Life after the Summer Wine
EASY COWBOY: Television stalwart Ken Kitson is about to celebrate his 40th anniversary as an actor. But, as he tells Tony Earnshaw, he still has a couple of ambitions to fulfil, not least a big-screen Western set in Yorkshire. Picture by Gerard Binks.
a children’s show called The Barmy Army. His abiding memory is playing to an arena full of 8,000 kids all chanting “we are the barmy army”.
Life for a fledgling actor in the 1970s was active and fun. There was plenty of work around. Kitson skipped nimbly from one job to the next. Often he was cast as thugs, coppers or soldiers – in Danger UXB with Anthony Andrews he was the faithful NCO who assisted Andrews’ cool-headed officer to defuse Luftwaffe bombs.
But his breakthrough role was in A Wish for Wally’s Mother as Ruth Dunning’s simple-minded son, being dragged around the country by his itinerant 60-something mother.
Looking back at the play today, it is reminiscent of both Colleen McCullough’s Tim and Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump. As the adult with the mind of a nine-yearold, Kitson emerged as a performer of sensitivity and pathos. It was a magnificent entry into character work.
“Wally was such a fantastic part,” recalls Kitson. “They were looking at really big names and I got it. I got fabulous reviews in the press the next day – ‘gentle giant’ and all of that. And that was it. After that I went on to Danger UXB and loads of other stuff.”
The work came thick and fast. Kitson’s 1970s resumé boasts a succession of hit shows from The Sweeney and The Professionals via Van Der Valk, Get Some In and Michael Palin’s post- Python series Ripping Yarns. In the Eighties he was in G.B.H, Mapp & Lucia, an all-star remake of
When I went down to London I thought I was the Cock of the North.
Witness for the Prosecution and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.
Then came Coronation Street (“I’m actually in the history books for Coronation Street because I’ve done four different characters since the 1970s, the only actor who’s ever done that. The last time was in 2005.”), Emmerdale and Last of the Summer Wine. For the latter he gets recognised 30 to 40 times every day in Scarborough.
One job he didn’t get was The New Avengers. “I was down to the last two on The New Avengers and Gareth Hunt got it. He was better looking. I even wrote to the studios for James Bond. I said ‘You’ve had all the good ones. Do you fancy an ugly one?’ They sent me a letter back and said ‘no’.”
Kitson has also propped up the cast lists of a string of movies. His proficiency with a blade led to his earliest credit as a fight arranger on Barry McKenzie Holds His Own. He made his debut as a coalminer in Disney’s Escape from the Dark, a drama about Yorkshire kids who rescue pit ponies destined for the knacker’s yard. The film is notable for its northern locations and for being the final film of Alastair Sim, playing Lord Harrogate.
“When I got that I thought ‘Disney – Hollywood at last!’ It was Sheffield, Durham and Pinewood!” laughs Kitson. “It was a lovely film to work on and a really good cast. It was lovely to work with Alastair Sim. I’ve never been star-struck or in awe of anybody but to see him standing there…
“Over the years I’ve worked with some fabulous people. One of the biggest stars I ever worked with was Deborah Kerr on Witness for the Prosecution, a remake of the Charles Laughton movie. She was an icon. But what a lovely, beautiful lady.”
The cast also included Donald Pleasence, Diana Rigg, Beau Bridges and Sir Ralph Richardson.
“It was a closed set and mostly