'Heartbeat' star Steven Blakeley - returning to the stage in Derby
PUBLISHED: 15:42 23 May 2014
Derbyshire actor Steven Blakeley, who found TV fame in the ITV drama 'Heartbeat', is returning to the stage in Derby this month
As an actor rooted in Derbyshire Steven Blakeley is delighted to be performing in a show where he can ‘go home to his own bed every night’.
The 32-year-old who found TV fame in the Yorkshire-set ITV drama Heartbeat cut his teeth as a teenager in shows at the Derby Playhouse and has returned to the city several times since as a professional actor.
Now he can be seen in ‘Mad Dogs and an Englishman’ at the Guildhall Theatre, reuniting with old friends for a show that has a Derbyshire stamp all the way through it.
Brought up in Bolsover, Steven now lives in Scarcliffe with his wife Eliza, and has resisted the temptation to be based in London.
‘I’m a Derbyshire lad and I don’t want to be anywhere else,’ he says. ‘In many ways I couldn’t be better located. I can be in London in a couple of hours. We are in the middle of everywhere.
‘It can sometimes be difficult when rehearsals have to be down in London but that’s the nature of the job. Even actors living in London are away from home a lot. So I have no plans to move anywhere.
‘I have lived in different parts of the country but a few years ago had a very strong urge to be back in Derbyshire. We live in one of the most beautiful parts of the country and I also love the people here.
‘It may sound a bit pretentious but it’s an almost spiritual thing. These are my roots and this is where I am the happiest.’
Despite his natural talent, Steven says there is no acting tradition in his family.
‘I must be a freak of nature,’ he laughs. ‘I come from a very working class background. My dad’s family were in the coal industry, my mum’s family were farmers. But they are all fantastic storytellers and I love to hear anecdotes and all my family can tell a tale.
‘Growing up I was interested in comedians, stand up and variety artists – but the plan wasn’t to be an actor. I thought I would do something sensible, like be a doctor. It was pure fluke that I did a play at school and after that met Pete Meakin at Derby Playhouse and that fed my passion for it.’
After taking part in a string of Community and Youth Theatre shows, written by Derbyshire playwright Tim Elgood and directed by Pete, Steven decided to ‘give acting a go’. He says: ‘I knew how hard an industry it is to survive in but I thought if it goes wrong I can go and do something else. But, touchwood, I’m still doing it.
‘Pete was quite stern with me as I recall. He said: “You have to do this. You will make a living out of it” and so far he’s been proved right. My parents had quite natural reservations about it but Pete explained to them about drama school and prospects and that helped them know how to support me in the best possible way. So, in the end, Pete gave me little choice!’
Steven trained at what is now the Royal Scottish Conservatoire and also at a drama school in Germany. Only a year after graduating he landed a dream role as PC Geoff Younger in the long-running and much-loved TV drama series Heartbeat, watched by more than 15 million at its peak.
Steven says: ‘Derek Fowlds (a co-star in the series) once said to me “it’s not a bad apprenticeship” and he was right. To have something like that so early on in my career and learning how to deal with the exposure of a very high-profile television programme was all very useful and very rewarding.’
Having played Geoff Younger in more than 100 episodes the character will always have a special place in Steven’s heart. ‘I was in Denmark a few weeks ago and Heartbeat is very big in Scandinavia even now, five years after we finished filming, and people were stopping me, which is a lovely thing, very heart-warming, especially when you are abroad. So it’s still very much in people’s consciousness and it’s nice to know you have done a job that has had that effect on people. That was the great thing about Heartbeat, it tapped into people’s minds and hearts and gained a very special place.’
Despite that TV success, the stage remains Steven’s first and best love.
‘I don’t know many actors who don’t like theatre work,’ he says. ‘The immediacy of the reaction, especially when doing comedy, is like a drug, you can’t get enough of it. I like all aspects of my job and never quite knowing where you will be next. I have travelled all over the world and knowing that you can get a call any day saying “can you get on an aeroplane and do this” is quite exciting.’
For the last couple of years Steven has been donning outrageous costumes as a dame in a panto he has penned himself.
He says: ‘I went to play Wishee Washee in Aladdin at the Theatre Royal in Windsor, which is Bill Kenwright’s producing house. I have been asked back every year since and have graduated from playing comics to panto dames and the last two years I have also written and directed it. I love the silliness of panto and I have enjoyed having a foot in all of the creative aspects. I am an actor at heart so I don’t think I will move full-time into writing or directing but I do enjoy the odd job using a different part of the brain.’
There’s also a bonus for Eliza.
‘The costume department at Windsor is fantastic,’ says Steven. ‘And there’s always something every year she wants to inherit. There was a pair of very nice red high heel shoes that mysteriously made their way back to our house last time.
‘She finds it very funny and is very supportive. She would have to be to put up with that every Christmas! But, no really, it’s a nice thing to do. We go down, hire a cottage, take our dogs with us and have a nice Christmas in Berkshire, a lovely place to be.
‘Theatre work holds a special place in my heart and especially theatre work in Derby.’
Which is why he’s delighted to come full circle and return to Derby for a double bill of plays at the Guildhall in May written by Tim Elgood. Steven and Tim have progressed through Youth and Community Theatre ranks as actor and writer respectively and have a long-standing working relationship. Those shows were brought to the Derby Playhouse stage by Pete Meakin, now the creative producer at Derby Live, and he will direct at The Guildhall.
It’s a virtuoso circle of creativity that saw the same team create Mother Came Too, a side-splitting comedy at the same venue in 2010 and another actor from that production, Sean O’Callaghan, is also in Mad Dogs.
Steven says: ‘The joy of going back to work with Pete and Tim is that we seem to have developed a kind of shorthand – we know what each other is thinking. That comes from having worked together for so long – nearly 20 years. Now, it doesn’t seem like work at all and that kind of spirit informs what we do.
‘If Tim sends me a script, even if there are no plans to stage it, I just love it. It’s a pleasure to sit down and read. His great ability is his use of language, the joy of the words and phrases, the natural rhythm. It’s very funny dialogue but completely naturalistic. That’s his great asset and he can communicate that in dramatic terms.’
Tim likes to imagine his characters as actors and therefore often writes with Steven in mind.
‘I think I have become a bit of a tool for him over the years,’ says Steven. ‘Mine is probably a voice that haunts him. If he can hear a voice saying a line he can write better.’
Steven believes Pete Meakin has helped a huge number of young actors get a foothold in the industry. ‘He’s been an inspiration to me since I met him in 1996 and I work with him whenever possible. He’s a wonderful inspiration who leads from the front and his work is rooted in his own experience.
‘Derby has always had a fantastic theatre community and a lot of that is down to Pete’s philosophy that he instilled in Community and Youth Theatre at Derby Playhouse. It’s a great way of working but in no way exclusive, new people are always welcome in.
‘That why it’s a great joy for me that projects like this keep coming up.’
Mad Dogs and an Englishman is a double bill of plays from Tim Elgood. The Dog House is set at the Mayday Dog Rescue Centre and takes a humourous ‘dog’s eye’ view of homelessness. Bare Words is the truthful portrayal of a young writer’s tortuous face-to- face combat with his own creativity. The production can be seen at Derby’s Guildhall Theatre from 16th to 31st May. Go to www.derbylive.co.uk or call 01332 255800.
The moment director Pete Meakin first saw Steven Blakeley audition he knew he had unearthed a ‘rare talent’.
It was nearly 20 years ago when Pete was directing Buster’s Last Stand, a Derby Playhouse Community Theatre show written by Tim Elgood.
He says, ‘We auditioned hundreds of people and there was a coach load which came down from Bolsover and in the rehearsal room they were rammed in like sardines. There was one little lad no more than 12 or 13 who stood out a mile. He had everybody in hysterics. I knew within the first 30 seconds that this was a rare and very special talent.
‘These days, he does everything brilliantly and with the utmost conviction.
‘When he was 14 or 15 we always used to refer to him in the office as “the next Nicholas Lyndhurst”. We knew if he wanted to he would make a very good career out of being an actor.’
Steven has since returned to Derby as a professional actor for shows such as Much Ado About Nothing and Mother Came Too.
Pete says: ‘Even though the very talented ones from the Youth and Community Theatre in the past go away to the top drama schools to train they never lose that connection with Derby and Derbyshire. It’s a two-way process, they love coming back here to perform.
‘Almost all those who have made a profession out of it retain a heartfelt connection with their home.’
So it must give Pete a great sense of pride that he’s helped so many young people step up to the professional ranks. He says, modestly: ‘It’s a bit like being a parent. Your kids end up doing things and you think “where did that come from”. You don’t feel yourself having any significant hand in it. I feel I have almost watched as a bystander.
‘What gives me the greatest pleasure is that having seen hundreds if not thousands come through these shows, they are all such lovely people.’