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Talking to the Animals

Talking to the Animals

Above: Mark Williams in rehearsals for Doctor Dolittle. Photo: Alastair Muir

Depending on how old you are, you’ll more than likely know Mark Williams for a variety of different performances. Firstly, I’m not referring to the current World Snooker Champion with whom our actor shares his name.

If you’re a daytime television fan then you’ll probably know Mark as the crime-solving Roman Catholic priest, Father Brown. The middle-aged among us will almost certainly remember Mark from the hugely successful 90s BBC comedy sketch show, The Fast Show – which also starred Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson, Simon Day, John Thomson, Arabella Weir and Caroline Aherne. Younger people – and perhaps all of the above – will best know Mark Williams for appearing in the Harry Potter films as flame-haired wizard Arthur Weasley.

In something of a departure from the norm, Mark makes his musical theatre debut this month when a re-worked production of Doctor Dolittle takes to The Churchill Theatre’s stage in Bromley.
Paul Johnson caught up with one of the most down-to-earth actors we’ve ever met as rehearsals kicked off in the leafy London suburb…

Mark Williams may be known the world over for playing the father of the most famous ginger-haired magic family in (fictional) history, but outside Bromley’s Churchill Theatre he’s able to mill around completely unnoticed as he grabs a sneaky fag-break in between rehearsals. As soon as we sit down you start to feel that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mark is about to tread the musical theatre boards for the very first time in Leslie Bricusse’s musical, Doctor Dolittle. It’s a move which has been a long time coming for Mark. “It’s fascinating that this is my first professional musical theatre job,” the 59-year-old actor tells me. “I’ve been asked regularly over the years to do different things. Trevor Nunn asked me twice, first for Guys and Dolls which I couldn’t do, sadly, and then for South Pacific. There are a couple of other jobs as well which came along that I wasn’t able to do at the time. I’ve always wanted to do a musical because it’s part of our heritage really isn’t it; you don’t feel like you’re a proper actor until you’ve done a musical. I know a lot of actors who adore musical theatre and the thought of being part of an ensemble onstage is fantastic.”

One such actor is Miriam Margolyes; “I was talking to Miriam who did Wicked, and she said of playing in New York, ‘When you’re on Broadway you feel like you’re the centre of the world.’ So I’ve always had a bit of a yen for it, and it seems very much the right time to be doing Doctor Dolittle.”

With a book, music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse – who also wrote songs for the 60s film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – Mark is quick to state his case: “Leslie Bricusse is very active and has re-written a lot of material,” he points out. “The original film was of its time back in 1967, and indeed times have changed an awful lot since then… attitudes too. Also, the message is a bit more urgent now. In 1967 it was a bit more whimsical, whereas the idea of talking to animals or rather understanding another universe is much more current now; we’re all kind of tackling that with each other never mind with the animal kingdom.”

Away from our chat I got to see some of the rehearsals in progress and it’s plain to see that the show has been recreated to be about the world in which we live today. As part of that the show’s producers have formed a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and will champion their cause wherever the production stops, hopefully internationally as well. It certainly seems to be an appropriate collaboration with funds being raised for the organisation throughout the tour while raising awareness of some of the environmental challenges that we all face today. The show clearly goes to the heart of that.

The musical will open at The Churchill Theatre on 9th November and features a huge touring cast of thirty – and that’s not even including the puppets! “The first day I saw how big the company was I was completely blown away,” is Mark’s honest reaction. As the actor doesn’t make his big entrance until a few songs in, he wasn’t on call right away. “They all started about a week before me because I’m not in a couple of numbers at the beginning, so when I eventually made my entrance I couldn’t believe it. The other thing of course is in addition to a cast of thirty you’ve also got about thirty puppets. Instead of being animatronics – which are inevitably very static – or real animals – which never do as they’re told – we are using onstage puppetry which has become a real fine art now. I was talking to the puppeteers and they were telling me how puppets have actually been around for ages and ages; we’ve only noticed it since shows like War Horse came to prominence.”

The Doctor Dolittle company, which also includes Vicky Entwistle and Brian Capron, are very lucky in that they have enjoyed a ‘proper’ rehearsal period in preparation for the show. And it is a big show. That said, it’s still quite rare in theatre to have six weeks of rehearsals. In addition, The Churchill has even commandeered the Great Hall of the adjoining library to allow the huge company to rehearse in. They must feel quite privileged to have the space and facilities at their disposal. In professional pantomime you famously have about a dozen days of rehearsal so, at a similar time of the year, the cast and creatives of Doctor Dolittle might count themselves very lucky to have a good amount of time to get routines into the muscle memory. There are three people helping on choreography, three people helping with the music and that’s all before the eleven-piece orchestra arrives in the pit… and it’s a very big cast.”

We shall have to wait and see just how strong Bricusse’s re-worked book is but, whatever the outcome, it’s nice to see an acclaimed actor leading the company who will no doubt be able to deliver a Dolittle to savour. “That doesn’t really come from musical; that comes from revue,” says Mark. “But yes, the book in a musical is incredibly important. You only have to think of the dialogue in shows like Singin’ in the Rain, Carousel and anything from the great American songbook really where the dialogue is incredibly vibrant.”

I was very interested that Mark has already been in demand when it comes to musical theatre, especially as Rex Harrison famously opted to ‘speak’ his songs whenever possible – a style observed in not only Doctor Dolittle but My Fair Lady too. I ask Mark if he’s secretly about to launch the voice of an angel on us? “Voice of an angel! He’s definitely no angel, he’s an ageing Doctor,” he laughs, before turning his focus to Mr Harrison’s unique vocal style. “What Rex Harrison did was to adapt a known style called ‘colla voce’. Actually the beginning of Talk to the Animals was always scored as colla voce. It’s a bit unfair on Rex because he did actually sing a lot more than given credit for. The other thing is at the end of the day it’s not opera, and the character shouldn’t be launching into a huge rotund performance; the singing style should fit the drama. It’ll be no good having Harry Secombe’s style of singing for Doctor Dolittle.”

There is news from Hollywood that Robert Downey Junior is also in Doctor Dolittle mode but it doesn’t look like there’s too much of a big-budget threat to the stage musical. Mark is certainly not worried. “They are, yes. It’s not the musical though, it’s from the books,” he reports. “I have a feeling it might be a Superhero Dolittle, we’ll have to wait and see. Ha ha!”

Mark is at an interesting age. While he’s not old enough to have gone down the Rep Theatre route alongside the likes of Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, I get the distinct feeling that this person didn’t take the drama school option either. However, long before Harry Potter was even a twinkle in JK Rowling’s eye, he had performed with the likes of the RSC and the National Theatre. I did read online (so it’s probably not true) that Mark spent some time with the Oxford University Dramatic Society in his early days: “I was cast in one of their productions but I never joined the society,” he says adamantly. “I started acting at school and as soon as I got to university I acted as much as I could. Audition bulletins were always posted regularly and I just dove in, and I kept getting cast which was the great thing. I never thought about what parts I wanted to play and I never have since really. I never had a big game plan. I’ve always been very pleased and excited with how people saw me when casting.”

Mark goes on to talk about how he eventually entered the acting profession. “When I left university in 1981 Rep Theatre didn’t exist anymore apart from one or two big companies. What there was at that time was community theatre and Theatre in Education. The acting profession was still a closed shop back then, so you had to get a job with a card… to get a card. I worked for the Micron Theatre Company which was a community theatre company based in Marsden and would travel by narrowboat up and down the country. I was with them for three years in which time I also wrote with them – as every single cast member did too – and I directed as well. That was my entry. After that I got stuff in London and got parts quite quickly; I worked at the Royal Court, did a film called High Season, and I did quite a few adverts – which still had a lot of snobbery attached to them at that time; ‘People just didn’t DO adverts!’ But interestingly that taught me to work on 35mm camera and how precise you had to be. Also with adverts, another good discipline that you learn is how to work to the second. It stops the endless pausing… or vanity acting as it’s also known.”

When Mark suddenly found himself experiencing huge success in the mid-90s with The Fast Show, all of a sudden he was being dubbed as a comedian – a tag which he’s never been comfortable with. “I think it was a case of lazy journalism at the time,” he recalls. “It’s denigrating to comedians really, it’s like calling a drummer a bass player. It’s wrong. I never did stand-up and I wasn’t from that school; I kind of fell into The Fast Show and it just became very popular. Comedy acting is all about playing the same notes but with a different rhythm. Some people can’t crossover at all but a lot of people can. Interestingly there has never been any snobbery about comic acting; it’s always been seen as a great skill, which indeed it is.” Despite the show’s huge success, Mark is quite philosophical about how instrumental it was in his success as an actor. “I was doing films and theatre long before The Fast Show,” he reminds me.

You can tell very quickly that Mark Williams prefers not to blow his own trumpet, and actually considers himself more of a jobbing actor, but one who still loves what he does: “I’m 60 next year – you notice the people who are still around invariably are the people who love the job. Those are the people who keep going, and keep working. It’s the work that keeps a lot of older actors going. I’ve never had a bucket list really. One of the best things about it for me is once you have reconciled yourself to the fact that you may never work again, is when you are asked it’s always a nice surprise. I already love musical theatre but… one step at a time.”

Mr Cautious even plays down the opportunity to talk about his performances in the Harry Potter films. I wonder though, with the new Fantastic Beasts series now being made, would the Weasleys be making another appearance? “I don’t think so,” is the short answer, “and if they did they would have to make it with younger versions of the Weasleys. I think it’s a hundred years earlier isn’t it? I guess they’ve got a young Dumbledore in it now so they would have to have a young Weasley, and good luck to him.”

Interestingly, rather than conceeding that he’ll arguably always be known as a Weasley by a whole generation of people, it is a certain priest who Mark feels may have made the biggest impression. “Funnily enough a lot of very young people watch Father Brown with their parents and grandparents, so I really never know what people are going to come up and say.” He continues: “We’ve just done the seventh series, making it 80 episodes now, and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping. But you never know with the BBC, we’re not contracted or anything. It makes it very difficult for anyone to have any continuity in their lives, and it’s getting worse. There’s no sense of commitment to the acting profession really. They’re not really interested in nurturing anymore; the interest is in having a market available for them. If you think about it too long it can be quite dispiriting; it’s asking people to be available but not having any sense of future.”

If you look at our cover it’s impossible not to notice the return of the ginger locks. Could this be a nod to Mr Williams’ big-screen past? “I’m not sure, I don’t think so,” replies the strawberry blonde with a strangely quizzical look. “In the Harry Potter films we had wigs eventually but I remember when I started we used a hair-dye. I was in the West End once and I saw Stephen Fry who looked at my hair, which had just been done so it was pretty vivid, and he said, ‘Is that for professional or sexual reasons?’”