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'The last time I was in Belfast, a bomb scare saw the Europa lay on an open bar... great news for a bunch of actors'

 

National treasure Tessa Peake-Jones, who is famous for starring in Only Fools and Horses and Grantchester, takes to the Grand Opera House stage next week in The Winslow Boy. Talking to Ivan Little along with co-star Aden Gillett, she remembers a previous visit to Belfast when a bomb alert was the main event.

The hugely popular actress who starred as Derek Trotter's wife in the evergreen TV comedy Only Fools and Horses can't wait to come back to Belfast, even though one of her lasting memories of the city is a bomb scare at the Europa Hotel.

Tessa Peake-Jones, who's swapping Del Boy for The Winslow Boy, the classic Terence Rattigan play, for a week at the Grand Opera House, laughs as she recalls how what should have been a terrifying experience at the height of the Troubles 30 years ago turned into a massive party with free-flowing drink and chat.

She says: "I was staying at the Europa during a Royal Shakespeare Company tour of Hamlet and one night we were told we couldn't go to our bedrooms because the Army were investigating a suspect bomb nearby.

"The management of the hotel gave us pillows and blankets, but they also laid on an open bar in the foyer, which was great news for a company of actors.

"We sat up all night with local theatre people, travelling salesmen, vicars and teachers.

"At about 5am the bomb squad gave the all clear and we were told we could go to our rooms. But by that stage we were all having a great time, having convinced ourselves that's what you do in an emergency."

Tessa says she's not expecting any reprises of the free bar or of the bomb alerts.

"But I am looking forward to exploring the city," she says. "I've been informed that it's a very different place, though I am sure the welcome that we got back then will be just the same.

"Three decades ago, I thought our English accents might have been a problem, but we couldn't have been better received and the response to the play was fantastic too.

"I can't remember exactly where we staged Hamlet, but we were bringing the play to venues like schools and gymnasiums that weren't normally associated with theatre.

"This time with The Winslow Boy I am really keen to play the Grand Opera House. I've heard a lot about it and that's one of the joys of touring for me, to see new theatres.

"I hadn't been on tour for a very long time because I was bringing up my family, but I recently told my agent that I wanted to go back out on the road and then I was offered the part in The Winslow Boy, which has been terrific.

"There's nothing quite like live theatre for me. I love having people watching and reacting in the moment.

"My ideal year would be to do six months on stage and six months on the telly."

Unsurprisingly, Tessa is still recognised everywhere she goes as Raquel from Only Fools and Horses, but unlike some actors who prefer not to talk about their past successes, she warmly embraces the subject of the UK's most loved TV sitcom, which is still repeated almost daily on satellite channels.

At its peak, Only Fools was attracting audiences of over 24 million and the repeats have created a new, younger fan base.

Says Tessa: "It's amazing. Every day we all get letters from teenagers who say they started watching because their parents were always talking about it and they've grown to love it too. I think the late John Sullivan, who wrote the series, would be so thrilled people are still getting so much pleasure from it.

"There aren't many professions where every day someone will come up to you to say thank you for bringing them such happiness. So we were very lucky that we not only got to make a fabulous programme like Only Fools and Horses but wonderful responses all these years later."

The sadness for Tessa is that most of her reunions with former cast members usually take place at funerals. Writer John Sullivan died seven years ago and Roger Pack Lloyd, who played the inimitable Trigger, passed away in 2014.

Tessa says: "I see Gwyneth Strong, who played Cassandra, a lot. We are great mates. Sometimes the rest of us meet from time to time, but everyone's very busy."

Even though directors and casting agents were initially reluctant to use Tessa in other shows and plays after Only Fools, she has now proved that she isn't a one trick theatrical pony, playing a wide range of characters in a myriad of challenging roles on stage.

And she's also established herself on screen again, in the drama Grantchester, where she plays curmudgeonly housekeeper Mrs Maguire.

In June, Tessa will start work on another series of Grantchester, which also stars James Norton as a vicar and Robson Green as a detective.

Says Tessa: "The contrast between Raquel and the housekeeper couldn't be sharper.

"I love playing Mrs Maguire. She's a really grumpy, crotchety old bag. And that's so unlike me. A woman on a bus once asked me how they made me look so ugly in Grantchester and I said I just frowned a lot.

"It's quite nice now that I get as much feedback about Mrs Maguire as about Raquel."

As for her current role in The Winslow Boy, Tessa admits that she didn't know the play, even though it was written by Rattigan in 1946.

But she says: "As soon as I read it, I realised it was an incredibly well written play. I had thought it might be a bit dated because it was written such a long time ago and it's about an incident in the early 1900s."

The Winslow Boy was inspired by an actual event - a father's fight to clear his son's name after the boy was expelled from a naval college for stealing a five-shilling postal order.

Proving his innocence was crucial for the boy's future and for his family's good name and they enlisted the help of a barrister who was rather well-known on this side of the Irish Sea, Sir Edward Carson.

The leader of Ulster Unionism, who prosecuted Oscar Wilde, was regarded as one of the top barristers in the British Isles and his alter ego, Sir Robert Morton, features prominently in The Winslow Boy.

"He was a very complicated character. It sounds like he went against his natural political bent taking up the case which is portrayed in the play," says House of Elliott and Holby City actor Aden Gillett, who plays Arthur Winslow, the father of The Winslow Boy, even though he quite fancied the role of Sir Robert Morton.

Aden was in the David Mamet movie version of The Winslow Boy 20 years ago, playing yet another part.

"Mamet's film was a little bit drier than this production," says Aden. "This is quite an emotional experience for the audience, but they've also found humour in the play that we didn't know was there."

Aden says the play is as relevant today as it was when written by Rattigan more than 70 years ago. "Suddenly the world of today has become a rather unjust place. Maybe social media has made us more aware of what is going on everywhere, but it feels that with Trump in America and Brexit over here, people's lives are getting steamrollered a bit.

"So this idea in the play of fighting an injustice seems more important and vital to our lives," says Aden, who still suffers from stage fright even though he is one of British theatre's most respected actors.

"I get a bit intimidated. I find it tough, a bit of an ordeal, but if I could ever say that I enjoyed one part, I would have to say it is the current one in The Winslow Boy. "

No such worries about nerves for Tessa Peake-Jones, who shares Aden's view that The Winslow Boy strikes chords with modern day audiences.

She says: "The play focuses on the beginnings of the suffragette movement, but there are so many parallels with the modern world in that the story is about one person's fight against a huge conglomeration. In the play it was a lone voice against the Armed Forces, the voice of someone preparing to risk everything.

"Nowadays, we have people taking on Google and Facebook and other major institutions in a similar fashion."

Like Tessa, Aden Gillett is keen to renew his acquaintance with Belfast.

He says: "I've acted in the Opera House three times and it has always been a tremendous joy on stage and off it - I do like the Crown Bar across the road"

At the end of The Winslow Boy tour, Aden, who is a close friend of US-based Belfast actress Aingeal Grehan, will return to the production of his own movie. "But I can't tell you too much about it at the moment," he says.

The Winslow Boy runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, from Tuesday until Saturday. For tickets, telephone the box office on 028 9024 1919 or visit www.goh.co.uk

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