George Costigan discusses the north/south divide

George and Niall Costigan
George and Niall Costigan

For nearly 50 years a star of stage and screen, George Costigan has a rather impressive and extensive biography, having worked alongside some acting giants including John Thaw, Leonard Rossiter and Clint Eastwood to name a few.

For me, he will always be Bob in Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a film that was an integral part of my teen years, but more of that later…

These days, many will recognise him as troubled company boss Nevison Gallagher from the hugely successful BBC One drama series Happy Valley, written and directed by award winning writer Sally Wainwright. Filmed in and around the Calderdale valley, it contains decidedly dark and vicious plots threaded together with a good dose of northern humour. “Where there’s poverty, there also seems to be great humour,” says George. “Sally knows that valley, and she knows in her soul the join between living in a place as pretty as that and as ‘rock hard’ as that, and somehow she seems to capture that. She’s such a humorist. She’s also remarkably open to suggestion, she’s a natural director and I feel incredibly privileged to have been ‘part of the team’, having acted in quite a few of her scripts.”

Like Sally, George is also a patron of The Square Chapel Theatre in Halifax, along with actors Tim Pigott-Smith and Timothy West. “With theatres, it’s happening there, right in front of you, and it can’t happen without you. It’s a shared experience. It’s vitally important that we continue to support our local theatres,” says George.

When I ask his opinion of London stage performances being broadcast live to northern cinemas, and if there really is a north/south acting divide, “Blimey Karen, you’re knocking at a completely open door here.” He goes on to say (in a rather agitated tone) “This is all typically English. It’s arse over tit! I recently went to the cinema and there were a few performances advertised, one from The National and one from the RSC. I know some of the people in those plays and in a way I’m tempted to go and watch them, but…”

It’s at this point his voice goes up a couple of octaves, he’s getting angry. “You’re absolutely right; there is a divide, a snobbery divide on how the culture gets shared out. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to suggest that we send a live link to the shows we’re doing in Liverpool, Manchester or York to the people in London, but that doesn’t happen, it only goes one way. I find it deeply insulting to the people in the North of England. I don’t blame the people who go if they want to see that particular play. But, it needs to go both ways. No one in London would ever consider such a notion and you’ve still got Guardian theatre critics saying ‘This show deserves to be seen in London!’ What does that actually mean?

“The thing about a north/south divide between actors isn’t true. What is true and very sad is that there is a whole stack of actors in London who wouldn’t dream of going out of the capital to work. That seems to be the mentality in the business. In a perfect world I would pick up The National Theatre and plonk it in somewhere near Gateshead! It’s just not a national theatre, it’s an art house on the banks of the River Thames. It has nothing to do with the people of Doncaster for example.”

When I mention the imminent move of the photography collection moving to London from Bradford’s National Media Museum, I can almost taste his anger.

“I get high blood pressure thinking about it. “It’s cultural vandalism.” He bellows. “I hope someone has the courage to rescind the decision. Bradford has done its best to rebuild itself. It’s metropolitism at its worst!”

George readily admits to feeling ‘lost’ after having worked over 35 jobs by the young age of 20. His parents were despairing and desperately wanted him to settle down and get a ‘proper job’.

Previous to this he had no ‘calling’ or inclination to be a thespian. He’d never considered a job as an actor, but at the age of 20 he was approached to play the lead role in a play at the local amateur dramatics society, and while standing on the stage after his first performance receiving rapturous applause, he says: “Suddenly I was found.”

His advice for any aspiring actors is taken from an interview he saw with Hollywood actor Rod Steiger who said: “If you want to be an actor, all the very best, if you need to be an actor – welcome.”’

Almost 30 years ago the nation was exposed to one of my all-time favourite films, Rita, Sue and Bob Too. As an impressionable and rather naïve 15 year-old, that film had quite an impact on me, as it did others. I can remember hiring it from the video shop and inviting friends round to watch it. I also remember having to press ‘eject’ and often turn the volume down on numerous occasions just in case my parents would enter the room, as in parts it was well, racy.

Filmed in and around Bradford, it tells the story of Bob, played by George, alongside Siobhan Finneran as Rita and Michelle Holmes as Sue. Married man Bob strikes up a rather torrid affair with both of his kids’ baby-sitters. Gritty, honest and remarkably funny, years on it still continues to have a permanent place in my heart.

As a rather impressionable teenager, Bob’s character had a big impact on my life, so I wondered how George viewed him years on. “I don’t hold any affection for that character,” says George. “I thought he was a bit of an arse, really. I wouldn’t want to spend a great deal of time with the Bobs of this world, but I do hold a very special place in my heart for the film and the place it has in people’s affections.”

In the film he has two kids. The boy was played by his real life son, Niall, who has since followed in his father’s footsteps. They’ve performed on stage together and when asked how it was working alongside his son, he replies: “It was like working with an actor I really liked. Every time he was really good I would say ‘He’s a chip of the old block’!”

George’s family roots reach to Ireland, but he spent his formative years in Salford and only moved back to the UK after 25 years living in France.

The best piece of advice he has been given is: ‘Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else!’ And that’s exactly what he did.

His decision to move to France was down to Margaret Thatcher. “We had three children, she had the government with Kenneth Baker in charge of the education system and if you don’t think that was a good reason to leave the country, we did!”

Rather ironic when you consider the strapline of Rita, Sue and Bob Too was: “Thatcher’s Britain with her knickers down.” Not a pleasant thought!

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