JOHN Ashton is unusual in the world of theatre in that he is low key. Actors, almost by definition, want to be seen and noticed and the internet is a world stage hard to resist.

Key in Ashton though and all you are likely to find are a few references to him in Brookside where he played Detective Inspector Balfour, and incidentally DS Anderson, in a soap which ended in 2003. Not that that worries him.

Brookside was in my phase of playing policemen. I think it happens to actors of a certain look; you end up playing policemen for a period of time. I did a show called Waterfront Beat set in Liverpool (he played Det Chief Supt Don Henderson) for two years so that should be there.

“I have never Googled myself, I wouldn't do it. I don't do web pages and MySpace and stuff like that. I did MySpace for two weeks because some friends put me on it but I didn't like it so I took it all off.”

The latest challenge for Ashton is to bring to life Archie Rice, the second rate, down-bill comic who, ironically for a character at the fag-end if his career, has become one of the most celebrated parts in modern theatre.


For Ashton there is an added interest beyond that of an actor and his craft. Although he has never done stand-up for a living he has a fascination and great admiration for comics.

He said: “I have played a stand-up as an actor once before in a play by Alan Bleasdale, a stand-up who ran a club and I played a club owner many years ago with our producer (Tom Roberts) but I have never done it as a living.

“When I did the Bleasdale play we did stand-up sections like in The Entertainer and when this character's life was falling apart I had to go on and absolutely bomb. Having gone on getting laughs I had to now go on and try to make it work in complete and utter silence which I did and I was so proud of myself – but it is the worst feeling I have ever had and how stand-ups do it and fail I do not know . . .  it must be wonderful if you are a success though.

“I love stand-ups though. I will watch a stand-up anywhere, anytime. I love to watch them come on, I want to see them start, how they get the audience on their side. Take someone like Billy Connelly though and you realise 15 minutes in you forgot to watch him start, you were just there with him. It is a skill.

“Secretly I think I would like to do it one day, though I don't know if I would have the nerve. I mean I sing. I have sung in rock bands in shows but I have never done karaoke. I can sing in shows, I can sing in a band, but I have not got the nerve to sit there and wait for my name to be called to do karaoke – I think comics have got a lot of guts and I admire them.”


Rice though is a different proposition though. “Archie Rice is a role I don't think you could turn down and say you were going to continue to be an actor. It is a privilege. It is demanding. It is big and it is complicated – Archie is a wonderful character but he also says a lot about the inner condition I think a lot of performers carry around with them, at least the downside and the worries and the insecurities that we all try to cover up. We try to explore that. It is going to hurt a bit I think.”

The part of Archie has become entwined with the career of Laurence Olivier with many regarding his 1957 portrayal as his finest hour. For some that could be unwanted baggage but Ashton is his own man and Archie - his Archie - will be his character.

“What are you going to do? Laurence Olivier also played Romeo, he played Hamlet, he played Richard . . . what are you going to do, not play them? Not do them? I have made a point of not digging out the film. I did see it many years ago and I have seen some pictures of him.

“I did some background research, information on people's views on how Larry played it and more recently Robert Lindsay. I missed The Entertainer in London two years ago, not out of choice but because I was busy, but I am quite glad about.


 “It is always a test. A young actor is not going to turn down Hamlet and an old actor is not going to turn down Archie. At least I don't think so.

“Olivier got some great reviews but he also got some criticism as well. Times change with the approach and how you want to perform it.

“There is an argument about how good you should be as Archie, the same argument with Lisa Minnelli in Cabaret, apparently she was supposed to be rather rubbish, and that is something we will be looking at.

“I think Archie is probably very good at what he does but it is a bit dated and was probably a bit dated even in his own time and that is the pathos.

“I shall do it as well as I can and then we might take the edge off it. All parts are a delicate balance .All the time you have options. Every time you look at one little speech you have options on where you want to go. We will work on where we want to pitch it and as long as we are clear in our own head what we want to do and do that then we will be happy.

“There are various strands of stories running through The Entertainer. People who don't know the play will know that it is about a stand-up comedian in a music hall but there is the family and the stand-up comes in between them and things happen to that family.

"The country is going through turmoil, or it seems that way to some people. The Empire thing has all gone away and England is not the country it was anymore. That is addressed plus you have young soldiers going off to fight in foreign lands and all that that brings with it.

"So it is very relevant to now – even to people complaining about the county they are living in.

“You have that, you have the war side, the comedy and the interactions of the family – it is all one family that we see and all that comes with that.”

And behind it all, for anyone who takes on the role of Archie, are the all too real fears and anxieties of being a performer, of being the entertainer.

Roger Clarke

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