Interview: Jeff Stewart, actor, The Bill
JEFF STEWART may still be best known as laid-back PC Reg Hollis in The Bill, but don't call the popular actor English - he's a Scot, and proud of it.
"Here I am in a kilt, which is my tartan," says the 54-year-old, who returns to the Capital this week, some 33 years after his last appearance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
"Actually, this is the first play I've done since being directed by Maurice Roeves in Doolally Tap in 1977. That was enormous fun, and very shortly after, my television work started," reveals Stewart who, despite 24 years pounding a fictional London beat, was actually born in Aberdeen.
"I live in England but I get a great kick from saying that I am a Scotsman. I have that pride," he says. "And I'm so thrilled to have tartan blood. My dad worked in the shipyards in Aberdeen, but he got a job at the Fawley Refinery in the New Forest, Hampshire, and that took the whole family down there when I was three months old.
"But we always travelled back and forth as we're a very tight family and see a lot of each other."
Stewart's latest trip north is to star in Prima Donna Island, by Keith Large, at Spotlights @ Merchant's Hall on Hanover Street and he admits that it is with just a little trepidation he returns to live theatre.
"There is a degree of nervousness, which I think is a good thing because you make it work for you," he says, explaining that the play - part of the Laughs From Leicestershire trilogy - was the second of two suggestions for his stage comeback.
"The first was to play Prospero in The Tempest. For all of four days I uum-ed and aah-ed about it because I knew it was a massive role. I looked at the first scene of the first act and it was acres and acres of spoken word and I thought, 'After 33 years I'd be foolish to take on something so meaty'. A month later, Keith's offer came. We met. I did a test read with the script in my hand, and on the way home Keith rang to say that he wanted me to join his cast."
The attraction of the piece for Stewart was simple. "The piece is absurdist. It's in three acts and the third act is called Prima Donna Island - which is interesting because I know a bit about absurdist theatre. The absurdist playwright Ionesco wrote a play called The Bald Prima Donna and I thought, 'I wonder if Keith knows about that play and has called it Prima Donna Island as an homage?' Then one of his characters has the catch phrase, 'Happy Days' . . . Samuel Beckett wrote a play called Happy Days. So there were all these absurdist references that made me realise there was a depth to the piece. It's not just a light piece of theatre, it works on different levels, although if you just want a few laughs, it has that too."
It's all a million miles away from The Bill, which had been Stewart's life for the best part of quarter of a century.
As Hollis, he appeared in no fewer than 1047 episodes, and reflects that it was a huge wrench when his character was written out.
"I started in March 1984 and left in January 2008 and, of the original cast, was in the show the longest. I thought I was going to be the last to leave, and funnily enough that's how it worked out. When they told me that they weren't going to take up my contract any more, the shock was enormous and I just thought my whole life is going to fall away here . . . I thought, 'What will I do? How will I pick myself up?'. So it had an enormous effect on me, of which I think most of the public are fairly well aware."
It was reported at the time that Stewart attempted suicide.
"The company were very good. When they realised that I had gone into shock they were absolutely brilliant. They came to my house, brought me cakes, brought me flowers . . . said come out and have lunch . . . come out and have tea . . . come and have a walk. So, in terms of being there when I needed them, they were fantastic because until then Reg Hollis was a huge part of my life. He was always there for me.
"It's like . . . well, a lab technician going into work everyday puts their white coat on, a bus driver their V-neck Edinburgh Buses jumper and there you are, you have your other persona.
"It's so important to have a job and to balance that with your own life, so when that balance is interrupted . . . Reg kept me wonderfully balanced for all these years."
Although Stewart concedes that it took him three months to get over the shock of being let go, in hindsight that decision has launched him on a whole new career arc.
"At first I couldn't see any light at the end of the tunnel. Then a mate of mine in New York said, 'There are some people making a feature film which you'd be right for the lead part. It's called Under Jacob's Ladder and I play Jacob, a priest in Russia in the 40s who prays at a funeral, which was punishable by prison in Stalin's Russia. That was the first film to come in. Then towards the end of that summer I got a little part in a film called Dead Man Running, with 50 Cent.
"After that, some people I had met at a screening in the Bahamas two years earlier got in touch and asked me to be in their next film. So, I leave The Bill in January, and before the next Christmas have three feature films.
"If anyone had said to me, 'You have been on telly for 24 years, but not only are you going to do okay afterwards, your dream of doing feature films is going to come true,' I would never have believed it."
Laughs From Leicestershire, [email protected] Merchants' Hall, Hanover Street, until Saturday, 7.45pm, 7, 0131-226 0000