For more than 17 years he was Sir David Jason’s moustachioed sidekick on the immensely popular television series A Touch Of Frost.
It proved to be a double-edged sword for John Lyons – he is often recognised as Detective Sergeant George Toolan and it has limited his subsequent TV appearances.
But the small screen’s loss is the East Midlands’ gain. In the past two years John has appeared in three plays which have been seen here and he is currently rehearsing a farce to be performed in Chesterfield which will show another side to this indisputably talented actor.
He took the lead role in Father Brown – The Curse Of The Invisible Man, an adaptation of two G K Chesterton mysteries by John Goodrum of Derbyshire-based Rumpus Theatre Company, before John’s wife Karen Henson of Tabs productions snapped up John Lyons to play two roles: Inspector Hubbard in Frederick Knott’s Dial M For Murder and the judge in Marie Lloyd And The Music Hall Murder, both in the 2017 Classic Thriller Season in Nottingham.
The two Johns, Lyons and Goodrum, met when John Lyons was appearing in The Mousetrap in the West End. The distinguished actor has appeared in Agatha Christie’s legendary play on three separate occasions, clocking up no fewer than 1,200 performances as Major Metcalfe.
John Goodrum had written a play called The Ripper Files about Jack the Ripper which was going on tour. He thought the other John would be ideal to play the inspector, so he left a script at the stage door.
John Lyons read the play and liked it: “It had a very good twist at the end which I didn’t see coming. I said to John I’d like to do it, so we met and chatted about it. I started to learn the script but then, as happens all the time in this business, an offer came along of another job and John very kindly let me out of The Ripper Files.”
Two-and-a-half years later John Goodrum called the other John again and asked if he would be interested in playing Father Brown. The character was popular at the time on BBC Television. John Lyons agreed because he felt he owed the other John a favour.
“That was a slight mistake because at that time the play hadn’t been written and I didn’t know how big the part was. So when I got the script for Father Brown it was 69 pages long and my character was on 65 of them!
“Anyway, I thought I couldn’t let him down twice so I’d better try to learn it. It took me four months but I got it in the end and I enjoyed it tremendously.”
John Lyons says he looks forward to working with both John Goodrum and Karen Henson.
“They’re very easy to get on with. There are no great histrionics or shouting or screaming. It’s almost like a family business. They enjoy what they’re doing and it passes over to you.
“When we do tours and they give me parts that are very taxing with a lot of dialogue, they work it out so that we never do a full week. We do about four days and then I get three days off to get my breath back.”
John Lyons who is still working hard at the age of 74 will take the role of Granddad in Ray Cooney’s Caught In The Net which opens later this month at the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield before touring.
He should be refreshed after having a break over Christmas instead of appearing in pantomime as he has done for a number of years. He was offered the role of Captain Hook in Peter Pan but turned it down.
“I did it ten years ago which was okay. But I think Captain Hook is physically a little too much for me – the fencing that he has to do with Peter Pan and the running around.
“Panto is hard work but fun. I hope if I keep my health, strength and faculties together there’s probably another one or two pantos left in me.”
John Lyons was born on 14 September 1943 in Whitechapel. He is a true Cockney, born within earshot of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow Church, Cheapside – but they were not chiming on the night he was born because the Luftwaffe were dropping bombs on the capital.
When he was 17 he played Sunday morning football along with thousands of others on Hackney Marshes – one of the largest areas of common land in London. In the same team was a journalist who asked John if he had thought about becoming an actor.
The journalist told John about a new drama school, East 15, which was just about to open. John rang up, got an audition and to his great surprise as he had never been on stage he was accepted.
“At the beginning I thought ‘this is rubbish – I don’t want to be an actor’. But at the end of the three-year course I enjoyed it so much I thought I could be quite good at it and make a career of it.”
John left drama school on a Friday and three days later he started filming Catch Hand, a BBC drama series about the adventures of two building workers, which also featured Anthony Booth – later to star in Till Death Us Do Part.
John has worked almost constantly since then, appearing in four West End musicals; about 500 television appearances including Play For Today, Upstairs Downstairs, The Sweeney, Minder, On The Buses and Man About The House; 50 TV commercials; and numerous theatrical productions.
“I wanted to have a long career playing lots of different parts. And I’m glad to say it’s worked out that way because I’ve near enough covered almost everything you can do. The only thing I haven’t really conquered is radio and voiceovers.”
That seems ironic after John had one-to-one tuition every morning when he was at drama school to eradicate his Cockney accent. Now his deep, mellifluous voice is one of the reasons he is able to play everything from policemen to judges.
His most famous role was, of course, George Toolan in A Touch Of Frost. He appeared in all but a couple of the 40-odd Frost episodes, missing them only because he was contracted to do other work.
“It turned into the best job I’ve ever had, the most fun and the most enjoyable. That really was all down to Sir David Jason. As with Rumpus, he made it fun to do. He made it a pleasure to go to work.
“A Touch Of Frost was tremendous. And it’s helped my career. I ride on the back of it I suppose – in a nice way.”
Over the past six years John has added another line to his extensive CV: guest speaker on board P&O cruise ships. He talks to passengers about his life and career. He has been on ships bound for Canada, the Mediterranean, Australia and San Francisco. A bonus for him is that his wife of more than 50 years Ann is able to accompany him.
He is hoping for more cruises in 2018 as well as further jobs with Rumpus or Tabs. But so far there is not much in the pages of his new diary.
“There’s something quite nice about not knowing what your next job is, where it’s going to be and who it’s going to be with. I know it may sound daft but I quite like that uncertainty. Since I was 17 I’ve never had a proper job.”
Anyone familiar with John Lyons’ work will be grateful for that as he has become one of the finest jobbing actors this country has produced for generations.
Ray Cooney’s farce Caught In The Net featuring John Lyons can be seen at the Pomegranate Theatre, Chesterfield from 16 until 20 January.