He has been acting for more than 40 years but Christopher Timothy is still pushing himself towards an unknown summit, finds Caroline Bishop.
Most people associate actor Christopher Timothy with country vet James Herriot’s unfortunate familiarity with the rear end of a cow. But fewer people know that before he became known for 80s TV drama All Creatures Great And Small, Timothy had already made his presence felt on stage as a member of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company alongside Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi and Maggie Smith.
“I came into stage door one night,” he tells me today, “just on the half, panicking, and rushed in through the door and knocked an elderly gentleman flying against the wall. I picked him up and it was Noël Coward. I said ‘I’m so sorry’, and he said ‘no no my dear boy, it was an absolute pleasure entirely from head to toe’.”
Timothy sits back in his dressing room chair at the Garrick theatre and laughs, his recognisable, weathered face creasing in mirth as he recalls this anecdote from his illustrious past, when Coward and Olivier strode through the corridors of the Old Vic and actors including Michael Gambon, Albert Finney and Lynn Redgrave were making their names.
So although his recent six-year stay in daytime soap Doctors pegged him even more firmly as a TV actor in the public consciousness, Timothy is no stranger to the stage. But despite appearing in numerous plays all over the UK since those heady days with the National Theatre, musicals are a rarer entity on his CV.
“It’s been a very, very interesting learning curve,” he says of his latest job, in the cast of David Essex’s new musical All The Fun Of The Fair, which opens in the West End next week. “It’s an acting role really, which is why they are happy to have someone who is not an experienced trained singer. I’m surrounded by people who can sing like birds. It’s just so exciting and youthful.”
"I remember then, with maybe one and a half exceptions, Olivier producing or directing or being in hit after hit after hit"
How is his singing voice? “It varies. It’s coming along. I have one bit where I’ve got to sing properly; it’s very brief but I’m on tune and in key and all that stuff, apparently.”
He plays Harvey, a small town crook and single father whose daughter gets involved with the fairground community, including fair owner Levi (Essex) and his son, much to Harvey’s chagrin. “So I go to the fair to say what the hell is going on and come home, and she obviously wraps me round her little finger,” says Timothy. “The story is about love, it’s about relationships, it’s about treachery, it’s about prejudice. It’s about petty crime and danger, dads and children.”
Harvey is a supporting character; the show belongs to Essex, who co-created it with Jon Conway and wrote the music, which comprises some new material but predominantly his back catalogue of solo hits, which Timothy says have “been blended in really very cleverly.”
“I still say to him now and again, did you really write this song 15 years ago or whatever? Occasionally little tweaks to lyrics have changed, but they haven’t taken the tune and rewritten everything. He is a poet, David.”
He also raves about the cast, describing some of the performances as “mind-blowing”. He adds: “Whenever I am in anything, I just love good actors. I love the process and I love seeing people be good.”
There is no doubting Timothy’s enthusiasm for the show and his pleasure at being a part of it, but he has been around the block too many times for it not to be tempered by a certain pragmatism. “I would have thought, knowing what little I do know about the industry, that logically his [Essex’s] fan base ought to keep us going for a while,” he says at one point.
Nor is he someone to be swept away by the excitement of playing a West End house. Later, when I ask him if this return to the West End may lead to other opportunities, he says: “I don’t think being in the West End is quite like it used to be.” Why? “I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t know in what way.”
"I really did believe when I was younger, in my naivety, that when I got to this age I would be choosing"
“When I was young, at drama school, the West End was the pinnacle, and I have to say I don’t feel – I mean I’m delighted to be doing this, I really am delighted – but I don’t feel pinnacle-ish at all.”
It is at moments like this when I detect a slight sadness underlying Timothy’s garrulous, genial exterior. He greets me warmly and sends me away after a long chat, offering me a boiled sweet as a parting gift. Between these two moments he talks openly and honestly about his lengthy career, about the things he has loved and the things he has found frustrating, and I discover a man who, like many actors, has an ego which has been knocked, a vulnerability beneath the hearty exterior and, though he fights against it, a touch of regret amid the career highlights.
Regarding the things he has loved, his eyes light up in delight when he talks about directing, which he got the opportunity to try during his time on Doctors, directing several episodes of the medical soap in which he starred as Brendan ‘Mac’ Maguire from 2000 to 2006. “I have never known such excitement,” he says of taking to the other side of the camera. “I remember thinking why the f**k didn’t I do this 30 years ago?” So why didn’t he? “Well because bottom line, occasionally I’ve watched things being done and thought ‘I wish I was directing this’. But I wouldn’t have had the gall to even ask.”
He came to it by chance, after an off-the-cuff conversation between friends over lunch in which he admitted he would love to try his hand at directing. His executive producer on Doctors took him at his word and gave him the chance to direct a couple of episodes. “I realised that a, I had an aptitude for it and b, I love it. I just think it’s more creative [than acting]. You are given the product, you have to have a vision and you’ve got to stick to it.” Mostly he directed storylines that didn’t feature his character, but as he progressed he got to direct himself, too. “It was wonderful to play a scene with somebody and then go ‘cut!’ I thought that was so cool,” he grins with a flash of schoolboy delight.
Yet a wistful regret springs up when I ask if he will pursue his passion. “Oh I do wish,” he says, relating how he went back to see the Doctors producers a couple of years ago and asked if he could direct again. “He just said, ‘everyone wants to direct, Chris’. I didn’t pursue it.” Later he adds: “I sulk sometimes as I get older. I don’t have a lot of regrets but I do sometimes think ‘if only’. If only I’d pursued things in a different direction maybe. Directing particularly.”
"I just love good actors. I love the process and I love seeing people be good"
That delight reappears when I ask him about his time in Olivier’s National Theatre, starting in 1964, when he appeared in productions including The Master Builder, Much Ado About Nothing, Mother Courage And Her Children, Juno And The Paycock and The Royal Hunt Of The Sun. “It was incredible. And it was arguably when the National Theatre was at its peak. I know that the National still does remarkable productions, fantastic, I know that. But I remember then, with maybe one and a half exceptions, Olivier producing or directing or being in hit after hit after hit.”
While his colleagues from that time – McKellen, Smith, Jacobi, Gambon – have all carved careers that encompass stage, television and film but have avoided being defined by any single job, Timothy’s career was indelibly shaped by his being cast as James Herriot in All Creatures Great And Small. The drama, based on the books by Herriot, ran for seven series between 1978 and 1990, catapulting Timothy and co-star Peter Davison into the spotlight, and also highlighting Timothy’s personal life due to his relationship with his co-star and on-screen wife Carol Drinkwater.
But despite the success of the programme, Timothy found himself at an impasse when it ended. For years afterwards he found the only television jobs open to him were non-acting jobs, “celeby sort of things”. In contrast, Davison had bagged Doctor Who and A Very Peculiar Practice whilst still in All Creatures. “I asked Peter Davison, about a year after All Creatures finished, I said unless I’m a crap actor, and you’re superb – and I’m not saying I’m not – but how come you are going from television to television to television and I’m not getting any? And he said ‘it’s very simple, I didn’t play James Herriot’.” Timothy’s explanation for Davison’s comment is vague, though he relates it to Herriot being the storyteller rather than the main protagonist of the stories, as Davison’s character Tristan Farnon was. The serious car accident that befell Timothy during the first series, which necessitated a period of recovery, may also have downsized his character’s screen time. “That comment of Peter’s, I hold on to that because I don’t want the reason to be that nobody wanted to put me in a movie. I couldn’t bear that,” he says honestly.
Timothy often wears his heart on his sleeve during the interview. After talking about this post-All Creatures period in his life he says that his self-belief still gets knocked a lot. “There are days when I feel very positive and there are days when I feel desperately the opposite. I dare to suggest that most people feel like that.”
"I sulk sometimes as I get older. I don’t have a lot of regrets but I do sometimes think ‘if only'"
As well as a healthy dose of humility, the fickle nature of the industry has given him the ability to laugh at himself, too. He relates a story about some young female fans turning up on his doorstep one evening just after an episode of All Creatures had been broadcast. Timothy, recovering at home after his car crash, hobbled to the door on crutches. “I tried to lean nonchalantly and coolly against the door. I was beaten up, my face was covered in scars. And I said ‘hi’” – he adopts a certain prideful swagger in his voice, sending himself up – “and these kids were 15, 16, I guess, and they said ‘are you Christopher Timothy?’ And I said ‘yes’. And they said ‘please can you get us Peter Davison’s autograph?’ It made me laugh a lot.”
He chuckles broadly at the memory. “Peter Davison was the sex symbol. He’s a good man. It was his birthday last week. Ten years younger than me, bastard!”
Timothy is 70 in October this year, but rather than settling into a quiet retirement, I get the feeling he is still searching for something; still hoping for ambitions to be fulfilled and regrets to be overturned. “I really did believe when I was younger, in my naivety, that when I got to this age I would be choosing. Saying, ‘I think I’ll do a film next’. Nah, I just do what’s coming. I’m not being negative,” he adds, “I’m just trying to be realistic.”
So while he is delighted to be in the West End in brand new musical All The Fun Of The Fair, this isn’t the pinnacle for Timothy. He is still waiting for his crowning glory. “I’d like to do something exceptional,” he says, “both for my sake and for all those doubting Thomases and some of those fuddy critics.” What that may be, only time will tell.