Never a dull moment for actor Arthur
Theatre audiences in Derby will soon have the opportunity to see another side of an actor who was responsible for one of the most memorable catchphrases of recent times.
Arthur Bostrom, the man behind vowel-mangling police officer Crabtree in ‘Allo ‘Allo who is famous for his “good moaning” greeting, will be playing no fewer than three parts in Sebastian Faulks’ tale of love, courage and sacrifice Birdsong.
It is now 20 years since the BBC broadcast the ninth and final series of the sitcom about a small-town café in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Yet people still recognise Bostrom and he looks back on those times with affection.
“Sadly quite a few of the cast have died. Those of us who are still around are very proud of it.”
Dream and millstone
But Bostrom admits that the part of Crabtree, the idiotic English undercover officer disguised as a gendarme, proved to be a double-edged sword: it propelled him to international recognition but it was difficult to shake off.
“It was a millstone for a short while. If you ask me if I’d rather not have done it, of course I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Every actor dreams of getting something like that. It was a great break and I loved it. It was good but it was limiting.
“In recent years I’ve done a wide variety of things. I’ve started to get back on television again. It’s exciting. There’s no bitterness whatsoever as far as I’m concerned.”
Born in Rugby, Warwickshire, Arthur Bostrom got his break in ‘Allo ‘Allo when he was 30. Apart from the television show, the stage version played in the West End for five seasons and also toured the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
He has worked in many theatres around the UK, performing in classics as well as comedy, opera as well as panto.
Two years ago he worked with the Original Theatre Company, performing on tour in the war-time farce See How They Run and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Now he is working for the same organisation on Birdsong which is on tour for a gruelling seven months.
Speaking to me from Coventry during the second week of Birdsong, 58-year-old Bostrom speaks softly and confidently; he seems happy with his life and career.
He admits he has not yet read Sebastian Faulks’ novel: “I like to portray the play just as it is. Birdsong works beautifully as a play.
“I’ll certainly read the book after I’ve done it because in a way it can be confusing. I haven’t seen the TV adaptation either. It can influence you whereas we’ve got to concentrate on this version and make it work.”
Bostrom says he had no reservations about committing to the tour which does not finish until August.
“These are difficult times and for actors it’s feast or famine. I love doing live theatre and it’s a play that I like.
“I enjoy touring as well. Not everybody does but I like the experience of a different theatre in a different town or city every week.
“There are several theatres on this tour that I’ve never played, Derby being one, so I’ll really enjoy that experience because every theatre is different and every audience is different. So there’s never a dull moment being an actor!”
Bostrom who now lives in Manchester hopes to have the time to explore Derbyshire and take in the surroundings.
“I’m actually going to be touring with a caravan – something I’ve never done in my life before.
“It seemed a good idea for a very long tour, take your home with you. So I shall be out in the countryside near Derby – I’m not quite sure where yet.
“The Caravan Club are sponsoring me so I’ll see beautiful Derbyshire country.”
Faulks’ best-selling novel was adapted for the stage in 2010. Sir Trevor Nunn directed the West End version which has been changed so that it can be taken around the country.
Only three members of the 12-strong cast play one role. Bostrom plays the pompous Berard, a sapper and a colonel.
“They are three very contrasting parts so that’s always interesting for an actor. You don’t often get to do that within one production. It shows what you can do.”
Exciting and terrifying
Once Birdsong goes silent, Bostrom has no idea what he will be doing or where he will be going.
“It’s an exciting and also a terrifying thing being an actor – you never know what’s coming next. There can be a phone call or meeting and off we go again. I’ve no idea what I’ll be doing – something exciting I hope.”
But while he is in Derbyshire he intends to be pursuing another of his interests: writing. He has written his first novel although he does not expect it to be published.
“It’s not bad but I regard it as a practice novel. I’ve an idea for a new book so while I’m on the road in my caravan I’m going to be spending at least a couple of hours every day writing.
“It’s not another novel but it’s hard to describe – it’s certainly autobiographical. It’s something I think I can write so I’m going to have a go at that and see where I get with it. It’s all practice – you get better the more you do it.”
But no matter what happens in Arthur Bostrom’s career, he intends to continue acting – there are still things he would like to do.
“I’ve never done a feature film – I’d love to do one but it’s just not come my way. I’ve done films for television but not a feature film and that would be very interesting. But you never know.
“Really I’m as interested in getting something published with my writing as I am with acting. I think the two things can co-exist quite happily. You just don’t know. I just enjoy it and while I still enjoy it I just keep going. I like a challenge.”
You wonder how Bostrom finds time to fit everything in: recently he became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society; he is a patron of Manchester Pride, a festival celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender life; and last year he was one of three judges for the Portico Prize for Literature – a biennial competition celebrating the regional and literary identity of the north of England.
“When things like that are offered, you do what you can. I did the Portico Prize last year and read 69 novels which was quite interesting!
Making people laugh
“I’ve always written but I’m getting serious about it now, so that was rather a good thing to do – to see what’s out there and read a wide variety of things. That was fantastic.”
He takes plenty of time before answering my last question, about how he would like to be remembered.
“As someone who made people laugh. That’s a great thing to have achieved. People say ‘thank you for all the laughs you gave us’ and I think that’s a wonderful thing.
“These are tough times so it’s needed even more. I’ve enjoyed being able to do that.”
Reviews of the Birdsong tour so far indicate that Arthur Bostrom has even been able to raise a smile as Berard, portraying the French councillor with an artificial English accent.
But if you go to see it, resist the temptation to call out “good moaning”!
Birdsong visits Derby Theatre from 16 until 20 April
* This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of Country Images magazine