One of my all-time favourite soaps has got to be Emmerdale. Coupled with the illuminating characters and breathtaking countryside, for over 40 years it has continued to enthral the nation.
Never afraid to deal with emotive issues, the recent storyline tackles the tragic slow demise of one of its favourite characters; Vicar Ashley Thomas. Ashley has recently been diagnosed with vascular dementia, a heartbreaking subject and a subject that is sadly close to home for many folk. The illness will see us eventually saying farewell to a much-loved character, but before he departs the Dales I spoke to actor John Middleton.
After nearly 20 years of playing the vicar, John has had a wealth of exciting storylines. He’s ran into fires, been raped, had two divorces, been homeless, battered his father, been run over, been cheated on, lost a son and then found him again, and now you’ve got the onset of Dementia.
“No doubt a plague of locusts are around the corner!” laughs John.
“The good thing about Emmerdale is that it’s highly dramatic, yet very enjoyable to play. Yet, at the same time it’s upsetting stuff and has a great deal of significance to the viewers who watch, particularly with people who have the condition and also the carers. So we have to be very careful on how we play the story and that we get it right. I’m very mindful of that.”
John’s just had a meeting with the show’s new producer, and “he’s really excited about it,” says John, “although he’s not committing too much yet about what he’s going to do. He’s brimming with ideas and I’ve been feeding in the research I’ve done and the people I’ve been meeting. I’ve always thought that our story will come from the stories that people tell us.”
True to his word, John has visited specialist care homes with Charlotte Bellamy (who plays his onscreen partner Laurel). “We met a woman who is a carer for someone with dementia and talked with her about the decision to put her partner in a home. That’s one aspect of the story that I’m very anxious that we tell correctly, that 99.9% of carers are vocationally drawn to the job and do it with such love and care, as it’s heartbreaking. When we last visited the care home I said to Charlotte ‘Try not to get too upset about it, because we’re seeing them as they are now.’ What is upsetting is for the people who knew them as they were. They will have known them as engineers, captains of industry, mothers, and people of great importance and now they see them as big children.
John looks younger than his real age of 62, and his character Ashley is 54 years old, a surprisingly young age for a dementia sufferer. “I’ve heard of someone having dementia in their forties,” says John. “Young dementia is anyone up to the age of 65. However, it mainly affects people as they get over 70.”
“The only thing we seem to know about care homes is what we see, read or hear on the news. Unfortunately, news tends to be catastrophic so you only tend to hear the negative stories and it’s actually a huge misrepresentation of what these homes are actually like.”
Unsure about how and when Ashley will finally leave Emmerdale, John says: “I’m leaving that to them. I have an idea that I’ve just shared with them.”
Before he has chance to continue I immediately jump in and ask if I can make a suggestion…
Recently his father Sandy (played by Freddie Jones) has asked Ashley to help him end his own life if he continues to get frailer. Ashley has refused due to his religious beliefs. Maybe, just maybe, in
an ironic twist Ashley will end up asking Sandy the same thing…
“We’ve sown the seed with that storyline. However, it’s a bit like chucking pebbles in a pond. There’ll be plenty of ripples that just keep going out and out, but it may not be that ripple that produces the story.”
John’s views on euthanasia are in sharp contrast to that of his character Ashley. Like his character, John is softly spoken, but the similarities end there.
“If you have a terminal illness and you know that the following days or years are going to be painful and undignified than you have every right to seek a better way out. But I understand as well, the argument against it. It could be seen as a thing you ought to do to remove an inconvenience for everybody else. In many ways it’s good that it’s against the law because it’s an option that just isn’t there for you. Then again you see some people suffering beyond what we would normally allow even an animal to suffer. It just doesn’t seem right.”
When I offered the option of choosing to play any other Emmerdale character past or present, he replied: “Every actor will tell you they want to play a baddie; I’d love to play Cain. From the age of 14, I wanted to be an actor, and I flew at it like an arrow. There were various things that stood in my way. My school wasn’t exactly encouraging about it and my parents were worried that I was entering an incredibly insecure profession.”
An active member of the Labour Party, in his younger days John stood for council. Maybe he has a calling to enter the political arena after his departure from the Dales?
“When I was living in the North East I did stand to be a councillor for North Tyneside Council. I got beaten, which is probably quite fortunate because it was around the same time that I got offered
the role in Emmerdale.”
There’s no delay in his answer when I ask him what he’ll miss most about Emmerdale. “The people. They’ve become like a huge family. When you have spats, you get over them quickly like you would do in a family as you’re all working together. So you get an incredibly strong connection. I’ll miss them in ways that I don’t properly understand now. It’s something that will hit me when I leave, and I have no idea when that will be. It’s important that we play the story out in a timeframe that is accurate.”
The recent death of actress Shirley Stelfox, who played Edna, left John ‘mentally shocked’. He says: “We knew Shirley was gravely ill, but we were shocked by the speed in which the illness progressed. In some ways it was merciful that it wasn’t long and lingering. Shirley was so utterly committed to her job. She never stopped talking about Emmerdale. She was an avid watcher of the show. When she feared that she might not see the Christmas episodes she asked for advance copies.”
John confesses to being an ardent news watcher. He loves documentaries and also, like me, he enjoys a Bond movie, especially Spectre, and prefers Connery over Moore. When I ask him if he fancies auditioning as the next Bond… “Ow, give over!” he laughs. “I enjoy all the great TV dramas being made at the moment,” he admits. As an actor, I’m champing at the bit. I believe we’re in the golden age of drama, so in many ways there’s been no better time to be a screen actor.”
John readily admits that many of his scenes often leave him emotionally exhausted, “If you’re in a story like that you’re also very busy. You’ve just got to pick yourself up, learn your lines, go to bed and in the morning start all over again. Sometimes a day on the Emmerdale set will me just saying ‘Pint please, Diane’ and my work is done.” I’m also lucky as I have a very good home life and supportive wife. I’ve recently moved to Harrogate so I get to go home every evening as opposed to just weekends.
Despite being in Emmerdale for almost 20 years, John is a jobbing actor who is used to finding work as it comes. “I find it oddly exciting. You never know what’s around the corner. I look forward in the future to be playing different characters. The interesting thing is as you alluded to it in your opening remark; playing Ashley almost is like playing many characters as you explore every aspect of a character in a show like ours. You’re faced with so many different dilemmas. When all said and done, actors are storytellers.”