Pat Whymark and Julian Harries: Suffolk’s ultimate double act 

Julian Harries and Pat Whymark. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Julian Harries and Pat Whymark - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Sitting in the front room of Pat Whymark and Julian Harries’ home I feel a pang of jealousy. Around the fireplace, and sprawling out into every nook and cranny of the historic Ipswich property, are trinkets and curiosities from a lifetime of collecting. It’s the kind of relaxed, eclectic, boho look interiors mags often try to emulate. And this room speaks a lot about the folk who live within the property’s four walls. 

A couple who have explored, investigated and invested in a fascinating life together. 

Partners in crime within Common Ground Theatre Company, which Pat began as a route into the theatre world for young people, the duo are just about to go on tour with their Christmas show. Their grand return to festive entertaining, after a hiatus in 2020 and much of 2021 due to you know what. 

Pat and Julian launch Common Ground Theatre Company

Pat and Julian launch Common Ground Theatre Company - Credit: John Kerr

Sherlock Holmes Meets Count Dracula (a comedy spoof written by Pat and starring Julian as the intrepid investigator) will travel around Suffolk and Essex from December 16 to January 23. 

“There was a BBC drama once with a Sherlock Holmes character and an Eastern European count – with a veiled reference to this chap being a vampire,” Pat says of the inspiration for the performance. “He had a strange effect on Holmes, and whether it was mesmerism, or he was really a vampire wasn’t revealed. I thought it would be an interesting base for a play.” 

The show opens at Harkstead Village Hall, just outside of Ipswich. “Which is very handy for us,” adds Julian. “They really love us going there and we have a very nice connection with the village, they’re so accommodating.” 

Is it stressful packing up your ‘box of tricks’ and heading out on the road to tour theatre? 

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“You do have to be adaptable,” says Julian, laughing, “I often feel, with us, that we’re kind of like medieval players in a horse-drawn cart, going from village to village, setting up in a town square or market place, doing our thing.” 

“It’s very much the ‘old model’,” agrees Pat. “We really do enjoy it, and I think there’s something rather wholesome about having something in old rep, where the actor comes to you. Bringing some kind of event into a town hall, or village hall, it makes you feel part and parcel of the patchwork that is that space and community. 

“And it brings people together. That’s so important,” adds Julian. 

The cast of Sherlock Holmes and The Hooded Lance

The cast of Sherlock Holmes and The Hooded Lance - Credit: Pat Whymark

As Covid-19 plotted its course across the globe, it left no business, group or sector of society untouched. Theatre and the arts were almost instantly affected. Pat and Julian, who have no building and no staff, and who rely entirely on the takings from their shows, had their lifeline swept from underneath their feet in one fell swoop.  

“It’s been a terribly scary time,” says Pat. “We usually tour in the winter so Covid came at just about the worst time. It was admirable of some theatres to keep going with streaming, and I’m sure people were very glad they did that, but we weren’t in a position to be able to change what we do.” 

Instead there was voice work for the couple, before studios closed. And then. The long wait. The hoping and praying theatre would come back and not just survive, but thrive. 

“We had a real think and focus during lockdown about what we do, and why we do it. Generally no one does this to make a fortune, especially not small-scale touring. Personally, “ says Pat, “I like the live performance event. I think it’s crucial to human wellbeing. Going to the theatre, the audience communally witness something which is a one-off, which will never be the same again. You can’t achieve the same feel over a screen. Live theatre is something to look forward to, to anticipate. Something joyful.” 

Julian’s return to performing was Aldeburgh Summer Theatre, with Pat busily writing their most recent autumn tour – The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. 

“It was really lovely to be back in our venues,” says Pat. “Especially with a piece that was very hopeful and had a clear message.” 

But they admit, although they’re back, they’re still nervous there’ll be a reprise of lockdown. “It’s scary times,” says Julian.  

Don’t expect, though, Covid to seep into Pat’s plays. “I’m not sure I could do that [write about Covid]. You’d have to explore it by focussing on human experience in that setting. It couldn’t just be about Covid. I’m sure there are narrative things you could do...but I won’t personally be writing about it.” 

Pat Whymark photographed during her time with Eastern Angles

Pat Whymark photographed during her time with Eastern Angles - Credit: Archant

Pat’s tales draw roots from many places. From the world around her. History. Literature, Poetry. In writing about Suffolk, she says she’s learnt so much about our county. 

“Our first ever show was about crime and punishment and transportation in Suffolk in the 19th century, so there was a huge amount of research there. The Whymarks have deep roots in west Suffolk and I found a relation who was transported and was able to access his convict record online which was an amazing resource. He was eventually pardoned. We have relations in Tasmania to this day. I also found out more about Rushmere Heath where hangings took place, and the prison at the County building.” 

Hilariously, in a bid to drum up press interest, Pat and Julian arranged a large-scale stunt to draw attention to the play – one which went practically unnoticed. 

In full dress, alongside other cast members, they put their son into a horse-drawn cart and processed to Rushmere where a homemade ‘gallows’ awaited. No one stopped them. It barely caused a stir. Don’t worry, their son isn’t scarred for life – in fact the teacher often plays double bass in their shows – another talent in the family. 

A tale that really spoke to Pat, becoming a Common Ground performance was the Japanese folk story The Fisherman and the Turtle. “The idea came to me because of watching a documentary about Hiroshima,” says Pat. “One guy told a story about how he was either a fisherman or had worked by the river, and while he was running out of Hiroshima he found a body without a head, floating in the water. It was a schoolgirl, still in her uniform. 

“He started a conversation with the body and eventually got her out and buried her. The immediacy of the telling of that story said it all about grief and about being able to grieve for strangers as well as your own family and friends. Those are the things I think it’s good to write a play about.” 

Winding back, the couple remember their roots in theatre. 

Julian Harries The Tinder Box, Common Ground Theatre Company's 2014 Christmas show

Julian Harries The Tinder Box, Common Ground Theatre Company's 2014 Christmas show - Credit: Mike Kwasniak Photography

Julian, 59, moved to Suffolk from London when he was in his late 20s, having studied at drama school. Taking up a job with the newly formed Eastern Angles, he met Pat and her two-year-old daughter, and was drawn to stay in the region. 

“I lived on a houseboat on the Deben. It made more sense at the time than buying a flat. But God it was cold in winter. And it was a lot of work. I’d be in bed at night, listening to it rusting. It was non-stop maintenance but you kind of accept that when you take a boat on. You have to go in with your eyes open. I was quite happy on the water. I loved the view, and coming out on deck for sunrises was amazing.” 

Julian featured in several Eastern Angles plays in the early days. “And I found it was possible to still work as a London-based actor at the same time.” 

He gigged at Southwold Summer Theatre, Norwich Playhouse, at Bury’s Theatre Royal, in Colchester, Frinton. 

And right as Pat was setting up Common Ground Theatre Company, there was a world tour with Sir Ian Mckellan. 

“That was with the Royal Shakespeare Company and it was quite an experience. We toured King Lear and The Seagull, and it took us to Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and the US –New York, Minneapolis, LA. We played a venue in Singapore to a few thousand. It was packed. But obviously Ian McKellan is a big star,” Julian grins. 

While Julian seemingly sailed into an acting career, Pat, 62, explains the path for women is not so easily navigated. 

The cast of Sherlock Holmes and The Hooded Lance

The cast of Sherlock Holmes and The Hooded Lance - Credit: Pat Whymark

“I had no aspiration to go into theatre,” she explains. “It’s hard to tell people of our kids’ generation that the aspirations for women when we were growing up were largely dependent on their parents’ aspirations for them. 

“When I was at school careers you could go into, if you were going to work, were largely nursing, social work, being a secretary...a teacher maybe. Other careers didn’t occur to me. I’m from a family of professional golfers, so it was very different indeed. And my father grew up poor, so there was an expectation I’d get a job in a shop as soon as I was able. “ 

It wasn’t until an older man she was dating suggested it, that Pat even considered going to drama school. “I didn’t know a career in theatre was even a possibility. If you didn’t have these things presented to you, how could you possibly aspire to them? This is why representation is so poor for women in theatre.” 

“We’re also, I think, going back to the period pre-1950s,” adds Julian, “where a lot of actors are posh, or from posh backgrounds. There was a brief new wave of kitchen sink, working class actors in the 50s and 60s. We had a generation including Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Richard Harris. There are less of them now. All the leading actors these days seem to be public school educated. I definitely feel like we’re going backwards.” 

Pat Whymark photographed at her Suffolk home. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Pat Whymark photographed at her Suffolk home - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Breaking out of the mould society had crafted for women, after drama school Pat (who was born in Essex but moved to Ipswich as a girl), quickly landed a job at Southwold Summer Theatre doing weekly rep – a steep learning curve. Then there were some stints of telly work before she became one of the founder members of Eastern Angles, meeting Julian in 1991. 

While today Pat’s recognised as a strong theatre writer, her background is actually in sound – she was Eastern Angles’ musical director. “Back in the 80s a lot of companies were doing documentary dramas set to music. That was very popular. And that’s how I started.” 

In the noughties, with their children needing them less and less as they grew up, Julian and Pat were able to focus on their future. For Pat, that involved setting up Common Ground in 2008 – joined later by her partner. A company which has produced more than 40 shows in the last 13 years. 

“We started with youth shows and if any of the young actors went on to train we would then try to offer them a job – we've done that on a few occasions,” says Pat. “I’ve found it very rewarding.” 

Julian’s first appearance for Common Ground was The Signalman, but his favourite part was playing the Ancient Mariner in a show Pat wrote about Coleridge – The Mariner. 

“It wasn’t just an adaptation of the poem,” he says. “It had aspects of his life and coupled that with what happened with the Mariner. I loved telling that story. That journey on the ship. The albatross. And the nightmare he goes through. It was brilliant. 

“I think, when you study acting it’s instilled in you that it’s a serious thing. Some people think of it in almost religious terms.  

“It sounds a bit poncy but a lot of the time as an actor you’re just doing Alan Ayckbourn or Noel Coward, and making people laugh. Acting has slightly been debased. It’s not just about a good night out, but acting, and all art, has the ability to pull you up and make you think ‘oh my God, I’ve never thought of that, or of myself being that’. We almost have the ability to reveal the truth about human nature. 

“In our autumn tour, the character went on a journey through the meaningless things in life, and is able to reconnect with the human race in the same way Scrooge does in A Christmas Carol. It felt like, by doing that piece we were connecting with our fellow men and women – it felt significant.” 

Speaking of their plans for the future, there’s a show in the pipeline for next year’s Woolpit Festival, likely a take on Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Raven. “Poe is a delight,” says Pat. “Beautiful, romantic, dark and extraordinary.” 

And their hope is audiences will slowly but surely make their way back to regional theatre. That it will once again be woven back into our cultural fabric. 

“Every show is an audition for the next one,” says Pat. “You’re only as good as your last show, and the audience have to build up that trust in you. I just hope, going forward, people continue to put their trust in us.” 

Book tickets for Common Ground Theatre Company’s Christmas show, Sherlock Holmes meets Count Dracula at commongroundtc.co.uk 


We’re reading: Julian - We’re both reading The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. It’s one of his big, fat ones. Pat’s been reading a lot of 19th Century Russian literature, and I’m reading a book about the Enlightenment because in spring next year I’m directing a play about Gainsborough for local theatre company, Woven. 

We’re watching: Pat - Almost exclusively non-English crime drama on Walter Presents on All4. There’s so much good stuff. When the Dust Settles is wonderful. It’s about the aftermath of a terrorist attack in a Danish town. It’s so beautiful. And there’s a Danish film called The Guilty about a former cop who’s been put on 999 calls as an emergency services operator – a sort of punishment. He gets a call, and thinks it could be a kidnapping. 

We’re listening to: Julian – I’ve been going through the back catalogue of Joni Mitchell. I’m listening to her quite a lot.