> By Adam Humphreys
Now for the past 40 years Ian Reddington has graced our TV screens in some of Britain’s best loved programmes, such as EastEnders (Tricky Dicky), Dr Who (Chief Clown), Coronation Street (Vernon Tomlin), The Bill, Holby City, Father Brown and Outlander to name but a few. He has even appeared on the big screen in films such as Highlander, The Adventurer: The Curse of Midas Box and The Sisters Brother.
Ian talks about life up North, how he nearly got into fame with the 80’s band Heaven 17, how representation of the North has changed over the years and what he thinks of Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor. Also, he reveals more about a documentary series he’s got coming up later this year and the interesting choice of topic that influenced it.
So, what was it that got you into the acting profession then?
Well I do come from an artistic background. I came from a working-class family in Sheffield – I think I wanted to be a policeman originally but then I met some lads that were squatting down in a building in Sheffield in the City Centre that was run by social workers and youth workers and I jumped in with them. It was a big old, derelict building that they’d got the keys for. They opened the doors and let us all go in and mess around in there and eventually they put like a piano in one of the rooms, and they put the stage in another room.
There were a couple of guys in there who were like, ‘Have you thought about any artistic endeavours, have you thought about being creative?’ and I hadn’t at all – nothing like that had ever crossed my path and so from there I just became curious and all these kids became curious and we went on to start doing little performances, and little bands were starting to spring up. Near to there, in Sheffield, The Crucible had heard about us and they gave us the theatre for two weeks to put on a show.
Over the years there’s been a greater influx in representation of the North as usually it’s all about London. Would you say there was much of a representation of the North back then?
I mean it was about the time, we’re talking now about the 1970’s. I mean I’m getting on now! (both laugh) I’ve been a paid actor now for 42 years so back then it was different you know – done with very little money. Nowadays they would probably throw some money at things, you know what I mean. Why it worked was because there was no money almost, and also it was supported. The council were supporting people – when I originally started and came to London the council paid for that. They shook you by the hand and said ‘Go and live your dreams, well done mate here you go here’s your money’ and they paid for my training. We don’t live in that world anymore, where that could happen. And certainly, at the time, places like Manchester and Sheffield were coming up and with all those bands. I talk about this little place where I started, and from there came Human League, Heaven 17… all these things were starting round there… novelists, actors. It was an amazing time for us.
Certainly around the late 80’s, early 90’s, they gave us places like ‘Madchester’ as a lot of ‘mad’ things were coming out of it. There was a scene happening and I could’ve sung, I could’ve joined one of the bands. I was gonna be the original singer with Heaven 17 or whatever you know but I went into acting, Glen went into singing. But you kind of had to move out – we all ended up moving down to London. We started up North, that’s where it originated, but we ended up moving down t0 London cos that’s where, you know, we managed to get our break.
I suppose for professionals that’s where you had the epicentre of the boom. But being from the north, was there a greater strain?
Yes. I mean, it’s a different vibe now – people now finally realised, woke up to other regions. So you’ve got the BBC moving up to Manchester. And a lot of remits now with companies are that they have got to have a regional base to make things work, so now loads of work is coming out from the north. For actors it’s strange, it goes through different kinds of eras. For instance I had to lose my accent -‘Don’t speak with a northern accent Ian’. I’d flatten everything, you know, received English whatever. That’s where you get the work. People then want regional actors – ‘Oh well you were a regional actor so go and get it back again’, it’s kind of odd, it goes through odd phases.
There seems to be quite a few British actors and actresses who have had to lose their accents for a role. So when you were told you needed to switch your accent how did you feel about that?
Well at the time you’re trying to get work, you know what I mean. And at the time I didn’t understand that would be either stopping me getting certain kinds of work or whatever so you’re just following your nose but that goes that way. It then becomes apparent when you’re watching things around where it’s going. It’s been interesting because I had to re-value what it was, coming from the north and having a northern accent. I had to decide what my identity was, and try to define me. So now I’m probably stuck somewhere in the middle! (laughs)
You’ve been in soaps like EastEnders and Coronation Street. How do you reckon they’ve evolved since the days when you were in them, in terms of the representation and the storylines?
Even though they are huge, popular vehicles, they kind of had to be careful in the lives that they tread. But I think that they’ve both managed to follow trends and worked on social issues. I mean they’re very different, or appear to be very different animals. I always thought that EastEnders was kind of issue-led and Corrie was character-led. I mean it’s hard, to last that long – 35 years for EastEnders and for Corrie, 60 years. For them to be able to keep storylines going that long. They’re obviously going to stray into some bizarre, weird territory at times. They’re in a different climate now – Corrie was on when there was three channels. When I did EastEnders it was twice a week – it’s now four times a week and they’ve got a hell of a lot of competition. I think in terms of them literally surviving that’s amazing.
You’ve covered film, theatre and television – would you ever give radio a shot?
I love radio – I’ve done very little radio but the radio I’ve done I’ve really enjoyed. And strangely I thought it was difficult and quite challenging. I mean I’ve just narrated a full-length documentary about the BSE crisis which is on Amazon now – you can find it, and that in itself, it was very disciplined being in a studio. Much less freedom than on a studio floor, but I’ve always liked that. I’ve just done another Dr Who audio – it’s just being released right now.
Speaking of Dr Who you appeared in a story called The Greatest Show in The Galaxy, playing the Chief Clown who was obviously quite sinister. Since then the show’s evolved and we’ve now got our first female doctor. What are your thoughts towards Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor?
From what I’ve seen she’s fabulous. I mean the gender issue’s been and gone now – that’s not a problem. Talking about writing, that’s a challenge – they’ve got to really keep that fresh and moving especially with that fabulous fanbase of theirs. I know from just doing my episode; I won an award on that one. That’s been with me for years and years and years, people are always getting in touch about Dr Who – they’re sending in wonderful creative things about it – pictures, drawings, models and all stuff like that – so they’ve got their work cut out and they’ve managed to rise to the challenge and to modernise the story. Don’t forget I remember it with the days of the wobbly sets.
I suppose the show’s undergone quite the evolution now hasn’t it. Would you ever give things like Netflix a try?
Netflix is just huge – they are massive. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff for Amazon – I did a series called Lore, Outlander. I’ve got two films out now on Amazon and I’ve got another one coming out. They’re just platforms doing fabulous work. The platform isn’t the problem for actors. It’s either on in the cinema or it’s on Amazon, Netflix or whatever. I mean they will takeover, they will totally dominate – they are now.
We’ve seen an influx of British actors go over to places like America or Australia for work – is this something you’ve ever thought about doing?
It’s weird people often ask me that. I think you’ve got to go over there as a young man, for a start, and on the back of something major. Americans are fabulous – they’ll always be very courteous; they’ll always tell you how much they like your work, but unless you’re on the back of something that they can get a handle on it’s just cold-calling. I mean I, bizarrely, at the time when I should’ve really gone over to America I went into Europe – I worked in Italy – I was doing bizarre work. I found that had more creativity for me.
How does acting on the stage, film and TV compare?
Well they always cite the term ‘journey’ don’t they when talking about theatre, actors, because you know it’s a far bigger process. They’re disciplined. The way in which I work I try not to alter how you train. I mean bizarrely TV and film can be quite lonely because a lot of the time there’s a time constraint because of the money so you’re left to your own devices. Before you start filming, or before you get on the floor you know there’s not really that room for experimenting in a film studio or on a TV studio floor so you’ve got to be very disciplined, know what you want and how to work with yourself to do all that beforehand. In theatre, we’re on a playground, we’re all having a laugh and a crack and we’re just working out between ourselves what we wanna do so they’re very different in that respect.
Now going back to the beginning, was there anyone who you looked at and thought ‘I want to be like them’?
I mean I’ve admired people along the way, because of how I started. I started in such a weird, weird way not realising that’s what I wanted to do. I was taking everything in my stride. I mean literally my first job was with the Royal Shakespeare Company, so I was surrounded by some of the most fabulous classical actors you know of their generation. So I’ve been influenced greatly by them as performers, which is why I’ve always kind of had a strong classical side to me. I’ve done Shakespeare which I’ve really enjoyed. The late 70’s was a fantastic time for film, so you know De Niro, Pacino, all those people were around. I couldn’t see that I could emulate them but I certainly admired them. And in theatre I’ve seen a million people. You’re always kind of looking and working out how are they doing that, how did they arrive at that, is that something I could do, so you test yourself against people. I mean I love David Threlfall as an actor, I’ve worked with him on stage so I’ve always liked him. There are probably many influences I’m taking on board.
You’ve worked with many different people – are there any in particular you’ve worked with and thought ‘I’ve really enjoyed working with this person and wouldn’t mind doing it again’?
Yes, I mean a lot of it – the psychology’s strange – you have to instantly get to know people, have to share everything right upfront to get to know people. You’ve got to be intimate; you’ve got to be personal and then you disappear and you don’t see them again. There are a whole lot of people, too many people that I’ve worked with.
What can we expect from you later this year and into next year?
At the moment I’m working with a hell of a lot of independent films. I went out on social media to find a lot of new people, looking for a different stimulus, so I did two films back-to-back that are on Amazon at the moment, one’s called Red Devil, and another called Zoe and The Astronaut, working with independent film makers. They are very creative you know; they didn’t have a load of money but the work that they produced was fabulous. I then did a film that comes out this year called Original Gangster. I do a lot of short films with independent film makers so I’ve got another coming out called The Flock. I’m in the middle of one called Red and have got another coming out called Skeleton. That’s where I am at the moment working with independent people, and I’m really, really enjoying it. Plus I stepped over to the other side of the camera to make a documentary which got selected for the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival. I made it about a bottle of relish.
We’re obsessed with a bottle of relish called Henderson’s. We did a documentary about it and I interviewed artists, performers and creative people asking why this bottle of relish influenced them. It became about identity really and I’m about to put it online so it’s available for people to watch. On the back of that I made my first short film which is fun and I’ve got my idea and am in production for my second short film.