Interview - Philip Jackson: The other thing that happens to me is...

Two things happen to Philip Jackson fairly regularly. The first I see during our interview and the second, he tells me about.

While being interviewed over lunch, during a break from rehearsals for Death of a Salesman, Jackson spots an actor wandering around the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

"I think that's Tom over there," he says.

It is, Tom Courtenay, the Hull-born actor who played Billy Liar and starred in the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

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A few minutes later Courtenay walks past and Jackson jumps up to say hello.

When he returns he says: "I worked with him a long time ago. It was in the Seventies, we were in the Mystery Plays together for television and he played Jesus. I remember they used something called colour separation overlay, which is what you'd call blue screen today."

Bumping into people from his past happens to Philip Jackson a lot. In a career which stretches from the early Seventies, it is probably easier to list the things he hasn't done, than the ones

he has.

During a prolific television career, Jackson has appeared in shows including Midsomer Murders, Harley Street, Fanny Hill, A Touch of Frost.

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He has also appeared in the films Brassed Off and Little Voice.

His most recognisable role is Inspector Japp in the television series Poirot, alongside David Suchet in the title role.

This wide-ranging, long and eclectic career gives rise to the other thing that happens to Jackson. Although his name is not instantly recognised, his face is.

"I have a story about that," says Jackson, an unfailingly friendly sort of chap. Old school would be the appropriate word.

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"I was once in a little bar in the Lake District having lunch with some friends. It was a quiet little bar and there were a few old ladies sitting in a group having lunch.

"After a while one of them came up to my table and said 'I'm sorry to interrupt, but my friend and I think you're an actor and we've seen you in something on television'.

"I said that was probably true and she asked me what I had been in.

"I said something, she went 'no'. I said another thing she went 'no'. I said another thing and she said 'no, that's not it either'.

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"She then asked me what my name was, I said 'Philip Jackson' she thought for a moment and said 'no'.

"I thought, 'you started this what do you want, leave me alone. What do you want me to do?'"

It's what is called an occupational hazard when your career has been as eclectic and has the longevity of Jackson's.

"I suppose it's different from a lot of people who come up to me and say in that elegant way: 'What you off?'

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"It's very refreshing now and then when someone comes up and says they saw me in some very obscure TV thing in 1982."

One person who knew all about Jackson was Sarah Esdaile, and, when she was looking to cast Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, she knew exactly where to go.

The play, one of the greatest in American theatre, opens today at the Playhouse with Jackson taking on the lead as Willy Loman, one of the biggest roles in theatre.

When Esdaile was casting for the play, Jackson was her first choice. She told him he was the only actor she could think of to play both the cruel, nasty and sadistic side of Loman and his vulnerability.

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"I met Sarah in a coffee shop in London and the first question I asked was 'who's turned it down?' And I didn't just mean one person, I wanted to hear the whole list.

"When she told me that nobody had turned it down, my next question was 'why me?'"

When Esdaile explained the qualities she spotted in Jackson that she wanted him to bring to the role, he says he thought it was a good answer, which is why he is now in Leeds preparing to take to the stage with the role.

Taking on a part so significant and one which is literally so big – Loman is hardly off stage during the play and is the absolute centre of the drama – was, Jackson says, a terrifying, but also exciting, prospect.

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"It was like when Beckford scored that goal against Manchester United and knocked them out of the cup," says Jackson, a lifelong Leeds fan.

"You don't very often feel like that, where you think 'that's fantastic to be offered that'. It doesn't happen as you get older."

Not only is this Jackson's biggest role in some time, it is also a return to the stage, having not acted in theatre for over seven years: "An economic decision. I've got expensive children, including a daughter, Amy, at Leeds University."

Having lived with Loman since before Christmas – because the part is so

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big, Jackson has been learning it over the past few months – how does it feel to be finally getting it underway.?

"I can't really think about it too much, or the prospect becomes just too scary," he says.

Willy Loman clearly won't be just another addition to an ever-growing CV.

Death of a Salesman, West Yorkshire Playhouse, to May 29.