Kidnap drama for Suffolk actor

Suffolk-based actor Benjamin Northover has just landed himself his first leading role in a hard-hitting television drama.

Andrew Clarke

Suffolk-based actor Benjamin Northover has just landed himself his first leading role in a hard-hitting television drama. He spoke to Arts Editor Andrew Clarke about recreating life in captivity for a UK student taken while trekking across India.

It's a part any young actor would give their eye teeth to play. It's a starring role in a networked television drama. It involves three weeks location filming across the other side of the world and it's the sort of story that will undoubtedly get you noticed by the movers and shakers of the industry.

But, as Suffolk-born actor Benjamin Northover discovered, this sort of gift of a job comes at a price - namely extreme sickness on location in India, long hours in scorchingly hot weather and virtually no time to prepare.

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Benjamin Northover, 28, who grew up in Walpole, near Halesworth, earlier this year was selected to star in the Channel Five drama Kidnapped Abroad which follows the experiences of UK student Rhys Partridge who was taken by Muslim extremists while journeying through northern India in 1994.

The programme tells the story of his kidnap, the days he spent in captivity and his eventual rescue by Indian security forces. It's a hard hitting drama which has many echoes with the Daniel Pearl story which was recently brought back into sharp focus by the award-winning film A Mighty Heart which highlighted the efforts by Pearl's wife, played by Angelina Jolie, to try and secure his release.

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The similarities between the stories go beyond the fact that they are kidnap dramas but both tales feature the character of Omar Sheikh, which the film-makers say engineered both kidnappings.

The television film is an eye-opening piece of drama and in many ways the experience of shooting this piece of tough television echoed the real-life deprivations suffered by UK student during his month-long stay in captivity.

Despite the tiredness and the real-life sickness he suffered on location, Benjamin has certainly no regrets about his involvement as he knows that this whirlwind production could be his passport to fame and fortune as well as opening doors in the world of directing.

Benjamin, who went to school first in Halesworth and then in Bungay, said he didn't come from an acting background but was very fortunate to have very supportive parents and teachers. “My family and teachers have always been incredibly encouraging. I have always known that I would end up doing something creative.

“This aspect was nurtured even from an early age by my teacher at Halesworth Middle School Laurie Sheppard. He was also an artist and became something of a mentor for me.

“He encouraged me to make little short films while I was still at school and join the local drama group. After doing my GCSEs at Bungay High School, I went off to live for a year on the Scilly Isles, worked on a farm during the mornings, a boat yard in the afternoon and a bar in the evening. I was also keeping a video diary and making short 8mm films.”

He said that after a year he returned to the mainland and enrolled in a foundation course at the Norwich art school before he dropped out and pursue his love of acting by attending a drama degree course at Newport School of Film and Drama.

“I was diagnosed as having dyslexia from a very early age and I suppose I have always been a very visual person. I have always made short films and I really enjoy animation, so becoming an actor and a film-maker was a natural step.”

Benjamin is very much a pro-active actor/ film-maker. He doesn't just wait for the parts to come to him. He goes out and makes them happen. Talking with him you get this amazing sense of energy and enthusiasm which just engulfs you as he speaks and you realise that he has this rare gift of making you as enthusiastic about a project as he is.

Inspired by friends Julius Ziz and Jonas Mekas he set up an independent production company which later this year will be shooting his first feature length movie, They'll Go To Hymns, based on his own experiences growing up in rural Suffolk. But, for the time being Benjamin is recovering from the ordeal of playing real-life kidnap victim Rhys Partridge in the TV drama Kidnapped Abroad: Hostage To Terror.

It was a role that it took its toll physically as well as emotionally.

“Funnily enough as soon as I got to Dehli I fell ill and was ill really through the whole shoot. My character Rhys was ill in the film, so there was no acting required there. But I found it really gruelling simply because it was hard to concentrate when you are that ill yourself.”

Benjamin said he was thrilled with this role of a lifetime - which he says has given him a greater appreciation of life.

“The programme is very much the story of this student Rhys Partridge, he was a young guy travelling in the world and happened to fall into most people's worst nightmare. When you are travelling, when you are in an unfamiliar country, you trust people and he met this guy who called himself Rowheet who turned out to be Omar Sheikh, an Islamic fundamentalist.”

He said that Omar orchestrated the kidnapping in order to try and force the release of other fundamentalists held by the Indian government.

“His captors were looking for western tourists. They wanted to put pressure on the international press in order to get the Indian government to release a group of Kashmiri separatists. Obviously western tourists were always a prime target for the hostage takers because it put their cause on the world stage.”

He said that although it was a gruelling experience to recreate the kidnapping of the student backpacker, it was also a rewarding, eye-opening role.

“I think every actor wants something like this, something very involving, something they can get their teeth into. It was quite a juicy role and it was very interesting for me because there was a relationship between the hostage and his captor. For me that was the key thing. I went up for the audition and got it and a week later we were off.

“I was cast very late in the day because they couldn't find what they were looking for. They cast me on the third round of casting. I think they had seen hundreds of actors in London.

The production was shot in India over three-and-a-half weeks and was filmed on the actual locations where the events took place. “You can imagine it was pretty eerie. You get on set, you are in costume, and you can't escape thinking that this guy was here and it was happening to him for real. The director Finn Mcgough had met the real Rhys Partridge in Australia and gave me some taped interviews, so I had a lot of wonderful first hand information to draw on, to inform my performance. This was a really horrific, intense experience for him and I was able to tap into those memories through the interviews.”

He said that during the filming he spoke to director Finn Mcgough about why he had won the part in the face of such stiff competition. “He said that I got the part because I was one of the few people they saw who could pull off the Australian/English accent that Rhys had. It was an odd accent and I nailed it. Apparently when most people did it, it sounded like cockney. Also they wanted someone who looked like Rhys and looking at the pictures of him now, he looks a lot like my father.”

Benjamin said that the part offered him a challenge as an actor - both mentally and physically. “I love films or plays where the character you identify with goes through a changing experience. They start out as one person and their outlook on the world, their personality or their life is changed by the experience they undergo as part of the story. It sounds pretty ruthless but the best drama is always character-driven.”

He said that the film starts off in the heart of Dehli, in the Hari Krishna hotel where Rhys was staying. It starts off introducing the setting and we see him meeting this character Rowheet, becoming friends, you see the whole thing from beginning to end and how the relationship changes as he realises what is happening.

“They cleverly tricked him into getting into a car and travelling outside of Dehli. Rowheet invited Rhys to travel with him to see his uncle's village. It was a chance to see the real India. It's a tempting offer for any traveller. I've been in that situation. If you go to places like India, you want to get away from the tourist trail. You think if I can get to meet the locals then it's a great way to see the real India. That's how they lured him out. When they got to the village, Rhys immediately knew that something was wrong.

“You can see this in the film. Rhys said in the interview that he knew something was up, something was coming but he didn't know what. Then it was a case 'Oh my God, this is really happening.”

He said that he was reassured by the scripts level-headed approach not only to the kidnap drama but also to the dangers inherent in world travel. “When I first read the script it seemed pretty relevant to a lot of the current issues and people's fears. There is a lot of prejudice which is coming up which is completely unnecessary.

“I have friends in New York, Paris and Buenos Aires and the way that you get to know a place is through the local people. You go out and you make friends but having said that, anyone travelling without their wits about them is asking for trouble.”

He said he was pleased that the script written by the director Finn Mcgough, took a very level-headed approach. He didn't say don't trust the locals but he said be careful in case others are using them as a cover. Rhys was lulled into a false sense of security, a false sense of friendship and that how they got him out of the city, into a small village and chained him up.”

There is a sub-plot in the film where two New Zealanders are kidnapped and join them and in so doing totally destroy his plans to escape. There is a whole bunch of them being held hostage. They had also kidnapped Bela Muss, an American, and he was held in a different location.

“They threatened to behead the hostages if the Indian government didn't give in to their demands.”

He said that the rescue when it came was unexpected and bloody. “He was rescued on November 1 by the Indian police. There was a young Kashmiri guard, who Rhys had befriended and was quite kind to him at times and this young guard liked to fly a kite on the roof-top of the hut where Rhys was being held. The police were chasing a local thief and they just thought that it was someone flying a kite, until he had this extreme reaction. He was so alarmed when he saw the police and their suspicions rose.

“They found Bela Muss in another location and he said that there was someone else being held and they put the pieces together. There was a huge gun-fight and I think three police officers were killed getting Rhys free.”

Popular misconception has it that these kidnappings have only happened since 9/11 whereas they have been a staple part of world events for the last 20 years at least.

In a bizarre-twist, two weeks he got back in London, Benjamin coincidentally bumped into Suffolk-based hostage survivor Terry Waite in a London café. “He was just sitting having a coffee and I just had to go over and introduce myself, say hello, and tell him what I had been doing - also telling him, how I could imagine what he had gone through.

“As a child, growing up in Suffolk, his kidnapping was the first time that I really clocked that anything like this was going on in the world. It was a wonderful, almost casual meeting and completely unplanned, I was there, he was there - it was almost as if it was meant to be.”

Kidnapped Abroad: Hostage To Terror is broadcast on Five on Monday June 9 at 10pm

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