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Monday 31 July 2017

Coronation Street Blog Interview: Robin Askwith


It's not every day you end up on the phone to Malta for an hour and a half with the actor Robin Askwith. Robin has been in my life for many years, thanks to his incredibly prolific and diverse acting career across film, television and theatre. Robin's career has come to be dominated by the legendary Confessions series of comedy films, however there is an awful lot more to the man than that. 

Always one to speak his mind, something that's really rather refreshing these days, Robin began our chat by discussing the modern trend of social media. Due to the growing popularity of his one man show performances, Robin is tentatively thinking about developing more of a following on Twitter, despite being wary about the internet. I think Twitter would be a much better place for a bit of Askwith so I hope he, for the want of a better expression, follows through. 

I've stitched the interview together from my many pages of notes - as Robin himself admits, he doesn't like formal question and answers, he prefers his answers to drive the questions! Here's how we got on:

One of your earliest film roles was that of Keating in If. It's a really iconic movie – what was it like to be a part of?

If was my first film part. I'd done some bits and pieces before that, like television commercials, but it was the big one. It's actually 50 years next year since we made that film and I'll be celebrating that with a tour I'm doing in 2018. It was an extraordinary film to get as my first role on the big screen. As you know I went to quite a posh public school and I took part in lots of school plays. The director of If, Lindsay Anderson, came to see one of the plays and I had a mishap with the false nose I was wearing. I made a joke of it and was told by the school that they wouldn't have me in another production. Lindsay loved it though and it was that that got me the film. 


Originally I was up for the part Richard Warwick played but they changed the ages of the characters and I ended up playing Keating, which was great as I had more time to learn about the process of filming. I remember having many, many auditions with the casting director, a lady called Miriam Brickman. Lindsay Anderson became a good friend though and I worked for him again in the film Britannia Hospital, playing the same character but in a larger role. He had tried to get me to do a couple of parts on stage at the Royal Court but I was too busy filming in the end. Lindsay Anderson was a great director, mainly in the theatre, but he was a guiding force for me in my early career.

In 1972 you appeared with many of the Carry On team in the film version of Bless This House. Was that a fun film to do and did you enjoy working with Sid James?

Bless This House is still such a popular film. Here in Gozo where I live, friends who are parents are always telling their kids that I'm a famous film star and they ask what I've been in - the only film I made that kids can really watch is probably Bless This House and they love it. It's such an English film and I don't know what all these Southern Europeans love about it but they go mad for it. A lot of the fan mail I get these days is about Bless This House and I get sent photos of me from the film. It's incredible, but I guess it's down to the terrific cast in the film and the fun of it all. 

Sid was great to work with, I really respected him and all the work he'd done. He'd made some terrific films, worked on the BBC series Taxi, which I loved and all the radio with Tony Hancock. There was a great deal of respect for Sid and he really was the leading man of the Carry Ons. He spotted me and took to me, he liked what I was doing and it was great to work with him. I did also appear in a one off episode of the series Bless This House, and I was originally considered for the part of Sid's son Mike. It went to Robin Stewart in the end but I think Sid wanted me for the part.  

I loved making the film. There was one sequence in particular, when I'm cooking in the cafe and we did the whole thing in one take - I was just allowed to go for it and it was all really spontaneous. The result was fantastic and Sid James told me it was genuinely the funniest thing he'd seen since the comic Charlie Cairoli. Sadly there was something wrong with the negative from the original take so we had to shoot it again. I was happy with it but it didn't have the edge of the original version. I remember Alan Hume, who was the Director of Photography, being such a giggler. We used to have to go again because he'd broken up laughing at what we were all doing. I think it was that film that made me realise I could do comedy. Until then I had been doing more straight stuff, more realistic. It was Sid's fault really as he kept telling me to go bigger and over react more in performance! And from that film I got Carry On Girls. 

One of your main co-stars in the Bless This House film was Carol Hawkins. I think you went to drama school with her too? What was it like to work with Carol?

I was very friendly with Carol, we got on really well. My agent at the time was a lady called Hazel Malone and her sister ran the Corona Academy, a school which trained young actors, producing the likes of Judy and Sally Geeson, Susan George, Richard O'Sullivan and Dennis Waterman. I had already had quite a serious schooling but I went along to Corona because it was just a great place to be. Also, my school had been a boys' school and Corona had girls! I had already made a few films and done some television at this stage but I got to know Carol before her career got going. We acted together there in a production of Private Lives I remember. 

Carol was responsible for drawing Gerald Thomas' attention towards me when he was casting the film of Bless This House. She had been working on Carry On Abroad with Sally Geeson just before and both Carol and Sally went on to do the Bless This House film straight after. Robin Stewart, who was playing Mike Abbott in the television series, was not going to appear in the film version and Gerald was looking around for a young actor. Carol suggested me. Gerald had no way of seeing what I had done as once one of the films I'd been in had been on in the cinema, it was gone. There were no DVDs in 1972 or even VHS. For instance, just before this I'd done a series for Yorkshire TV called On The House, with Kenneth Connor and Derek Griffiths. Once it was shown it was gone so it didn't really help. So Carol persuaded him to see me. I had Sid, Carol and Sally in my corner and I didn't have to read for the part. I remember as I arrived to meet Gerald, my main rival for the role, Christopher Timothy, was just leaving. He's a great actor but he was ten years older than me and not known for comedy. Gerald was a tremendous man and great to work with. 


In 1973 you played June Whitfield's son in Carry On Girls. You shared a memorable scene on Brighton beach with the lovely Maggie Nolan. Do you have fond memories of filming Girls and working with Maggie?

Carry On Girls was great fun. Originally my part of the photographer had been a wordless role but they built it up for me. I remember Barbara Windsor kept saying "'ere, that Askwith, his part's getting bigger and bigger!" (At this point I compliment Robin on his absolutely stunning Dame Barbara impersonation). June Whitfield was fantastic to work with, she called me "her son" off screen as well as on. She was (and is) a lovely lady and really great. We'd done something before Girls came along and many years later I appeared in panto with her. 

I remember at one stage I used to stay in a great hotel down in Wimbledon run by a man called Ray Slade. June and I had neighbouring suites in the hotel and he used to say he'd know what was going on in the June Whitfield suite and he'd always know what was going on in the Robin Askwith suite! At the time I had a girlfriend who kept budgies and once she brought them to the suite. We had a lot of fun joking about how I had three birds in my suite. 


I have fond memories of working with Maggie Nolan, she was great. That scene on the beach at Brighton was good to do but I was a total professional. I remember she was very political and at the time I think she was married to Tom Kempinski? She tried to sign me up to the Workers' Revolutionary Party but I declined! (I mention the infamous fight sequence in the film between Nolan and Barbara Windsor and tell Robin that Maggie was actually pregnant at the time). I didn't know she was pregnant but now you mention it I do recall she was a bit reticent about doing that scene. In the end I think they both really went for it though. Gerald Thomas wanted me to do more Carry Ons but of course I ended up going off to do the Confessions films, which in a way saw the eventual decline of the Carry Ons. I don't think he ever forgave me for that, which is sad. I got on very well with Gerald for a long time and used to go and see him at his house in Burnham. 

You have appeared twice in Coronation Street - once in a storyline filmed in Malta and more recently at Granada in Manchester. What was it like to join an established show like the Street?

Oh I loved it. The first part I did in the Street happened by accident. They were filming a storyline out in Malta, where I live. They couldn't find a suitable actor there to play this part of a slightly dodgy rep and the director Duncan Foster met me and said he wanted me for the part. I didn't have a lot to do and I remember they made me read for it before they confirmed I had the part. I do remember having a lot of fun working with Simon Gregson (Steve McDonald). He is a brilliant actor and a lovely bloke too. I remember we were getting ready to film a scene and he told me he was nervous about acting with me and I told him not to be as I had no idea what I was doing! 

And then in 2014 the role of the faded rock star Ritchie De Vries came along. At the time the casting director was Janet Hampson and I refused to come over from Malta to do an audition as I felt they knew what I could do. I did offer to send a tape though and filmed myself over here. I sent the tape over and they came back to say they wanted me to come over to Manchester anyway. They wanted me to do a screen test with Sue Johnston. I had to learn a six page scene for the test and I remember being really nervous when I got to the studios to do it. I hadn't had much sleep, I'd travelled a long way and I had always been such a fan of Sue Johnston's work. There was a lot of competition for the role but when I went in to do the reading, I absolutely nailed it. I have to thank Sue a great deal for that as she was excellent in the read through and really made it work well. Everyone at Granada was really encouraging when I went in that day.

I went back to Malta only to receive a call to say I had got the part and could I fly back the next day! To begin with Ritchie was meant to be a love interest for Sue's character however by that stage she had handed in her notice to go off and do other things, which was a shame, but my contract was only for three months anyway. People like Philip Lowrie (Dennis Tanner) and Barbara Knox (Rita Tanner) were so welcoming and kind and great to be with. I loved working with Philip, such a good actor and really good in the show. I really rated him and he was a lovely man too. Such a shame he's not in the show anymore. Barbara was great to work with and felt able to speak her mind on set! 


I did think it was a shame that my role became pretty comedic as originally it was meant to be a bit deeper than that. I think in the end they had me play it a bit like a Confessions actor with lots of humour whereas on my first appearance, when I came through the door the character was much more furtive. Ian Bevitt had me play it like that before turning on the big personality when Ritchie met Dennis. It was much more effective that way. I wish it had developed in more depth but I still loved it. I really got into it and was rewriting storylines in my head while I was there. I got on really well with Kym Marsh and thought it would have been great if Michelle had shown an interest in Ritchie - it would have got right up Steve's nose! People like Kate Ford (Tracy) and Ian Puleston-Davies (Owen) were really friendly and welcoming. Kate kept laughing every time she saw me! She seemed to find me quite funny! 

One of my favourite people was the late Anne Kirkbride, who played Deirdre. We didn't have any scenes together but she was such a lovely presence in the green room. Every time I went in there she'd throw her arms around me and give me a hug. Such a warm lady. I wish I'd got to work with her. I remember her asking if I was staying on and I said my contract was only for three months. She said "they've got to keep you Robin! It's only ink!" which was a lovely thing to say. 

I understand you recently met up with the lovely Judy Matheson at a Misty Moon event. What was it like to catch up with her again after working on Confessions of a Window Cleaner?

Yes it was great to see Judy again at Elstree. She's quite involved with Misty Moon these days. We had known of each other before we met on the set of Confessions of a Window Cleaner so she knows that I was a serious actor before I got into those films. 


Judy often mentions this on Twitter you know...

Does she? I think she was a fan of some of my films before we did the Confessions.

I was in touch with her the other day and she mentioned another of your contemporaries, Richard O'Sullivan...

Oh Richard was a big, big star and a great friend to me. Richard was a good actor and very underrated. At one of the shows I did last year I mentioned him to see what kind of reaction it would get and the audience gave him a round of applause. 

You work regularly with Stuart Morriss from The Misty Moon Film Society. How did that working relationship develop?

I was first approached about doing some kind of stand up show around the time I was tested for Coronation Street but I wasn't keen. I've never enjoyed doing signing sessions or being up there on my own like that so I kept saying no. At an event, Stuart approached me and suggested doing something but I wasn't sure. I was eventually convinced and I did a one off thing at the pub in Ladywell and afterwards my friend Derren Litten (who writes Benidorm) said I should do a one man show. 


Stuart then arranged for me to do something similar at the Gatehouse in London as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. It was a huge success and very popular so the whole thing got on a roll from there. I always thought it would be a risk to go out on my own but my confidence has grown, thanks to Stuart and the reaction from the audiences. We've had some great reviews and people are starting to take notice of it all. Without Stuart, none of it would have happened and whatever happens with it, he'll always be a part of it.

At this point Robin plugs the fact that he has a late night gig scheduled for Tuesday 10 October at the Phoenix Artist Club. He adds that as I've never been to one of his gigs, if I don't attend this one, he'll never speak to me again. Should you wish to attend the gig (I'm obviously definitely going now) you can find out more and buy tickets here

And with that, the whirlwind that is Robin Askwith bade me farewell. It was an honour and a privilege to have a personal audience with the great Mr Askwith, who kept me entertained, answered my questions with thought and flair and was extremely open and approachable. After an hour and a half of unpredictable, fairly ribald chat my mother would once have disapproved of, I staggered off for a large gin. Let's just hope Robin follows through on his Twitter promise. I really do think he could break the internet.

Finally, a massive thank you to Stuart at Misty Moon for helping to set up the interview! 
The original interview, in two parts, can be found at Carry On Blogging

By Graeme Naylor

You can follow me on Twitter @GraemeN82

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