It's murder for ex-soap star . . .
We watched his character's rollercoaster fortunes soar and plummet in Brookside. Now it's murder for Steven Pinder - several times over, in fact. STEVEN RUSSELL caught him after rehearsalsIT'S a brave man who would tackle a role made famous by the legendary Sir Alec Guinness - especially when it means playing a handful of eccentric characters.
We watched his character's rollercoaster fortunes soar and plummet in Brookside. Now it's murder for Steven Pinder – several times over, in fact. STEVEN RUSSELL caught him after rehearsals
IT'S a brave man who would tackle a role made famous by the legendary Sir Alec Guinness – especially when it means playing a handful of eccentric characters. But, then, Steven Pinder has taken challenges in his stride during his life as an actor.
He's best known as the puppyish Max Farnham in Brookside, a hapless chartered surveyor whose overstretched ambition and weakness at the hands of some quite assertive women got him into plenty of scrapes over a dozen years or so. It came to a head with the accidental death of first wife Susannah, who tumbled down the stairs during an argument.
All of which equips him to take his next theatrical engagement in his stride. And what a role – or eight of them, to be precise. He's starring in the stage version of Kind Hearts and Coronets at Chelmsford's Civic Theatre, taking the part made famous by Sir Alec in the classic Ealing Comedy black and white film of 1949.
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Steven plays eight characters from the same aristocratic family who stand in the way of a young pretender desperate to become the next duke. So he decides to despatch them and claim the inheritance he believes rightfully his.
For the actor, it means some speedy changes and quick thinking in order to flit between personalities.
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“I play the whole of one family, ranging from the young upstarts to the old dukes, a priest, an aunt,” he explains. “There's about eight or nine d'Ascoynes blocking Louis Mazzini's rise to the dukedom. I am the obstacles – and, sadly, most of them get bumped off.”
Is it daunting to be treading in the footsteps of Sir Alec Guinness, as it were?
“It can be. It depends how you look at it. It's got to be very precise, with the number of changes – in the sense there are so many parts in such a short time. About three of the parts are very, very quick. But there are about four or five other parts where you get some sense of continuity.”
It's done with a modicum of make-up, “but usually it's costume and wig, or glasses or facial hair. There are one or two very quick changes. I'll be asking the actors to act slowly while I just get off and panic! There's a lot of that going on. I keep making cups of tea, so, hopefully, I'll keep on their right side!”
The audience will be aware that the d'Ascoynes are being portrayed by the same actor, of course, “but it's not like a pantomime. It's not like another play I did where you could see I was changing into different characters. These are for real, so the audience has to believe to some extent that it is real and that this is happening. It's a comedy, but we're playing it for real. We're not just putting on funny costumes for the different roles”.
Steven estimates he's on stage for about 60% of the time, but plays down the degree of difficulty he faces. “It comes in little cameo parts. I think it's harder for someone like Jake Maskall” – recently the lovable rogue Danny Moon in EastEnders – “who's playing Louis Mazzini. That's a major part.”
Steven's multi-hander does sound a bit schizophrenic, though – requiring him to be a handful of different people within a couple of hours.
“I've sort of worked on the voices, actually. One doesn't enjoy the greatest of health; one's a bit mad; one's a lady; one's quite young; one's a bit of a bastard. I'm not saying I'm looking at it like a radio play, but I've started with the voices for some strange reason. I think it's because you're sitting down and reading them at the start, and then you add on from there.”
Lady Agatha d'Ascoyne is his only female role. Is it tough playing her?
“Eh, it's hard being a woman,” he laughs – his accent confirming his Lancashire roots. “It's not so hard being this one, because she's in it for two, three minutes. She's quite lively, though.”
The Blackburn-born actor has just finished a run-through of the first half of the play at rehearsal rooms in Pimlico. He's pretty perky – basking in the glow of Blackburn Rovers' gritty weekend soccer victory over stylish Arsenal. “Giddy heights; got a nosebleed now,” he quips. “I was born into that: blue and white all the way down the middle.”
Preparations for the play are going well, too. (It must be: the director has just invited him to go for a post-rehearsal drink.) After seven performances in Chelmsford, a mini-tour follows to Blackpool and Windsor.
It's theatre, mainly, in which the 45-year-old has worked after his long residence in Brookside Close came to an end in 2003, though he's also had TV roles in shows such as Casualty and Doctors.
“This sort of thing – touring theatre – has become quite popular in this country. It's grown in the last four or five years. I did another play last year, The Titchfield Thunderbolt, which was also an Ealing Comedy, if you will, and this is something similar. It's quite interesting, black comedy.”
Cheshire-based Steven's happy to talk about his days in Brookside. “Politically, it was the '90s, so it was an interesting time. He came in as a yuppy, really. He had been recently divorced. There was a lot of work with very talented actresses; a lot about men-and-women relationships.”
Max had an enviable record with women, being married three times and having a number of affairs, but he was a bit of an idiot, though, wasn't he? Someone who was always striving to improve his lot in business, but without having the nous to carry it off.
“He was in a lot of ways, yes. It seemed to get a bit wackier as time went on.
“I was very lucky the way the writers wrote for Max. They always had me in mind. It was nice, because you carved your own little corner that you felt quite comfortable with. I always say this, and it's true; I was quite lucky with the people I worked with.”
Brookside quickly earned a reputation for adventurous storylines that were often issue-based: Sheila Grant's rape, for instance; domestic violence; Catholic celibacy.
The examination of contemporary social issues chimed with Channel 4's remit to air innovative programming. It was an early publicist in broadcasting phone helpline numbers at the end of episodes that explored hard-hitting issues.
“I get asked quite a lot of questions about it,” says Steven. “With it being Channel 4, it carved out a little niche. It was quite pioneering, in a sense. It wasn't studio-ised, like Corry (Coronation Street) was and EastEnders. So it was able to do storylines in a different way – not in a better way but a different way.”
Max got married again towards the end, to Jacqui Dixon, and they looked to move away from the close.
What happened to him? Did he ride off into the sunset with his latest beloved?
“No. It actually didn't go well for my character at the end. I just went up the stairs – and that was it! I didn't know it was my last scene, but it ended up being so.”
Does Steven mourn its passing?
“Well, it had a slow death. It got ill before it died, unfortunately – and that was nothing to do with it artistically. They started shifting around with the slot.
“I kind of think Brookie could have gone on a little bit longer, when I see some of what the soaps are doing today. Without being disrespectful, it still would look OK in this week's programming.”
Perhaps some bright spark might revive it . . .
“Now, let's not get hysterical! I'm not sure about bringing it back – I think you should always move on – but maybe something similar.”
It would be interesting to see what became of Max, though – to see if the over-eager puppy ever matured. Perhaps he could come back down the stairs and say “I've finally finished cleaning the bath. Sorry it took so long!”
“Or I've been in the shower. I think they did that in another soap . . .”
(Kind Hearts and Coronets is at Chelmsford's Civic Theatre from March 7-11. Box office 01245 606505)
Chaotic in the Close: the life and times of Max Farnham
There were constant tensions in his marriage to Patricia thanks to the presence in the background of scheming first wife Susannah. When Susannah started a new life in America, Max rashly crossed the Atlantic and snatched back their children – and even more rashly shared an intimate moment with his former spouse.
Unfathomably, Patricia later chose to have him back. But life at No 7 had more shocks in store. A new baby was born with Downs Syndrome, and Max struggled to come to terms with a handicapped daughter (though, happily, he came to realise he loved her very much).
His poor judgement was again apparent when he opened a restaurant with Brookside Close resident bad-boy Barry Grant. There was an unjust arrest on suspicion of kerb-crawling that prompted the departure of a disbelieving Patricia.
Max's fortunes took a dreadful turn when his two children from his first marriage were killed in a car crash. The Farnhams then had a surrogate child with a young neighbour – whom Max would end up marrying! – and a natural and unexpected new son of their own.
To cap it all, Susannah later fell down the stairs during an argument with Max and died as a result of the accident.
Brookside: a potted biography
The soap – or contemporary drama serial – aired from 1982 to November 2003: 2,932 episodes
Its highest ratings came in 1995, almost nine million viewers, when it screened two five-night specials centred on domestic violence within the Jordache family
It earned many plaudits, including the Royal Television Society award for Best Drama Series or Serial
The driving force was Phil Redmond, of Grange Hill (and latterly Hollyoaks) fame
Famous ex-Brookies include Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston, who later starred in The Royle Family; Anna Friel and Claire Sweeney