September 12

Donald Sinden: “I thought my knighthood letter was a wind-up!”

Sad to hear today of the passing of Sir Donald Sinden, an actor of great range and depth. His career encompassed films like The Cruel Sea, extensive stage work, TV comedy like Never The Twain.

I interviewed him first as a young reporter when he appeared at the Chichester Festival Theatre. An imposing and seemingly rather grand figure, he was nevertheless, utterly charming and not remotely stuffy. I last spoke to him 12 years ago when he appeared in the BBC drama Judge John Deed. He was his usual jolly and ebullient self. Here’s the piece:

Veteran actor Sir Donald Sinden‘s interest in Britain’s legal system goes way beyond simply playing a judge in the BBC One drama series Judge John Deed.

In fact he likes nothing better than whiling away a few hours in a court room watching a gritty real-life case and reckons a seat in the public gallery at a good court case can be the best free ticket in town for entertainment value.

“I’m enormously interested in the law,” says Donald. “I go to watch cases quite frequently and find them absolutely fascinating. I’ve been dozens of times over the years.

“I was on a tour abroad recently and I went to see cases in Sydney and Melbourne because I like to see how different countries operate their legal systems.”

Donald recently took his 22-year-old grandson Hal to see a case. “I thought it was time he was introduced to the seamier side of London life,” he laughs. “So I took him off to The Old Bailey.

“A friend of mine is a judge there so I telephoned him and he said he had a very boring case on but he said he’d which court had a interesting one going on!

“So when we arrived we were told to go to court sixteen which had a rather juicy murder case being heard of a young man who had [allegedly] kicked his drug dealer to death.

“During the afternoon there was a break and the defence counsel saw me and came rushing over and said: ‘You gave me such a shock when you walked in earlier.’

“I said: ‘Why?’ and he said: ‘Well this morning the prosecution counsel opened the case with a real histrionic display as he described the murder scene and all the blood and brains splattered on the floor.

“‘So when I rose I accused him of behaving like Donald Sinden – and I thought you’d heard about this!’ He’d meant that the other barrister had presented his case in a very theatrical fashion. I thought it was very funny!”

Donald‘s character in Judge John Deed is an appeal court judge Sir Joseph  Channing, John Deed’s ex-father in law, and a man very different to Deed, who has a reputation as a progressive and an independent thinker.

“Sir Joseph is a rather right-wing, blustering and very much of the old school,” says Donald. “That makes him poles apart from John Deed both politically and in their attitude towards the law.

“And socially Sir Joseph is quite upper class whereas John Deed is a working class boy made good and every time they meet they try to get along but very quickly rub each other up the wrong way.”

Donald has a soft spot for Sir Joseph. “He’s not a nasty man,” he says. “He’s a product of his generation and all his life he has worked studiously for the good of the legal system.

“He’s honest and straightforward and none of his cases have ever been overturned. It’s just that whereas John Deed would put someone on probation, Sir Joseph would sentence them to hard labour if he could!”

Donald‘s 60-year career has encompassed a wide variety of work including films like wartime classic The Cruel Sea and The Day of the Jackal to comedies like Doctor In The House and TV sitcoms like Never The Twain.

He was knighted in 1997 – but didn’t believe it at first. “It was lovely,” he says. “It was a complete shock and when I received the letter from Downing Street I thought it was a wind-up!  “You have to reply saying whether you will accept the honour. I was worried it might get lost in the post so I delivered it by hand to Number 10. The policeman recognised me and let me in the gate.

“As I approached it that famous Number 10 door opened and an arm came out and took the letter. I never did find out if the arm was attached to the door or a person!”

Donald, who has been married to his wife Diana for more than fifty years, was 79 last month but has no plans to retire. “Actors don’t retire,” he laughs.  “I’m still enjoying it and doing work like Judge John Deed is a joy.”  

June 10

Rik Mayall: Comedy god, but also a brilliant actor

Like all of us, I was stunned to learn of Rik Mayall’s death. He was true one-off, a comedy god – and, for those of us lucky enough to have met him, a thoroughly entertaining man off-screen as well as on.

I interviewed him eight or nine times over the years and found him fun, personable, sometimes challenging, but always thoroughly entertaining.

100001The first time was while I was a local paper reporter and he was touring in spoof rock band Bad News along with Ade Edmondson, Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson. He came on the phone as Colin Grigson, his character, was rude about his fellow fictional band members and invited me to join him after the show for a ‘sherry or two’.

I grew up watching him in The Young Ones, loved The New Statesman, but my favourites amongst Rik’s work are some of his lesser known shows – and some which saw him using his great skill as a serious actor. His 1993 series for ITV Rik Mayall Presents (in which he played washed-up quiz show host, a man who stag night goes wrong, but then right, and a man whose night with a woman he met at a party doesn’t go as planned) was very, very good.

He was also excellent in the BBC One drama Murder Rooms: Mysteries of the Real Sherlock Holmes: The White Knight Stratagem and I remember doing a particularly memorable interview with him on set (more on that when I can find the tape…)100077

He was also very good in Jonathan Creek in which he played Gideon Pryke, once again showing his skill at straight acting which is sometimes overlooked.

But there again, what a comedy tour de force he was. One of his lesser known characters, Kevin Turvey, (left) was a brilliant creation and Lord Flashheart in Blackadder was scene-stealingly awesome…

Here are my two favourite Flashheart moments:

Rik’s death at just 56 is a terrible loss to the world of entertainment, but most of all, a tragedy for his family.

PS: It feels a bit self-indulgent to include this in a tribute piece, but it is an example of Rik’s personal kindness and sense of fun: In my early twenties I was living in my own flat and during an interview with Rik I asked him if he’d be kind enough to do me an outgoing message for my ansaphone. He obliged without hesitation. Trouble was, the first one he did, was a bit on the rude side. Slightly fearful that one of my grandmothers would phone up and hear it, he then did a second one, which I was able to use…. (I’ll try and find the tape of the original version!)

Here it is:

PPS: Clearly, this sort of thing wasn’t isolated. Look at this lovely card Rik did for Karen MacLeavy’s Dad.

October 6

EXCLUSIVE: Two Only Fools and Horses myths busted

Del and RaquelOver the years two urban myths about Only Fools and Horses have become widely discussed. The first is that Tessa Peake-Jones, who played Raquel, had a brief appearance in the first episode Big Brother.

The second was a claim that singer and former Take That star Robbie Williams appeared as an extra in the 1992 Christmas Special Mother Nature’s Son.

I’ve seen these rumours repeated as if they were fact over the years, but neither are true. In the Big Brother scene (pictured below) Tessa Peake-Jones was thought by many to be a woman in the Nag’s Head who says: ‘Ello Del’ as he walks in the pub and ‘Fine thanks’ when he replies ‘Ello darlin, how are you, alright?’

But Tessa told me last week: “No, I wasn’t in the very first episode and I don’t know where that rumour has come from.” Her actual first episode was the 1988 Christmas special Dates.

Similarly, it seems extremely unlikely that Robbie Williams appeared in Mother Nature’s Son. He was already famous by then and no one senior on the production has any recollection of his appearance.

When I asked Director Tony Dow recently he said: “First time I’ve ever heard of it. Seems pretty unlikely don’t you think!” and Producer Gareth Gwenlan’s thoughts were much the same: “It doesn’t ring any bells with me – unless he was hiding!” he told me.

So there you have it – two Only Fools and Horses myths busted!


Only Fools and Horses is shown daily on Gold