Sunday, 22 April 2018

Meet The Archers farmer who started life in Henley

HE is known to millions of The Archers fans as pig farmer Neil Carter but Brian Hewlett has swapped galoshes

HE is known to millions of The Archers fans as pig farmer Neil Carter but Brian Hewlett has swapped galoshes for ghosts for his latest role in the mystery thriller I’ll Be Back Before Midnight.

He’s currently starring as landlord George in the play which has broken box office records around the world and is currently mid-way through its seven-week run at the Mill at Sonning.

It’s a far cry from the workaday goings-on at Ambridge. But for Brian, it’s a much-treasured opportunity to show off his acting skills just a few miles from where he was brought up — in Queen Street, Henley.

Brian’s acting talent was nurtured during his time at Henley Grammar School, now The Henley College.

He says: “I was always interested in pretending to be somebody else and it was while I was at school that I decided that that was where my main interest lay, in being an actor.”

Mrs Elizabeth Attrill, who taught English and English Literature as well as producing the school plays, was a particular inspiration.

“We were always inspired by her care and attention to detail,” he says. “I think she realised that was where my future lay.”

She encouraged her young protégé to enroll on RADA courses but his parents were unable to afford them and instead he practised treading the boards as part of Henley Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society where he played Harry Ritchie in The Brigadoon and was one of the students in The Student Prince. The first formal drama teaching he received was when he enrolled in a three-year course at Rose Bruford College in south London in 1956 — and he has never looked back.

His professional debut was a walk-on part in the last three weeks of the musical Lock Up Your Daughters at London’s Mermaid Theatre and he stayed on at the theatre for the next two shows, Treasure Island and Great Expectations.

In the years that have followed, his stage career highlights have included playing Terye in Fiddler On The Roof and Amos Hart in the first London run of Chicago at the Cambridge Theatre. And he has also performed on screen — most famously as part of the ensemble cast of up-and-coming young actors in BBC series The Younger Generation alongside John Thaw, as well as parts in Grange Hill, Doctors and Kingdom.

Yet it’s impossible to interview Brian without touching on his four-decade stint (and counting) on the airwaves in The Archers.

His achievement seems all the more remarkable when you consider that he was initially contracted to appear in just four episodes of the Radio Four soap opera.

“I just thought it was simply another radio job — I’d start one day, finish two weeks later, thank you very much and goodbye. But it has gone on and on and on,” he laughs. “I was looking down the cast list the other day and I am now one of the few people in it for this long. I am now one of the senior members of the cast, I suppose, although I don’t feel like that inside.”

His character was just a teenage apprentice at Brookfield Farm when he first appeared in the show. He was told he could use any Midlands accent, so he opted for the north Oxfordshire burr he’d heard often in his youth.

In the intervening 40 years he has had such diverse storylines as nearly dying from leptospirosis to struggling to bring up two young children while his wife was in jail.

Brian admits his closest link to farming in real life is that he lives in an old farmhouse in Norfolk — and says he doesn’t entirely understand Neil’s enduring appeal.

“I think he’s a good character, he’s caring towards other people and he has not always had it easy in his life so the public can probably sympathise with him,” he says.

“But they are probably infuriated with him on certain occasions because of his reticence as he’s always been the kind of character to think long and deep.”

For now, though, Brian is firmly back on stage — and says there’s nowhere else he would rather be.

I’ll Be Back Before Midnight tells the story of Greg and his wife, Jan, who rent an old farmhouse so that she can recover from a recent nervous breakdown, unaware that the property was the site of a terrible murder. The situation worsens as George reveals all, and Jan is tormented by ghostly visions.

“It is a real pleasure to come and perform so close to Henley,” says Brian.

“It’s an amazing play with its fair share of laughter and scary moments which is always fun to put before an audience because you get an instant reaction. If you are making them laugh you get laughter back and if you are being more serious then that is reflected in the audience. And then there is always the applause at the end.

“Nothing beats entertaining a real live audience, which I am pleased to be doing right now.

“I thoroughly enjoy it — and I hope other people do, too.

“I’ve still got that bug and I hope it will never leave me because I just love doing it.”

lI’ll Be Back Before Midnight continues at the Mill at Sonning until November 23. Box office 0118 969 8000 or visit www.millatsonning.com

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