General Articles - Tenth Anniversary Interview with Gareth Thomas
- 19 Jan 2022
- 122 Reads
Interview by Diane Gies, edited by Jackie Ophir Emery
The full interview originally appeared in Horizon Newsletter #21, printed in 1988
Grateful thanks to Horizon Admin M1795537 OC Virn for her assistance in prepping this abridged version
Diane: How did you get into acting? Was it something you always wanted to do?
Gareth: No, I actually got into it by accident! I decided I wanted to carry on being a student, and I thought, well, I can’t paint, so I’ll try acting. I went back to one of my teachers at school who’d been in charge of drama etc, and asked if he would coach me. I then auditioned for RADA, which was the only drama school I knew existed in those days. I got into RADA, and one day, about halfway through the 2-year course, found myself thinking: “I quite like this game, it’s rather fun!” I then decided that as long as I could cope with my responsibilities financially, I might as well carry on acting. I’ve been fairly lucky, so I’ve kept going. But that was how I got in. Purely by accident, because I decided I wanted to go on being a student, and then was lucky enough to get into drama school.
The first thing I did after leaving RADA was to understudy Peter Jones in a play at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford. Then I went to the Liverpool Playhouse, where I was an assistant stage manager for about four months, which I loathed. Then at Christmastime I got into the company as a full-blooded actor.
Diane: You’ve worked for both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the English Shakespeare Company. What were they like, and which did you prefer?
Gareth: Well, the Royal Shakespeare Company is very prestigious. I was playing some very nice parts and I thoroughly enjoyed it, because I kept well out of all the politics of the place and just had a good time doing the job. But it’s a massive institution. I mean, it runs three or four theatres, it tours and does all sorts of things. I feel it may have got itself just a little bogged down. Also, there’s criticism being levelled at it now that although most of their productions are very good, sometimes one feels that the director has said: “This play has been done so many times before by the Royal Shakespeare Company that I’ve got to do something different with it.” Some people say that it seems the directors have to do something different just for the sake of being different, which I must confess I find rather sad.
The English Shakespeare Company is a new company which was set up to fill an enormous gap in British Theatre – taking large-scale Shakespeare shows around the country. Michael Bogdanov is a very innovative director; he started off with the premise that Henry IV Parts One and Two and Henry V are really one long trilogy, and he directed it as one play. He directed it in a remarkable way, and I think it was probably one of the most exciting artistic experiences I’ve had. But then of course any new company which is successful is going to be exciting. The other thing of course, is that the English Shakespeare Company is purely a touring company, it doesn’t have a base anywhere. The Royal Shakespeare Company has far, far greater facilities. So I can’t really compare the two, but they’re both great fun to work for.
(PAUSE FOR DISEMBODIED FEMALE VOICE OVER LOUDSPEAKER) Gareth: Go away, Orac! (laughs)
Diane: Do you get asked to play many Welsh characters?
Gareth: It’s interesting, this. I haven’t actually played many Welshmen, but I did turn down an enormous amount of Welsh work in the past. Recently I’ve accepted more Welsh parts than previously, because I think - and I hope not wrongly - that I’ve done enough over the past 24 years to be known as ‘an actor who happens to be Welsh’, rather than a ‘Welsh actor’. So now I feel I can afford to do those parts.
Morgan’s Boy was Welsh. The last thing I did, Better Days, was Welsh, although that was having lost the Welsh accent and only creeping it in occasionally. I’ve done three Henrys in the last year as Welshmen, Knights of God, and going further back, How Green Was My Valley and Stocker’s Copper. That’s eight or nine out of 150 shows that I’ve done, and I suppose they are the ones that people immediately identify, but I’ve actually done more non-Welsh than Welsh parts. In one of my recent radio plays, I was playing a Scotsman in Scotland. I’ve just finished a series Chelworth as a Yorkshire farmer. I’ve done two episodes of a series called After the War, where I was just playing straightforward English. So I think it’s fairly well mixed up.
Diane: How do you feel about doing comedy as opposed to serious parts?
Gareth: Oh, I love doing comedy. Love it! I’ve done quite a lot on stage, but only one on television, an original play for Yorkshire Television called Dogfood Dan and the Carmarthen Cowboy. Funnily enough, that was a Welshman, too. The head of BBC Light Entertainment, Gareth Gwenlan, was specifically looking for a comedy series for me for a long time, back when he was a director. But now he is Head of Light Entertainment and of course doesn’t do any casting! Well, he did find one, and he said: “I’ve found the perfect series for you, Gareth. Unfortunately, you’ve got to be 16 years younger than Penelope Keith!” So that one went by the board.
There was actually a series made of Dogfood Dan. The writer said: “I want you and David Daker (the other actor), but the BBC are doing it, not ITV.” So I phoned my agent, but was told that unfortunately David Daker was doing Boon at the time and couldn’t commit, and the BBC wanted both of us or neither. And so my one chance to do a light entertainment series went out the window. C’est la vie, that’s the business.
Diane: Blake’s 7. Have to get around to it at some stage, I suppose!
Gareth: I suppose so!
Diane: This is a four-part question: How did you feel about Blake’s 7 initially? How did you feel about it in the middle? How did you feel when you left the series? And now, 10 years later?
Gareth: Well, initially I thought it a marvellous idea. Something very different and of course, for any young actor (younger than I am now, anyway!) getting a series is great. As you know, during the series we had enormous fun. Working with Michael and Paul – it was a great company. Which was just as well, as we were under enormous pressure.
The reasons I left it are many and varied. I think you know most of them. One reason was just that I felt I’d gone as far as I could. Also, I wanted to do something different, because I felt I was getting into a rut.
Immediately afterwards: well, I was a little bit dubious. When you leave a series, there are two things that can happen. One is to fall flat on your face because everybody identifies you so much with that character you can’t get anything else, or you can take off because you’re flavour of the month. What I did – purely by luck – was sort of go and hide at the Royal Shakespeare Company, if you see what I mean. Instead of being seen by 12 million people every week, I was seen by a couple of thousand. So immediately afterwards I don’t really think I had any thoughts at all about Blake’s 7 because I was working flat out on Shakespeare. It really did occupy my time, because I hadn’t done any major theatre work for about ten years. And to go back and open at a 1500 seater theatre playing Orsino and on the first night starting with my back to the audience and turning around: “If music be the food of love...” and suddenly seeing 3,000 eyes staring at me – it was a bit nerve-wracking, and I don’t think Blake’s 7 was on my mind at that moment!
Ten years later: I’m surprised and flattered that it’s still so popular. I don’t quite know why, but it’s very flattering. One of the most exciting things is that quite a lot of loyal fans have been to see myself – and Paul and Michael – any of us – in other things apart from Blake’s 7. There were one or two I know who had never been to a theatre before, and now go whether we’re in it or not. That is incredibly exciting, and again, very flattering. It’s nice to be able to say to myself, well, I’ve actually made people appreciate theatre. That is probably one of the most satisfying things of all about it.
Diane: Blake, the man: who was really in charge on the Liberator?
Gareth: Avon thought he was, Blake knew he was! Oh, Blake was, and I think Paul would agree with that. I think it would have been unbalanced if he hadn’t been. It was called Blake’s 7, I think it was meant to be Blake’s 7. Obviously, Avon became the dominating factor after Blake left, because there had always been a conflict, but the fact was that Avon had never actually taken control. He would go for a face-to-face confrontation, but would always be the one who backed down. So I don’t think there’s any question there – it was always Blake who was in charge. If that didn’t come across, we failed!
Diane: Did Blake think of himself as a terrorist?
Gareth: No. I was asked this question when I was last at Scorpio (convention) – was he a terrorist or a freedom fighter? And it’s interesting, because when we started ten years ago the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘freedom-fighters’ weren’t so much on people’s lips. Now, of course, they’re two very ‘popular’ words. My answer is that if you were part of the Federation, then Blake was a terrorist. If you weren’t, then he was a freedom fighter. He obviously regarded himself as a freedom fighter. So it would be up to the public to decide which side they were on. But I never thought of Blake as a terrorist.
Diane: What about something you made many moons ago, called –
Gareth: (interrupting): Star Maidens!
Diane: You knew I was going to ask about that, didn’t you?
Gareth: (laughs) Oh, that’s going back a long time. One of the interesting things about Star Maidens is that it’s one of the very few jobs – I’m ashamed to say this – that I did purely for the money. At the time, I was offered the part of Fogarty in The Onedin Line. I didn’t realise it was going to be what it was; it went on to be a long running series, but was only a pilot at that stage. I was offered that, or three months doing Star Maidens. And I needed the money! So I chose three months doing an Independent Television show, because the money was far, far greater. That was one of many mistakes I made in my career. Having said that, I don’t mean I didn’t enjoy doing Star Maidens. And there were some fine actors in it.
Diane: Alas, I’ve never seen it. What was it about?
Gareth: Good question! To be fair, it was a very long time ago. It must have been very early 70’s. It was a multi-national thing. We had Hardy Kruger’s daughter, my co-lead was a Frenchman called Pierre Brice, one of the directors couldn’t speak any English. One of the directors was actually a very well-known cameraman and horror film director, Freddy Francis. What was it about? I really can’t remember. I do remember I was supposed to have some form of extraordinary powers. And I think I had a blonde streak or something - one blonde streak down the side of my hair. It was quite fun. It was what I would term a delightful piece of nonsense.
Diane: What about your recent work? Jackie wanted me to ask about After the War, because she wants a plug for Granada TV! You had a scene with Jan Chappell and Ed Bishop, didn’t you?
Gareth: Yes, there was a very long dinner party scene that I did with Jan and Ed. After the War appears to be the life story of Frederick Raphael, who is a most interesting person and a superb writer. The characters are fairly thinly-veiled people who actually existed. I was playing an artist called Guy Falcon. I’m not quite sure how and why he appears in the script, but there are a couple of episodes where he comes in quite a lot, then just disappears. One of the great things about Freddy Raphael’s writing is that he doesn’t make a great issue of ‘here is a new character’, this person just appears. And he doesn’t make a great issue of writing them out, they just disappear. As people do in all walks of life, you meet people, you become friends with them, then you drift apart – not for any reason, just part of life.
Since then I’ve done a BBC series called Chelworth for the past six or seven months, which again has been a slightly strange thing. It stars Peter Jeffrey, Gemma Jones and John Stride, and is coming out some time next year. It’s the story of an English millionaire businessman in Hong Kong, whose brother dies and leaves him a title and a run-down stately home. He comes back and decides to try and make a go of it; make the stately home, build it up again. I play the estate manager – a Yorkshire farmer, in cloth cap and wellies. We were filming two episodes at a time, and it took about five weeks to do two episodes. I was only in about three or four scenes per episode, so I was doing five days filming, then having three weeks off, then coming back to do another five days, then three weeks off again. It was difficult to keep any line of continuity. You’d done so many things during the three weeks, you’d forgotten what you felt like during the five days of filming! But apparently the producer has seen the first three or four episodes and is very happy with it.
I’ve also done two radio shows, and one theatre. The theatre was great fun, but a nightmare! My agent phoned me up on a Tuesday evening and said: “I’ve had Bromley Theatre on the phone. They’re doing Dangerous Corner by J B Priestley, do you know it?” I said: “No. I know of the play, but I’ve never read it and I’ve never seen it.” He said: “Well, they run ‘till Saturday down at Bromley, then they come to Richmond for a week, and then Bath for a week. One of the leading men has slipped a disc and they want to know if you’d be interested in taking over.” So I said: “Yes, yes, okay, great, lovely!” And I put the phone down and thought ‘You prat! You’ve actually gone and voluntarily done the actor’s worst nightmare!’ So I went down to Bromley on Wednesday, collected the script and read it Wednesday lunchtime - for the first time ever - and on Saturday matinee I went on stage with it! That was terrifying, that Saturday afternoon - I will not forget it for a long time. The rest of the cast were wonderful – they were gently moving me into the right position and all that sort of thing. And somebody said: “How on earth do you do it?” and I said: “Well, let’s put it this way – it was J B Priestley out of Thomas, as they say in horse-racing parlance!” It was fun, though.
Diane: They say one should never work with children or animals. Would you agree?
Gareth: Animals – definitely! I was doing a programme involving a dog – it might have been The Citadel. I got chatting to the dog handler, and found out how much the animal was earning - pro rata day by day it was earning more than I was! I mean, OK, it was there for three days and I was there for three weeks, but it was actually earning more than me! And it didn’t have to learn any lines, didn’t even have to stay on its marks – I could have been sacked for doing that, but the dog wasn’t.
Diane: If you hadn’t been an actor, or if you decided to leave the profession, is there anything else you might like to do?
Gareth: Yes, I would have loved to have gone into research into Viking history. I would love to do history research – that would be my hobby.
Diane: Finally, have you any ultimate ambitions? Any particular role you would like to play, like Macbeth – whoops, I’m not supposed to say that!
Gareth: (laughs) Well, as long as I didn’t! It’s always known as the Scottish Play. Yes, I’ve got two ambitions in this business. I would love to play Othello in one of the major companies, preferably the English Shakespeare Company. I’m just about coming into the right age group, ideally within the next seven years. But – no offence – I don’t really want to do it somewhere like Birkenhead - as it’s an ambition, I might as well be big-headed and make a big splash of it. That’s my only theatrical ambition. The other one is that when I die, I want my fellow-professionals to say: “That’s a pity, he was a damn good actor.”
Afterword by Diane Gies, 13 April 2021
Gareth Thomas was indeed ‘a damn good actor’. I think he’d have been both surprised - as he was a modest man - and pleased that he was recognised as such by his profession, as well as by his many fans. He is very much missed, and remembered with great fondness.
This abridged version of Gareth's 1988 interview has been prepared to share with you all on the 5th anniversary of his passing.
LAST WORD - You can also listen to his old friend, TV Comedy Producer/Director Roy Gould, being interviewed about Gareth on BBC Radio 4's weekly obituary programme Last Word broadcast on 1 May 2016 (+23min20sec in) here: Last Word
PHOTO CREDITS (in order)
Jackie Ophir Emery
Photographer at recording of DVD extras