John cops an acclaimed career on stage and screen

IT doesn’t take Midsomer’s finest detective to discover that the career of his former sidekick, Dunstable born actor John Hopkins, is currently flying high.

Wednesday, 10th August 2011, 9:00 am

The 37-year-old former Manshead schoolboy, who took up acting to overcome his shyness, is stunning audiences with his portrayal of an alcoholic former flying ace who is involved in a messy love triangle in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.

It’s a long way from his role as Sergeant Dan Scott who spent two seasons playing alongside John Nettles in the global hit TV series Midsomer Murders.

This week John, whose parents still live in south Dunstable, spoke to Anne Cox about his career, which has taken him to the country’s top drama school, RADA, and seen him lauded by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He first became interested in the stage when, as a pupil at Priory Middle School, he saw a touring production of Pinter’s The Caretaker.

“There wasn’t an awful lot of theatre in Dunstable in the 1980s when I was growing up. My first experience was at Priory, which was a lovely school. I was blown away by it because I’d never seen anything like it.

“It really was one of those transitional moments. I’d never come across the power and violence that words could have.

“Then I had a very good English teacher at Manshead called Barry Ellis and he was enormously inspiring and we used to read Shakespeare out loud a lot. I discovered I had a facility or connection with it.

“The first Shakespeare I ever got to see live was an A-Level school trip to see John Nettles, bizarrely enough, in Winter’s Tale at The Barbican.

“I got involved in house drama. I wrote, directed and starred in something where I played a rather camp King John in a version of Robin Hood which was my first taste of the smell of the greasepaint and roar of the crowds.

“I was quite a shy kid. I had very bad asthma and bad eyesight so I was terrible at games. It meant I wasn’t very sporty, which was the lingua franca of my school, so I did feel a bit isolated, enough to be stuck in a dream world or always reading. I was the kid with a note from mum sitting on the school bench being excused PE!

“I didn’t do GCSE drama. I was quite shy and diffident. I wasn’t really much of a show-off.

“The shyness reached its zenith when I got to university. I went to Leeds which was full of breath-takingly confident, polished, assured public school kids who had just arrived like me but seemed as though they had been rehearsing for adulthood for the last ten years.

“I became even shyer and more into my shell. In the end, I thought I’ve got to do something about this because it was crippling so I started auditioning for plays and got into them. It was almost like aversion therapy.”

After three years John came out with an English degree and a desire to study drama at RADA. After winning the backing from his parents he took a gap year and a string of low paid jobs to earn some money and prove to his parents that he was serious about his career ambitions.

“Towards the end of university I had to sit my parents down and have the conversation with them about wanting to go to drama school which would be another three years for which I would require financial assistance.

“I’m immensely grateful to them for their support.”

After RADA John was snapped up by the RSC and other major production companies, appearing in, among others Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and The 39 Steps.

He made his TV debut in MM, before taking the advice of his lead, to experience life in a major television series, then move on.

“I’m the George Lazenby of side-kicks! I was talking to John late one night and he said that if I had ambitions beyond Midsomer you should leave after two or three years. And he was right.

“When I was in Midsomer there was a certain recognition but I had friends in really cool television shows like The Office. They’d go to bars in Soho and be mobbed by beautiful women. I’d go to a country pub on a Sunday and be accosted by elderly grannies!”

He’s since appeared in all the usual suspects – The Bill, Spooks, Casualty, Merlin – and is now receiving widespread critical acclaim in The Deep Blue Sea and Rattigan’s Nijinsky at Chichester Festival Theatre throughout the summer.

In DBS John stars as Freddie Page, a decorated WWII flying ace, now grounded and ensnared in a toxic and very physical relationship with a judge’s wife. Both are walking an emotional tightrope. It’s a powerful and, at times, a shocking performance.

“The Deep Blue Sea is an incredible piece. Freddie finds himself in a relationship with an emotional vampire, someone taking far more than he can give. He’s in agony. His best years are behind him, getting old in a world that no longer values his skills. He realizes, against his will, he’s destroyed another woman’s heart.”

This autumn, new American manager in tow, he hopes to go off to the USA to try his hand at the pilot season where new shows are cast and tested. A former flat-mate, Jesse Spencer, took a chance and ended up a resident in the award-winning House.

“I may go but I do love theatre and I get great parts,” he said.

The Deep Blue Sea and Rattigan’s Nijinsky runs in rep until September 3. For tickets call the box office 01243 781312.

ANNE COX