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The Great Escape

The Great Escape

Above: Ian Kelsey as Andy Dufresne in Bill Kenwright’s production of The Shawshank Redemption. Photo: Mark Yeoman

Born and bred in York but now based on the south coast, Ian Kelsey is one of those instantly recognisable actors who, you could say, has pretty much done it all. Originally a musical theatre graduate from Surrey’s GSA, Ian has performed in both plays and musicals in the West End and around the country, most recently as Andy Dufresne in the 2015 stage adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption.

The recognition factor, though, comes from his many TV appearances in a myriad of dramas and soaps. Most recently as Vinny Ashford, he came to a sticky end in Corrie at the hands of the show’s current villain, Pat Phelan. However, over the years you may have also seen Ian in Emmerdale, Casualty, Blue Murder, Where the Heart Is and Doctors.

Now 51, Ian Kelsey has recently added a rather surprising string to his bow in the form of portrait and headshot photography. I sat down with Ian in the New Year to find out more, not only about Ian’s career, but also the new venture and how it could benefit amateur societies and drama schools.

The first thing you notice about him, as we sit down inside the National Theatre, is how refreshingly down-to-earth and straight-talking he is; what is it they say about Yorkshiremen? The second thing I quickly find out is how Ian is a genuine 100% product of amateur theatre – without which he almost certainly wouldn’t be sitting on the South Bank talking to me about his acting career. As for the photography – we’ll get to that.

First I want to hear all about someone who never considered acting until a chance event changed the course of his life. “I was building trains! Came out of school and got one of the five main factory jobs in Yorkshire that everybody went for,” he tells me without any airs or graces. “At school I used to get sweaty palms in English when we’d go round the classroom reading out loud. I’d always count ahead and work out which chapter I would have to read. I wasn’t listening to Kes, I’d be going over my chapter again and again so I wouldn’t stumble; I’ve never been tested but I think I’m probably dyslexic. Our English teacher used to call me Cretin.” Charming, wouldn’t get away with that today!

“They were just happy to get us out and into the factory,” continues Ian. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for those six years building trains. There were 75 apprentices, so all of a sudden you’ve got 75 new mates in York all earning £56 a week.” Until this point I’ve not seen any signs of much acting ambition. However, a lucky glance through the local paper changed everything: “Because of the monotony of the work there was an advert in the Yorkshire Evening Press saying, ‘Lads Needed for Half a Sixpence.’ So me and my mate, Saggy, joined up to meet girls.” Well, that is one reason why some people join their local society. “We walked through the door and were outnumbered 5:1 easily; we had a right laugh, so much fun. Thursday night and Sunday afternoon rehearsals; it was just a new life.”

Ian recalls some of those early shows he did with Joseph Rowntree Theatre: “I did Pearce in Half a Sixpence, the musical version of Some Like It Hot which is called Sugar, Jesus Christ Superstar, I played Rooster in Annie… When we did Sugar I completely mimicked Tony Curtis’ Cary Grant rip-off from the film. It’s what you do isn’t it. Later on I’d also rip off John Travolta’s walk in Grease. I’ve often wondered why Sugar hasn’t done that well. Tommy Steele brought it into the Prince Edward and even got the rights to call it Some Like It Hot; it has some brilliant songs. There’s a really good number Jack Lemmon’s character has with Marilyn Monroe – or rather Sugar – and Tommy Steele nicked it for his character to sing with her instead.

“I had some school mates working in other jobs and they came to see me in Jesus Christ Superstar – I got them really good seats – and when I looked in the second half every seat was empty. I said to them, ‘Where did you go?’ ‘To the pub!’ ‘Why?’ ‘Well… it’s all songs innit!’ – actually they were right. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice didn’t put one word of dialogue into that show. ‘Fair enough.’ You know what they say: ‘It’s for anybody, but not for everyone.’ ”

The more Ian reminisces, the more he starts to smile. “Do you know what, I’ve never enjoyed a show as much as when I’ve done an amateur show; I’ve never ever got that same buzz in a professional production.” He smiles again: “One thing that always used to make me laugh is the competition; swapping groups. Where I grew up is York Light and Rowntree Youth. If Rowntree members found out York Light was doing a certain show you’d always get a couple of defectors. They’ll always be given the cold shoulder when they came back to do the next Rowntree show, which is good because I think it’s all wrong. The audience that go to see Rowntree, for instance, get to know the company and recognise the performers; it’s a bit like old-school rep.”

So, from joining the local musical society – to meet girls – Ian tells me of his next step. “I remember one of the lads from amateur theatre applied to get into drama school, and that really shocked me. As stupid as it sounds, I thought that only people living in London could go to drama school… not from York! So I thought, ‘You know what, if he can do it, I can do it.’ As luck would have it, we’d done Kiss Me Kate and in it there’s a Shakespeare speech called ‘Tis charity to show’. I knew it just from being in the wings, so when I auditioned with my song and a Shakespeare – which was the requirement – I nailed the speech all because I’d done Kiss Me Kate rather than a proper Shakespeare play. And I got in! They were also still doing grants at that time so I was pretty lucky.”

So far Ian hasn’t convinced me of any burning desire or passion within – but who cares; he’s very entertaining. “Originally when I went to drama school it was to have a career in musical theatre which is what I’d always done with amateur shows,” he says. “I came out of Guildford [GSA] in 1992 when it had a good reputation for churning out lots of jack-of-all-trades. Most people came out not necessarily amazingly brilliant at one thing but you could definitely blag a job – ha, ha!”

And so it was that Ian Kelsey was unleashed into the professional acting industry. “One of my earlier jobs was a musical version of The Secret Garden which I did at the ‘lunchtime theatre’ in The Kings Head pub theatre in London. It was hilarious as I was playing Dickon – aged nearly thirty – and had to have an entrance through the audience. The only way at The Kings Head to get around the side is to go up a pair of step-ladders, out of a window, tip-toe across the roof of the theatre then tap on the window for the kitchen staff to open and let you through. If it had been raining I’d enter through the audience soaking wet!”

Ian certainly sounded like his feet were still planted firmly on the ground and he wasn’t taking himself too seriously, but maybe when you’re that good looking things tend to fall into place…
“Then I went over to Dublin to do the original version of Grease – which didn’t include the Bee Gees songs. I was playing Teenangel so I had to be lowered down from a cloud then walk down these heavenly stairs that lit up; not a bad entrance for my first proper gig! I got moved up to play Danny for the final two weeks when our lead off to another job.”

The young Ian Kelsey was certainly making the most of his new career: “That show was a real laugh. We were all wearing leathers because I was also one of the T-Bird dancers and we used to sweat into the mic-packs, so the sound guy gave us all condoms to put over them – which worked. However, the cleaning ladies refused to go into our dressing room as they thought we were having a party with the chorus girls every night.”

Ah, those early days. “I can’t remember eating anything in Dublin for the whole of that gig, we just drank the black stuff,” Ian sips his coffee. “After that I somehow found myself doing a lot of commercials which is how I started to get into television more. I’d done a stint of profit-share, a few musicals and some commercials. I’d also done Black Beauty …and then Emmerdale came in.”
For an actor, a role in a serial drama (soap) can send their career into orbit. “I had the audition on the Wednesday then, on the Thursday, I had to say that if I was offered it on Friday, would I take it? They obviously needed someone fast, it was a crazy time. So I said ‘yes’ on the Thursday, was given the job on Friday and found myself on-set Monday morning. I literally packed my life in a bag and drove to Leeds with a big grin on my face thinking, “I’m in Emmerdale!”

This wasn’t the Emmerdale we know today though, and it had only dropped the ‘Farm’ from its name at the end of the 80s. “Back then it was only on for two episodes a week. It was me and Noah Huntley who were drafted in to kind of…” wait for it! “I don’t really want these words to come out of my mouth but… sex it up.”

And so begins the era of the modern soap! I bet the lads back in York had a field day. “We had Tube posters in London which said: ‘Worth Getting Home Early For!’ and as there were no mobile phones I’d only find out about any banter when going back home on the weekend. Finchley Central was our Tube station and there were eight of us living next door to each other in two houses. Justin Fletcher – Mr Tumble on CBeebies – was one of the four lads living next door.” Sorry, have I started dreaming!!

“You’ve seen those sketches where people hide when the landlord comes round? Well, that was us!” It’s starting to feel like an episode of The Young Ones. “Anyway, the Tube poster …There was me at one and of a sofa and Noah Huntley. Oh my God! I never heard the last of it. I did a photo-shoot at Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire for Smash Hits and someone had the bright idea of putting a black leather choker on my neck and having me lay on this rock. I was so uncomfortable but I’d never done photo-shoots before so I didn’t know I could say, ‘Can I not do this please?’ So there was me on the back cover of Smash Hits looking like I’d just fallen out of an aeroplane; of course the lads bought loads of copies and stuck them up all over the outside of the house. I was the first one to get a high-profile gig which was good because the new lifestyle opened up lots of doors for everyone.”

“Nowadays casting people in musicals who’ve been on reality shows is the norm, but I was part of that initial movement because I then got the part of Danny in Grease, but ironically I’d kind of earned my stripes.” Ian’s training was about to pay dividends. “All the Dannys before me hadn’t come from the same background as I had, so I was able to turn up with a TV-soap CV, but I’d also been to drama school and graduated in musical theatre. It was nice for me to be able to go back on what I’d learnt – out of a TV show and screw my jazz hands on again! That happened with Chicago as well. They could put back pieces of choreography that a lot of the other Billy Flynns weren’t able to do; I guess that was quite refreshing for them too.”

Ian’s laid-back manner is probably to blame for the false take-it-or-leave-it impression I’ve been forming in my mind. But it’s also obvious that this actor has a wicked sense of humour. I move our man on and quiz him on his latest – fairly surprising – venture into photography. What on earth is this all about?

“It’s still morphing. Recently I’ve found myself not wanting to leave home as much,” says the fifty-one-year-old. “I’ve done a couple of tours and I don’t enjoy being away from home as much as I did in my earlier days. Back then it was more about getting over a hangover, meeting up for a cup of tea and then going to do a show. Nowadays it’s not about getting trollied every night; you’re just stuck in Leicester for ten weeks or a strange town that you have no interest in at all.”

Being in Leicester for ten weeks would be a reference to Curve’s production of Legally Blonde Ian did playing Callahan in 2016 with Lucie Jones (who is reprising her role as Elle Woods in the current UK tour). “It’s quite a lonely existence to be honest, and you’ve got to watch your spending; you could keep yourself entertained all day every day and spend a lot of money doing it. Then you realise you’ve been away from home for another ten weeks for nothing.”

Suddenly being a professional actor is starting to lose its appeal. “So, I thought what can I do to supplement the decent acting roles – the ones worth spending time away from home for?” questions Ian. “I looked at the idea of photography and the single headshot world. I went up to photograph The Actor Tribe which is a drama school in Manchester, only charging £50 a head, rather than the usual £160-£180, and because it was so cheap they all said yes. I shot eighty heads in a weekend which me and my mate did. We put some music on, created a nice atmosphere and gave them all something in between a school headshot and a proper portfolio headshot. I’ve developed a great technique with a lighting system which is very complementary; I think because of my years of acting I can read people and within minutes I know how to access their sense of humour – if they’ve got one, ha ha! It’s about finding a way to get their shoulders to drop and their eyes to twinkle within ten minutes. Then you just need to learn how to capture it. It’s hard work but I’m really enjoying it, plus I get to spend much more time back at home doing the admin, edits and posting out – I can even still do the school runs.”

I press Ian to speak directly to our readers: “If any of the groups or schools that read this magazine might fancy getting me along to photograph all the members or kids – at a cheap rate – then I’d be very interested in coming along. I know that these days every society seems to have someone who ‘does the photos’, but if I can come in and, for £50 a head, give you a professional headshot then that’s yours to use wherever and whenever you want; castings, auditions, programmes, social media… it’ll be your professional shot.”

It already sounds appealing but then Ian puts a cherry on top… “What I’d also like to do is, if I end coming in to do a lot of headshots either in a church hall, village hall, school or theatre over a weekend, then I’d be very happy for groups to put on a Q&A or ‘An Evening With…’ kind of thing so I can answer questions, tell some stories and talk about my career. I’ve collected a huge amount of tumble weed onstage over the years and it’s hilarious. I’ve also been into drama schools and given advice on moving forward – things like how to self-tape, but on a phone with a lamp-stand. Tips, tricks, warts and all… short-cuts I’ve learned over the years but will normally take you years to find out. I’ve got a lot to give back.”

To contact Ian (yes, it’s this easy, but mention ‘Sardines’ please) or to find out more just visit: and if your society or school does get him over for some photos and even a Q&A do let us know as we’d love to put a story in a future edition.