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Alun Armstrong stars in BBC Radio 4 plays written by Newcastle author Michael Chaplin

Local talents are hoping a series will be commissioned after this week's dramas featuring moral dilemmas in a Durham town

Actor Alun Armstrong, during his visit to Stanley Civic Hall
Actor Alun Armstrong, during his visit to Stanley Civic Hall

TV star Alun Armstrong has teamed up with Newcastle author and old friend Michael Chaplin for a double-bill of radio plays which will air on BBC Radio 4 from tomorrow.

And the local talents have high hopes that their new venture The Ferryhill Philosophers will develop into a detective-style series.

The first of the 45-minute dramas tackling moral dilemmas makes its debut tomorrow at 2.15pm with the second stand-alone story following at the same time on Wednesday and both will see former New Tricks star Armstrong co-star as ex-pitman Joe Snowball alongside State of Play actress Deborah Findlay playing Durham University lecturer Hermione Pink.

The unlikely pairing of characters from very different backgrounds is set to provide plenty sparky entertainment as they address some serious-sounding subject matter.

Writer Chaplin has come up with topics to make people think and provoke debate and his first play, sub-titled A Good Thing for a Good Reason, sees Joe face a dilemma when his oldest pal, who is depressed, unhappily married and fed up with being out of work in the former mining village, threatens suicide.

Michael Chaplin
Michael Chaplin

Wanting to intervene but unsure of what to do, he seeks out advice which brings him together with Hermione - with hints at a possible romance to come.

Chaplin said: “In earlier times he might have asked Ferryhill’s Methodist minister for advice or his Trade Union official but in this kind of post-faith world it’s quite difficult if you find yourself in these kind of situations and you might do something a bit crazy which is what Joe does: he writes a letter to the university’s department of philosophy.”

Philosophy lecturer Hermione is also the daughter of an earl so it’s quite a culture clash when she arrives in Ferryhill on her first visit to the Durham village despite working just seven miles away.

The second play, Wants and Desires, features a young female sex worker and has surprises in store.

In Joe’s home-grown commonsense approach to the situations, he’s a perfect contrast to Hermione and no doubt the attraction of opposites will see future development if, as hoped, a series gets commissioned once the plays air.

Chaplin said: “There are two fantastic actors playing the leads who are a kind of double-act, like two detectives, and there’s a bit of sexual chemistry. I don’t know where it will go but it’s a useful thing to have!”

He chose the location of Ferryhill because it’s where his late father, renowned author Sid Chaplin, grew up and where he himself spent his first couple of years before the family’s temporary move to London.

He said: “The integral idea is to have all these philosophical issues presented within the framework of Ferryhill, the people who live there and the issues that arise out of ordinary life.

Actor Alun Armstrong with Stanley Civic Hall manager Claire Howe
Actor Alun Armstrong with Stanley Civic Hall manager Claire Howe

“I have family on both sides who are still there and my cousin Brian is in The Ferryhill Town Band and they provide the opening and closing music for the two plays.”

The area is not far from where Armstrong was born. The Stanley-born actor remains proud of his roots and recently returned for the renaming of the town’s Civic Hall theatre in his honour. Like Chaplin, he also likes to attend the Miners’ Gala.

This is the first time the men have worked together despite knowing each other for years.

Chaplin said: “We both have a son called Tom who went to the same school in Wandsworth in London and we met on the touchline of the football pitch where they were both in teams - it must have been about 25 years ago and we remained friends.

“This is the first time he’s been in something of mine and for both of us it’s been a really great experience.

“I hoped he would be in it. It was kind of written for him but obviously I didn’t show it to him until it was finished.

“He liked the character and the idea and the play and agreed to do it.

“Previously he’d been in New Tricks for years and years and the right project hadn’t come along for either of us.”

Actor Alun Armstrong
Actor Alun Armstrong

Both would be keen to do more of The Ferryhill Philosophers together.

Chaplin said: “We hope that Radio 4 will give us the opportunity if the first two go down well. We’d be delighted to do more.”

The themes cover human issues that also happen to be philosophical issues which people have been thinking about for generations. “And they turn out to be rather meaty in terms of stories!” he said.

“There has to be a human story at the heart and you have to find a way of telling that story in as accessible and entertaining a way as possible.”

This is the second current Radio 4 project for the writer known for his work for stage and TV, following his commissioning to write several episodes of First World War series Tommies which made its debut in October.

Billed as the BBC’s most ambitious radio series ever, the ongoing series features fictional characters but actual frontline events and over the next four years it will be charting them in real time 100 years on from when they happened. The next series is due to run from April to May.


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