Digger chats with Peter Egan.
Peter Egan first
came to prominence as the lead in the controversial 1969 TV drama
Big Breadwinner Hog, where he played the boss of a violent gang.
The show received a lot of media attention for the realistic
portrayal of violence.
Peter has been a regular on our TV screens since (Callan, The
Troubleshooters, Lillie, Prince Regent, A Touch of Frost, Crown
Court, Ruth Rendell, Tales Of The Unexpected) as well as playing a
huge variety of roles on stage and film, from Oscar Wilde to
Dukes and Princes and even a Lord in Bean!
It was with the
comedy Ever Decreasing Circles that he really established his
reputation for comedy as the suave and smooth Jack-of-all-trades and master of
them all, Paul Ryman.
days, Peter is as busy as ever and focusing on theatre and the
occasional good film script that may come along.
Peter kindly agreed to answer some questions for Digger at www.retrosellers.com
Some images courtesy of and © copyright www.rexfeatures.com
I've been watching some old series on DVD, including your famous
series 'Hog'. And in one episode of Budgie there was a chap whose
house was 'invaded' by Budgie and Charlie Endell. Budgie had been
shot when someone was trying to shoot Charlie and they needed
shelter. And the house owner looks, behaves and dresses like an old
man. And he announces that he's 51, which is how old I am now!!
Things have really changed there, haven't they?
Yes, 51 is the new 41.
If that logic carries on we're going to be going on forever aren't
I hope so. I think people didn't really start to age down until the
eighties onwards. But maybe it all started in the sixties...
You lot started it!
Exactly, us and the Rolling Stones and The Beatles. That kind of
extravagant dressing away from all the dreariness of the fifties.
But then I think in the eighties, when you had big hits over here like
Dallas, where TV image dominated the networks. People accepted the
fact that you would do whatever you wanted to your face,
particularly with plastic surgery and so on, and just age
Larry Hagman is looking okay. But a lot of the cast have had
problems of one sort or another.
He had a liver transplant, didn't he? So that must be quite good
now, I suppose. That show was so huge and there's always a price to
pay somewhere along the line.
Patrick Duffy is looking good. I saw him at a show not so long back.
Yes, I think he works out or something - he looks very fit.
Can you tell us how you got into
Peter: I left school
at fifteen, I went to St. George's in Maida Vale. The school where
the headmaster was stabbed a few years ago. He intervened in a
street fight and it was very sad. Well I left in 1961.
Digger: Have you been back?
Peter: No, but I have met my old
geography teacher who had moved to Hartlepool.
Digger: Did anyone inspire you there?
Peter: In the school? Not anyone
in particular. I wasn't a very good pupil really, I was much more
interested in being out on the street, playing snooker and things
like that. So my interests dominated and I wasn't that scholarly -
it was my own fault. It was a secondary modern. I'm perceived very
much as a kind of public school boy and in fact my upbringing was
very much north London, the unofficial capital of Ireland - Kilburn. My
father was a Dubliner and my mother was from Battersea.
Digger: My mum was from Kerry. My
sister lives near Cork.
Peter: Great. The ring of Kerry is
lovely, isn't it? Anyway, I left school at fifteen and didn't really
have any idea of what I wanted to do. I worked in a machine shop, I
worked as a hospital porter, I worked as a salesman. And I fell into
'am dram' by accident when I was sixteen and I went into an amateur
group in Ladbroke Grove, off of Notting Hill Gate, to see if I could
help out with design. Because I was quite good at drawing. I found
that they needed someone to play a part in Arsenic and Old Lace.
Digger: The Cary Grant part?
Peter: No, it wasn't that role, it
was Teddy Brewster and I was, of course, far too young for it but
nevertheless they told me I had to play the part if I wanted to be a
member of the group. I wanted to design but they persuaded me to play
the part. And I fell in love with it. And it was just like when you
twist the lens on a camera and it all comes into focus. I suddenly
found at sixteen that it was what I wanted to do and it was for me
really a lifesaver. Because I got totally involved and started to go
to the theatre all of the time. By the time I was eighteen I went to
RADA and auditioned for five drama schools and got into them all, so
was very, very lucky from that point of view. I could choose where I
wanted to go.
Digger: Who were your contemporaries
Peter: Timothy Dalton, Hywel
Bennett, Linda Thorson. People like that.
Digger: A lot of good actors there
and sixties movers and shakers.
Did you all keep in touch?
Peter: Oh, absolutely, I've kept
in touch with Tim for ... over forty years.
Digger: Was Timothy Dalton in The
Lion In Winter?
Peter: That was his first job. He
played Philip of France. In fact I tested for that, but he got it.
Digger: (laughs) Were you biting your
lip when you just said that?
Peter: Not really, no. I mean he
was really good in that role and he was also a terribly good James
Digger: I interviewed Jane Merrow who
was in The Lion In Winter and she had appeared in The Avengers and
was lined-up for taking over from Diana Rigg but Jane was busy on
'Lion' so Linda got the role. It's funny how things go like that,
Peter: It's a funny old business.
In fact, one of my closest friends is an actor/write called Shane Connaughton.
He did the screenplay for My Left Foot. And Shane was someone I met
at that amateur group in Ladbroke Grove in 1963 . And we've been
friends ever since and he's probably my oldest friend. Oh God, for
over 45 years!
Digger: Have you got a good memory
for dates and names and so on because you seem to be rattling them
off with no trouble?
Peter: Well, the significant
things in your life I suppose you do remember. I've got a relatively
good memory, I suppose.
do you think you'd be doing if not an actor?
Peter: Do you know, I
have no idea. I may have gone into writing or being an artist. I
like drawing quite a lot. I always had a fantasy of wanting to be a
writer but it takes more skill and commitment than I have. I wrote a
screenplay which Working Title commissioned but it didn't go any
further. I don't really know what I would have done. I think
ultimately I would have had to have chosen something in the area of
the arts. That's something that I was beginning, even at fifteen.
When I began to go to life art classes in Finchley. So one way or
another even though I was working in 'real' jobs my mind was veering
in that direction anyway. It was a question of focusing it and the
amateur group did that. I think if I had been in a different
environment I might have started to develop those interest earlier
but the lifestyle that I had didn't encourage that.
Digger: Are you doing
any drawing or painting these days?
Peter: I do some
sketches and some doodles that I send every year to the National
Doodle Day. It's a very good charity and I send them some doodles
and they auction them off. And I do some drawings just for myself. I
always promise myself that when I do less of the acting I'll do more
of the drawing. 'Cos you need a dedicated amount of time and my wife
and I, apart from having a daughter and a grandchild, have four
dogs. So they take up a huge amount of time.
Digger: Are you away
from home a lot?
Peter: I try not to
be and with a lot of the tours I have been doing recently like The
Hound Of The Baskervilles, which I did towards the end of last year,
I'm accepting the ones where I can get back. Like when I was in
Northampton, I could get back every evening because I live in north
London anyway so it was dead simple just to commute.
Digger: When I first
moved to Northampton after 'a life changing experience', I was
living just a couple of doors down from the Derngate theatre and the
house next door to me were taking in actors.
Peter: Oh really?
Digger: Yes, I used to
see quite a lot of famous faces - character actors.
Peter: It sounds
rather sad when you say they were 'taking in' actors. Poor souls.
Digger: (laughs) It's
like the stories you hear about music hall actors of old who were
seen as the lowest of the low by landladies.
Peter: I can remember
when I was a kid, my dad being an Irishman, I remember seeing signs
on the windows of houses saying 'No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish'. So
this next job I'm doing, A Song At Twilight, which is coming up to
the Derngate again in the new year. It's an eight or ten week tour
and eight of those weeks I can commute from. So that's the
kind of deal that I'm happy to accept because I don't want to spend
too much time away from home.
Digger: It's not
all about the money.
Peter: It's a
combination of the money and the convenience really. Certainly, the
way that television has gone, I still get offered a lot of stuff on
TV and most of it is rubbish and if I can turn it down I do. And I
do the odd film. But most of the time now I'm offered theatre and
I'm happy to do it because the material's good and it keeps me off
Digger: The Big Breadwinner
Hog controversy was a huge one at the time. Did this help your
career or was it a setback and what were your views on the fuss
that was made about the series?
Peter: It certainly
wasn't a setback. I was 22 when I did Big Breadwinner Hog and it was
a marvellous part to be given. Two wonderful directors, Mike Newell
and Mike Apted. And the wonderful writer Robin Chapman was very, very
in vogue at the time. And a marvellous series to do and all it ever
did was give me a great stepping stone up the great ladder of
success in this business.
Digger: It's of its
time. Like a lot of the series like Public Eye and the cult shows.
It was '69 wasn't it?
Digger: So it just
missed the colour thing didn't it?
Peter: It was just on
the cusp of black and white to colour.
Digger: It was very
Peter: It was moody and
the whole principle behind doing it was that it dealt with violence
in a very real way rather than the way that violence was dealt with
in programmes like The Saint where someone got hit with a chair that
broke on their back and they managed to get up and carry on walking.
Digger: I suppose colour
would have been dodgy for Hog because if it had been shown in colour
you would have had the dilemma of whether to show blood.
Peter: Exactly. Absolutely.
But what they aimed to do was to show violence that hurt. And that,
of course, caused an absolute furore and it was talked about in the
Houses of Parliament and I was on the front of all the national
newspapers. They kept switching it around in the schedules so that
it went on later and later and later because they thought it was
going to incite the youth of Britain to some kind of violence. Which
I don't think it did. But the short answer is, it wasn't a
hindrance. Quite the reverse, it was a great opportunity and I really enjoyed
Digger: 'Hog' followed on
from Cold Comfort Farm which was also rather controversial.
Peter: I did Cold Comfort Farm in the
same year as I did Hog, and that was the first colour programme that
was produced for BBC2.
Digger: Because when I spoke to Liza
Goddard she said that Take Three Girls was the first drama recorded
Peter: Yes, it may well have been.
Digger: Do you
enjoy these naughty/baddy roles more?
Peter: I enjoy anything
that's well written. Baddies are always good to play because you can
create your own kind of energy and logic with the part because a
baddy can do the most extraordinary things and you accept it because
they're a baddy. Whereas when your' playing a goody, you have to
tread a very fine line of being acceptable and warm to the audience,
if you know what I mean. Baddies are much easier and better to play
Digger: Have you ever
Peter: I've never done
pantomimes. I've been asked to do Captain Hook. In fact I wouldn't
mind doing Captain Hook now. Pantomime has become much more popular
and, for want of a better word, more accepted in the profession now.
Probably because Ian McKellen did Aladdin at the Old Vic a few years
ago. I don't get asked to do pantomime and I think the general
feeling would be that I wouldn't be a panto type actor. But I'd be
up for Captain Hook. I don't know if I'd be any good at Dames or as
one of the ugly sisters. Maybe I could do Baron Hardup.
Digger: I can't see you
as a Dame. For you, what are
the differences and which do you prefer between comedy and drama
and TV and stage work? I probably know the answer now actually...
Peter: What's that?...
Digger: Well, as long as
Peter: Exactly, there's
no difference at all. If I were given an absolute choice as an actor
and they said "Okay, you can work for the rest of your life in
either film, TV or theatre", it would be a difficult choice between
film and theatre for me. Because both film and theatre are pure
medium and the thing that's wonderful about working on stage is that
there is a point where everything depends on the actor. And that's
the moment after rehearsals when you're playing in front of an
audience and you have the new partner, which is the audience. So
it's you, the play and the audience. And you, and not the director
then, after rehearsals, are very much in control of the life of that
play. As an actor, when filming, you are in control, but after filming
it's in the hands of the director. And TV is very plot-driven, so
it's a bastard medium really. People say why is it called a medium?
- well, because it's neither rare nor well done. Television is an
extraordinary medium isn't it? Because it's so powerful. But it has, I
think since the early nineties, exploded in so many directions and
lost its way. We did produce the finest television in the world and
now you have to struggle to find that heritage in modern day productions.
I'm very much engaged by Little Dorrit at the moment; I think that's
Digger: Lots of faces
Peter: Yes, lots of
faces and it's very well done, I think.
Digger: You have been
something of a heart-throb. How did you deal with this and how did
you deal with being recognised?
recognised is fine so long as the people who recognise you choose to
do it in a polite manner. So most of the time it's absolutely fabulous
and I'm very happy to be recognised because on the whole people are
polite and generally very appreciative. It's when you get someone
who wants to have a pop at you. In the rare occasion that happens
it's uncomfortable. I think any actor who says "I hate being
recognised" is not being very truthful. If you're not being recognised
it means nobody knows who you are. The important thing is that
people do know you.
Digger: I used to work
in the west end and my colleagues and I used to stroll around and
would see celebrities all the time and we played a game where we
awarded points, and sometimes deducted them, for people we'd seen.
Peter: You can make
yourself recognisable or you can make yourself anonymous and because
we have such an appetite for celebrity now people are determined to
be famous and recognised. Throughout my life as an actor one didn't
promote oneself in that way. It was just doing the job.
Digger: You earned your
Peter: Yes, I think
that was part of the deal. You worked and didn't get it just because
of fifteen minutes of fame. That's the way it is now so that's the
way it is. But I never had a problem with that and I'm perfectly
happy with being appreciatively recognised. And as far as being a
heart-throb is concerned, you never take it too seriously. You live
with yourself through all kinds of things and you see yourself in
the mirror in the morning, and whether you're in your twenties,
thirties, forties or fifties, you look at this person and say
"Who is that?" So I never took that seriously.
Digger: What did the
sixties and seventies mean to you?
Peter: The sixties
were just an extraordinary riot of 'anything can happen'. Optimism.
And because I was fifteen in 1961 and grew up from my mid-teens to
mid-twenties in the sixties...
Were you a mod?
No, I was never a mod. I was always a bit more arty. More King's
Road. Flairs and long jackets and platform shoes and big floppy
hats. A meld of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in appearance.
As an actor, I spent my life being pushed around by the parts I was
playing and they dictated my look. Some of the parts you played
wanted long hair, some short. I was being driven by that as well.
The sixties were just a wonderful intoxicating cocktail of
You lived it to the full and knew it was a special time?
It was a special time because I was at an age where I could enjoy
myself in every possible area. The seventies became slightly more
restrained and I think they were a bit grey.
They seemed a bit naff compared to the sixties because I grew up
in the seventies and the fashions and music weren't as cool.
I think they were a bit naff compared to the sixties, but then I
was getting into my late twenties and then thirty in '76 and was
with my wife. My life was becoming much more ordered then. If I
were to sum it up in images then the sixties would be intoxicating
chaos and the seventies would be order.
Digger: When you first saw
the scripts for Ever Decreasing Circles, what did you think?
Well, I accepted Ever Decreasing Circles without reading the
scripts. Because when I was approached to play the part of Paul I
was in New York. I had been in San Francisco for three months,
directing a play and my wife, Myra, our daughter Rebecca and I came back to New York
for a week on the way back. I got a call from my agent saying
Richard Briers, who I'd worked with before, was doing this new
series. And by the time they get the script to you in New York
you'll be back in England. We need a quick decision and they need
someone to play this character Paul. I asked them to describe the idea
of the series and they said it was Richard and Penny Wilton. Paul
was the next door neighbour in all of the episodes and he's going
to be the thorn-in-the-side of Richard's character, so he's going
to be a very heavily-featured character. I had huge admiration for
both Penny and Richard and accepted the scripts sight-unseen
basically. I said in principle "I'll do the job as it sounds like a
very exciting project" and, incidentally, it was Richard's wife Anne
who suggested me for the part of Paul. When Richard and I did Arms
And The Man, the Bernard Shaw play about five years earlier, I got
to know them as a family and so she cast me in that. Which was pretty
wonderful. So I didn't read the scripts until I returned and
started rehearsals and when I did I just laughed at them and thought
they were hugely funny and that Esmonde and Larbey , who were the
classic comedy writers at the time were so clever. They wrote The
Good Life and Please Sir! and I think they were superb writers.
Sadly, John Esmonde died this year and he was the dark side of the
partnerships. Bob Larbey was the rather romantic side and so they
had great balance and they got wonderful qualities of dark and
light into the scripts.
Because there was that romantic thing between 'you' and the Penny
character as well.
Indeed, yes. It was very gossamer-thin stuff, it was never
in Ever Decreasing Circles, Penelope Wilton and Richard Briers
and Richard at a recent event
And it was a happy cast?
It was just fantastic. We only did four series and one 'special' and
we worked on it between 1983 and 1989 - God, so long ago since we
finished it, and during that period of time whenever we were
working on the series all we ever did was laugh. I have to say
that's a great tribute to working with someone like Richard who
was, of course, the main star of the series. He is such a
marvellous person to work with.
By the time it had finished you and Penny had earned your sitcom
spurs as well.
It certainly put me, as an actor, in a very interesting place.
Even though up until that point I'd played Oscar Wilde and the
Prince Regent and Big Breadwinner Hog - a whole variety of stuff.
But strangely enough it coincided with the time when I had been
speaking with my agent and saying that I'd like to do some comedy
on TV. Because up until then I had done either modern villains, or
lords and Kings.
And Queens, absolutely! I'm very versatile. So it was wonderful
doing that, because it really put me into the commercial centre of
this profession and made me, sort of, bankable.
I loved that series and I can remember the opening credits and
being full of anticipation because I knew it was going to be a
great half hour.
I know. Ricky Gervais was quoted as saying that it was his
favourite comedy series at the time. So that's a nice recommendation.
Digger: Who would be at
your ideal dinner party of guests, living or dead, real or
fictional? And why?
Peter: That's hard.
That's really impossible. There'd be loads of people that I'd like
to ask 'big questions of'. It would become rather pretentious of
me to group them together.
Digger: Can you tell us
about your latest appearances and what you have lined-up for 2009?
Peter: I'm about to
start rehearsing in January for A Song At Twilight which was Noel
Coward's last play.
We're not going to see you on telly for a while then?
No, not unless it's a repeat.
stills from Big Breadwinner Hog
Digger: Please describe
yourself in a sentence.
Tall actor, up for a laugh.
Would other people describe you like that?
I don't know how other people would describe me... How do people
Pompous and pedantic, I should imagine! I'd describe myself as a cynical optimist.
To be an actor you have to be a neurotic optimist. I'm not now but
I was when I was younger. These days I always believe that something will
It's a difficult gig being an actor. You have to be a salesman
Yes, you're selling yourself all of the time. It is a hard
Some people I've spoken to have gone to auditions and it really
was a cattle market.
I have been lucky enough to miss all that stuff in my life. I've
been, for want of a better word, successful in my life since my
early twenties and the fact that I did Big Breadwinner Hog I've
had thirty years plus of just wonderful success.
And now you can choose what you want to do.
I can choose within a limited kind of shop window. I mean, I turn
down more work than I do. And the work that I do is for specific
reasons. At the moment that's how good the scripts are and whether
on tour or in the west end or the National Theatre it has to be
Digger: What makes you
laugh, what make you sad, what makes you angry and what makes
Peter: What makes
me laugh is genuine, generous, heartfelt good humour and not
bitter, heartless humour. What makes me sad is cruelty of all
kinds. What makes me angry is lies and betrayal. What makes me
hopeful is my Grandson Oliver.
Lisa Goddard said that as well. I don't mean she said your
Grandson Oliver (laughs) - she said her grandchildren.
Ahhh! Interesting, what we're saying is youth ...
Passing the baton?
Digger: What has been your
biggest achievement and what would you still like to accomplish?
Peter: Having had
the luck to succeed in the profession of my choice. To accomplish?
- I think to
carry on working and to have a good time.
Digger: 80 is the new 60?
Peter: If I live to be 80 I'll
be very happy.
Digger: You have appeared
in a diverse number of TV and stage productions. What were your
of my favourite roles was A Perfect Spy, the John Le Carré where
I played Magnus Pym. I really enjoyed doing that. It was directed
by Peter Smith and is a superb spy series. I did it twenty years
Well, that's all the questions Peter. I'm looking forward to
seeing you in the Noel Coward in March.
Well if you let me know before the show when you're coming along
we can have a cup of tea and a chat.
Look forward to it. Thanks Peter.
Thank you. Bye.
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Peter Egan interview. December 2008.
Many thanks to Peter and Rosemary for their kindness and
help with this interview.
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