Steven Blakeley: return to Aidensfield
His face is one of the most instantly recognisable on the small screen. Derbyshire actor Steven Blakeley is not only familiar through playing PC Geoff Younger on the incredibly popular ITV series Heartbeat – people also recognise him from his appearances on adverts for the Trainline.
One commentator said Steven “doesn’t have to say anything – he only has to move an eyebrow and you can tell exactly what he’s thinking”.
Steven is currently reprising his role as Geoff Younger – only this time Heartbeat is on its first theatrical tour across the country. That’s why we meet in a hotel in Birmingham, one of the stops on the tour, to talk about the enduring appeal of the show and Steven’s character.
In the space of more than half an hour we chat about why Steven left London to return to Derbyshire, why he’ll never play Shakespeare’s famous lover Romeo and his feelings about celebrities who are given acting jobs when they’ve had neither the training nor the experience.
But first we discuss the four-month tour of Heartbeat. Why did Steven sign up for it?
“It’s been well written and it has everything that loyal fans of the show would want to see.”
“People keep asking me this. Initially it was pure curiosity. I was first approached about it last year. At the time it was just an idea to bring the show back in a theatrical format and the producers were considering their options – who from the original show would be interested and how it would all piece together.
“I tentatively said yes. And when a script arrived I thought it was a valid project, it’s been well written and it has everything that loyal fans of the show would want to see. Based on that, I thought it would be an interesting project to do.”
Heartbeat on stage features a new script and storyline. There are recognisable characters such as David Stockwell, played by David Lonsdale. There is a strong crime story as well as a comedy sub-plot – exactly how the episodes on television were constructed.
“Heartbeat was famous for the music, the landscapes, the costumes and the cars,” says Steven. “So how do you replicate all that on stage? It’s been interesting to see how the design has evolved and we do have hints of the North Yorkshire moors and the pub there on the stage. So audiences will be getting exactly what they’d get from an episode of Heartbeat.”
A huge crowd of people waits at the stage door after every show and Steven remembers vividly one night of the second week of the tour in High Wycombe.
“Among the crowd were quite an elderly lady and a boy who was six. He was standing there with his programme wanting it to be signed and his parents said he was a huge fan of the show. The elderly lady said she was too. That speaks volumes to me.”
The producers of Heartbeat introduced the character of Geoff Younger to provide light relief. Steven was initially cast for six episodes. Just over four years later the programme finished, with Steven clocking up more than 100 shows at a time when it was attracting eight million viewers.
“That was lucky for me. I think the character just worked. I was quite lucky as an actor in the show because I could have a foot in the serious storyline as a policeman and go off to do the comedy subplot. So I had the best of both worlds really.”
Unlike many modern-day crime stories on television which feature graphic violence, horror and distressing scenes, Heartbeat falls into the category of what is referred to as “cosy crime”. Steven thinks this is part of its enduring popularity.
“I don’t think any of the comedy ever went to the absurd or the ridiculous – it was all rooted in reality. You have to bear in mind that you were dealing with real, country characters who got up to all sorts of shenanigans. People used to tune in to see what these characters that they became so familiar with were up to each week.”
Steven researched his character by talking to a couple of retired policemen. He found it “very gratifying” to hear that they thought the show was realistic.
“There’s this lovely sense of nostalgia as far as the ’60s are concerned for people who remember it.”
“A particular guy I spoke to said he had a rookie cop exactly like Geoff Younger. When I first went into the show I was a rookie actor, a young northern working-class lad, as Geoff Younger was. So the parallels were there.
“It’s a fascinating era, hence the reason why I think Heartbeat was so popular and remains so. There’s this lovely sense of nostalgia as far as the ’60s are concerned for people who remember it.”
Steven Blakeley was born in Chesterfield in 1982 and was brought up in the mining town of Bolsover. His father and most of his family worked in the mining industry. Steven felt he might join them – until Margaret Thatcher closed most of the pits. But he always had a sense that he was different.
“I was a bit of a square peg in a round hole. Certainly not above anybody – just different,” he says with typical modesty.
“I was a very quirky, eccentric child and teenager. But I always thought I’d probably get a steady job. I did fairly well at school and I probably thought I’d pursue a medical career or something like that.”
An interest in history led him to his first role on stage: a school play about World War II. Less than a year after that he was a member of the community theatre at Derby Playhouse. There his interest in acting was honed under former actor and acclaimed director Pete Meakin.
Pete encouraged Steven to make a career out of acting. He trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow and at the Athanor Theater Akademie in Germany.
Eighteen months later Steven made his first appearance on Heartbeat. His stay on the show meant he acted with many famous names, including Derbyshire-born Gwen Taylor.
He was also establishing himself as a theatre actor and whenever possible teamed up with Pete Meakin again who had become creative producer for the city council’s entertainments division Derby LIVE.
In 2010 he appeared at the city’s Guildhall in Mother Came Too and four years later he was in Mad Dogs and an Englishman, both written by Derbyshire author Tim Elgood.
“It got to a point,” says Steven, “where Tim was writing stuff for me. Tim’s always said that my voice is in his head. I love Tim’s work. I think he’s such a clever writer. And so funny. I think his dialogue is absolutely fantastic.”
Now Steven is playing Geoff Younger again. He hopes he won’t be typecast, although “all actors are typecast. Actors can’t play every role going – everybody only has a certain range.
“Even the most successful actors in the world have a certain range. Some of them would probably like to think otherwise. I actually think it’s a bit of a downfall for many actors when they get a bit of fame and fortune behind them and they think they can do everything – they can’t.
“Certain people I know who’ll remain nameless are character actors but because they’re famous they think they can play romantic leads. They can’t – they look ridiculous.”
He denies that playing Geoff Younger again is a backwards step. “It’s interesting. It’s a challenge because I’m playing it in a different format.”
So would Steven turn down a part if he thought he wasn’t suited to it?
” I do like comedy roles, I like character roles, strong character roles whether they’re funny or not.”
“Yes. If certain producers came up to me and said ‘we’d like you to consider this role’ and I looked at it and thought ‘I could never play that’, I probably wouldn’t even consider it. Having said that all actors like a challenge.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to play Romeo. I’m not bothered because I don’t find those roles particularly interesting. I do like comedy roles, I like character roles, strong character roles whether they’re funny or not.”
Steven may not get to play Shakespeare’s most romantic hero but he did play reluctant lover Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing for Derby LIVE.
He has also been in several commercials and admits his “expressive” face helps him to get various jobs.
“I’m always amazed by some actors how inexpressive they are. I think that part of an actor’s job is to be expressive. It’s what I’ve always believed and what I was trained to do. Commercial casting directors like a quirky expression, so it’s certainly helped.
“I’ve done a lot of foreign commercials. An awful lot of them are still cast over here. That’s part of the job, being flown off somewhere to do a foreign commercial.”
After the Heartbeat tour Steven is hoping for a break to spend some time with his wife Eliza at their home in the village of Scarcliffe, near Bolsover.
“I’ve lived in London like most actors. I moved back to Derbyshire when I started on Heartbeat. I was then within an hour’s drive of the studios in Leeds, which was perfect.
“I’ve never seen why it was necessary to move back to London, particularly now that the trains are so good from Derby – you can be in London in just over an hour and a half. I can be in the centre of London quicker than some people who live in London. So I get the best of my home county which is beautiful and then I can be in our capital city very quickly.”
“(Panto) is a very strict discipline – it’s as strict as a Shakespeare play”
In the next month or so Steven may firm up his panto commitment for this Christmas. Last year he played one of the ugly sisters in Cinderella in Windsor and in previous years he has written and directed pantos as well as acting in them.
But he is quick to point out that panto is not an easy option. “Everybody thinks it’s easy – it isn’t. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, particularly given the rigorous schedule.
“Sometimes you’re doing three shows a day. It’s a very strict discipline – it’s as strict as a Shakespeare play. That probably sounds a bit pretentious but it’s true.”
He also deplores the practice of using well-known but inexperienced people in various productions.
“There seems to be a terrible tendency now that if you’re famous for anything, if you fancy doing a bit of acting somebody will give you the role. I can’t understand it.
“It’s like me saying ‘I fancy being a plumber, I’m going to install a boiler’. I’m not qualified or trained to do it. But people seem to think that anybody can be an actor. They can’t. It’s a job like any other and it requires skill, expertise, training and experience.
“If a celebrity can do it, is the best person for the job and they’re pursuing a career in acting, that’s fine, but if there’s a non-celebrity who is better suited to the role they should do it.”
There’s no affectation about Steven whose ambitions look clearly within reach.
“I went into this business to be a working actor. I was never interested in fame. I’ve had a taste of it but it’s not why I did it and it’s not why I continue to do it.
“I do this because, not to sound egotistical in any way, I think I have a particular talent for it. I want to do interesting work with interesting people. I want to be challenged. I want to entertain people. I want to inform people, and whatever roles come along, be it on TV, film, on stage, then if I can do that, that’s perfect. I don’t want to earn millions – I want to earn a living like anybody else.
“It’s becoming more and more difficult to do that but, touch wood, I’m still here. And each year I’m still doing it I count my blessings.”
* This article appeared in the May 2016 edition of Country Images magazine