When past mirrors life

It was Graham Turner’s childhood dream to be an actor. But little did he know, while working as a cereal salesman in Sheffield, that it would one day prove the ultimate dramatic irony. Lynda Murdin reports.

Almost 30 years ago, Graham Turner worked as a salesman around South Yorkshire. Now he is on stage portraying the best-known salesman in drama – Willy Loman, the central character in Arthur Miller’s contemporary classic, Death of a Salesman.

But Wakefield-born Turner claims he doesn’t draw on that early experience when appearing in the latest touring production from Compass, which visits the Lyceum in Sheffield, the company’s home town, next week.

"As an actor, you draw on all kinds of experiences but really you just try to get inside the man that’s written on the page. For Willy Loman, his job means life or death to him. But for me, I was young, I didn’t really care," he explains. "He is old, society has moved on, and he is a bit of a dinosaur. He is lost, but he still holds on to his dreams, but they are the wrong dreams, and that’s the sadness in the man."

Turner – best known as the simpleton, Walter, a role he played for four years, in TV’s Where the Heart Is – left Cathedral Secondary Modern School, in Wakefield, with no qualifications. He worked in an office for five years, then became a salesman, firstly for Cadbury’s and then Nabisco. "I sold Shredded Wheat in Sheffield. But it just wasn’t me. My heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t care less about selling Golden Nuggets to supermarkets. You had to get all excited about Golden Nuggets. I thought there were more interesting things to get excited about."

He performed as an amateur – with both the Wakefield and Leeds Operatic Societies – but when he told a schools career adviser he wanted to be a professional actor, he received no encouragement. "He said I had to get a serious job. My maths were terrible but he sent me to an engineering company as a wages clerk. They wondered what I was doing there."

Yet the acting bug stayed with him and he eventually left for London. With no formal training, he began picking up work via open auditions advertised in The Stage newspaper. He was in the West End musical Chorus Line and soon he was acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company which was "a bit of a shock".

Turner, whose parents still live in Wakefield, adds: "I entered theatre by the back door. I was just myself. I had no preconceptions. I just did it my way. It was hard work." Divorced, he has a 21-year-old son, Ben Turner, who is following in father’s footsteps by acting with the RSC – only he did have formal training at the Guildhall School.

Turner’s other roles include the pie man in a couple of episodes of Victoria Wood’s dinnerladies and the non-speaking part of the central character’s dead father in the movie, Little Voice. He gave up the role of Walter, in Where the Heart Is, about two district nurses, because "I felt I had done it. Sometimes, you just have to take risks and do what your instincts tell you to do."

The role of Willy Loman, a tragic Everyman in Miller’s examination of the American Dream, certainly stretches any actor. It not only demands an ability to display a range of powerful emotions but to learn a massive script. Turner – at 50, more than a decade younger than his character – also has to age physically as he appears alongside Caroline John, playing his wife, and Nicholas Asbury, his son, Biff, in the company’s 20th anniversary production, directed by artistic director Neil Sissons.

"It’s bigger than King Lear," he asserts. "Loman starts speaking and three hours later you think he never shuts up. There are so many levels to the man. He is full of dreams that get broken."

Death of a Salesman is at the Sheffield Lyceum, December 4-8.