Dickensian Diaries - Interview with Robert Beck

After a five-year break, Robert Beck is excited about a return to the stage in Derby Theatre’s autumn production of the Dickens’ classic Great Expectations.

Robert had to step away from the stage work he loves as he and his actress wife Jane Danson juggled their demanding professions with bringing up their two sons.

Jane is best known as Leanne Battersby in the TV soap Coronation Street, while Robert has been a familiar face on TV since he featured in Brookside in 1991. Other noteworthy TV roles have come in The Upper Hand, Emmerdale and alongside his wife in Coronation Street.

Now Robert’s delighted to be returning to the stage and to be working with Derby Theatre’s Artistic Director Sarah Brigham who will be directing Neil Bartlett’s adaptation.

Robert said: “I used to do a lot more theatre but stopped when we had the family and we knew I couldn’t spend so much time working away from home. I have missed it greatly – it’s my first full play for five years. With two young children I had to step back from that but now they are a bit older it seems the right time to return.

“In the soaps, it’s nice to have a job that is regular and it means you can afford to bring up a family and have a life and all that kind of thing. You can work as an actor and have a fulfilling dramatic life and still pay the bills. It’s hard to bring up a family working piece meal in stage roles.

“Luckily, myself and my wife have been able to find the balance as I have tended to do the jobbing while my wife has the regular work. Jane has a very good steady job and has done for a very long time, that means we haven’t had to worry if I have had to look after the children. There must be many couples out there in the industry with children and to be honest I don’t know how they manage. I count myself very fortunate that I can be relaxed about it but still work when a job comes up I want to do and that won’t impact on our family life.

“Even though Derby isn’t that far from Manchester, where we live, I still have to be away from home for two months giving my wife the job of childcare - and she can work very long hours. She has to juggle laundry, school and everything else so I get a great stage role and I can have a rest!”

Robert will be playing Magwitch, the escaped convict who is aided by the young boy Pip, in the Derby Theatre production. The chance encounter between the prisoner and the orphan is pivotal to the developing plot and, having recently re-read the book, Robert has a deeper appreciation of Magwitch’s motivations and more sympathy for him.

“It was a story I came across at school and I have seen the classic film several times over the years. Because of doing the play, I have read the novel for the first time in many years and came to it relatively fresh as you don’t concentrate as much when you are younger, especially as it’s a long book.

“Dickens writes such great characters, and even when people don’t know the plots of the stories, they still know about the characters whether that’s Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or Pip, Miss Havisham and Magwitch in Great Expectations.

“The script has to be different, the best any playwright can do in a case like this is to get the essence of the story as you can’t condense the whole book into a couple of hours. But Magwitch’s whole life story is in the book and that helps you understand his motivations and his relationship with Pip, so reading the book helps inform the way you play the character as well.

“He’s not real a villain. He has become a criminal almost out of necessity. His kindness to Pip therefore isn’t a complete change of character. Even when they first meet in the graveyard and he’s desperate for food there are signs of vulnerability. He’s using Pip to give someone the life he couldn’t have himself and is living through him. I think Pip’s also a substitute for the child he had taken from him.”

Robert De Niro, Ralph Fiennes and Ray Winstone are among the plethora of great actors who have played Magwitch.

“That means there are a lot of interpretations whereas with Oliver Twist the one person everyone sees as Fagin is Ron Moody,” said Robert. “In Great Expectations, there hasn’t been that one defining adaptation that has stayed with people above all others. I think therefore that people will come to the play with their own interpretations of the characters as much as anything and will come to their own conclusions. I hope through my own perceptions of the story and character that I can bring something fresh to it.”

As well as the lure of a great role, Robert was keen to come to Derby Theatre to get a first-hand look after picking up on the buzz around the venue.

“Working for Derby Theatre is a first for me and something I’m very much looking forward to. It’s a lovely space and as I haven’t worked with Sarah Brigham before either so that’s going to be interesting too.

“There seems to be exciting things going on in Derby. Whether it’s in-house productions, touring shows coming in, education and the links with the university, it comes across as a very vibrant, creative place.”

But above all it’s a chance for Robert to step out in front of a live audience again.

“When I started out, at least, it wasn’t about the fame and fortune and live theatre is where you get the most satisfaction. It’s all about atmosphere and that immediate response from the audience. You do feel very creative and the two hours you are on stage the communication between you and the audience can be electric and that’s what you live for.

“In television, there is none of that. You can still enjoy the acting but that immediate thrill and excitement isn’t there. In soaps, or any drama, you are doing things out of sequence, piecemeal bits here and there which they will put together in the editing room. It can be quite tough as your emotions can be up and down depending on the schedule of the day. In theatre, you go with the flow and have those starting and finishing points. You can really focus and take the character on a full journey.

“Sarah has some very exciting ideas for this production. It’s not a standard, straightforward adaptation, it’s a full ensemble show and will be a very dynamic production – I can’t wait.”

Great Expectations will play from Friday 29 September - Saturday 21 October. Find out more and book tickets here.