Most people know him as an actor – and especially as Charlie Stubbs, who stirred things up in Coronation Street a few years back – but Bill Ward has been back on home turf this week taking photographs.
His landscape shots will be appearing on Tyne & Wear Metro stations later this year as part of a project called Tyne & Motion, celebrating National Poetry Day.
This is a side of the Newcastle- born actor that will be unfamiliar to a lot of people, but it seems photography has been a lifelong passion. “I’ve been taking pictures since I was about six years old,” said the charismatic star after having his own photograph taken yesterday.
“I started off with a Kodak Instamatic back in the day. My interest now is landscape photography. I travel lots, all over the world, and I always take a camera with me.
“I enjoy taking photographs. To me it’s the perfect antidote to what I do for a day job, which tends to happen in front of an awful lot of people.
“Most of the landscapes I like to photograph take me as far away from people as possible. It’s my way of getting away from it all but also doing something that I really enjoy.
“I suppose photography is another way of expressing how you feel. There’s a saying that the camera looks both ways and particularly as a landscape photographer I think that’s true.
“You take pictures based on how you feel when you are in a given place at a given time and what you’re trying to capture is not just that place but how it made you feel.”
A recent project called Passing Through saw him focusing on the canals of Manchester. It resulted in a hugely atmospheric and rather gritty body of work that was much admired. “Most of the pictures I take are very early in the morning or late in the evening just before sunset, what they call the blue hour when the light is amazing,” said the actor.
“I tend to do a lot of long- exposure photography, keeping the shutter open as long as possible to capture as much of the light as possible. It’s like squeezing a collection of moments into one picture.”
You get the sense Bill Ward would be good at this. Into a lunchtime interview in Newcastle yesterday, he managed to squeeze many notable moments into the time it takes to finish a pot of tea.
The photography bug bit young. Also a bit of a car nut as a kid, he recalled whizzing around Newcastle on his bicycle looking for flashy models to photograph – until his mum threatened to cut off his film supply if he didn’t turn his attention to something more worthwhile.
Childhood ambitions? He roared with laughter. “I didn’t have ambitions – just to do my best at school.”
I’d read that Bill’s father was a butcher, which is true. But for a long time he ran RA Dodds, the family chain of butchers’ shops.
A grandfather used to run Redheads, the South Shields shipyard, before it was taken over by Swan Hunter.
Bill went to Ascham House School in Gosforth and then to boarding schools in Scarborough and Oundle, which explains why one of his earliest acting experiences was in a play performed entirely in Latin. “I didn’t know what it was all about, so I had to learn it phonetically,” he recalled.
He also has memories of playing Banquo in Macbeth.
“A great part. That was what made me think acting was really good fun.”
Once into his teens, ambitions started to take shape. “From the age of about 14, I wanted to be an actor or work for an advertising agency,” he recalled.
“That sounds a bit weird, but I used to watch the adverts on the telly and try to work them out. It wasn’t so much the things they were selling that interested me but working out why people would buy them.”
Bill went on to spend 10 years in advertising, working for bluechip agencies Saatchi & Saatchi and BBH (Bartle Bogle Hegarty) as an account director and strategic planner.
He won’t have a word said against the industry.
“I really enjoyed it and I could have carried on doing it quite happily.
“But the only other thing I’d ever really want to do was act and when I got to 30 I thought I should really give it a go. I thought, if I crash and burn, I can always go back to advertising.”
He carried on working as a freelance to pay for study sessions at The Actors Company and then sent hundreds of letters to directors and casting agents, trying to get noticed.
Eventually he started getting theatre work and then, slowly but surely, TV work came.
“I remember getting a speaking part as a policeman in the Nick Berry series, In Deep.
“I said, ‘Stop!’ Then I did The Bill, a couple of scenes, and six or seven scenes in Holby City.”
Then came Coronation Street. His agent heard they were looking for a guy in his mid-40s with a Mancunian accent and cheekily put forward a Geordie in his mid-30s who had only ever spent one night in Manchester. Called for a screen test, Bill had to ask them to wait. He was surfing in California with a mate who was enjoying his last hurrah before hitting 40.
Bill eventually went before the cameras feeling he had “a cat in hell’s chance of getting the part” and, of course, did. He became builder Charlie Stubbs and a household name. After playing a lot of dull good guys, he enjoyed being the baddie. He even enjoyed the attention that came with appearing in 200-plus episodes of the country’s longest-running TV soap.
“Yes, people do start recognising you, but it’s OK. Most people just want to say hello.”
He gave a year’s notice of wishing to quit in 2007.
“I had done a lot of theatre and I enjoyed it. But I was on a sole contract at Coronation Street which meant I couldn’t do anything else. I wondered what else I might do with my career.” Charlie duly took his exit.
“I was delighted with what they did with him,” said Bill, grinning … “having him murdered while receiving a lapdance. I thought that was a perfect way for that character to go.”
More recently – in fact until a few days ago – Bill was in London’s West End playing a Cowell-type talent show judge in the Spice Girls musical Viva Forever!
The critics panned it mercilessly and the curtain fell prematurely.
“A great experience,” said the irrepressible Bill. “It ran for six months and I guess the producers hoped it would run longer.
“But it was great fun while it lasted. It’s very difficult to launch a new musical in the West End.”
Bill has just done “two or three days” on a new film called A Dark Reflection, but is currently focused on Tyne & Motion, the inaugural project of Poetry in Motion set up by civil servant and poetry lover Gail Lawler.
It will see the poems of four competition winners – two adults and two children – displayed on Metro trains during September and October and posters featuring poems and Bill’s photographs on platforms.
Bill volunteered his services for the project, which struck a chord with him.
“I’m a firm believer in the vital importance that art and creativity play in all our everyday lives and absolutely passionate about the North East,” he said.
“It is, and always will be, the place I truly call home.”
Details of the competition, sponsored by Nexus, East Coast and EarthDoctors.co.uk, can be found on www.poetryinmotion.org.uk