At the age of 61 many people may be starting to think about retirement. But not Derbyshire actor George Telfer. He’s working on one of the most exciting productions that’s been seen in the West End for many years and regards it as a “huge opportunity”.
George is understudying four roles in the new version of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s been written by Aaron Sorkin, one of the hottest properties in the entertainment business who penned the television series The West Wing as well as screenplays for the films The Social Network and A Few Good Men.
George will go on stage as Mr Cunningham and Boo Radley when the actor playing those roles is away in the middle of January. “They’re rather small parts but they’ve both got really good moments in the play.”
He’s also understudying Dr Reynolds and the best part of all, Judge Taylor. “That’s a brilliant part,” says George. “I just need the actor playing him to go on holiday!”
He’s excited about appearing in To Kill A Mockingbird because “it’s major, top-tier British theatre. It’s the equivalent of Broadway, top-of-the-range stuff.”
He’s contracted to appear until 20th May in the show which features Matthew Modine in the role as Atticus Finch. Modine is known for appearing in Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket as well as playing the villainous Dr Martin Brenner in the Netflix sci-fi horror drama series Stranger Things.
“It’s a fantastic production,” says George of To Kill A Mockingbird. “It’s a really good credit to put on my CV.”
George has come a long way since he decided to go into acting after realising he wouldn’t follow in his parents’ footsteps by becoming a doctor.
“I wanted to be a doctor from when I was three or four but I realised the academic requirements for medical school weren’t going to happen. Science and maths weren’t for me at all.”
“I did a few plays at school and they seemed to go quite well, so I thought I’d have a go at that.”
George who is from Newcastle had to try for three years before getting into drama school, finally being accepted by the Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow.
After graduating, George began to pick up work and his life changed 35 years ago when he was cast as Jack Worthing in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest. Playing Cecely Cardew was Susie Hawthorne. They have been together ever since.
For about five years they lived in London but were unable to buy a house in the capital because it was too expensive. They’d already started working for legendary producer Colin McIntyre who had a base in Chesterfield and ran weekly rep sessions all over the country. So George and Susie moved to Derbyshire.
“It’s right slap bang in the middle of the country and great for touring.
“We did so much for Colin. We did 12 or more years for him doing different plays every week. It was really good training.
“There was a period when snooty casting directors would say ‘weekly rep is appalling’ but it’s come back round now and people like Imelda Staunton and Derek Jacobi are saying what brilliant training weekly rep was.”
Over the years George has performed a huge number of stage roles. He fondly recalls working for director Pete Meakin and Derby LIVE on two Shakespeare productions, Much Ado About Nothing at the Guildhall in 2009 and The Merchant Of Venice at Derby Theatre in 2011.
“I love Shakespeare,” says George. “I’m re-reading Hamlet at the moment because something might happen this year which isn’t Hamlet itself but it’s about Hamlet.
“I do struggle to understand it. But if you read it carefully and think very much to the right and left of the words and then trace a word back to four lines before, you suddenly find links. They’re almost like road maps. Shakespeare was so clever. But you have to be patient.”
Some non-theatrical people might regard standing on a stage on your own trying to enthral an audience for a couple of hours to be their worst nightmare. But not George who has done several solo shows including ones about Richard Burton, John Gielgud, Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
“Generally speaking, you don’t come off script and talk to the audience if something happens – it’s not really right”
“But I realised the Duke of Edinburgh solo show was completely different: if you’re doing a solo show about an actor, they’ve become well-known because of stage and cinema where they generally wouldn’t ad lib. But the Duke of Edinburgh is famous for doing just that, making it up as he goes along. So that was just wonderful for me, doing Do You Still Throw Spears At Each Other?”
In recent years George has taken parts in plays for Derbyshire-based Rumpus Theatre Company at the Pomegranate in Chesterfield and has appeared in the Classic Thriller Season at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham.
Last summer George and Susie’s 26-year-old son Ed played Constable Jones in Agatha Christie’s Spider’s Web alongside his dad who was Inspector Lord in the classic thriller. He usually works backstage for Chesterfield council.
George’s daughter Lucy, who is 27, aims to follow in her father’s footsteps.
George has also worked with indefatigable Brian Blessed, the man with the unmistakable booming voice, who has directed George in five plays at the Berkshire theatre The Mill at Sonning.
That started when George appeared alongside Blessed’s wife Hildegarde Neal in the play The Holly And The Ivy. She told Brian he had to sign George up for the role of the butler in the Agatha Christie thriller The Hollow in Berkshire and further productions followed.
“Brian is just extraordinary. A one-off. He’s just as you imagine he would be in day-to-day life. He can literally talk while he breathes in.
“We probably lose an hour a day in rehearsals to his anecdotes but it’s worth it. It’s a privilege to sit and listen to him. He’s so animated and so loud and his eyes are sparkling. He’s enormous physically and vocally.”
The pandemic was doubly problematic for George and Susie because they were both unable to work. Then Susie suggested garden theatre: they could perform in their garden in front of 28 people – gatherings of 30 people were allowed – who would make a donation after seeing a play.
Although George wasn’t convinced, they decided to give it a go. The first play they did was Colin McIntyre’s Sleeping With A Stranger.
“The response was extraordinary. We thought we’d do two or three nights. We ended up doing 40 performances of six different things over the two years. It saved our bacon.
“I did my John Gielgud play, Susie did her Vivien Leigh play called Scarlet Woman and Susie wrote Gertie’s Lively Lockdown, an older lady’s take on lockdown which was very funny.
“People would come up to us in the street with tears in their eyes. They were saying ‘please do it again’ but we can’t because we’ve got careers and we’ve got to move on.”
Other shows you might have seen George in include Emmerdale in which he played a solicitor for half a dozen episodes and the Doctor Who spin-off The Auton Trilogy.
“Originally I was only going to be in the first episode and then Nicholas Courtney, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, was suddenly taken ill. They had to restructure the whole thing so I ended up being in all three films.
“And we got flown to Los Angeles for a science fiction convention. So there I was in Beverley Hills selling photographs of me. That was rather fun.”
In his spare time George is a huge fan of running. He usually runs three times a week and has completed 14 marathons, 11 of them in London.
While he’s in the capital for To Kill A Mockingbird, he’ll be staying eight miles from the theatre and plans to run in twice a week.
“Keeping fit is the key,” says George.
“Thirty years ago I was living in London and was just getting started. The other day I was walking around London aged 61 and probably fitter than I was 25 years ago because of all the running I do.
“I actually felt I’m just getting started now. And it was a really nice feeling. Maybe now is the right time for things to happen.
“Most of the students in my year at drama school gave up within a year or 18 months. It’s been tough. I really want film and television and I think it’ll start now because I’m beginning to look and sound right.
“I’ve developed my voice and I’ve only recently thought ‘that’s nice’. It sounds very vain – but it’s not meant to be. I think people do recognise my voice.”
George Telfer is a genuine, personable man with unquestionable talent. Let’s hope that 2023 will be the year when he gets the big roles he deserves and a vast number of people recognise what an accomplished actor he is.