Like many people, I spent my teenage years crushing on various people off the telly. Michael J Fox was pretty high up on the snogging wish list, as was Marti Pellow and, er, Bergerac. Also on that list was John McArdle, a.k.a. Billy Corkhill from Brookside. Yes, he was old enough to be my dad but I didn’t let that small detail put me off. Some 25 years later and I’ve still got a soft spot for the silver fox.
So it was with no small degree of nerves that I picked up the phone recently to chat to McArdle. He is currently on tour in the stage production of Brassed Off, a York Theatre Royal adaptation of the popular 1996 film about the troubles of a colliery brass band following the closure of their pit. McArdle takes on the role of the passionate band conductor, Danny Ormondroyd, played in the film by the late Pete Postlethwaite.
Of course, McArdle is no stranger to the theatre. In addition to his extensive television work, he is an admired stage actor and a patron of Bolton Octagon where the show lands at the end of this week.
So, what was is it like portraying such a well-loved character from a film loved by many?
“It’s an honour to play this part,” McArdle tells a slightly flustered Northern Soul editor. “I knew Pete as an acquaintance and I respected him. To play something that he made his own [is a bit daunting but] I’ve got to put my own interpretation on it.”
Part of the appeal of a theatre version of Brassed Off is the decision to have a local brass band on stage every night. At Bolton, Blackburn and Darwen Band, Eagley Band and Wingates Band will join the cast on a rotating schedule. It’s worth remembering that Brassed Off is based on a true story. According to the promotional material for the play, it’s “a comedy drama that celebrates the power of music and the capacity of the human spirit to inspire a community to triumph against all the odds”.
“Brassed Off is a never-ending story of people’s lives ruined by politics,” says McArdle. “It happens all the time. This is a story about communities, about people. The brass band keeps them together. A lot of brass bands have been going for 100 years or more.
“Danny is interested in his band, he blocks all politics out of his mind. But he realises in the end that there are more important things in life than the band.”
As for McArdle, he moved back into theatre after spending 12 years on the telly box without a break. “I was satisfied doing TV, it meant I wasn’t away from home as much. But I missed theatre. It’s where I started my craft. I started at the Everyman [in Liverpool] and was then in London. When I got work in the North West I decided to stay up North. It was the best thing I ever did.”
McArdle made his name nationally as Billy Corkhill in Channel 4’s long-running soap, Brookside. Even though he only spent five years in the role (1985-90), he is remembered for the part.
“It was great to be in such a gritty drama-based soap that had humour,” reflects McArdle. “We were one big family. I looked forward to going into work. We had good writers and a really good team. A lot of good actors and technicians have gone on to do things after the show.
“Brookside changed my career. Brookside was respected within the business. There was no chance of being typecast. In fact, the opposite was true. But I do still get recognised as Billy from as far afield as the Highlands and Cornwall. And I do appreciate that – even though I left in 1990!”
Over the years, McArdle has worked with many of his screen heroes, including Helen Mirren in the crime drama Prime Suspect. “I’m so grateful to them for how they trained me in front of the camera.”
However, if like many former soap stars you’re expecting to see McArdle treading the panto boards, think again: “I can’t do panto because I don’t like working at Christmas,” he says.
On that note, McArdle bids Northern Soul a fond farewell. And Northern Soul goes for a lie-down.
Where: Bolton Octagon
When: until June 14, 2014
More info: https://octagonbolton.co.uk/brassed-off
To read Northern Soul’s interview with York Theatre Royal’s artistic director click here
To read Northern Soul’s interview with Mark Herman, writer and director of the Brassed Off film click here