Theatre interview: Peter Duncan

Peter Duncan in Birdsong. PIC: Jack Ladenburg

Peter Duncan in Birdsong. PIC: Jack Ladenburg

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Former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan is starring in the First World War drama Birdsong at West Yorkshire Playhouse next month. He spoke to Phil Penfold.

Being born into a theatrical family, Peter Duncan knew all about the ups and downs of show business and today, at the age of 60, he regards himself as pretty lucky. “I’m still here, I’m still working, and I’m still up for pretty much everything that comes my way.”

Duncan is currently touring in a stage version of Sebastian Faulk’s bestselling novel Birdsong. He plays Jack Firebrace, the plucky sapper who, along with his comrades, has to tunnel under German lines in the First World War to lay mines.

“What these lads realised, of course is that the Germans were doing exactly the same thing from their side and occasionally they all unhappily coincided in the middle,” explains Duncan. “Jack’s a lovely man to bring to life. He’s got a faith, a wife and a young son at home. All he wants is to do his job, make his family proud of him, get back to Blighty and return to his old familiar job on excavating the London Underground.”

Jack’s story is interwoven with that of Stephen Wraysford, a young officer who found love in France before the outbreak of war and whose aim is to discover where his lost sweetheart is living, and see if he can rekindle their relationship.

“It’s a harrowing piece of work,” admits Duncan, “but audiences seen to warm to it because it is intensely human, very honest. It leaves all of us a bit drained, especially on days when we’ve had two performances, but, for those of us in it – and I hope the audiences – it is strangely exhilarating.”

Duncan’s late mother and father were deeply rooted in the theatre. Dad leased both the West Pier in Brighton and the Tonbridge Wells Opera House where Duncan was often asked to be his father’s “stooge” in the annual pantomime.

It was never a given that he would follow in his parents’ footsteps, but his big break came when he was cast as Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island at the old Mermaid Theatre in London and afterwards he was taken up by Sir Laurence Olivier to be part of his National Theatre company.

“I found myself talking to the likes of the dear and much-missed Geraldine McEwan and watching people like Olivier himself, and Paul Schofield, Derek Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins. I mean – what a way to learn your craft. It taught me, above all, that the ensemble of a cast is far, far more important than any one individual. And Olivier, I suppose, was the last shining example of a true actor-manager, passionate about what was presented on stage, so I was so very lucky to have been part of that almost-vanished tradition.”

His hair may be greying slightly at the sides these days, but the huge grin and those daredevil blue eyes are as twinkling as ever. He smiles a lot, and there’s absolutely no mistaking the young Peter Duncan who made a lot of young ladies’ hearts beat a lot faster, and a lot of young lads deeply envious of his exploits when he joined Blue Peter in 1980. “Blue Peter, for me, was very much like one of those old variety shows. It was live and it was all very spontaneous. There was also the added element of journalism and reporting, and I really could not have been happier.”

After all of that, there came a glorious mixture of opportunities. There are few performers who can claim to have played Barnum, Bill Snibson in Me and My Gal, and Stan Laurel. Duncan is also still deeply involved with pantomime and until recently produced, directed and frequently starred in the Oxford Playhouse show. He’s appeared in many travel documentaries with his wife Annie and their four children and he was, for a good few years the UK’s Chief Scout.

“I took a great deal of pleasure in the fact that it was once again cool to be in the Scouts. I’m proud to have been part of that.” The icing on the cake, perhaps, was that Blue Peter awarded him, on his scouting “retirement”, its coveted gold badge. Does he wear it regularly? “When I have to, and it’s a public appearance,” he says. “It’s around at home... somewhere.”

Birdsong, West Yorkshire Playhouse, May 12 to 23. 0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk

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