Interview with actor Christopher Timothy
10:06 07 November 2011
Christopher Timothy is synonymous with one role James Herriot in the hit BBC series
Creatures Great and Small and seems to have been apologising for it ever since. Leaf through almost any interview written over the last two decades and the killer question crops up again and again: what went wrong? There he was, starring in one of the best-loved BBC dramas of the 1980s, and then, well, there he wasnt. He just disappeared from our screens.
I feel a complete heel bringing up the subject yet again, but Christopher, a chatty and affable man, answers obligingly enough, no doubt inured to it. I once asked Peter Davison [who played his wayward colleague Tristan] the same question. I said: Why are you getting all these TV roles and not me? And he said: Because I didnt play James Herriot.
The implication is clear: viewers and casting directors grew so accustomed to seeing Christopher with one hand up a cows backside that they couldnt picture him any other way. His co-stars managed it, but then they were supporting actors, whereas he dominated every show.
It used to upset him terribly and inevitably he began to question himself, but at 71 these doubts appear to have evaporated. The typecasting was inevitable, he says. And listen, I didnt spend 10 years chewing my fingers over it. I did lots of theatre and at least 80 per cent was joyously good. I owe everything Im doing, directly or indirectly, to All Creatures. People would like me to complain, but I have nothing but good to say about it.
Christopher is speaking from his home near Chichester, which he shares with his second wife Annie, a gifted photographer and artist. They met at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1981 while he was performing in The Cherry Orchard and she was the stage manager. They married a year later and have remained in Sussex ever since.
Its a beautiful county, with some of the purest light in the country, and Ive had a deep affection for the area ever since my parents took me to Brighton for day trips as a child, he says.
Later this month Christopher will be returning to his old stamping ground to appear at Brightons Theatre Royal in Alan Ayckbourns hit comedy, Seasons Greetings, alongside Glynis Barber (Dempsey and Makepeace), Ricky Groves (EastEnders) and Denis Lill (The Royal).
Its a black, though often farcical comedy about a dysfunctional family Christmas set in the suburban home of Belinda and Neville Bunker. Christopher plays Bernard, Nevilles brother-in-law, a feeble-spirited doctor who, in an attempt to escape the problems posed by his drunken wife Phyllis, performs a dismal puppet show for the households unseen children.
This will be his second recent Ayckbourn outing and hes relishing the chance to work with such rich material. You watch an Ayckbourn play and think: How does he know so much about us? Worse than that, how does he know so much about me? He also has that amazing ability to turn a play on a sixpence from comedy to something much darker.
Christopher knows all about lifes fluctuating fortunes. By his own admission, he was a lacklustre pupil at Shrewsbury Grammar and left with just one O-Level.
Later, he secured an unremarkable job in a local gents outfitters and might have remained there had it not been for a call from his absentee father, a former army chaplain, who had quit the Church and his marriage before Christopher was born.
He rang me up and said: Do you want to work in a shop all your life? I said: No, I want to be an actor. And he said: Why dont we do something about it then? So in the summer of 1958, I stayed with him in London and he made some introductions.
You will have gathered that his father, one Andrew Timothy, was no longer moving in Church circles, though the mellifluous voice he had used to such stirring effect in the pulpit was still serving him well in his new guise as the straight-man announcer on The Goon Show.
Christopher remembers him with awe as very good looking with a debonair figure and hypnotic voice. I was always boasting about his success, which must have driven people insane. Id decided on acting when I was just eight, but Dad wasnt well known at all then. But who knows? Maybe my decision to follow him was genetic.
His big TV break came in 1978 when he landed the role of James Herriot in All Creatures, set in a rural vets practice in the Yorkshire Dales.
It ran, on and off, for 13 years and made him a household name, though he nearly lost the role at the eleventh hour when the BBC decided they wanted an established name.
They offered it to John Alderton, but he turned it down. Then they offered me the role of Tristan. But I said: No, its James or nothing. Id been acting for 15 years by then and for that brief moment I wanted fame, though only because I hoped it would lead to other things.
The gamble paid off and the series became an instant hit in the UK and America, though Christopher never doubted that it would be successful. You could see that the books, if properly adapted, couldnt fail. They had all the ingredients.
He had two mentors. Occasionally, the real James Herriot would join them on set and Christopher studied him closely, looking for insights. He was a shy man, but he says the twinkle in his eye suggested complex depths.
He had a wicked sense of humour and I sensed that in his private moments he was probably something of a rascal. Screen kisses were very chaste in those days, he adds, but he tried to suggest a hint of what might have taken place behind closed doors to make Herriot a rounded human being.
Meanwhile, fellow actor Robert Hardy, who played his irascible senior partner Siegfried Farnon in the Darrowby practice, taught him the importance of stillness. The scripts were excellent, but he always cut his long speeches because he knew the value of silence; of allowing an actor to act.
Despite the high production standards, Christopher believes the series exceeded its sell-by date. Complacency set in. The series should have ended on a high with the onset of war, which would have been incredibly moving. Instead, he says, they returned for one last hurrah, with indifferent results.
As weve seen, he disappeared from our screens for a decade before popping up as GP Dr Brendan Mac McGuire in Doctors, then a new BBC1 daytime soap. He is proud of the dramatic standards achieved by the fast-paced series, despite the kind of squeeze on time and resources unheard of when he was playing a vet in the cosier TV climate of the 1980s. The budget was a joke and the pressure more intense than anything Id ever experienced. But it was six years of great fun and I got to direct, which I loved.
Now hes back doing what he loves best treading the boards. Ive had some lovely work, so I cant complain, he says.
There are times when I sit in front of the television, thinking: Why arent I playing so and so? But my kids taught me a valuable lesson years ago. Just after All Creatures came out, I was watching some dire drama, complaining that the acting was really tedious, when Simon, my eldest, looked up and said: Dont say that, Dad, because people are probably saying that about you.
He roars with laughter, proving he has never taken himself too seriously.