Alun Armstrong may be one of our best-loved TV stars but he’s never forgotten his roots which is why he’s happy to be playing a lead role in the future of a small theatre in Stanley.
The North East-born actor will be back in County Durham next week to lend his support to the Civic Hall which is re-naming its theatre after him.
“I’m absolutely delighted - it’s a great honour,” says Armstrong whose wide-ranging stage, film and TV career includes gangster classic Get Carter, BBC’s New Tricks and now a guest slot in the coming Christmas special of Downton Abbey.
“I’m proud of my roots and it’s very important to me to maintain strong links.”
Armstrong, from Anfield Plain, was asked by Claire Howe, the new manager of the Civic Hall where he once played guitar on stage as a 16-year-old, to lend his name to the venue - previously known as Lamplight - and he was happy to oblige.
A special night to mark the changeover will see him the focus of attention of next Friday’s A Night To Remember, a variety show with a bill including comic favourite Bobby Pattinson.
“The last time I was there was for my sister’s wedding; she had her reception there 40-odd years ago,” he recalls.
But he’s regularly back in the region where two cousins still live as well as the best friends he’s had since school who now live in Chopwell and Weardale
Growing up, he’d never thought of becoming an actor and credits his school English teacher Dennis Earl, who staged a Shakespeare play every year, with setting him on the path.
“He was a remarkable man. He put these plays on and spent absolutely all his spare time devoted to them. It was like being at drama school. He taught us how to read Shakespeare verse and the rudiments of stage craft.
“He became my mentor and coached me and when the National Youth Theatre came to the North East for the first time to look for kids he managed to get me into it. He was a very, very important person in my life.”
His parents, who were both preachers while his father also worked as a winding engineer at the local pit, supported him all the way.
“Stage is my first love and I did almost exclusively stage when I was younger and spent a long time in the RSC and National Theatre,” he says. “I’ve always loved it.”
Get Carter was one of his earliest film roles and he remembers being in a radio play, doing theatre in education work in Sheffield - “not even properly an actor”, when he heard of a film about to shoot in Newcastle with Michael Caine.
“I found out who the casting director was and I wrote a letter - the only letter I’ve ever written for a job -and they got back to me and said ‘send photos’.
“I didn’t have any - I hadn’t been to drama school. I was naive so went to a railway station, put my half crown in a machine, got three passport photos and send them off!
“I didn’t know I was supposed to have big 10 by 8s.”
But the pictures went down well. “And that was it, I got the part - playing a naive Geordie!”
Soon Alun will be returning to his first love of theatre, in the Eugène Ionesco play Exit the King, in Bath but is always on the lookout for work that brings him back to the North East, such as Downton Abbey, which he filmed recently at Alnwick Castle. He plays the butler of the family who host the Crawleys on a a grouse shoot and manages to irritate their servants.
He says of his character: “He’s very pernickity and particular and he gives them a hard time so they want to get their own back and gang up on me!”