Reece Dinsdale has spent three decades in the acting business but, as he tells Phil Penfold, playing Alan Bennett may be his most challenging role to date.
If Reece Dinsdale has a motto, you get the sense that it is “que sera, sera”.
After more than 30 years as a professional actor he has done just about everything – straight drama, television soap, a hugely successful sitcom, light material, darker plays, you name it. He writes, and he directs. He also loves a challenge and they don’t get much bigger than appearing centre stage playing a man who is regarded as a national treasure.
Reece is just about to open at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Untold Stories as Alan Bennett and admits it “has been a mountain to climb”. The first half of the play – a deeply autobiographical piece in which Bennett reflects on his early life – is a monologue with an accompaniment of a live string quartet. It is only in the second section that other actors are introduced.
“That always gives you the ‘ping-pong effect’,” says Reece. “There are others with whom you bounce the dialogue. Learning it all, well, let’s say that it is a massive piece for me, in which Alan talks about his love of music, and churches…..beautifully written, of course.”
Dinsdale was once a stalwart of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and was in the very first show when the new Quarry Hill building opened – a revival of John O’Keeffe’s Wild Oats, in 1990. That was followed by Playboy of the Western World and then The Revenger’s Tragedy, and then there was a change to the artistic team, and it wasn’t until 2000 that Reece returned with Visiting Mr Green. Now he’s back again, joking that “14 years is quite a long time to wait for a return booking”.
Reece was due at the theatre later this year, but when the Playhouse’s new artistic director, James Brining, saw him at the National Theatre last year, he decided that he’d be ideal as Bennett. Interestingly, going back a few years, it was Bennett himself who saw the young Dinsdale in a production at the Royal Court and wrote a role for him in the film A Private Function.
“I shall never forget the first day that I went into the rehearsal room. I was surrounded by all sorts of big ‘names’ and familiar faces – Maggie Smith, Michael Palin, Denholm Elliott – and Alan came straight across, made a beeline to me, and he introduced me to all the stars. It was an extraordinarily generous gesture, and I was very grateful to him. He’d often turn up on the set, just to keep an eye on what was going on, and Jim Carter, who was playing the police inspector, christened him ‘Continuity Giggles’, because he was always gurgling with laughter.
“I don’t think that I’ve seen him again for the last 30 years and I’m wondering if he’ll come to see this production. I’d really rather not know if he actually was in the audience. That could be a bit disconcerting.”
Reece was born and raised in Normanton, to a distinctly non-theatrical family, but can trace the moment when the acting bug bit back to an appearance at about the age of 12, in a school play, a version of Tom Sawyer.
“I must have loved all the attention…from then on, I knew what I wanted to be. A few years later, I was applying to all the London drama schools, and had a few offers. I believe that mum and dad thought that I must be doing something that worked, and I know that they felt that if I was happy doing it, then that was good enough for them. They have been – and are – extraordinarily supportive, every step of the way, but I sense that, in the early years, they thought that I’d ‘grow out of it’. They were, bless them, completely wrong.”
Emerging from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1980, Reece started picking up key roles in solid productions and, only three years later he was in the West End, opposite Peter Ustinov in Beethoven’s Tenth. A couple of years later, when he was just 25, his agent suggested that he might like to have a look at a script that had been sent to him by Yorkshire TV. The part was a 17-year-old lad forced to live with his dad after being thrown out by his mother. Home to Roost, also starring John Thaw, ran for four ratings-topping seasons.
“Part of me wishes that I hadn’t done it, because I was building a decent reputation for doing the more ‘serious’ pieces. I was 25, but I looked 17 and the clincher for me was that my dad was played by John Thaw, who was so familiar from shows like The Sweeney.
“I’d never done comedy before, and here was the opportunity – it was another string to my bow. Did it do my career any damage? I really don’t know – maybe some people thought that I was going a bit ‘lightweight’, but on the other side, it did raise my profile. A lot. And the cherry on the cake was working with John, because we seemed to get the chemistry right, and we bounced off each other. He also gave me a lot of advice. One of the things that he said, I recall, was ‘Always keep ‘em guessing’. In other words, just when you are expected to do A, give them F instead...”
That was probably why he went to Manchester in 2008 and to Coronation Street, where he played Joe McIntyre.
“They wanted me to do two years, I wanted a one year contract, we compromised on 18 months,” he laughs, “and in the end, Joe was written out in a storyline about an insurance scam in which he tried to fake his own death, but then he drowned in a boating accident. End of Joe”.
ITV had offered him more money to stay on, but Reece turned it down.
These days, he is recognised when he’s out and about for three things – Home to Roost, Corrie, and a powerful film called ID, in which he played an undercover policeman investigating football hooliganism in Yorkshire.
“That film has a bit of a cult following,” he admits, “and I still get chunks of dialogue spouted at me in the street, which is a bit disconcerting at times. I was having a bit of a moan about it, not so long ago, and Zara (his wife, the actress Zara Turner) just turned and said ‘Look, at least you’re recognised, and for three things. A lot of actors don’t even get recognised for one – or ever’ which kind of put it all into perspective.”
The couple, who have two children, Elwy, 13, and Luca, who will be 10 in a couple of weeks, have just moved into their new home in Harrogate after living in the nearby countryside.
“It’s a house built in the late 20s, early 30s, and while we’ve kept loyal to that lovely period feel outside, inside we’ve made it totally up to date, and we’ve gutted it from top to bottom. Since you ask, no, it hasn’t been me doing all the work, I’ve been, well, I suppose I could call myself the ‘project manager’, if you like. Anyway, Luca has been so fascinated by it all that he came to Zara and me the other day, and announced that he might like to be an architect. Good luck to him, if that actually comes to pass – at least he’ll earn a darn sight more than his dad ever did!”
Luca, it appears, was recently in the spotlight when his dad took him to watch Huddersfield Town – Reece is a season ticket holder and passionately devoted to the team – play Barnsley.
“He was the mascot for the match. Normally we just go into the stands like everyone else, but this time we were asked into the director’s box. Very nice indeed. And even nicer that Huddersfield managed to thrash the other lot five-nil. Sweet. At the final whistle, I heard the MD shouting down at me, ‘Reece, can your lad be mascot every week from now on?’ which made me so proud. You will mention Huddersfield in the interview, won’t you? I shall get real stick if you don’t.”
He’s taken playing Bennett as seriously as he takes this football and was, he admits, wary of caricature.
“The audience will see me, an actor playing him, but they have to see that it is Alan, reminiscing in the way that only he can. I love the research and the preparation – luxuries that no soap ever gives you, so I admire the way that they have to get on set in character at 8.30am, and turn on the big emotions. I have him on in the car all the time, and at home I sneak away into the back bedroom and go through the lines. It’s got to the point where the kids are saying ‘Daddy, please don’t be Alan Bennett tonight, just be you, please!’”
It seems that Reece Dinsdale is one of those rare actors who can give us a fine account of Dr Wengel in Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea one minute, a moving account of Walter Harrison, the Dewsbury MP (in This House at the National) and Alan Bennett the next, with stints in series like Spooks, Taggart and The Chase mingled in between.
“It’s been a very varied career,” he says quietly, “and I’m very proud of it, truth be told. There are no regrets. I’m very lucky, I’m still passionate about what I do and never, in all my years as an actor, have I ever woken up and thought ‘Oh, b***** it, I’ve got to go to work today’. Not once. I’m 54 now, and I hope that I’ll be still working away at 94.” There’s a slight pause, and then: “God, and casting directors, willing.”
Untold Stories, West Yorkshire Playhouse, June 2 to 21. 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.co.uk