Royal Shakespeare Company actor Stephen Boxer talks to Terry Grimley about life after daytime soap.
It still seems a little surprising to see an actor go from a regular spot in a daytime soap to a leading role with the RSC at Stratford, but according to Stephen Boxer it should be a lot less surprising than it used to be.
Boxer, who was last with the RSC in the late 1990s, has played Dr Joe Fenton in the Birmingham-produced series Doctors for the last two years. Now he is playing Petruchio in Conall Morrison's production of The Taming of the Shrew, which has just opened in Stratford's Courtyard Theatre.
"I've had two years in Doctors and that was kind of the plan," he told me during a break in rehearsals. "It's interesting, because when I left drama school in 1971 there was a huge snobbery about soaps and if you considered yourself a proper actor you wouldn't be seen dead doing them.
"Thirty-five years later you can't get arrested unless you've been in a soap. The climate has changed, and it's a much broader profession. I was doing a fringe play at The Gate when they asked if I would be interested in doing Doctors. Here I am in my 50s and I'd never done a regular TV series. I knew there were sacrifices -not seeing my family for five days aweek - but the good thing was that they never worked Saturday and Sunday, which is unusual for TV. And you could even have three weeks paid holiday, so you could plan a holiday in January rather than two weeks before."
While family considerations were important - Boxer, by the way, is married to the playwright Tamsin Oglesby, whose play Only the Lonely was premiered at the Birmingham Rep - he says there were professional attractions to doing Doctors.
"I loved the character. He was a family man with problems, but a passionate member of the medical profession. He was a single father looking after a teenage daughter, and I tend to play meanies and bastards. I liked the idea of just being a middle-class bloke, which is what I suppose I am."
He still hasn't entirely relinquished the part, with some sessions booked during May to wrap up his storyline. There are plans for Doctors to move production to Manchester as part of the BBC's apparent downgrading of its Birmingham operation, something Stephen Boxer regrets.
"It's a very exceptional TV set-up in that people are very committed there," he says. "It's a seedbed for new writers, new directors, new wardrobe staff. Not to have a Midlands broadcasting centre seems to be a bit daft. You can't reduce organisations to statistics and paperwork entirely. I think you dispense with that resource at your peril, because it will take a long time to replace it. They will be competing with many more organisations in Manchester because the industry is bigger up there."
If Doctors offered him something different, the same is true of Petruchio, who was not a character that had been on his radar at all.
" I must say I think I've been amazingly lucky - I thought I would be doing the Iagos," he says. "But I'm enjoying it enormously and also enjoying working with Michelle Gomez, who is playing Kate. We are chalk and cheese but we have found a meeting ground, and I think she is enjoying it too.
"It's a pretty unpleasant play, and I don't think we're shying away from that. I don't know it very well. It was lovely coming to a Shakespeare play fresh. It reminded me of the first time I saw Measure for Measure in a TV production. Now it's my favourite Shakespeare play and I've done it twice, playing the Duke for Declan Donellan and Angelo for Michael Boyd up here.
"Whereas I've seen lots of Dreams and Macbeths and it's very difficult to approach them with fresh eyes and ears."
The Taming of the Shrew has possibly replaced The Merchant of Venice as Shakespeare's most uncomfortable play for contemporary audiences. Modern productions have often tried to soften its misogynism with a playful tone.
"What I find quite interesting about Conall's take on it is that he is playing the play absolutely at face value. It's quite broad and knock-about but it becomes quite direct and brutal.
"It's about what happens to a woman in a patriarchal society. When men rule without question this is what happens. I think there are enough models in the world to justify this play. We're not highlighting the parallels, but I don't think you have to look very far to find them."
Apart from the wide range of roles he has played in theatre and television, music has provided a thread in Boxer's career. He collaborated with David Pownall on a musical adaptation of Thomas Hardy's The Trumpet
Major and was commissioned to write music for a series of plays by John Arden adding up to around eight hours of radio - something he says would never happen today.
His musical career began between the ages of 10 and 14, when he was a member of the renowned Choir of New College, Oxford.
"I used to sing in chapel six nights a week, and it was a wonderful time in my life. I felt very privileged - there I was, in beautiful surroundings, singing the most wonderful choral music.
"I did piano, took the odd grade, and taught myself guitar. At drama school I happened to be the most musical person, so if songs were needed for a Shakespeare play I started writing them.
"Towards the end of drama school I was asked to write music for a story about Francis of Assisi by a sweet man called Tony Southall, who used to write the panto every year for the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton."
Written in a style he dubbed "modal rock", this show had an inauspicious debut at the Grand.
"We ran for a week, we had 200 people a night and the Wolverhampton taxi service came through the speakers. But Ron Cook and Ken Stott played lepers in my first musical!"
* The Taming of the Shrew is running at The Courtyard, Stratford-upon-Avon (Box office: 08440 800 1110).