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Peter Duncan stars in Birdsong at Northern Stage

The stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks' bestselling novel, Birdsong, is coming to Northern Stage

Peter Duncan plays Jack Firebrace in the stage production of Birdsong
Peter Duncan plays Jack Firebrace in the stage production of Birdsong

If you are of the right TV viewing generation, mention of Peter Duncan will bring back memories of hair-raising adventures on Blue Peter and, subsequently, Duncan Dares.

That was back in the 1980s. Peter is still a pretty daring, outdoorsy sort of person, by all accounts. He was Chief Scout for five years until handing over to Bear Grylls and recently took part in shortlived BBC celebrity gymnastics show, Tumble.

“You have got to be a bit more careful when you get to my age (he’s 60 now) but I’ve always been pretty fit and I do tend to forget I’m not 25 any more,” admits Peter.

He has an interest in The Natural Adventure Company which specialises in self-guided walking holidays in the Balkans. Rather than being something he approves of, this is something he actually does.

But before he was on television, Peter was an accomplished stage actor, playing Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island and spending two years at the National Theatre during Laurence Olivier’s time in charge. His theatre CV is impressively long.

It is as a stage actor that he will be in Newcastle, playing the character Jack Firebrace in the stage version of Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ bestselling novel about the First World War.

This is serious stuff. On tour last year, when Peter was also in the cast, the production – based on Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation – garnered admiring reviews with several critics confessing they had succumbed to its emotional clout.

Peter says: “I read the book in the 1990s, like so many people, and I have a strong memory of it. It is a very moving story and people are obviously coming to the play with certain expectations of it. It is going down very well.”

The main character in Birdsong is Stephen Wraysford, a tutor who becomes an Army officer, but Jack Firebrace represents what must have been the experience of many North East 1914-18 combatants.

He is a miner for whom front line service brought no respite. Along with other ex-pitmen, his job was to tunnel towards enemy lines, there to lay explosives designed to blow the enemy to kingdom come.

Peter, who researched the topic in the Imperial War Museum, says: “Between the two lines of trenches there wouldn’t have been much to see but underground was a warren of caves and tunnels.

“It was like another world and the guys down there were in danger not just from roof falls but from both sides. If they came up in no man’s land they could get shot by snipers and if they broke through into a German tunnel there would be a battle underground with picks and shovels.”

The redoubtable Firebrace is to find his sturdy surname scant protection against the dangers of the First World War.

Peter Duncan has a North East family connection. His father, Alan Gale, produced a beach show called The Waveletts on Redcar sands in the 1940s.

No First World War combatant springs to mind from the family tree but Peter says: “A lot of my fellow cast members have been thinking back to relatives who took part. Usually if you go back a couple of generations you’ll find somebody who was involved in that war.

“I first got a real sense of it from watching The World at War (the acclaimed 26-part ITV series from the early 1970s). But for me it’s still an inexplicable war. You wonder how it was ever allowed to happen.”

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