The Year of the King by Antony Sher is perhaps the greatest example of an actor keeping a diary of the challenge of taking on a role in the theatre.
Sher, cast as King Richard III, recorded the efforts of playing the part at the RSC in 1984 in a diary, later publishing it.
While Major Metcalf in The Mousetrap might not pose the same mountain to climb as far as roles go, in terms of British theatrical history, it is an important part of the canon. When he was offered the part in the West End production, Yorkshire-born actor William Ilkley, known round these parts as “Bill Ilkley”, decided he would keep his own record.
“I was talking to my wife about it and said ‘should I keep a diary as a permanent record?’. She thought it was a good idea, but then the reality of sitting and writing something every day for a year hit me’,” says Ilkley. “One of us came up with the idea of a photographic journal. The contract was for 328 days, so I thought it was perfect – I could take a photograph every day and call it My Year in The Mousetrap.”
This being 2015, the obvious place for Ilkley to share his record was social media. For him, that meant Facebook.
“I started to post the photos every day and people loved seeing them – they seemed to particularly enjoy anything to do with backstage, what we do with our down time, pictures offstage and in the wings..”
Yorkshire audiences will recognise Ilkley from his many roles on stages here, from one of the eponymous Bouncers in Godber’s masterpiece to roles in Coronation Street and even Doctor Who. He’s been an actor for a while and has, during his career, ventured south to take roles in the West End, but the role of Major Metcalf is his first long stint in one of the world’s most famous theatrical neighbourhoods.
“Our kids have reached the age where we are much more free to do what we want. Three have left home, the youngest is at uni. I’ve thought about going into the West End before, but I’d said no because I didn’t want to be away for a year when the kids were at home. So I had a chat with my agent, one of these where we discuss what I wanted to do next and I just said that I’d like to maybe do a year in the West End at this point in my career,” says Ilkley. “I had a list of shows that I wanted to do and that had roles I thought would suit me – War Horse, Curious Incident, 39 Steps. I thought that Mousetrap would be perfect.”
Any actors reading this might want to skip a couple of paragraphs. Within two weeks he was called to The Mousetrap production office for a chat – they were looking to change the cast, as they do periodically – and a week later he was offered the part of Major Metcalf.
“It was a bit of a fluke with the timing and everything.”
Like all actors, Ilkley had often dreamed of landing such a role, but to him, the notion of a career has always been more important than simply landing the next job. “I’ve been working since 1980, this is my 35th year. I hope to keep working and to have been cast in The Mousetrap means that I am doing something, after 35 years, that I’ve never done before, which is really wonderful. I’m 57 now and hopefully there will always be parts for older people in TV, theatre, film. Hopefully it’s just going to get more exciting. And maybe less competitive.”
And how about those other perks involved with being in The Mousetrap? There are plenty.
“For a start, you’re given membership to The Ivy for a year (the famous London haunt opposite the theatre where The Mousetrap plays) and membership to The Century Club (another Shaftesbury Avenue celebrity haunt),” says Ilkley. “You end up in The Ivy at least once a week – with the membership you get 50 per cent off all food, so I was having the shepherd’s pie for less than a tenner. It costs me more than that in my local pub back home.
“Then there’s the fact that you walk out of the theatre and you are right there, slap bang in the West End. It’s what you dream about when you’re starting out. You start to feel like a real part of a West End family, seeing other people’s shows on a matinee and when you get a day off.
“I haven’t found a downside to the job yet.”
Which is presumably why, after 328 days and 328 photographs, when he was asked to continue playing Major Metcalf on the national tour, he didn’t hesitate too long? “Much as I loved the West End, I think that turning up at the same theatre, day in and day out for two years, might get a bit much, but the tour is a different prospect. We’re on the road, visiting beautiful theatres,” he says. “Sometimes on tour you can be playing to two men and a dog on a rainy afternoon and when you arrive at a venue the first thing you want to know is how the ticket sales are going. With this show, we don’t need to ask.”
Based on Agatha Christie’s radio play Three Blind Mice, it opened on October 6, 1952. A whodunnit, with a group of strangers gathering in a country house before being cut off by the snow, it is a classic story with a denouement that the actors ask the audience not to divulge. It has broken every audience record you could dream up and continues to play at St Martin’s Theatre to this day. And if you want to have a look behind the scenes, Ilkley’s photographs are a great place to start. He isn’t, however, photographing the show on tour. “No. Well. I’m doing one of all the venues that we go to. But one a year every day was enough. For now.”
• The Mousetrap comes to Bradford Alhambra, July 27 - August 1.