Christopher Timothy talks Eastenders
Eastenders star Christopher Timothy on a career which made him both Frank Spencer’s stooge and Britain’s most famous vet…
Christopher Timothy may be retired on screen as Walford pensioner Ted Murray, but, at 76, the actor won’t even contemplate retirement. In fact, as we chat between scenes, he’s unfazed by the soap’s hectic filming schedule, suggesting this is clearly a man who still relishes a challenge!
Eastenders has scored a casting coup in signing the star, but it was the chance to work with fellow telly favourite Maggie Steed, 70, who plays Ted’s wife Joyce, that sealed the deal.
‘I’ve admired her for years, but we’d never met,’ says Christopher. ‘When I knew
she’d been cast, I screamed, “Yippee!” She’s a delight.’
Happily married, Ted and Joyce have been rehoused on the Square because the block of flats they lived in for 40 years is being demolished, but it’s clear there’s more to the Murrays than meets the eye.
Although Christopher is keeping quiet about the couple’s dark secret, he’s only too happy to reminisce about his own past, as he takes us back to where it all began...
‘I wanted to act from the age of seven,’ says the star, who was born in Bala, North Wales, and has seven children and three grandchildren. ‘I remember sitting in the cinema watching an old Dirk Bogarde film, and noticing the reaction audiences had to the actors. I thought it would be fantastic to re-create that.
‘I left school with one O-level and got a job at a gentlemen’s outfitters. Eventually, my dad, who worked for the BBC, told me if I wanted to act I’d better get off my backside!’
Christopher’s father, Andrew, was a famous BBC announcer, and set his son on the road to stardom.
‘He arranged some meetings at the BBC to discuss getting into acting,’ recalls Christopher. ‘I was advised to go to drama school, and after that I did a play in New York. That got me started.’
By the early 1960s, Christopher was part of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company, rubbing shoulders with Britain’s finest thespians.
‘There was Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, Ian Mckellen… amazing people to learn from.
I was particularly in awe of Maggie – and secretly in love with her!’
Christopher soon went from stage to screen, and he appeared in numerous hit TV shows such as Z Cars, The Liver Birds and Some Mother’s Do ’Ave ’Em – thanks to a recommendation from its star.
‘Michael Crawford saw me in a TV play and suggested me for the part. I was thrilled, but as the play was on BBC2 on Christmas Day against Morecambe and Wise on BBC1, hardly anyone watched it!’
Christopher’s big break came in 1978 when he played James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small, based on the Herriot books about being a country vet. With its mix of gentle stories, likeable characters, beautiful scenery and cute animals, the BBC series was a smash hit and ran for 12 years.
‘James Herriot was a pen name for Alf Wight, a seriously good story-teller,’ adds Christopher, who lives in Sussex with Annie, his wife of 35 years. ‘The tales perfectly fitted a weekly format. It may have overshadowed some of my other work, but I’m still very proud of the show. It was a joyous job and I feel lucky to have done it.
‘Last year the cast reunited to mark what would’ve been Alf ’s 100th birthday. It was lovely to see Robert Hardy, Peter Davison and Carol Drinkwater. Of course, Lynda Bellingham [who replaced Carol as James’s wife, Helen, and died in 2014] was sadly missed.’
Another memorable role came in 2000 when Christopher starred in daytime soap Doctors as GP Mac Mcguire. ‘I had a ball and got to direct, which was fantastic. ’
Reflecting on his many career highlights, easy-going Christopher admits he’s as passionate about his profession as ever and has no regrets – except perhaps one.
‘I never got the chance to turn on the Blackpool illuminations! They asked me years ago in the early days of All Creatures and Small, but the BBC wouldn’t release me for the day. I was gutted. Forget knighthoods – turning on the lights at Blackpool, that’s the ultimate accolade!’
Beret funny: In Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em Settling in: Ted and Joyce in Eastenders