10 Questions with… Tim Plester

Tim Plester is a British actor, playwright and film-maker from Adderbury, Oxfordshire, best known for the award-winning documentary Way of the Morris and a huge variety of film and TV roles.

Sophie – Way of The Morris – a documentary film you directed with Rob Curry is a charming ode to one of the oldest of English folklores – Morris Dancing. It traces your roots from the local village of Adderbury to the fields of The Somme; documenting its origins and paying tribute to the men of the art. Although you come from a family line of Morris dancers yourself, what was it that led you to make this film? And was it your intention to change our perception of this lost tradition?

Tim – Challenging people’s perceptions was definitely part of our mission statement for sure. Having grown up the reluctant son of a Morris-man, I’d long been aware of the fact that Adderbury’s dormant dancing traditions had been revived during the heady days of the 1970’s folk revival. What I’d never known until about 9 years ago, was the poignant reason for them having died out in the first place; a generation of young Adderbury Morris-men had gone off to fight amidst the muck and mire of WWI, and only one of them returned. The Morris, I discovered, had very literally died-out. And that revelation fundamentally changed things for me. Mine and Rob’s initial idea had been to simply follow the current team as they visited the final resting places of their fallen brethren in Northern France. By making that pilgrimage, they were attempting to repair a severed link in the dancing heritage of their village. My village. A heritage I’d spent the greater part of my life running headlong away from. It dawned on me quickly and somewhat inescapably, that I was a part of this story, and that this story was in turn a part of me. An essential part of both my birthright and my legacy. And so the film evolved into something not only more personal, but something hopefully much more universal at the same time. A film not just about knotted handkerchiefs and latten-bells and bull’s pizzles on the end of wooden staves, but a much bigger and richer story about what it means to be English, and male, and about what it means to seek a meaningful connection with one’s ancestry. All underpinned, of course, by the recurrent motifs of circles and cycles and death and rebirth.

Sophie – What projects are you currently working on?

Tim – As a direct result of WAY OF THE MORRIS’ success, myself and Rob Curry have found ourselves working together again on a new film entitled THE BALLAD OF SHIRLEY COLLINS – a documentary inspired by the life and career of the iconic English folk musician Shirley Collins. Shirley was a hugely important figure in the folk revival of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, but following the break-up of her second marriage she developed a neurological condition known as dysphonia and was forced to stop singing entirely. She remained silent for over three decades, but recently starting performing live again, and after celebrating her 80th birthday earlier this year, is currently recording a new album for release in 2016. We raised the initial financing for the film through an on-line Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign (helped in no small measure by some ringing endorsements from the likes of comedian Stewart Lee, visionary comic-book writer Alan Moore and the Blur guitarist Graham Coxon), and have been filming in a piecemeal fashion as-and-when further donations allow. Shirley, interestingly enough, just so happened to perform in Adderbury on the very first day of dance back in 1975 – as a member of an acoustic folk act called The Etchingham Steam Band.

Sophie – There’s too many TV programmes to list of which you’ve had acting credits – including the likes of Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Hustle, Silent Witness and Life on Mars. Are there any particular roles that you’ve enjoyed more than others?

Tim – One recent show that I have particularly fond memories of, is a daytime BBC TV series called WPC 56 – filmed in-and-around Birmingham and Dudley and set during the 1950’s. In it I played the role of Linus Brody; a loveable but witless small-time crook and police informant. Brody was initially described to me as having been inspired by the character of Huggy Bear from the cult American cop show STARSKY AND HUTCH. It thus became my unique challenge to try and replace the jive-talking and the Seventies New York swagger with a thick Black Country accent and a faintly dubious spiv’s moustache.

Sophie – In your opinion, do you think that acting in a film and acting on a TV show are very different?

Tim – In my experience, it depends very much on the project in question and the kind of budgets involved. For many years, TV was viewed as cinema’s poorer and slightly malnourished cousin, but that’s simply not the case anymore. Particularly across The Pond in North America. Plus, there are also more low-budget independent feature films being made than ever before, and so that helps to jumble the lines still further. In general, you tend to get more time on a film set than you do when making a TV show, but that’s not always the case. So whilst I’ve worked on TV shows where you’re lucky if you get a chance to do more than one take and you have to buy your own lunch in the staff canteen, I’ve also worked on films where you don’t have a script and the director’s spouse is stuck doing the catering. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the food really.

Sophie – Have you ever found yourself acting the role of someone who is very close to your own self? Or do you relish in being able to jump into roles that are much more far-fetched from reality?

Tim – There’s certainly a “Mr. Benn” element to acting that I still get a genuine thrill out of. By that I mean the element of the job which requires you to squeeze into different costumes and then step through a magic door into another world. I’ve ended-up playing my fair share of drug-addicts, pimps and computer geeks over the years, but on the whole I’ve been luckier than most in being able to avoid being particularly type-cast or pigeon-holed. I’ve played transvestites, jesters, morticians, anarchists, arsonists, galvanists and astro-physicists. I’ve spent time wearing slippers on spaceships and standing ankle-deep in cold wet medieval mud. And I’ve died some horrible deaths inside industrial-sized microwaves, haunted submarines and at least one tooth fairy’s castle. I know I wouldn’t be content being a regular on a soap-opera, for much the same reason that I’m not really attracted by the thought of doing a lengthy theatre run – it’s the variety that helps keep things interesting. Though I fully appreciate that in my line of work, one doesn’t always get to choose.

Sophie – Do you have an all-time favourite scene that you’ve either acted in /directed/produced? One that has always stayed with you?

Tim – Well, I made a trilogy of short comedy films (‘ANT MUZAK’, BLAKE’S JUNCTION 7 and WORLD OF WRESTLING) with a director friend of mine called Ben Gregor, and each one of those contains a number of my all-time favourite scenes. A kind of warm-hearted meditation on insomnia, our fast-paced consumer-culture and the supermassive gravitational pull of nostalgia, all three films take place during the middle of the night and were filmed, variously, in a 24-hour supermarket, a motorway service-station and onboard a moving double-decker bus. Each film was slightly more ambitious than the last, and each time we had battle-scarred producers who warned us that it couldn’t be done. That is shouldn’t even be attempted. But hey, we went ahead and did it anyway. Partly because we were younger back then and didn’t know any better, and partly because we’d managed to attract people of the calibre of Mackenzie Crook, Martin Freeman and Miranda Hart to the cast. ‘ANT MUZAK’ was the first thing I’d ever written specifically for the screen, having previously only written stageplays, so that film in particular continues to exert a unique and lingering hoodoo over me. Adam Ant once described ‘ANT MUZAK’ (in which the actor Nick Moran played a down-trodden version of him) as being; “piss funny.” I’ll gladly take that comment to the grave with me.

Sophie – Game of Thrones has been a hugely successful TV series over the last couple of years. What was it like working on the set of this? Did you enjoy being part the buzz that still seems to surround it?

Tim – Even though my character (Black Walder) only appeared in 2 episodes of the show’s third season, GAME OF THRONES is probably the thing I get asked about the most – due in no small part to the now infamous nature of one of the scenes I was involved in. Without giving too much away for people who may still be playing catch-up, there was a lavish wedding ceremony at which my character became embroiled in some particularly ill-mannered behavior. Which is putting it rather mildly shall we say. We filmed that notorious scene over in Belfast, on a large sound-stage inside a former shipbuilding hall where component parts of the ill-fated RMS Titanic were once put together. It took us a whole week to shoot, so we didn’t see much daylight, and my over-riding memory of it now is just how badly the set-dressed food (particularly the dead fish) had begun to stink by the end of the Friday afternoon. As you’d expect on such a phenomenally popular TV show, there’s a complicated veil of secrecy that surrounds any future storylines, and as an actor you’re never shown full shooting scripts – only the scenes which refer specifically to your role. And even then, some of the character names are occasionally changed on the scripts in order to try and further limit the chances of any leaks. So yes, when people ask me if Black Walder and his trusty blade will ever be making a re-appearance in the fictional realm of Westeros, all I’m (contractually) allowed to say is that he’s not dead yet, and so there’s always a chance… Although I think it’s fairly safe to assume that I won’t be getting invited to anymore weddings!

Sophie – Do you have a personal favourite actor or director that inspires you?

Tim – There’s a German-born director called Werner Herzog who I personally hold sacred above all others. His 2005 documentary GRIZZLY MAN was what first brought him to my attention, but he’s been busy concocting a slate of illuminating and genre-blurring work for over 40 years now. Possessed of probably the most idiosyncratic sense of humour since Morrissey, Werner also works as an actor occasionally, and anyone even remotely interested in the process of filmmaking should do themselves a favour and check out his books A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED and CONQUEST OF THE USELESS.

Sophie – Have you always wanted to be an actor? What made you want to get into the field?

Tim – I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t want to be an actor, but the thing that really cemented things for me was my involvement in a local amateur production of LARK RISE when I was about 10 or 11 years old. And I’m talking here about the homespun stage-adaptation of Flora Thompson’s Oxfordshire-set novel, rather than the neutered and more recent TV version with which most people are probably more familiar. I was the only junior member of an unorthodox cast which also included several Adderbury Morris-men, and we performed at Banbury’s Grade II listed Town Hall for three nights. But what made things resonate particularly strongly for me, was the fact that my dad had taken me up to London to see the original stage adaptation during its initial run at The National Theatre a few years previously. My exposure that night to a potent and kinetic promenade-style performance, which incorporated a live folk-rock band and deliberately blurred the boundaries between performers and audience (all things we tried our level best to emulate at The Town Hall), left a truly indelible mark on my impressionable young mind. And here, curiously enough, the story comes almost full circle; for it turns out, completely coincidentally you understand, that one of the musicians involved with that original National Theatre production was a certain aforementioned female folk singer by the name of Shirley Collins. It really is all connected, y’see?

Sophie – Although you left The Shire for London, does Oxfordshire (in particular, Adderbury) still have a special place in your heart?

Tim – I do love London and I find it hard to picture myself living anywhere else anytime soon, but I’m also fiercely proud of my rural roots and where I hail from – and making WAY OF THE MORRIS went a long long way towards helping me fully embrace that fact. Like it or not, The Shire lives deep within me; ingrained in my very marrow. It clings to me like cuckoo spit, and is still the place I go to most often when I daydream. I’ve just returned from an inspirational 4 months out in Western Canada, where I was working on a historical TV mini-series, and one of the first places that me and my young family made sure we visited when we got back, was our favourite corner of The Cotswold Borderlands. I took great pleasure in watching my daughter walk unaided on Adderbury’s village green for the very first time, and she also enjoyed her debut (non-alcoholic) drink in The Bell Inn on the High Street. Alas, regulations state that she won’t ever be able to follow in my dancing footsteps and pick-up-sticks for the Adderbury Village Morris Men, but then again the village prides itself upon also having a dedicated ladies side these days, so I’m guessing there’ll be no excuses!

You can see more of Tim’s work at: www.timplester.com

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