I’m sure these ladies were genuine and if they enjoyed our show more than those they had seen in Stratford I suppose for them it was better. Performing eight times a week in a 1,200-seat theatre that was sold out at weekends, having audiences in stitches and ending each with a pantomime-style walk-down at which I took the final bow, sometimes to a standing ovation, was flattering and it was a thrill to see my name on the front of the theatre in the largest red neon lights in London. I read recently that Adele and Fred Astaire appeared there in 1923, almost a hundred years ago. It’s amazing to think that I acted on boards as they danced on. I do hope the wood hadn’t been replaced in the intervening years.
Joining the Circus. The best day ever.
JM: It was during the run of No Sex, Please that you filmed Smiley’s People. How did you come to be cast as Mostyn?
SR: Coincidence played a great part in that. I had auditioned for director Simon Langton a couple of years earlier for a part in a tv series called I Remember Nelson. Although they liked my audition, Simon and his producer were concerned about my height. The character I was being considered for was to appear on a lower deck of HMS Victory on a set that had only 5’10” headroom and I was 6’0” tall. I suggested it would emphasise how restricted space was aboard the ship if actors had to stoop a little, but they weren’t convinced. They checked my availability for a larger part that had been on offer to another actor for some time. He was on holiday somewhere remote and his agent had been unable to contact him. I was told that the offer would be withdrawn if it was not accepted within 48 hours and I would then be offered the part. As it happened the other actor came out of the jungle – or wherever he was - and accepted it. In the short term this was unfortunate for me, but the audition had given me an opportunity to make an impression on Simon.
A couple of years later I read in an industry journal that Simon Langton was to direct Smiley’s People. I greatly admired John le Carré’s writing and with millions of other viewers had been enthralled with the BBC serialisation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, where we first saw Sir Alec’s definitive interpretation of George Smiley. I obtained a copy of the book of Smiley's People and decided there was a small part that I might be considered for. It did not occur to me for a moment that I might be cast as Nigel Mostyn in such a prestigious production. I wrote to Simon reminding him of our prior meeting and inviting him to see my performance in No Sex Please. He remembered me and to my surprise invited me to audition for the part of Mostyn. My audition went well and Simon immediately took me to meet producer Jonathan Powell, who I recall admiring my shoes, navy lace-ups with a white trim around the sole that I had purchased at some expense not long before in Bond Street. These days audition processes are generally quite protracted, especially for prestigious work, with actors frequently attending several recalls, despite most auditions being recorded. I attended only one audition for Smiley’s People, it was not recorded and I was offered the part within 24 hours ... without a casting director in sight. Times have changed.
I don’t think Simon ever saw me in No Sex Please, but he may have recognised there are some similarities between the characters of Runnicles and Mostyn, insofar as both are naïve, well-meaning innocents. I have an idea he told me that he had seen the First Night of No Sex Please and he definitely saw it early in its run when one of the main roles was played by his Godfather Simon Williams. Older readers of this interview who remember the original series of Upstairs Downstairs, in which Simon Williams played James Bellamy, may recall that the actor playing his father in that series was David Langton, who was Simon Langton’s father.
JM: There was a rehearsal period for Smiley's People before filming. What do you remember about this?
SR: It was at St Nicholas Church Hall in Bennett Street, Chiswick. By chance I bought a flat near there a few months later, on the basis of having a year’s employment in No Sex, Please. I think we had only one day of rehearsal. Afterwards Sir Alec offered me a lift into the West End in his chauffeured limo and we drove past the flat that I subsequently bought. Alec had lived in Chiswick when he was young and reminisced about walking across fields down to the river - before the Great West Road was built. Many of us like to think things will remain the same as they were when we first saw them, but they don’t. A couple of days ago I visited some friends in Chiswick and, with this interview in mind, went to look at the Church Hall where we had rehearsed. It’s been knocked down. For Sir Alec it was fields, for me the church hall where I first met him.
JM: As you get older, they start knocking down parts of your past don’t they! So, what were your first impressions of Alec Guinness?
SR: A good question. I wish I could share an interesting memory of that. We were all very much focussed on the work. He was quite reserved, as I think most people would expect. I daresay I was in some awe to be sharing a rehearsal room with Alec, but starring nightly in the West End to enthusiastic audiences probably prevented me from feeling too intimidated. He spoke softly and whatever he said was measured. As an actor he was, of course, very subtle and very thorough.
He was a gentleman, but I don’t think I would like to have crossed him. During rehearsal I pronounced Toby Esterhase’s name incorrectly and was taken aback when Alec picked me up on this strongly and quite angrily. Being admonished by a knight of the realm who was arguably the best actor of my lifetime was not an experience to be welcomed. Fortunately, Bill Patterson – a very warm and generous man – came in strongly in my defence, apparently thinking Alec had been unnecessarily harsh. I wondered about this afterwards. Perhaps mispronunciations of the name had been an ongoing theme on the production or perhaps Alec thought I should have remembered the pronunciation from Tinker Tailor. I don’t know. I didn’t have the courage or presence of mind to ask anyone.
I think the greatest joy of acting is to be another person for a period, to somehow inhabit them, to feel their emotions, to put on their shoes for a while, without having to carry their baggage with us for long when we have cast off one character and taken on another. Sir Alec is best remembered for his skill in inhabiting different characters completely, which he did throughout his career.
JM: You were perfectly cast as Mostyn and in a way it was ideal to cast Mostyn as a fresh face to television. I think it’s more believable to cast someone unknown in a part where the audience is expected to believe that this person is a bit wet behind the ears.
SR: I think it’s good to see unknown and lesser known actors in significant roles. It’s harder for an audience to identify with characters that are played by actors they have seen previously in many other roles. Speaking personally, I am bored with the performances of several actors who frequently appear to be on our television screens. I often feel I have seen everything they have to offer and would prefer someone else to have been cast in the part. This doesn’t necessarily mean the actor has used all the tools in their toolbox, of course. They may have chosen to give a performance similar to previous performances because they believe that is what their audience wants to see or because their director and production company have requested this. Alternatively, they may be so busy that they have insufficient time available between productions to develop new characters to the extent that they might wish. Whatever the reason I find it disappointing when an actor whose work I have admired appears to have nothing new to show us.
It is fair to say that nearly all the significant roles in Smiley’s People were played by well-known actors, with the exception of mine and that of Paul Herzberg, but Smiley’s People was a major production, an exception. In many ways it set the model for how many television productions are made now, on location and on film.
JM: I agree entirely. I have always said of both Tinker Tailor and Smiley's People that because they were shot entirely on film and the production values were so high, what they were doing back then is how many productions are shot now. We’re very used now to longform drama over six to eight episodes with something shot entirely on location, but back in 1979 this was unheard of. Tinker Tailor was the first series to be made by the BBC in this way and I think its part of the reason why both it and Smiley’s People stand the test of time.
Going back to the Hampstead Heath location filming I was wondering if the interiors of the flat were actually shot in that large block of apartments on East Heath Road?
SR: They were. We filmed the office scenes in a building near St James’s Square and a couple of weeks later shot those in Hampstead. My contribution amounted to only three days filming.
JM: The first episode was actually over-running significantly in the edit and they managed to get it down from a run time of almost 75 minutes to just under an hour. Do you remember if there were any scenes you shot that didn’t make it into the broadcast?
SR: Oh no, they couldn’t possibly have cut any of my material. I was far too good. (Sorry, joke.) I am pretty sure that everything I filmed was included in the version shown in the UK, but I believe some of my speeches were omitted from the version shown in the States.
JM: You're right, they did chop quite a bit out of your account of your contacts with Vladimir in the international version. You were also working with Anthony Bate who was in this and Tinker Tailor of course and I just think he’s a lovely actor to watch. What was it like working with him and Bill Patterson?
SR: A blessing. When you’re working with good people it’s much easier to be good yourself.
JM: So, tell me about the Hampstead shoot.
SR: It took two days: the first an exterior night shoot at the shelter and the second an interior day shoot at the flat, where the time of day was immaterial because lighting conditions could be controlled. I don’t recall much about the night shoot beyond some brief memories of waiting at the side of a field for my cue, of walking to the shelter and, for some reason, of actor Michael Elphick giving me a cheery smile as he came away from a scene that he had filmed previously. I clearly remember my last day of filming though, from leaving my home in Highgate early in the morning, chatting enthusiastically to the driver of a black cab as we drove around the northern perimeter of Hampstead Heath to the location, which was on the western side of the heath. I would have been late to bed the previous night, having appeared in No Sex Please, but I was happy to forego a little sleep - I was working with Alec Guinness.
I recall Bill Paterson instigating a jokey game of improvisation while we waited for the crew to prepare the set. I suspect this was to prevent us getting nervous – and me in particular perhaps – rather than simply to pass the time.
We shot the scenes in the hallway first, of Mostyn letting Strickland and later Smiley into the flat, and then the scene in which Smiley speaks to Mostyn discreetly out of earshot of Lacon and Strickland.
Immediately before lunch we filmed the scene in the lounge with Sir Alec, Anthony Bate, Bill Paterson and me, initially with the camera directed at me as I explained how I failed to meet Curd Jurgens’ Vladimir. Immediately after my close-up the crew burst into a spontaneous round of applause, which I found thrilling. That was the first time I'd experienced someone getting a round of applause on a film set..and it was for me.
It was fortunate for me that my key shots were completed in the morning, because I was able to relax a bit over the lunch break. John le Carré had invited Simon Langton and the cast to his home for lunch, as he lived nearby. Sir Alec didn’t join us because he wanted to prepare quietly for the shots on him.
Later, lining up the camera for a close-up of Sir Alec, cameraman Ken McMillan observed, ‘We’ve got a bit of a problem with light on Alec’s glasses.’ Alec looked at him impassively, just as George Smiley would have done, and said in Smiley’s careful, measured tone, ‘I don’t think we’ve got a problem'.
I was due to finish at a pre-agreed time to ensure I would arrive at the theatre in time for my performance that evening, but I was asked to stay on a bit because they hadn’t completed all the shots that Simon wanted me to appear in. Eventually time became so tight that they had to release me. One of the crew then donned Mostyn’s jacket for one or two shots of the character going past in the background.
I expected to find a black cab waiting to take me to the theatre, but instead found a limousine. Nowadays it's common for actors to travel in these, but that wasn’t my experience back then, not for a jobbing actor filming for the BBC anyway. On the back seat of the limo, I found some keys, which turned out to be Curd Jurgens’, the driver having previously taken him to Heathrow Airport. I have thought for many years that the limousine had been arranged especially for me, as it was my last day of filming and was touched by this. Only now does it occur to me that the limo had been hired anyway to take Curd Jurgens to the airport and was likely to be required later to take Sir Alec back to the Connaught, which was his hotel of choice. I should try to push that idea aside, as I have been very happy thinking I was given special treatment because it was my last day.
The chauffeur and I had a friendly chat en-route to the West End and as we approached the theatre he asked me to sign an autograph. I laughed, suggesting he didn’t really want this, but he insisted, telling me that Cilla Black had said much the same to him several years previously. “And look where she is now,” he added. Embarrassed, I signed an autograph for him and dashed into the theatre, later than expected. I put on costume and make-up and was soon onstage in front of several hundred people giving my high-octane performance as Runnicles, the complete opposite of my restrained performance as Mostyn. It was a fantastic day, amazing, the best of my career ... a special memory I am always happy to share.
JM: It would be hard to top that I would think. Did you get to attend any of the BAFTA screenings for the production team or the press?
SR: I was invited to a screening for the cast and crew, which was at BAFTA. Later I was asked to join Sir Alec at a press screening, where we talked with reviewers. I felt honoured that we were the only representatives of the cast ... and more than a little chuffed when a journalist told me that Alec had recommended that he talked to me because I was about the future and he (Alec) was about the past. Unfortunately, I didn’t have sufficient presence of mind to lead on a reviewer who told me he thought Mostyn was a mole. I might have got more press coverage if I had.
After the Circus. How Smiley added Punch to his prospects.
JM: What did Smiley’s People lead to?
SR: I went from one job to another for a couple of years, always having a job lined up before the previous one ended. Enquiries about my availability increased, I had more auditions and was being considered for more significant roles. I frequently received scripts in advance of interviews too, which hadn’t happened often before. This meant I was better prepared when meeting directors. Sometimes I wasn’t even asked to meet them, just offered parts on the basis of my performance in Smiley’s People. This happened with Granada’s epic production of The Jewel in the Crown, Geraldine James having suggested me to the producers after seeing me as Mostyn. Most of the cast flew to India to film exterior sequences in exotic locations, but the furthest I travelled from Granada’s Manchester studios was Macclesfield, where we filmed a wedding and a funeral at a hillside church.
A BBC director told me that their Head of Series and Serials had asked producers to make a point of watching me in Smiley’s People with a view to casting me in future productions, which was extremely flattering. I auditioned for leading roles in two or three BBC series in fairly quick succession and was cast as Martin Eliot in Strangers and Brothers, a serialisation of CP Snow’s classic Lewis Eliot novels. Personally, I have reservations about my performance and about some other aspects of the production. In my view we were misguided in trying to inject passion into fairly dispassionate, intellectual characters. We might instead have adopted a more contained, guarded manner, not unlike that adopted by many characters in the world of George Smiley. There were a lot of good actors in the cast, including Anthony Hopkins, but the show had a lukewarm reception and fairly modest viewing figures.
Following Smiley’s People, I had several small roles in one-off productions that were made on film, solely on location. This seemed to me preferable to larger roles in less prestigious productions shot in the studio. One of these was a short film called The Gourmet, about a man who wanted to eat a ghost. This was written by Kazuo Ishiguro before he became a household name and won his Booker and Nobel prizes. I also had a small part as a policeman in a BBC film called Speed King, which featured that wonderful actor Robert Hardy as Malcolm Campbell. One of my earliest tv appearances was as an officious Yorkshire policeman trying to reprimand Robert Hardy’s Siegfried Farnham in the original production of All Creatures Great and Small. I watched that recently and was pleased at how well the scene stands up after 45 years.
JM: You mentioned that you had some reservations about Strangers and Brothers but you obviously had one of the lead roles in that series. Did it feel like a step up for you?
SR: I was playing a lead, so in terms of the part it was, but not in terms of the production. When Smiley’s People was broadcast, I featured in a Punch cartoon (above). Now, that was a mark of success. I wasn’t in a cartoon about Strangers and Brothers.
JM: I want to talk a little bit about your career as a copywriter. How did that come about?
SR: I had no aspirations to do anything of that kind. My partner was working at an advertising agency on the account of a company called UIP, which was the UK distribution arm of four film studios: Paramount, Universal, MGM and UA. The client had rejected several scripts for radio commercials for a major new film that was due to open and my partner’s agency was concerned that they risked losing the client’s business. From childhood I had written a bit, as many actors do. I had some time on my hands, so I wrote a script on spec interpreting the client’s brief quite loosely but writing what I considered would be most effective. The account director liked my script, the client liked it and the rest, as they say, is history. The commercial I scripted was a major part of the marketing campaign for a sequel to a fairly successful film called Raiders of the Lost Ark. John Williams’ wonderful driving theme music ran behind a strong American voiceover, who said something like this: “You thought romance was dead? You don’t know Indiana Jones. The hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark is back in his all new, thrilling adventure, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, at a cinema near you from Friday. Book the edge of your seat now.” I was quite proud of the last line. Otherwise, there’s not a lot to it really, but suddenly I was a copywriter watching new movies in the afternoon and creating advertising for them, which was great fun and very well paid.
JM: I believe you won an award for a radio commercial you wrote for the Tom Hanks film The Money Pit, is that right?
SR: Yes. At least the team that put the commercial together won it and I was part of that team. The award was for Best Use of Sound Effects. I had specified the use of several in the script I wrote, but the choice of the specific effects was very much a team effort. That commercial represented something of a watershed for me. Those I had written previously were primarily driven by the words of my scripts, but the commercial for The Money Pit was driven instead by its concept. This was that the star of the movie was not an up-and-coming young actor called Tom Hanks nor Shelley Long from Cheers, who led the cast, but was instead the house that inexorably consumed their financial resources bringing them to comedic ruin. In my script a film reviewer interviewed this house which responded to questions with creaks and other noises that a house might make, finally collapsing noisily, as it does in the film. I have a framed award certificate in which the phrase 'Best Use of SFX' is underlined. It can easily be misread as 'Best Use of SEX', which I think is quite an accolade, even if it is only a Bronze Award.
Working in film advertising was great fun, well paid and closely related to my acting career. I was commissioned on a film-by-film basis so any commitment I had was short term, but within a relatively short period I found myself drawn into other forms of advertising and marketing, where my commitment was more prolonged. The work was well paid and we had a mortgage, so it was difficult for me to turn it down. You probably know that Alec Guinness was a copywriter before he was an actor. You could say I did it the wrong way round.
Only Fools and Horses. Dinner with Delboy.
JM: I think it was 1986 that the Only Fools and Horses episode came along, so you were still acting then.
SR: I was, but only intermittently. The offer of a nice cameo in an Only Fools and Horses Xmas Special came out of the blue and I was pleased to accept it. As my character Giles was only in the dinner party scene my contribution was done and dusted in a single day. I remember meeting David and Nicholas soon after arriving at the location and having a long conversation with them in their trailer. Nick had been offered a lead in a West End play at that time and was wondering whether to do it. Although he had been an actor from an early age and appeared in many television productions, I don’t think he had previously worked in theatre. David was encouraging him to do it and I put in my two pennies’ worth. I often felt uncomfortable meeting new people in those days, but felt very much at ease with them. I think I outstayed my welcome though. An assistant director came and quietly suggested that I vacate their trailer.
I’m not sure that I was aware then that were any issues regarding the episode, but now understand there was some dissatisfaction that writer John Sullivan, who was usually on set, was absent due to another commitment. Consequently, he was not available to make last minute script amendments, as he usually did. Many fans of the show consider the Christmas Special I appeared in to be poor in comparison to the others.
JM: I don’t think anyone was completely happy with the finished episode but I’m not sure how apparent the problem was while they were filming. On the face of it, the set up should have made for a classic episode of Only Fools and Horses. The problem was the tone and I think if John Sullivan had been there for the filming they would have spotted these problems and done some re-writes. There were so many issues and delays with the episode that apparently it was still being edited on Christmas morning, but I don’t know how much truth there is in that.
SR: When the episode was broadcast on Christmas Day 1986 it had almost 20 million viewers and was about 75 minutes long, but the version that is widely available runs for less than 60. I was quite pleased with my contribution and it was notable enough for a vicar to have remembered my performance when I attended a wedding a few months later. (This was before catch-up services were available.) When I watched it again a few years ago I was surprised and disappointed that my favourite sequence had been cut.
JM: I think some of your dialogue about Stamford Bridge was left out wasn’t it?
SR: Yes. My character Giles tries to pass himself off as a serious football fan, but has no idea what Kerry Dixon’s first name is. When Del asks him “which Dixon” the best he can offer, after a moment of confusion, is “Dixon of Chelsea”. I thought that a rather nicely observed gag. Even in the 75-minute version my part was not that large. I think I described it as a cameo earlier, which is what actors often call parts that are smaller than they’d like.
I’m not sure that the issues some people have with the episode can be attributed to the script alone, nor that all the cuts were advisable. The dinner party scene has been edited severely, but I am not convinced that this improves the episode. I think trimming an earlier scene in the market makes more sense, as Del’s manner in that scene was unusually aggressive when he called one of the customers a plonker, his trademark insult, which he usually combines with a smile and a cheery laugh.
JM: It just goes to prove how important those characterisations were in terms of the success of the show.
SR: Several fans of Only Fools and Horses have sought me out over the years through my agent or union, requesting signed photographs or autographs. I suppose this shows the love that its fans have for it.
JM: Not long after that you took quite a lengthy break from acting. What brought that about?
SR: When I started writing advertising copy it provided a second source of income, but I let it take over. I left my career in the hands of my agent, turned down some offers and waited for the “right job” to come along … which didn’t happen. Acting opportunities dried up, my then wife had a child and stopped work and I found myself working long hours as a copywriter. It’s easy to think now that we should have been more realistic about where we lived, that we shouldn’t have taken on a mortgage we couldn’t really afford and that we should have waited until I became more established as an actor before having children ... but there is no guarantee that would have happened and my ex-wife’s biological clock was ticking. I have regrets, but also a lot to be thankful for, not least two grownup children who I love dearly. Although some periods of my life have seemed quite difficult, my problems do not compare with the serious issues that many people have to deal with. What’s more, for an actor in particular there is something to be gained from every difficult experience. Who knows when I will have an opportunity to draw upon my acrimonious marriage breakdown and divorce, my search for some meaning through Buddhism and Christianity or the psychotic episode that saw me sectioned for a period, but I believe that these experiences enrich my work as an actor.
After my psychotic episode I sought employment in which I could make a greater contribution to society and spent a decade working in social services. This was a financial role determining if people qualified for assistance funded by the Council and helping residents maximise their incomes through state benefits.
JM: I am curious about what brought you back to acting. Was there something you missed that made you want to return to it?
SR: I had a sense of destiny from childhood, as I mentioned previously. Despite common sense and many life experiences leading me to wonder if this was not simply a juvenile fantasy, I am still reluctant to accept it was. From an early age I believed I was going to be an actor and I would like to honour the child who believed that, by bringing my life full circle, as it were. Added to this I have a sense of belonging when I am on a stage or in front of a camera that I do not experience at any other time. I have a talent for acting that I hope to exercise a fair bit more before the final credits are run on my life. I have a strong sense of empathy, which serves me well as an actor. Of course, empathy is an asset in many walks of life and it served me well in my role in Social Services. Providing a small degree of support to others who had encountered difficulties was emotionally rewarding, but increasingly the framework in which I was obliged to operate reduced my ability to do the job to my satisfaction. As I was generally supporting people on a one-to-one basis, the numbers I could help were limited. While working for the Council, I went with a group of colleagues to see a production of Shadowlands at the Strand Theatre, where I had appeared in No Sex Please nearly 30 years earlier. Sitting in the Dress Circle, watching Charles Dance, who I had worked with briefly on The Jewel in the Crown, I realised that I was achieving less in social services than I had as an actor. In social services the support I gave was on a one-to-one basis, but as an actor I had reached thousands on stage and millions on screen, moving them to laughter or tears, drawing on their emotions and giving them pause for thought.
Back on the Boards. Richard II, theatre for a new age.
SR: A fair amount, but mostly on a small scale. I have participated in dozens of rehearsed readings, appeared in several productions at fringe theatres and had a small part in The Crown.
JM: And you mentioned to me that you’ll be back on stage very soon in Richard II. Tell me a bit about that.
SR: I’m enormously excited about it. I have been involved since September 2019, when I was invited me to join the company for a week of research and development, which culminated in a performance to an invited audience of selected scenes from the play. This was very well received, by younger people who rarely attend theatre and also by older people who frequently go to theatre and have seen many productions of Shakespeare’s plays. One of the key principles that the producers have adopted is that our show should be accessible and exciting for young audiences who attend music concerts but are not usually drawn to Shakespeare. With this in mind they have put together a production that covers all bases, with great live music, a little bit of dancing, a lot of passion and aggression, some remarkably convincing action sequences put together by one of the stunt crew from the Vikings tv series and a dash of full-frontal nudity thrown in for good measure. What’s not to like?
One of the central precepts of our production is that Richard was born a girl and passed off by her family as a man to strengthen the family’s hold on the throne in a brutal world in which physical strength is dominant. Only the closest people in Richard’s life know her gender. We are not suggesting that Richard II may have been a woman. Indeed, our production is not set in the 14th Century, but in an undefined future when a new line of monarchs is on the throne, a time when people have created a new religion that brings together the most valued elements of many religions, not least Druidism. We don’t specify how the world of our play has arisen, as we limit our text to Shakespeare’s, but in developing the production we agreed upon a scenario that could conceivably have reshaped the world in which we have been living into the world of our play. It is possible that a global pandemic would have been a major factor in this.
I play John of Gaunt, which is a wonderful part, and - Spoiler Alert - after Gaunt dies, the Bishop of Carlisle. In their respective ways each of these characters represents the spirit of England. You might say Gaunt is the heart and Carlisle its soul.
Several people have commented over the past year on parallels between the plagues of Shakespeare’s era and our pandemic. In John of Gaunt’s most famous speech he describes England as ‘This fortress, built by nature for herself, against infection …’. Whilst the geographical benefits of living on an island during a worldwide pandemic have not been fully realised here in Britain, this phrase will have fresh resonance for our audiences.
In March 2020, when shortages of toilet rolls were first reported here in the UK, I was staying with the company of Richard II in a small but beautifully formed residential complex in Provence. We were developing the show with a view to mounting a production in the UK last year. On our last day in France, we had a full run-through of the scenes we had been working on in an open courtyard enclosed by high stone walls. Soon after we finished there was a knock on the door. Two gendarmes had arrived, having been alerted by a neighbour who was concerned about the realistic screams of murder she had heard. She told the gendarmerie that she thought some English people might be rehearsing a play, but recommended they checked, just in case. We explained politely that there was no need to worry, it was only Richard II.
Following our return to England on March 15th we were to perform about 70% of our show at a Central London theatre to an audience representing prospective venues and other interested parties. This would have happened on March 18th, but two days earlier all London theatres closed and our plan was scuppered. Emotionally and financially battered but unbroken in spirit, our producers have arranged a tour of outdoor venues this Summer. Perhaps a few of your readers will come along to see young Nigel Mostyn transformed to old John of Gaunt - which only took a quick 40 years.
JM: Good luck with the new production. I very much hope to get the chance to see it. On a final point I would like to come back to Smiley’s People. Saul Enderby tells Smiley that they had to fire Mostyn when they realised he’d told Smiley about the Sandman. Enderby said Mostyn was now in a monastery in Ipswich and remarked that it was ‘a bloody cold spot to pray.’ What do you think Mostyn’s up to these days?
SR: Perhaps the idea that Mostyn took holy orders came from writer John Hopkins, who developed the BBC screenplay. As it happens John le Carré and his wife Jane told me they often discussed what happened to John’s characters when their contributions to his stories had ended. They said that Mostyn left the secret service shortly after the events of Smiley’s People and opened a restaurant in East Anglia. Perhaps he’s still there, hoping his bistro will survive lockdowns and social distancing, asking himself why his best efforts have again gone unrewarded ... and perhaps Enderby was cracking a joke because the restaurant is called 'The Monastery'. Now, there’s a thought.
Update 22nd September 2021 - Stephen has informed us that he is no longer associated with the Quandary Collective production of Richard II, despite his great enthusiasm for the project and dedication to it. He regrets that it would not be appropriate for him to share the reasons for this publicly at the current time.
Black and White Portrait ©Kai Cem Narin