Although well-known for playing obsessive ex-detective Brian Lane for 10 years in hit BBC series New Tricks, Alun Armstrong’s career has spanned a huge range of roles, across TV, films and theatre.
Born in County Durham, the son of a coal miner, he took jobs working as a bricklayer and gravedigger before breaking into showbiz, landing parts in radio plays before winning his first big-screen role in classic 1971 thriller Get Carter, alongside Michael Caine.
“I’ve always played very colourful characters, often a bit crazy and different, which is so satisfying,” says Armstrong, 73.
He’s enjoyed acclaim for his theatre work too, appearing in the first production of Les Misérables and winning an Olivier Award in 1994 for his performance as Sweeney Todd.
Away from acting, Armstrong has been a long-time supporter of the MS Society and recently become an ambassador for the charity.
“Over the years I’ve met so many extraordinary people affected by MS, who are so brave and dignified despite the problems that the condition presents them,” says the star, whose sister lives with the neurological condition, which can affect vision, mobility, sensation and balance. “I’ve been very fortunate to be able to follow a career that I love, and it just seems right to remember those who’ve been less fortunate and offer a bit of help.”
Here, Armstrong – who has three sons with his wife Sue (one of whom, Joe, is also an actor) – talks about his career, being a workaholic, and his dread of memory loss…
Seven years on, how do you look back on your 10 years in New Tricks now?
“I enjoyed every single minute. There was brilliant chemistry between all of us – Amanda (Redman), Dennis (Waterman) and Jimmy (James Bolam). We were all well-established and didn’t try compete with each other as actors ,so the atmosphere was completely friendly and relaxed. We have a reunion every year as we became friends for life.
“The series has been popular in 25 countries worldwide, which is incredible, but sometimes I think Brian’s bike’s enjoyed more fame than me. If I go on holiday abroad, there always be at least one person who will come up to me and ask, ‘Where’s your bike, Brian?’ I was even accosted in Laos by someone from Peru who greeted me like an old friend because he’d seen the series, but couldn’t understand why I wasn’t riding the bike.”
Did you see any of yourself in Brian Lane?
“I’m terribly OCD and was always moving things around in the kitchen so they’re in perfectly straight lines. He had this obsessional enthusiasm for a never-ending string of new interests or hobbies and would then lose interest literally overnight. I’m similar – I’ll immerse myself in practical projects for weeks but then I get bored and drop them. Brian and I sort of morphed into one another as the writers got to know me and incorporated my traits into him.”
What would you like to tell your younger self if you could?
“Being an actor isn’t the be-all and end-all of life, and there are other fulfilling things that can be done as well. I recognise that in the past I was a workaholic, and probably could have been a better father to my sons and a more well-rounded human being if I hadn’t been so obsessed with my job. I regarded it as my identity.
“Hindsight’s a wonderful thing though, and I was also conscious of providing for the family, coupled with that actor’s dread of never saying ‘no’ to the offer of parts, in case nothing else came long.
“Nowadays, I can actually enjoy not working and am fatalistic about whether something will be offered or not. As it’s turned out, I’ve been very blessed because I’ve worked consistently throughout my career in every field – TV, film, theatre, musicals – with hardly a break.”
What were the turning points in your life?
“I was 15 and didn’t know have a clue what I wanted to do with my life, when I saw a TV programme about a drama school, and I remember how much I’d loved acting at primary school – the only lesson I was any good at. It was like a thunderbolt, as I suddenly realised that’s what I should do with my life.
“The other turning point was picking up a hitch-hiker when I was travelling from Scotland to England. Sue [his wife!] sat in the back with her friend, and I fell in love with her voice first as she chatted away. I also admired the way she kept her cool when I crashed the car twice because of a combination of my terrible driving and snow and ice on the road. She’s always been calm, unflappable, a brilliant support to me and a fantastic parent to our boys.”
How do you look after your health?
“Like Brian Lane, I genuinely enjoy cycling and I go to the gym and practise yoga. I love walking and with a group of friends regularly go on walking and hiking weekends all over the country, punctuated by regular breaks in local pubs! I’ve been lucky I never had any health problems and the only thing I have to guard against is weight, but my weakness for Thai food can sometimes sabotage my efforts to always eat healthily.”
How do you look after your wellbeing?
“Luckily I’m a pretty stable, even-tempered person who likes a laugh. I don’t think I’m very demanding. Acting’s still my passion and nothing gives me more pleasure than getting a new job and immersing myself in it.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
“I was a bit diffident in my early days, partly because I felt self-conscious that I hadn’t been to drama school. A lovely actor, Kenneth Colley surprised me by asking why I wasn’t playing the lead part in a Royal Shakespeare Company production instead of him. Privately, he thought I was more suited to the part.
“I said I’d never dream of asking for such a big role, and he urged me to value myself and my talent more and be straight-up about asking for what I actually wanted. I followed his advice from then on and it really pushed my career forward. ”
What’s your hope for the future?
“To keep on working – I can’t imagine ever retiring – and to be able to memorise my lines. I have no fear of ageing or death – both of those are inevitable – my real dread is losing my memory. My mother suffered dementia late in her life and I saw her memory slip away slowly. I’ve known it happen to actors who just wake up one day and can’t cope with learning the script – nightmare!”
Alun Armstrong is a new ambassador for the MS Society, which works to make life better for people with multiple sclerosis through research, campaigning, and support. For more information about the supporters and celebrities who volunteer their time and energy to help stop MS, visit mssociety.org.uk/ambassadors.