Kevin Whately talks history, Morse and TV success ahead of Our Finest Hour in Birmingham
From coping with the success of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet to the major life-changing role in Inspector Morse, Kevin Whately talks TV, touring and why big band music makes his hair stand on end. . .
He’s fascinated with history. And he’s fascinated with Big Band music. So there could have been no better person chosen to present Our Finest Hour than Kevin Whately, the small screen actor best known for his 30-year role as Lewis.
The man who rose to fame as Neville Hope in Auf Wiedersehen Pet before starring alongside John Thaw in Inspector Morse and going on to feature as Jack Kerruish in the drama series Peak Practice will feature in a unique production that celebrated Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain.
The show, Our Finest Hour, will feature at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on April 13.
It has been created in commemoration of the miracle of Dunkirk and the decisive victory of the Battle of Britain. Kevin will host a triumphant and rousing concert featuring vocalist Annie Gill and the BBC Big Band, with music director Barry Forgie.
The show will look back on the words and music of World War Two, bringing together the famous speeches of Winston Churchill and the best tunes of the time from the dance halls and wireless.
The show will focus on such pivotal moments in the War as 18 June 1940, when Winston Churchill famously said: “The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. . . The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”
Kevin feels honoured to be part of a show that reflects on the selfless actions of those who lived through Wartime. And he’s particularly pleased to be bringing the show to Birmingham.
“I was there two years ago at the Symphony Hall doing a similar thing. It’ll be a bit like the last night of the proms with the BBC Big Band. I’ll be reading letters and doing some narration. We’ll have some of Churchill’s speeches on a projection as well. I’ve seen the script for it and some of the letters that I’ll be reading are deeply moving. One is from an airman who released his mother wouldn’t read the letter unless he was killed. Sadly, he didn’t come back from a bombing trip to Belgium. He explained to his mother what the War meant. People were selfless in that time, so it’s a great honour to remember those stories and give people a voice.”
Our Finest Hour harks back to a time in which Britain stood alone, facing the most fearful odds. It recalls how Winston Churchill rallied the nation with his historic speeches, laying bare the enormous task that had to be undertaken on the road to final victory. Across the Channel, after the miracle of Dunkirk, the Germans readied their invasion plans but the Battle of Britain denied the Luftwaffe control of the skies and the Nazis turned instead towards attacking the Soviet Union.
The music and songs of the era tellingly evoke national feelings of pride and determination, mixed with typical British humour and a touch of self-deprecation. It really was Our Finest Hour.
The show will recall such giant figures as Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields to the Andrews Sisters and Glenn Miller. It will feature iconic songs such as We’ll Meet Again, (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover and A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square as well as some of the classic music the war inspired, including the Dam Busters March and the music from Ron Goodwin’s classic scores to Battle of Britain and 633 Squadron. Dunkirk Spirit and audience participation will be encouraged through rousing performances of Rule, Britannia!, I Vow to Thee My Country, and Land of Hope and Glory.
Kevin grew up on such songs. “I always remember people like Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. I’ve never forgotten how good they are. Those big bands came over from the States and it kick-started a whole different type of music that led to rock’n’roll. It’s great to be doing something like this when we’re in amazing venues and different cities.”
Though Kevin is famed for his acting prowess he was, in fact, initially a musician. Having been born near Hexham, in Northumberland, he followed in the footsteps of his maternal grandmother, Doris Phillips, who was a professional concert singer. After studying at Barnard Castle School, he went on to study drama at the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1975. He started working life as a folk singer, and still plays the guitar, performing for charity concerts. But acting soon took over and his music career was put on hold.
“I was a folk singer and I was in rock bands in the sixties, as well as r’n’b bands in the North East. The folk was alright and I made a living at that, though I never made any money from the rock band. I’d have loved to have been a musician, if I’m honest, and early in the acting career I did a lot of music around the reps. These days, my daughter makes a fulltime living as an opera singer. It’s technically clever. Us actors swan around and learn a few lines but singers have a much harder job and I’m always impressed. Music just gives everything an extra lift and a big band makes my hair stand on end.”
Kevin’s big break came when he starred in Auf Wiedersehn Pet. The show, created by Franc Roddam, featured seven English migrant construction workers living and working on a building site in Dusseldorf. It featured Kevin alongside Tim Healy, Jimmy Nail, Timothy Spall, Christopher Fairbank, Pat Roach and Gary Holton, with Noel Clarke replacing Holton for the third to fifth series.
It was written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who also wrote The Likely Lads, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Porridge, and was ranked number 46 on the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes in a list compiled by the British Film Institute.
In 2015, the 1980s series was voted ITV’s ‘Favourite TV Programme of all Time’ in a Radio Times readers poll in order to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the station. The show was also the subject of the first episode of the BBC documentary series Drama Connections in 2005.
Kevin has only happy memories of it.
“We sort of expected it to do well because we were big fans of The Likely Lads, which was also written by Dick and Ian. When we heard that those guys were writing a new series all of us in the Geordie Acting Mafia were desperate to get in it. Both the directors were very experienced and they expected it to be a slow burner.”
Kevin’s wife, Madelaine Newton, had previously worked with some of those involved with the show on When The Boat Comes in. She told her husband to prepare to be famous. “She was right because it went off like a rocket. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a hit show and it was like being in a rock band.
“We were mobbed by fans and it was alienating, I barely went out for the first year. Tim Healey and Jimmy Nail and I were mobbed when we went to see Billy Connolly do a comedy gig. We literally couldn’t get into the hall and I was quite scared by the experience. Billy had to send the road crew in to carry us in and then sneak us out. I wouldn’t go to the shops for a while. It was hell. We lost our privacy.”
Kevin had never really planned to be a TV star, but it just happened. His intention had been to tread the boards in local theatres, touring the country in high quality plays. But, as with the best laid plans of mice and men, fate had a different plan for him.
“The telly just took over. When you have a hit like that, everything changes and the offers get better and better. It’s hard to explain to people what it’s like. Until you experience that kind of thing of having 19 million viewings watching an episode of a show that you’re in, it’s hard to explain.”
It wasn’t long until he was cast as Robert ‘Robbie’ Lewis in the crime dramas Inspector Morse and Lewis. His life changed once more. Lewis was portrayed as a working class, easygoing family man with a Geordie accent, the polar opposite of Morse, an Oxford-educated, RP-accented, lifetime bachelor.
Morse frequently used those differences to insult or demean Lewis, perhaps from Morse’s point of view in a playful manner. In many episodes, Lewis followed hunches that Morse criticised – only to be proven correct in the end. With the end of Inspector Morse and the death of its star, John Thaw, Lewis’s adventures had seemed to come to an end. However, a spin-off, Lewis, became a huge hit with Kevin cast in the central role.
“Lewis was a totally different ball game. They were TV films, two-hour films, and we did 66 of them over 30 years. Morse also took off in America and in other parts of the world because they liked anything of that quality. For a while, it was pretty much everywhere. I’d go to a restaurant in LA and the maitre d would know who I was. That level of fame was completely surreal.
“It was different to Auf Widersehn, which was a gang show. Back then, we were young lads and not very disciplined to say the least. We treated it as a party and there were seven leads. But with John Thaw and I, we had the lion’s share of the work for us. It was also a bigger budget show, so we had to be more responsible and disciplined. I learned everything I know from John. He was brilliant. He was a shy man, like me, and he was very proud of his achievements but didn’t like fame, as such. I think he was one of the greatest screen actors ever produced in the UK. The main difference was that he had the most expressive voice and could drive a scene vocally, which most people can’t do. I’m very proud of those years.”
TV producers weren’t finished, of course, and soon created Peak Practice as a vehicle for Kevin. The show was set in Derbyshire and ran for 147 episodes across 12 years.
It originally starred Kevin as Dr Jack Kerruish, Amanda Burton as Dr Beth Glover and Simon Shepherd as Dr Will Preston, though the roster of doctors changed many times over the course of the series. Kevin stayed with the show for two years.
“Peak Practice was built around me. Lucy Gannon wrote it for me and that brought me an extra layer of responsibility. We had to make it a success and were were told that if at the end of the first year we hadn’t got 12 million viewers a week, they’d pull the plug. Well, we got to around 14 million.”
The success of Kevin’s career has meant he’s missed out on some of the things he might have done, including pursuing his love of music. He has, however, always made time for sport. A former long distance runner, he’s closely followed the fortunes of Newcastle United, rugby league and the English cricket team.
“Yes, I love sports. I have a lifelong love of long-form test cricket, despite what’s happened to the England team recently. I love any ball game, though I was no good as a cricketer. I was better as a long distance runner and ran in a team with Charlie Spedding and Mike McLeod. Mike went to the Olympics and Charlie did too, as well as winning the London Marathon. I was 8th or 10th on a team with those guys.”
Sports can wait for now, however, as Kevin has work to do. There are lines to learn and songs to enjoy as he returns to the road for Our Finest Hour. “I can’t wait for it to start,” he says. And nor can many fans.
- Our Finest Hour – Dunkirk And The Battle Of Britain is on at Birmingham Symphony Hall on Friday at 7pm. Tickets cost from £19.50. Call 0121 780 3333.