Terry Grimley meets prolific actor-musician John Tams
There are Renaissance men, and then there is John Tams: actor, director, singer-songwriter, composer for stage, film, television and radio, researcher and general keeper-of-the-flame of traditional music.
The one-time journalist and member of seminal folk group The Albion Band is probably best known for playing the role of Rifleman Daniel Hagman in the television series Sharpe.
His solo musical career continues with the release last month of his third album for legendary folk label Topic, for which he made a series of field recordings in Ireland more than 30 years ago.
It's difficult to know where to start unravelling a career that it seems could have kept several people busy for a lifetime. But let's begin with his music for Romeo and Juliet, which opens tonight at Birmingham Rep.
This project brings together two on-going collaborations - with the Rep itself, where he has provided music for such key productions of the Jonathan Church era as Of Mice and Men and The Crucible, and with director Bill Bryden, with whom he has enjoyed a long and distinguished partnership including some vintage years at the National Theatre from 1977-1985.
"Bill put a company together in the Cottesloe theatre with people like Mark McManus and Brian Glover," he recalls.
"I haven't seen the likes of that till this very young company came together for Romeo and Juliet. I haven't been in a room with such a lovely bunch of young people. A lot of them are fresh out of drama school, with that special energy and fizz.
"I've not done the play before either, which is unusual for someone who has worked in theatre as long as me. This artistic team, with Hayden Griffin the designer, Bill Bryden and myself has been working together for 30 years. Sometimes it's two of us, sometimes all three of us."
The music in the show is recorded, but was played live. It features classical guitar and other stringed instruments and Tams, who turns out to be finicky about selecting the right word for things - "I won't even call myself a musician: I'm a player," he says at one point - is happy with the adjective "romantic".
"My job is to work closely with the design concept, to fit in with the set and the way it's costumed. Then I have to think about the spirit of what Bill wants to do, but that will be a little bit later because that takes a while to reveal itself in rehearsal."
Among his many past collaborations with Bryden was The Ship, a theatrical celebration of shipbuilding on the Clyde for Glasgow's year as European City of Culture in 1990.
The loss of traditional industries is a recurring theme for Tams, reflected in the song A Man of Constant Sorrow from his new album The Reckoning.
"I think we're defined by what we do. When we take that away we lose our definition," he says.
He is currently involved in a project for Radio 2, making modern equivalents of the famous "Radio Ballads" made by the Birminghambased producer Charles Parker in the 1950s. Exploring themed aspects of working class life, they literally brought working-class voices to radio for the first time.
"It was Parker that broke the rules. Before him working-class people could be interviewed, but their words were spoken by actors. We're trying to move it on 50 years - it's very exciting. There will be eight one-hour programmes to be broadcast in the spring. We're looking at steel, shipbuilding, the troubles in Northern Ireland, and there's one about HIV, because in the original series there was one about polio.
"We go out and do vox-pop interviews and there will be maybe eight or so songs in each show. I'm music editor and we're using singers like Kate Rusby, Richard Thompson, Jez Lowe and Tommy Sands in Ireland."
Tams still lives in Derbyshire, where he started his working life as a reporter and later edited a newspaper. At the same time he performed in folk clubs and worked as a feelance music writer.
A phone call from former Fairport Convention bass player Ashley Hutchings led to him joining the newly-formed Albion Band, and the connection with Bill Bryden quickly followed when he invited the band to collaborate in staging the York mystery plays.
"Having done music for Bill several times I got to play small parts and got my Equity card. Now I sometimes play characters rather than the guitar - in the Sharpe series, for example. I co-wrote the music for that with Dominic Muldowney. I'm a versatilist and he's classically-trained. I don't know how he does what he does and he doesn't know how I do what I do."
Tams has a back-catalogue of more than 50 albums as singer, player or producer.
Recalling those field trips to Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he says: "It would be more difficult to do now because the people I was recording, mostly in Dublin and County Clare, would have been in their 70s, so they were born in the previous century. It's a tribute to Topic Records who have been part of field recordings since they were founded in the 1930s. We were recording in bars and cottages, trying to be as discreet as possible because these people had never been recorded."
The survival of Celtic folk traditions has often been contrasted with its disappearance in England, and Tams has a theory as to why this should have been.
"The biggest fracture was the First World War. It killed a lot of carriers of tradition - singers, storytellers, morris dancers. A lot of culture disappeared in the mud of Flanders fields, and it never really restored itself. Today Englishness doesn't exist: I think regionalism is more important than an attitude about nationalism."
So how do you define folk music today?
"It's a four-letter word. Ten or 15 years ago I would have dismissed it, but now I'm really proud of it. It seems like a worthwhile job to be a folk singer. I can't be a teacher, poet or priest, but I can serve my community. I'm also of an age when I don't give a damn."
* Romeo and Juliet is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until October 22 (Box office: 0121 236 4455). The Reckoning by John Tams is out now on Topic Records. For more information, visit www.johntams.co.uk