“I love the mentality behind it,” Ben Batt tells me. He could be talking about his searing portrayal of Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire at Manchester Royal Exchange. Or ruminating on his lauded performance as Ted Burgess in last year’s TV version of The Go-Between. Maybe he’s reflecting on his role in the upcoming BBC drama In The Dark. He’s not, though. Batt is discussing the merits of the Wigan Kebab.
“A pie in a barm – it’s so easy to eat! I love the mentality behind it. Wiganers love their pies so much that they’re like ‘how can I make this even easier?’ It’s fantastic. I have a friend who comes from Wimbledon and I introduced him to scraps, pea wet and the Wigan Kebab.”
If you’ve missed out on this Northern delicacy, fear not. You can read all about it on Northern Soul – which is how Wigan-born actor Batt and I came to be talking about it in the first place. As for scraps and pea wet, well, I’ll leave Google to help you out there.
That’s the lovely thing about Batt; he’s as happy chatting about pies as he is about Tennessee Williams and L.P. Hartley. Over the years there have been countless jokes about Wiganers and their pie-eating proclivities (the phrase ‘pie-eater’ began as a term of abuse early in the 20th century), but Batt is determined to celebrate his heritage.
“I really am a proud Northerner,” he says. “I think me and Maxine [Peake] have that in common. I’m very close to where I come from. If you’re not careful, you can feel the pressure to pretend to be somebody that you’re not within the acting world. Some of it can be quite reverential and a bit serious. That was never the reason I got into it. I’ve always been a Wiganer and I will always be a Wiganer.”
If you’ve never heard Batt’s broad Northern brogue, a visit to Manchester Royal Exchange would leave you none the wiser. As Stanley, a man who inspires passion, loyalty, fear and revulsion in equal measure, Batt has nailed the inner city New Orleans accent. He prowls round the stage, all coiled tension and suspicion, perfectly attired in his wife-beater vest and bowling shirt. I interviewed Batt while he was deep in rehearsal and, having now seen the play, find it difficult to marry up the jovial and friendly actor from the sinister Stanley. I suspect Batt would be pleased to hear this.
“I’ve never played Stanley, we never read it at drama school,” he told me earlier this month. “But the minute you start reading it you realise how dark and dense and layered and multi-faceted it is. I don’t want to sound like a typical actor but you do get to that stage where you’re exhausted and you hope something magical is going to happen and it’s all going to come together. As I say it’s a very dark play but we are enjoying it and trying to have to fun with it as well.”
When I spoke to Maxine Peake about the play (she is playing Blanche DuBois opposite Batt’s Stanley), she admitted that she’d previously turned the part down, intimidated by the complexity of the role and its demands on the actor. I wonder if Batt was anxious about saying yes, not least because he has such big boots to fill (I’m thinking about Marlon Brando in particular).
“It’s really hard. I think this is the most nervous I’ve been before any job. Me and Maxine were talking about it. But we have been friends for years so that’s nice, that working relationship with someone you totally trust. That’s really important because obviously on stage it’s a sparring match, they are constantly going at each other. You can trust each other so you can be a bit braver with each other.”
He adds: “But it is daunting. The film is very, very popular. Marlon Brando made it his own and took real ownership of Stanley. Whether you want to or you don’t, or whether you’re an audience member or somebody who’s part of the play, it is there in the back of your mind. But Sarah Frankcom the director has been very, very good at saying that so many actors have played it, not just Marlon Brando, that you remember that. And just as fast as you remember it, you’ve got to let it go. You can only do it the way that you can do it.
“It’s kind of liberating in a way because there’s not an awful lot of his back story. We don’t find out where he comes from, we don’t know about his relationship with his parents, we don’t really know much about where he grew up. It’s alluded to and we get a general sense of it but, of all the characters in the play, Stanley is the one who is left most up to the actor’s interpretation. I’m not consciously trying to do anything very different. You get to the point where, because it is so open, you can add your own little thing to it.”
And what of the Royal Exchange’s interpretation of Streetcar? Since its premiere back in 1947, Williams’s masterpiece has seen a myriad of stagings, not least productions that have stayed faithful to the 1940s setting.
Batt says: “You’ve got to make it relevant, you know what I mean? It can easily be done as a museum piece and you can definitely still set it in the period and be very true to exactly what it says in the text. But I think the reason that Tennessee Williams was such a genius is because this play can be looked at a thousand different ways. I’ve tried playing Stanley every which way in rehearsals and some have been absolutely terrible and some have been not too bad. But so long as you’re honest with it, and you believe what you’re doing and you find a reason for doing what you’re doing you can try it any different way. There have been people in the past who have focused on his vulnerability and his insecurity. Some people have focused on his anger and his violent nature. All those things are there.
“He’s a lot more complex than he initially appears to be. That it can be quite daunting, looking at it and thinking, ‘how am I going to incorporate this violence and his actions in the play, how I am going to give a reason for that’ because he does feel threatened all the time and he feels that he is constantly picked at. His whole position in life is constantly questioned by this woman he thinks is a liar and doesn’t believe in what she stands for. It’s trying to find that right balance.
“I read an article towards the beginning of rehearsals that they find it quite difficult to cast Stanley and many actors do turn it down. If I knew more about it I probably would have done the same thing,” he adds with a wry chuckle.
A Streetcar Named Desire is only Batt’s fifth theatre show. But it feels like he’s been around for a lot longer than that might suggest thanks to his multiple TV and film roles. He first came to prominence as Joe Pritchard in Channel 4’s Shameless (he met his partner, Rebecca Atkinson, on the show) and has since appeared in From Darkness, Scott & Bailey, The Village, From There to Here, Captain America: The First Avenger, Lewis, Wire in the Blood….I could go on.
“When I left drama school I spent a lot of time doing TV and then I did As You Like It here at the Exchange which was my first professional play. That was an eye-opener. I really chucked myself into the deep end there. As you grow older, not just as an actor but a person, you get a little bit wiser hopefully and you get more experience. That as my first experience was brilliant. But I look back on it now and I cringe sometimes when I think to myself ‘oh god, what was I doing in the rehearsal process?’. Then I got back into the TV and film thing and then I went to the Donmar in London.”
Last year, he appeared in the first theatre production at Manchester’s new £25 million arts centre, HOME, in Simon Stephens‘ The Funfair. “It was lovely to open HOME. I think Manchester really is now, and I know a lot of people say this, but I think it really is becoming such a cultural place. I talk to actors down South and they all want to work in Manchester.”
I suspect there’s a fair few actors who would like to work with Batt, too, not least after his scene-stealing performance in The Go-Between on BBC One last year. At the time, The Telegraph dubbed Batt ‘the man about to out-buff Poldark’, a reference to his prowess with a scythe and a charming propensity to take his clothes off. If you were unfortunate enough to miss it, here’s how the BBC website described Batt’s character Ted Burgess: ‘Ted is a virile and robust tenant farmer whose gruff exterior and physical prowess belies a sensitive soul, and impresses young Leo. Proud and intelligent, he is socially inferior to Marian with whom he is passionately in love, and he finds himself in a tragic struggle between what the heart wants and society will allow.’
In the past, Batt has talked of his unease at being described as a ‘heartthrob’. Now aged 30, it’s clear that he is still uncomfortable with the label.
“I was so grateful of the opportunity on The Go-Between because I felt like I was sort of – and don’t get me wrong because like I said I’m very proud of where I come from and I like that side of my personality – but I kind of got in to a pattern of doing very similar roles. To be given the opportunity to do a period drama which I’d never ever done, playing a Southerner, was brilliant. But it’s not really for me to comment on [the heartthrob status] as I don’t really know what I feel about it, I’m still trying to work out, We live in a world now where everything gets hyper-sexualised. Women have always had it. I really wouldn’t want to be a woman under that kind of pressure, I think it’s terrible. But I think men are now coming towards it. We’re expected to look a certain way if we’re a certain age playing certain parts.
“During the making of The Go-Between, I didn’t really think about it. We just did this scene where I was swimming naked in a river. That’s what it said in the script so I was like ‘fine, fine, swim naked in the river because that’s what happens’. Obviously once the publicity started, it was really, really odd. I was just more interested – and I really do mean this – I was just interested in it being a good show. It was a fantastic story.”
The Go-Between has opened doors for Batt. Most recently, he has finished filming a new BBC drama called In The Dark, co-starring MyAnna Buring (you’ll recognise her from Ripper Street, Downton Abbey and The Twilight Saga). The four-part detective series is written by BAFTA-winning writer Danny Brocklehurst and will be on our screens in 2017.
“That took five or six months at the beginning of the year. It’s an adaptation of two Mark Billingham novels. We filmed in some lovely locations in the Peak District and all round the North again which was really nice. But I’ve not spent an awful lot of time with my family. I’ve just had a baby boy. He was born three months ago. I’m in that very lucky position at the moment where, if nothing really, really right comes, I don’t need to go chasing everything. I think it’s very important to get a personal and professional life balance.”
And that’s where my chat with Ben Batt ends. In the words of Bridget Jones: ‘This has been Helen Nugent for Northern Soul with, let’s face it, a bit of a crush now, actually.’
By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul
A Streetcar Named Desire is at Manchester Royal Exchange until October 15, 2016. For more information, click here.
To read Northern Soul’s review of A Streetcar Named Desire, click here
To read our interview with Maxine Peake, click here