LEARNING THE BUSINESS
AN INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN LINSLEY
As Ivy’s imposing yet benevolent nephew Crusher, Jonathan Linsley delighted Last of the Summer Wine viewers during his stint on the show in the mid-1980s. The Summer Winos were delighted when he agreed to speak with us about his fascinating career, taking in everything from Pirates of the Carribean to Noel Edmonds’ adandoned shower…
We know you’re a Yorkshireman, but whereabouts are you actually from? We’ve seen Bradford mentioned, but also Skipton, in North Yorkshire…
I was born in Bradford, but my dad moved to the Midlands with his job when I was three, and we lived in a place called Halesowen, just south of Birmingham, until I was eleven. Then we briefly moved to Tamworth, in Staffordshire… but then my dad retired from working in industry, and we moved up to Skipton, where I went to Ermistead Grammar School. He actually bought a small village shop. So I ended up being brought up in Skipton, from the age of about twelve.
Was acting something you were enthusiastic about at school?
Yeah. When I was a very little lad, my primary school did school plays, and for some reason both my brother and myself were very keen on being in those. I think my mum and dad had always been keen on amateur acting, and they pushed us forward. My mum used to take us to the Methodist chapel for Sunday School, and we used to get up and do recitations, so there was always this thing about learning poetry and performing. My mum was very supportive… although she didn’t like my accent for a while, when we lived in Birmingham!
Well, I always say I was brought up bilingual, because my mum was from Cockfield in County Durham, near Barnard Castle, and my dad was from Ramsgate, and went to school in Birchington, and they met during the war when he was stationed with the tank regiment in Barnard Castle… they met at a dance and fell in love. So during my youth, my dad would always say ‘have a b-a-r-th’ and ‘mow the gra-r-ss’, and my mum would say ‘have a laff’! And then moving around – because I went to three different schools – I became very aware of the way people speak, and of different accents. It’s peer pressure, too; to fit in with your peers, you want to speak with the voice that they speak with. So I probably had a Yorkshire accent right at the beginning of my life; then a bit of a Birmingham accent; and I also learnt a bit of RP from my dad, with him coming from Kent; and then got a little bit of County Durham from my grandparents. So I always aware of all kinds of people speaking with different accents, and I think that’s part of the reason that I became an actor.
We’ve also seen you talk about an English teacher called Mr Thomas, who seemed to encourage your talent for acting?
Yes, Gordon Thomas… who we used to call ‘Delmi’, because Delmi Thomas was a rugby player at the time. When I went to Ermistead School, I had a couple of very good English teachers, but particularly Gordon Thomas, who was interested in school plays, and putting us all forward for drama. He suggested that it might suit me to apply for the National Youth Theatre. In those days, they used to hold their Northern auditions in Manchester… but all the seasons were in London. And so I did my audition in Manchester, and was lucky enough to get in, and did two seasons in London, and it was very interesting. I really enjoyed it, and got a taste for it. You performed, in those days, in the Shaw Theatre in Euston Road, so it was like being in the West End.
I was a young lad, fifteen or sixteen, and it was fantastically exciting to be in London… it was an eye-opener coming from a small Northern town like Skipton, and suddenly being in the big city meeting fairly important people in the theatre world. And a lot of the people that I was at the National Youth Theatre with have gone onto other things, and been in the business, so that was interesting… and my attitude to theatre changed, with me starting to think that it could be a job, rather than just a hobby. My parents just assumed that it was going to be a hobby, and didn’t really approve, and my mum used to ask me why I wasn’t going to get a proper job! And quite understandably so, because she was obviously well aware of the fact that an actors’ life is difficult at times, and not everybody makes a living. It’s not a well-paid profession if you don’t make it.
So was pursuing an acting career a big decision for you to make?
Well, I always thought that it was what I wanted to do. I met a guy called Ken MacDonald, who was in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, and he directed me in a show at the Youth Theatre…
Didn’t he go on to play Mike the landlord in Only Fools and Horses, too?
…yes, that’s right! He was a nice fellow, very helpful, and what he basically said was that if you’re practical about it, you can make a living. And he was nice enough to say that I could make a living as an actor. And, of course, this was the mid-1970s, when no profession seemed very secure; inflation and economics were crazy, and the whole country was changing… so it wasn’t quite such a mad idea. I have to say that my school wasn’t so supportive in terms of me making it my career; they didn’t think it was a sensible thing to do, and of course my parents wanted me to go to university and get a degree… what’s the phrase they always use; ‘something to fall back on’!
So I followed their advice and applied to university, and started reading English and American Studies at Warwick… but I was completely bored by it, so I changed courses at the end of the first year, and went on to do a Theatre Studies degree – a Drama degree, effectively – and, when I graduated from Warwick, I went down to the Bristol Old Vic and did a one-year post-graduate course. In those days, the Department of Education and Science used to give a bursary to the one drama school in the country that did post-graduate work, which was the Bristol Old Vic, and they funded two places a year… and I got one of those. I remember having an interview with the people from the North Yorkshire Education Department, and they basically said ‘What are your chances of getting a job in Skipton, or North Yorkshire?’, and I said ‘Pretty grim, really… there’s not much television actually based in North Yorkshire’. Northallerton is not Hollywood! So yeah, I was lucky… I applied for the bursary, got it, went off to Bristol, and that was how I got started in the business.
But yes, it was a big decision, and I took advice and listened to professional actors. The thing about Ken MacDonald was that he wasn’t a big star, but he was a very good jobbing actor. And the advice that he gave me was very important to me; he basically said that the business was very fickle, and that I shouldn’t put all my eggs in one basket… but, because of the size and the shape that I was, I could probably make a living as a character actor. And in those days you had to stick yourself down as ‘character actor’, ‘leading actor’, ‘young character’ in Spotlight…
You had to make that decision yourself, and decide what kind of actor you actually were?
Yeah! I remember one agent saying to me ‘You’ve got a choice here… you can either be a fat actor or a thin actor’. And that was quite interesting, because I’ve been both!
So did you have ambitions to work on TV at this stage?
Not really, no. When I started, I absolutely adored the theatre, and I only wanted to be in plays. When I left university, I was quite left wing in my politics, and I said I would never do anything commercial or mainstream… ‘how could you possibly want to be in a soap opera?’… or something! I would only do things that were important and would change the world, that was the idea! And I was lucky when I first got out of drama school, I did forty weeks in rep in Ipswich, I played a lot of different parts in plays, and I did a bit of teaching while I was there. But then, of course, the first television jobs that come along are commercial! Telly, and actual adverts… and you know, you suddenly realise you have to prostitute your talents a little bit, and make a living. That’s if you’re hoping to pay the rent in London, and have a car… all the sorts of things that normal people accept as being as things you want to have. Otherwise you have to live in a bedsit for the rest of your life, starving in a garret, being an artist with principles! And I decided I wasn’t an artist with principles that much.
Although I’ve never advertised anything I don’t really believe in. I’ve never advertised cigarettes, for example, or anything that I didn’t think was good for people. But it’s a different world now… people don’t consider the morality of what they do, they just get on and do it. And there’s no career path either; you can go from being a big star overnight to a nobody the next day, or vice versa. I remember Peter Sallis saying to me, when I first met him… I did the stage play of Last of the Summer Wine before I did the television series, and that meant spending a lot more time with people than you would on television. So I probably knew Peter, and Bill Owen, and Jane Freeman better than I knew the others on the series, because they were all in the stage play with me. And of course, I was forty years younger than just about anybody else on the programme, so they were keen to give me advice. And Peter said to me that the career path for him – and for most actors – was that if you’re lucky enough to become known by your fellow actors, then that’s the start, and if they respect you and your reputation is good, then you get known by directors and casting directors, and if that works out, then you get known by the public. And that’s the way to do it.
Thirty odd years on, I think the career path has changed… it’s kind of backwards now. You get known by the public if you go on reality television, and then the casting agents get to know you, and then your fellow actors start to meet you for the first time. It’s interesting. That’s what’s happened to the world of the theatre.
When I started out, I worked in the theatre and I wanted to be a stage actor… and you’re faced with choices, aren’t you? I remember facing the choice of going into the RSC, to spend sixty weeks carrying a spear, basically, at the back of the chorus… or going into the Last of the Summer Wine stage play with the option of maybe, one day, meeting some of those famous people and hoping they would get me into the television show. And luckily they enjoyed what I did, and Roy Clarke liked what I did, and Alan Bell liked what I did, and they gave me the job on the telly show. But there were no guarantees of that when I took the job… I could have gone to the RSC, ended up being in theatre, and playing Shakespeare for the rest of my life.
Do you remember how you found out about the stage show?
Yes, through an agent. I was with the same agent for almost 25 years, with CCA – a guy called Howard Pays – and they were obviously looking for people to be in the stage play of Last of the Summer Wine. What had happened was… Roy Clarke was going to write a summer season, called Last of the Summer Wine, and it was going to go on a short commercial tour, starting at the Alfred Beck Theatre in Hayes, in Middlesex. And then it was going to travel down to… I think Cardiff, and one or two other places, before going into summer season in Eastbourne. And it was offered as a job, and we rehearsed in London for it in a church hall, and in the first week that we were there, the script that Roy had written was like a long episode of Last of the Summer Wine. It was about an hour long, it sort of meandered, and didn’t really have a plot, because Roy wasn’t an experienced theatre writer. He was a television writer, and he understood the medium of television completely… a lot of short scenes, a lot of funny lines, a lot of one-off things. And I can remember after four or five days of rehearsals, the director Jan Butlin and the producers of the show said ‘You’d better go home… I think Peter [Sallis] and Bill [Owen] are going to spend some time working on the script’. And, basically, Peter and Bill reworked the script and turned it into more of a seaside holiday farce. I think it would be fair to Roy to say that that’s what happened, and I don’t know how much Roy was involved in that. And when we came back, we had a beginning, a middle and an end… and a farce. Obviously Roy created all the characters – Howard, Pearl, Marina, and myself – and I think originally they’d asked Brian Wilde to be in it, and he said he didn’t want to do it, so the device – was which Roy’s device – was that Foggy was ill upstairs in bed, and was banging on the ceiling when he needed anything. So he was a presence in the play, but he was a stick! That’s all he was, his walking stick. Jan Butlin had done a lot of farces, and had a lot of experience of comedy shows, so she was very in helpful making the show work.
My character was quite threatening, and not at all like he ended up. He was supposed to be insanely jealous of his girlfriend, who he’d thrown out of the house in just her bra and knickers, and Compo had found her, taken pity on her, and invited her into Clegg’s house in order to look after her! And obviously his motives were completely pure! But I also happened to be the bread delivery boy in the village, and – of course – I was delivering bread to Clegg’s house. So I turned up and found evidence of my girlfriend being in his house, and I think I’ve found one picture – which I’ve posted on the web – of me grabbing them both round the neck.
We’ve seen it! Crusher looks like much more of a Hells Angel kind of figure than he was in the TV show…
That was the look we were going for, the tattoos and the leather… he was a biker. We did the show for two years, finishing in Eastbourne, and then they rang me up again and asked if we’d do another short tour and take it to Bournemouth the following year. And inbetween… I did some other telly, actually. I did a Dempsey and Makepeace, and one or two other things. And then I went back to the Summer Wine stage play, and at the beginning of the summer season in Bournemouth, John Comer sadly passed away. And I got a phone call from Alan Bell and Roy Clarke, who said ‘Look, we’re thinking bringing your character into the series as Ivy’s nephew, so you’ll be the male presence in the café, taking over from John’. And being Ivy’s nephew changed me from the stage play character… I was altered quite considerably, and – therefore – never did the stage play again. I think they took my character out and put another character in, and the following year the play was called Compo Plays Cupid, and it went to Blackpool with a completely different cast.
So, going into the television series, I had to be softened a bit, and made to fit the more Summer Wine-ish role of the boyish male, incapable of looking after himself without a woman telling him what to do… which is the central essence of the Yorkshire humour in Last of the Summer Wine. All the women are mums, and all the men are children. It’s the basic philosophy of the programme!
Between appearing in the stage play, and joining the Summer Wine TV series, you appeared in a BBC2 sitcom called The Hello Goodbye Man… any memories of it?
The Hello Goodbye Man was the first time I worked with Alan J.W. Bell… he directed it. It was a David Nobbs sitcom and there was more ‘goodbye’ about it than ‘hello’! It sank without trace, I’m afraid, though it had some good track records in its favour; Ian Lavender and Mary Tamm were both in it.
What happened was… I was doing the Last of the Summer Wine stage play, and I met Alan when he came down to the theatre to watch the show. At the time I was being asked if I’d be interested in being in Minder to play Patrick Malahide’s sidekick, but I was doing the Summer Wine stage play in Easbourne and I wasn’t free. I was telling Alan Bell about it, and he said ‘Oh, I’ll get you some telly after you’ve finished, because I’m going to direct a sitcom and there’s a part that you can play… you can be the enormous chef!’
Basically the gag was that Mary Tamm and Ian Lavender went for a meal in a restaurant, and the meal was so dreadful that she kept saying, ‘Stand up for yourself and be a man!’ So Ian said, ‘Right, I want to see the chef!’ I came on, and I was six feet tall, and I think they actually put me on a pancake so I became about six foot nine. I towered over Ian! And he said ‘I just want to say that this meal was… really, really nice, thankyou very much indeed’.
Then Mary Tamm said ‘Stand up for yourself! It doesn’t matter how big he is!’… so he gave this very long, very good David Nobbs description about how bad the meal was… and I said ‘I know, I’m on a Job Creation Scheme and I’ve never cooked anything in my life!’
They came back to the restaurant on a regular basis as I got better at cooking. Ian Lavender’s character was selling medical supplies and one of the best gags – and this will give you an idea of how bad the programme was – was him asking somebody in a chemists shop what they needed in the way of supplies, and the bloke replying that he had everything he needed. Ian said ‘Have you got enough suppositories… because I’m bending over backwards to sell them!’
[We all actually laughed heartily at this stage, so perhaps credit is due to David Nobbs after all!]
I learned a lot on that show, because we shot it live in front of a studio audience, just as the Summer Wines that I did were shot in front of a studio audience at BBC Television Centre. And there’s a whole saga about dressing rooms at the BBC… who gets them, and what’s in them. I was a newcomer to Last of the Summer Wine and I was the only person in that show who needed a shower, because I had to put so much crap in my hair to make it slick back! And you’d have thought I’d asked for a gold-plated Rolls Royce. ‘You can’t have a shower! You don’t even qualify for an upstairs dressing room; you have to be below ground with no windows’. Apparently the BBC at the time had a thing about whether you got a dressing room with a day bed or a sink in it, and whether you shared a communal shower, or had a bathroom and a toilet. If you wanted to wash your hair, they used to give you BBC towels that you had to sign out; they had a BBC monogram in the corner. I said, ‘Well I’ll just bring my own towel from home,’ but I was told ‘Oh no, you have to use a BBC towel!’
That was probably transgressing some kind of union rule!
Yes, probably! I once asked Noel Edmonds, who had a very nice dressing room on the upper floor, if I could use his room when he’d finished with it, because he used to fly off home in his helicopter, and there was an empty dressing room for the rest of the day! Well that really upset the BBC because I’d gone outside protocol and asked another performer directly. Of course, Noel said it was no problem at all, he wasn’t using it. But the BBC said ‘Well, he might come back and use it later…’
He’d fly back in on his helicopter…
Exactly! He’d gone home to his mansion in Hertfordshire or wherever it was – as if he’d care! I fought really hard, and eventually – I think in the third series I did – they gave me a sink. I’d worked my way up to a sink at that point.
That’s when you know you’re a star…
Yeah, when you’ve got a sink and a day bed you’ve cracked it! You’ve got somewhere to lie down when you’re tired. That was pretty amazing. But of course, things changed after that… because the whole show moved out and went almost entirely on location, didn’t it? It was starting to happen anyway… I think when we did Uncle of the Bride, that was filmed at Elstree and there was no live studio audience on that. It was made as a film.
The facilities were changing, and they also were getting rid of the rehearsal studio at Acton. They used to call it the Acton Hilton. Everybody would be there… Marti Webb would be doing her thing; arriving in her Rolls Royce and parking next to your crappy old Ford Capri. It was great. I loved it, because it was a great leveller and I’ve never been a great one for respecting superstardom and things like that. So that’s what I loved about working for that period of the BBC. Of course I’m joking about the dressing rooms to a certain extent, because ultimiately there has to be some sort of rule. They were paying such rubbish wages that they had to give the stars something extra! A shower and a day bed didn’t seem much really. It saved them a lot of money… and you got a towel with ‘BBC’ written on it! The saddest thing was, I was so honest I never kept one! And now I bet a BBC towel would be worth a fortune. I could autograph it, stick it online and sell it for hundreds of pounds. What a shame. Mind you, wouldn’t it have been terrifying if you’d got stopped by somebody on the door saying ‘Have you got one of our towels?’
‘Oh, I was just taking it home to show my wife…’
Stepping into the cafe as Ivy’s new companion, did you ever worry at all that John Comer would be a tough act to follow?
It never crossed my mind, because I was so much younger than he was. If I’d been fifty, and coming in as Ivy’s new partner, that would have been a very different dynamic. The idea that Sid had passed away… I don’t know that they actually mentioned it, did they? Nobody ever told me whether Sid had just retired, or gone to live in a back room and never appeared again…
A couple of series later we see Ivy talking about him, and it’s clear that Sid has died, but it takes a few years to be acknowledged in the series, yeah…
…yeah, so I assumed that I was Sid and Ivy’s nephew, and that she was doing a big favour to my parents by giving me a job, which was a slightly different dynamic to being her partner. And I was also very aware that the character I was going to be playing was completely dumb!
Summer Wine had broadened. When I was a kid, I loved Summer Wine, but it was basically about a library, and three old boys who spent a lot of time there, talking and keeping warm. So the early series, which I was a fan of, had changed dramatically, and moved much more towards farce. Also, Terry Wogan had pushed the series on the radio, and talked about Nora Batty, so that whole Wally-Nora-Compo love affair had suddenly started to take off in a big way. And I had lots of hobbies – I canoed, I had a motor bike – and so for several episodes I was the reason that Compo was able to impress Nora. So I knew that I was going to be friends with Compo, because we really hit it off. As characters, I always trusted him, whereas I never trusted the slightly more authoritative Foggy, or the slightly more middle class Clegg! I related totally to Compo as a character… and, funnily enough, as a man as well, because he [Bill Owen] was a very good friend of mine. I liked Peter [Sallis] very much, and could spend a long time talking to Peter, but I would never have called him my mate. Whereas Bill and I had a lot of laughs together.
You probably shared a few politics as well, by the sound of things…
Yes, that’s generally true. It’s quite interesting actually, because I also directed and appeared in a lot of pantomimes with Ken Dodd. And Ken was a big supporter of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party, and so we didn’t really see eye-to-eye… but Ken admired Bill Owen in a big way as a performer, and also admired his politics, because he was so pure about believing in socialism, and being a lifelong member of the Labour Party, and the Unity Theatre. And I think Ken kind of liked that, in a strange way.
I’ve always been attracted to people with real talent. And, when you work with people, you can be friends with people with real talent, and I’ve always felt flattered if people like me, because they obviously think that I’ve got some talent. And I’ve got advice from older actors and older performers. It’s stood me in reasonable stead throughout my career.
We were interested in that, actually… because you have great double act with Jane Freeman in Last of the Summer Wine, who was quite a bit older than you. How was she to work with?
I loved Jane, she was fabulous. She was very professional. She’d come through the theatre too, working at Birmingham Rep, and I think I’d seen her in shows there when I was a child… because she must be 25 years older than me. I know she was very experienced when I met her. The extraordinary thing about Jane was that, as I was leaving the series, she was doing a very successful series of commercials for John Smith’s Yorkshire Bitter. She played the wife of Gordon Rollings, who was a character called Arkwright, and there was a distinct similarity between Last of the Summer Wine and those commercials… they were set in Yorkshire, they lived in a terraced house, all that kind of stuff. Anyway, Gordon passed away, and they were looking for a new person to continue the commercials… they had the Oxo family, and the coffee adverts, where you got interested in the relationships of those people… they were kind of soap operas. So they asked me, after I left Summer Wine, whether I would do the commercials with Jane Freeman, and I came in as her toy boy! I played a character selling John Smith’s Yorkshire Bitter, and I was very like Gordon Rollings’ character, except that I was 25 or 30 years younger than him. You could get paranoid couldn’t you, thinking your only jobs were going to be when people passed on?
So, yes… I loved working with Jane. She was lovely, a very nice woman. She was also married to the producer on The Bill, Michael Chapman, and I did The Bill for a while, when Michael was there, so my career has been interwoven with Jane and her family over a number of years. But like a lot of the older members [of the cast], they were kind of my parents’ generation, rather than my generation, so I didn’t socialise much with them.
Although I socialised with Peter Sallis in Eastbourne, because he was going through his ‘I’ve never been to a nightclub’ phase! And we used to take him out to nightclubs and discos, and he thought it was brilliant. Bill was a bit older, so he was more into cooking supper for me… he would go to Marks & Spencers to buy some nice food, and make me supper in the evenings after filming, which was very kind of him. And we’d play a bit of golf during the day… but only pitch and putt, not the serious 18 holes! I don’t think Bill was much of a golf course chap…
But yes, I liked Jane very much, she was a good person to work with. But after I’d done the commercials, we didn’t really stay in touch. It wasn’t because we weren’t close friends or anything… it’s a bit like in the theatre; you meet people, you’re very friendly with them for a short space of time, and then you drift apart because it’s such a peripatetic job. It’s the way it is, really.
One actor that fascinates us, not least because it’s been so difficult to find out any information about his life, is Joe Gladwin. Do you have any stories about Joe that you can share with us?
Oh, I’ve got loads of stories about Joe! I used to spend hours on the bus with him, or sitting in the caravan, in the rain! Joe told me all of his stories about his early life…
Really? This is gold dust! We couldn’t find out anything his life before the late 1950s, by which stage he was already fifty years old…
Right… when he was young, his dad had a coal business in Manchester. But, more than anything else, Joe wanted to be a Music Hall performer. He wanted to be a singer. But his dad wanted him to work in the coal business, so Joe had to drive up to Morecambe, to the docks, in a steam lorry. And it would take four hours, because the lorry had a regulator on it which meant that it would only do about 12mph… but if you took the regulator off, it would do 18-20mph! And one day, Joe was late for a show in Manchester, where he was due to perform as a singer in a Working Mens’ Club. He’d have been 17 or 18, something like that. And he was driving back in the steam lorry, and decided to take the regulator off the engine, so he could go a bit faster and get back in time to perform… because, obviously, he’d have to get washed and put his suit on, and get down the club. So he got back… but, unbeknownst to him, the sides of the lorry had bounced off on the rough roads from Morecambe! The name, ‘Gladwin’, was on them, and another driver – who knew his dad – picked them up, took them round to the yard, and said ‘Look, your lad has lost the sides of the lorry!’.
So Joe’s dad sent a message round to the Working Mens’ Club and said ‘Tell him not to come him unless the sides are back on the lorry, and tell him not to take that regulator off again!’ He knew he must have been speeding, to get back in time for the show… and he didn’t approve. So, after that, Joe gave up driving altogether, and went into a double act with a pianist. They hadn’t got a name, but they got some gigs touring in Wales, and while they were there, they saw a lorry… and the name of the company on the side was ‘Evans and Bevans’. And they decided that that would be their name, and for quite a while, they actually toured as ‘Evans and Bevans’.
And then Joe went into Music Hall as a comedian… they noticed that he was little, and weedy, and skinny, and quite lugubrious with that hangdog look, and he was taken on as part of a sketch show, a comedy trio. I think it was actually Rob Wilton that he worked with, and Joe would come on as the World’s Strongest Man! He had a leotard, like all circus strongmen would wear, made of leopardskin and hooked over one shoulder, but he used to wear it over his long johns! They’d chain him up to a huge anvil that took three stagehands to bring it on, and put these massive cuffs on his wrists, and then he’d start trying to get out of it… and then – if it was Rob Wilton – he’d be in a box in the theatre shouting ‘He’s rubbish! He’s the worst World’s Strongest Man I’ve ever seen! He’ll never get out of that!’
And then they’d drop the curtain, and somebody else would come on and sing a song, but behind the curtain you’d see a blacksmith arrive in silhouette, with a coal chisel and a sledgehammer, and they’d start to try and get Joe removed from the anvil! And then you’d see some people coming on with a stretcher, and five or six stagehands would lift him onto it – still attached to the anvil – then the curtains would go up, and Rob would still be heckling, and then – right at the end of the show – the audience would see Joe carried right down the aisle of the theatre into an ambulance that was waiting to take him away!
But then, of course, what happened was that the Music Halls started to close. And this made him very sad; he used to get a bit tearful. As television took over after the war, there was no work for the performers all, and they used to do something called ‘Park Shows’, which I’d never heard of until I met Joe, but – when the theatres closed – some of the theatrical managers and agents booked the big Music Hall stars into shows on bandstands in parks. And he told me that he’d see performers that had been real superstars of their day, working a park in front of people who were just walking their dogs, or kids that might sit down and watch. It was quite sad. But then, of course, he started in television, because television cottoned onto the way he looked and the way he spoke… and later in life, obviously he became a star, getting the job in Summer Wine, and in other stuff, too. He did something with Hylda Baker, I think? [The ITV sitcom Nearest and Dearest, 1968-1973] But he always drove a Hillman Hunter, a little brown car; he lived in the same house in Manchester all his life; and he drove this Hillman Hunter over to Huddersfield to film Last of the Summer Wine, and had his own parking space at the back of the Huddersfield Hotel.
Was that the place that you all stayed in?
Yes, owned by Johnny Marsden. The hotel had a disco and a nightclub attached to it, which none of the other Summer Wine cast went to, but I did – because I was a young man, I was 24 or whatever. And the DJ in that nightclub had been Peter Stringfellow! He’d started in Johnny’s nightclub in Huddersfield. And it’s funny… a photograph that I’d signed came up on Facebook the other day, and it was one I’d written to Johnny. ‘To Johnny, I always enjoyed staying in your place…’
Anyway, to finish about Joe… the other side of his life was that he was a lifelong Catholic, and he was a Papal Knight, for all the work that he’d done for Catholic charities.
It’s interesting watching your period of Summer Wine now, because Crusher almost has a hint of what was then called ‘alternative comedy’… you could just about imagine him being a character in The Young Ones. Do you think Crusher was Roy Clarke’s little nod to that emerging school of comedy?
I think… the thing you can say about Roy Clarke as a writer, is that he was truthful. Even though they were ridiculous situations, there was a grain of truth in everything he wrote. As a result, it meant that – as a performer – you could always find the truth in it, and the best comedy comes from truth. If it goes too far, and becomes surreal – a bit like The Young Ones – then I think it kind of loses an element of that. It just becomes people banging each other over the head, and you lose the pathos and the poignancy that Summer Wine has.
So I think Roy was very clear that he didn’t want to write that kind of comedy… but, having said that, he was also quite up-to-date. What I brought to the role was the Walkman, and playing the brush, all those kind of things… they weren’t in the script. It was the early 1980s, and the first Sony Walkman would have been the thing a young man wanted! And Roy Clarke and Alan Bell became very aware of the comic potential of wearing headphones… because, as soon as you’ve got them on, listening to music, you can’t hear what’s behind you! And also, in the early 1980s, there was that slight punk feel… which had happened in the late 1970s, and we brought that in. The wristbands and the leather and the studs, and originally I had a ripped t-shirt with safety pins in it. That was the fashion at the time, and I think all we were trying for was to be fashionable. Crusher was a product of his time. And that made him a little bit anarchic, and a little bit difficult… so that’s why I can see what you’re saying about The Young Ones. Here was a different generation coming into a television series that was really about the older generation. They hadn’t had a youngster in the show at all, and I was very aware of that.
It also created a kind of instant fame overnight… I hoovered up all the children that were watching Summer Wine, because they all related to my character!
And was that a life-changing experience? Did you have hoards of kids following you down the street every day?
Absolutely! I couldn’t sit on a bus, or go on a ferry to the Isle of Wight… you’d be sitting opposite somebody, and they’d go ‘Aw… I know you…’! And also, when I was in the series, there were only three or four television channels, so we’d do an episode of Summer Wine on a Sunday night and it would pull in 19 or 20 million viewers. Whereas seven or eight million is a huge audience these days, in those days 21 million was nothing peculiar. I remember once, at Summer Wine Headquarters in London – the Acton rehearsal studios – somebody saying ‘Have you seen that we topped EastEnders this week?’ And everybody was really chuffed. For a little while, it was the most popular television programme in the country, and you were in your living room while I was in your living room. So inevitably, those people are going to think that they know you… that you’re part of the family, almost. And it was such a family show, Grandmas sat and watched it with daughters, and sons, and grandchildren.
That was both of our experiences of watching Summer Wine when we were growing up…
Yeah! I can’t tell you the number of letters I got from little lads saying ‘My Mum hits me round the head when I play my Walkman… does it hurt, when your Mum hits you?’ They didn’t care that it was my Auntie Ivy, she was my Mum to them! I used to get lovely letters. I got one from a little lad that said ‘Can I have an autographed photo of you? And can you send one for my little brother too, because Mum says we’ll fight over it!’ Kids didn’t understand their mums and dads, and suddenly they were watching a television programme where I was the closest thing to a child in the show. And I was childlike… that was the whole joke of Crusher, he looked like he could extripate your Granny, but he was actually just a loveable, gentle kind of bloke who wanted to make everybody happy.
And I liked playing him, because there was an element of me in him.
Really? We wondered, because you’re clearly a very erudite man, and Crusher… isn’t!
No, he’s not very intelligent, but his heart’s in the right place. That’s the thing, and that’s what I always wanted to find in him… and the thing I found in me. I think I’m a fairly generous spirited and big-hearted person, and I’ve always wanted to make people happy and please them and do the right thing. And I wanted to put my generosity of spirit into Crusher. I used to drive my mother insane, because people would say ‘Is your son like that in real life?’… and she’d say ‘No! He went to university, he’s got a degree, he’s done post-graduate work!’ And I used to say ‘Mother, don’t argue with them… just say yes, I’m exactly like that in real life, and haven’t I done well?’
I think the really interesting thing about watching Summer Wine from the start, as we’ve done, is that it’s almost like a social history of the UK and particularly Yorkshire at that time. I [BOB] was born in 1972, so for me, watching the first ten to fifteen years of the show is like watching my childhood. And it really brings home how much Britain has changed since that time.
I think there’s a lovely nostalgia feel, and a rural nature to it. The small town where everybody knows everybody, and everybody is related to everyone else in one way or another. I can remember, when I was a child, nobody locked their doors, and everybody was in and out of each other’s houses. There was a man who worked on the Fell who had a shed, and fettled engines – he was a Wesley! And I used to meet three old blokes, walking across the Cockfield Fell when I was a little boy, and they made me play horseshoes with an iron stake knocked in the ground. But you’re right; there is an element of social history about it.
And when you hear that theme tune, it’s very wistful. I’ll tell you a really extraordinary story. I did a feature film called Phantom of the Opera, and I flew out to Budapest to film in the Opera House there. I was with Stephanie Lawerence, and we’d just arrived in Budapest, and went to one of the big hotels there. It had an atrium in the middle, and an aeroplane hanging from the ceiling, with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon coming down the middle of the hotel! It was an extraordinary place, with a glass ceiling and open lifts going up the inside of the building. I stepped into the lift, and as the door closed the lift music was the theme tune to Last of the Summer Wine! I’d left the series by then and I just thought ‘It’s following me! It’s haunting me!’ I looked around to see if somebody had arranged it… that is genuinely true.
I also think Roy had a fantastic ear for what people said. I think – perhaps because he was a copper, and an insurance salesman, and did all sorts of other stuff before he came to writing – that he was just a great observer of people, and he could turn a phrase. He gave me some wonderful things to say that I treasure now. They were very easy to deliver. Basically, you don’t need great comedy timing to deliver great comedy lines. That was very much part of why I enjoyed Summer Wine. It was a joy to get the scripts and read them. Quite often, actors will only read their own parts. But I used to like reading the whole half-hour episode of Summer Wine when I got it through the door… I knew my part would be in it, but I used to like reading the whole story.
Alan J.W. Bell also had a big part to play in the popularising of it, because I think it would have stayed as a minority-viewed alternative kind of thing… but what Alan brought to it was a much broader slapstick element… of falling off roofs, sliding down mountains, getting on beds and being towed behind cars. All that was definitely brought in by Alan. He encouraged it, because I think he recognised how popular it all was. I liked Alan, and I listened to him a lot, and he certainly knew what made the comedy tick. He was a technical director much more than an actor’s director. I think he relied on good casting. Once he got the actors in, they could do their own thing, and he tended to just put the cameras in the right place and shoot it. When I say that, it sounds like I’m belittling his skill, but no – his great skill was allowing the actors to do their own thing, and facilitating that. He understood that if you cast well, then good actors will make it work for you. He didn’t presume to tell us how to do the job.
The series becomes much more photogenic when Alan takes over… he got some incredible shots into it.
You can see it. You can tell the difference between Alan and Sydney Lotterby… just with the shots of three feet in the foreground, or the beautiful sunsets. All that kind of stuff.
It was interesting that you mentioned earlier about having to choose between being a ‘fat actor’ and a ‘thin actor’. Legend has it that you came back after one of the series’ breaks, having lost a lot of weight, and that’s why Crusher wasn’t in any further episodes. Has that been embellished over the years, or is that pretty much the true story?
I’ll tell you what happened… and this is God’s honest truth. The BBC are not the most generous of employers in terms of salary. I saw myself as a regular in a very successful TV sitcom, and I felt – after doing a number of years, and having served my apprenticeship in the stage play – that they should really ring me up a little bit in advance of a new series, and say ‘we’d like to book you’. They did that for Joe Gladwin, they did that for Jane Freeman, they did that for Kathy Staff, and of course for the three stars. And I’m not saying that I got too big for my boots, I was just advised by my agent that, really, it would be a good idea if we could actually know when I was expected to be working on Summer Wine.
What they used to do was wait until the last minute to book you, in order to wait until you were unemployed, in the hope that you would keep yourself free, and then they could get you for less money. That was the deal. That was how it used to work, and it was a bit of a game. And during the course of that year, the year I made my last series, I rang the BBC and said ‘Look, am I going to be doing Summer Wine?’ And they said ‘Well, we don’t know yet, because we haven’t got the scripts in from Roy Clarke – we don’t know how many episodes you’re going to be in.’
I said ‘Why don’t you give me a rough idea?’… they were doing a new series with Seymour, with Michael Aldridge, and they said ‘Well, there’s going to be a new series of eight or nine, or whatever it is, and we think your character might be in it… but we can’t guarantee it, so were not going to book you… blah, blah, blah.’. And then my agent said to me, ‘Look, if another job comes up, then we’ll take it, and you can do it’. And, at that point in my life, I’d met somebody, and was having a good time and enjoying my life, and I decided that I’d quite like my life to continue.
I’d also just seen the doctor, who told me that if I carried on at the weight I was, I probably wouldn’t see forty. So I had to face the decision… should I lose weight and live a longer life and enjoy my life… and was Summer Wine going to be the only thing I ever do in my life? And I thought, no… Summer Wine’s not going to be the only thing I ever do, I’m going to have another job. And while I was doing Summer Wine I did other jobs, so it wasn’t like I didn’t think I could work.
So I thought ‘I know, I’ll lose weight’… and, under advice from the doctor, I lost quite a lot of weight, actually. I think the last series of Summer Wine that I did, I was about 28 stone.
I was very big. There’s a lot of free food involved in television work, and it’s quite lazy as well… don’t let anybody tell you that it’s hard work! The hardest work is sitting around on set doing nothing at all. As far as I was concerned it was a joy, because I got to listen to stories from Thora Hird, from Joe Gladwin, from Bill Owen… I mean, listening to those people telling you stories about their early theatre life… people would pay for that, and I’m so lucky that I was with those people. The thing I regret the most is not being around those people for many more years.
But I lost fourteen stone in weight, half my body weight, and of course the newspapers got hold of that. The News of the World rang me up and asked if they could do an interview, because they’d seen me in other things, and thought ‘This can’t be the same man who played Crusher in Last of the Summer Wine’… and, of course, it got into the papers that I’d done this. My agent was phoned by the News of the World, and at the time I was um-ming and ah-ing as to whether to do it, because I didn’t really want my private life to be plastered all over a newspaper. And they said ‘If you don’t do this interview, we might be forced to print some of the rumours… he’s a single man, and he might have AIDS…’
Oh, my word…
And I thought, I can’t allow that to be in the papers… because it would have upset my mother, and my grandmother. And other people. I couldn’t have that speculation. So I agreed to do the interview, and The Sun picked up on it and had me pose with Page 3 girls in a white dinner jacket with my hair styled by L’Oreal, all that stuff. I did that modelling bit with them as a view to kind of relaunching my career as another type of actor. As a leading man, basically.
And then Roy Clarke and Alan Bell saw the papers, and they rang me up and asked if I would come into the BBC, and I went and I saw Alan, and he said ‘We don’t think you can play Crusher any more… because you’ve changed so much’. And I said ‘I think I could still play the character, I haven’t changed as a person, and the essence of me is still the same. What you could do is just write that Ivy has put him on a diet…’
One thing that I learned very early on is that nobody should suggest to Roy or to Alan how the series, in terms of the plots, or the stories, or the writing, should go. So that was probably a mistake on my part! I remember one of the first rehearsals I ever did for Summer Wine, I said ‘Can I say this line like this, because I think it would make it a bit funnier?’ And Alan Bell said, ‘Oh, so you know better than an award-winning writer who’s been writing for television for 25 years, do you?’ (laughs) And I thought, right… I’ve been sat down then, so I won’t make any more suggestions about the script!
So I saw Alan, and he said ‘We don’t think you can play Crusher any more…’ and, to be honest with you, at that point I didn’t really care, because I didn’t have a contract. And then he said ‘Oh, and the character was going to be in every episode of the series…’ And I said ‘Well, if you’d told me that in advance, then I might have been able to do something about how I look. But anyway… I think they felt that I’d let them down, and that I should have kept them informed about what I was doing. I felt that they should have kept me informed about whether I was going to be in the series. But I have to be honest, there was no nastiness. I felt very happy at the time, and I’d just got the job being Jane Freeman’s other half in six or seven John Smith’s beer commercials, which – to be absolutely honest – paid more in those six commercials than the entire time that I worked for the BBC in Last of the Summer Wine! So you can see why I wasn’t that deeply unhappy about leaving the series.
The only thing that saddened me was not being around those lovely people again. People that I thought of as family; Jane Freeman and Bill Owen, people like that.
But I went onto other things, and was quite happy… my agent changed, and another person came into the agency, and I became friends with a lady called Dulcie Huston and she said she said ‘I think there’s a side to you where you could play villains and bad guys, and nasty people…’, and I thought that would be really interesting. If you can’t play good guys, or nice, thick Yorkshiremen…!
Also, I didn’t want to get into ‘Benny from Crossroads’ syndrome. I think if I’d stayed in Summer Wine, I would have never been anything else than Crusher, for the rest of my life. I would have been identified as him, and I’d like to what I call ‘a finger-clicking good actor’… which is where people come up to you and go ‘You were… erm.. you did that part…’ and they click their fingers in your face! I like that feeling because it means that they’ve recognised you from somewhere, but they don’t associate you with one part. And, to a certain extent, that’s where all actors want to be. Ask anybody in EastEnders if they really wanted to be in EastEnders for thirty years… I don’t suppose they did, but they probably get trapped, and stuck in it, and then it becomes part of their life. It’s like the actors on The Bill used to say, it’s like going to the factory every day. You log in, do your job, and come home again. It’s not about acting any more, it’s just about doing that character.
We were thinking that you might be the only Last of the Summer Wine actor to have worked with Johnny Depp…
That is possibly true! (Laughs) I wouldn’t know, because you have a Bacon Number… have you seen that? How far you’re removed from Kevin Bacon? I don’t know if anybody else in Summer Wine has got a Johnny Depp number…
It was just an extraordinary experience to be in Pirates of the Caribbean, and to suddenly become a Hollywood actor. To be transported over there and learn what the life is like… there’s a little bit of glamour in Hollywood, and then there’s the difference in money! At the BBC, you’re lucky if you get a car, and you’ll probably have to share it with three other actors while they drive round North London, picking up everybody from different addresses to go off on a television shoot. Whereas, in Hollywood, you get a stretch limo that arrives… and if there’s six of you going to the studios, there are six stretch limos. That’s the difference!
It is quite extraordinary… flying First Class, and all that kind of stuff. The world suddenly becomes a different place. But the actors’ world is very weird, because you get a chauffer-driven car one day, and the next you’re out of work and down the Labour Exchange. And the other thing about actors, is that whenever they get a job they’re miserable! They complain so much! They all sit around whinging, and I always think to myself ‘You’ll really regret whinging in a years time, when you’re out of work… and this will seem like a dream!’
You seem to have very good relations with Last of the Summer Wine fans now. You’re very active on Facebook with Summer Wine fandom. Does a little bit of Crusher live on, do you think?
Well that was new to me, because I didn’t know there was any Summer Wine fandom at all on Facebook. A friend of mine told me about it. She said, ‘I’ve seen this site, do you know they’re talking about you as though you don’t exist? There are people asking questions that you could answer’. And I thought, ‘Well I’m sitting here, with nothing to do, at my computer… I might as well see what’s going on.’ So I went online and I started answering somebody’s question, and then somebody else said, ‘Are you the Jonathan Linsley that played Crusher?’ So that’s how it started. Then, of course, I was bombarded with people asking what I’m doing now, and what I’d done before, so I’ve put together a Facebook page that people can look at, with links to my old showreel, showing stuff that I did after Last of the Summer Wine. I mean its not an ego thing, it’s just informative because people are interested. I don’t go pursuing the superstardom!
I absolutely love being involved. It was a part of my life that I’m proud of. I’m proud that I worked on it, and I was genuinely a fan of it before I was an actor. I’d have been seventeen when Last of the Summer Wine started, so I hadn’t even left school, but I was watching like everyone else, with my mum and dad, and my brother. We’d sit round and we’d watch it on a Sunday night, and I thought it was funny. It spoke to me. We used to go on holiday to Scarborough – where Roy was from – and I knew that whole area in Huddersfield. When I was in Skipton, we used to go and play rugby against schools in that area. It seemed very much part of my home and I definitely related to that as a Yorkshireman. It’s quite interesting about the John Smith’s Yorkshire Beer commercials, though… they were never shown in Yorkshire!
Is that right?!
No, they were never shown in Yorkshire, because somebody – in one of their attempts at audience research – said, ‘It’s a bit patronising to Yorkshire folk’. They showed it in every other region around the country – I think there were thirteen ITV regions – so it showed in twelve of them. It was weird because I’d go back home and say, ‘Oh, I’m doing these commercials on telly, with Jane Freeman from Last of the Summer Wine, advertising John Smith’s Yorkshire Bitter’, and people would say, ‘Well I’ve never seen them!’ Then they’d go on holiday and see one in Kent…
Summer Wine was also hugely popular in Scotland. There was a massive fanbase for it there… maybe 30% of all letters I received were from Scotland. Again, I think it appealed in that it was slightly old-fashioned, sentimental and nostalgic. Maybe that appeals to the Celtic. There’s an element of storytelling about it that is certainly Welsh, Irish or Scottish. Whenever I’ve worked in those places I’ve always found that people like the gentle whimsy, but they also like the storytelling nature. Maybe there’s a folk element to it. Sometimes folk music can touch your soul because it’s rooted in the rural world.
So what’s on the horizon for you at the moment?
Well, I came back from Hollywood in 2008, and one of the reasons for that was that my wife became poorly. She’s got a form of Multiple Sclerosis. So I made a decision that I wouldn’t travel around the world, and I wouldn’t stay in Hollywood, because she didn’t want to travel over there and live in Southern California. So I came home, and basically I’m now her principle caregiver.
I’ve not regretted that for one second, because that’s also part of life. I’m also very lucky that I’ve done enough work in the past to keep the wolves from the door to a certain extent, and to pay the bills. I’m not saying that I’m rich by any means, but I’m rich compared to so many other people. I don’t have to worry about the gas and electric being paid, and stuff like that.
Occasionally, if somebody asks me to do something interesting, where I can work more or less on the South Coast within less than a days’ drive, then I can do it. But of course, once you’re not available for a lot of stuff, then the phone stops ringing. And when you get older the phone stops ringing because you look a bit older and you look a bit different… but who’s to say what could happen in the future?
I did, at one time, have a number of interviews with Coronation Street with a view to joining, and I might have relocated entirely up to the North if I’d done something there… if I’d had a regular character. And I did Emmerdale years and years ago. That was when I was doing Summer Wine, funnily enough, but I had an interview with them not long ago for a new character coming in. But again it didn’t work out, and that was partly to do with the fact that I wanted a bit of a guarantee… if I was going to move back to Yorkshire, then I wanted to be absolutely certain it was going to be for a longer period of time. They weren’t offering that, they were offering a character for maybe three to six months, so it wouldn’t have worked out for me. Obviously I do miss it a bit, so what I do now is a little bit of After Dinner speaking, and occasionally I stand up and tell anecdotes… I do a little chat called ‘From Holmfirth to Hollywood’ which is quite fun. I think people like to hear stories about the other people in Last of the Summer Wine, and what it was like to work on that series… and they also like to hear about Johnny Depp, and working in Hollywood and being in the Bahamas.
There’s a fascination isn’t there, with my profession? Which is why you’re writing what you’re writing… and why you do what you do! People say I should write a book and I’d love to do it, but it’s just discipline isn’t it? Being a feckless actor as I am…. I’ve a butterfly mind. Somebody can ring me up, and I can suddenly go off for three hours on my phone…