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Christopher Timothy in The Safari Party

I Want to Be Famous for Doing Something Well

Sheila Connor talks to Christopher Timothy

Christopher Timothy is a man who is very much against the celebrity worship which is so prevalent today. “If I am famous,” he says, “I want to be famous for doing something well.” And during a show business career spanning four decades there is no doubt that he has achieved celebrity status. It was in 1969 that he first came to the attention of the British public with All Creatures Great and Small, a television series so popular it is still recalled with nostalgic pleasure so, although he has given countless interviews about his time as a Yorkshire vet, I just had to ask him again. The series was taken from the very entertaining books by James Herriott and Timothy relates the story of his first meeting with the author (real name Alf Wright).

“Alf first saw me in a play called Murder Most English and I had my hair dyed platinum blonde for the part. His wife said, ‘My God, he can’t play with hair like that!’ When we met it was in a alleyway in Yorkshire waiting for the rain to stop so we could shoot and I was wearing one of those plastic see-through rain hats. Because of my hair being blonde it had been dyed darker! He said," Are you Christopher Timothy? I am your alto ego." Our first meeting was with me standing there with dyed hair and a see-through rain hat, but we became great mates. He’s a wonderful, wonderful guy – everything you would expect from the books and a little bit more.”

From being a vet to being a doctor – after six years he has just finished a very successful run in the TV series Doctors – I wondered if he had picked up any medical knowledge. “No, not really. I spent a week with a real vet in Yorkshire and a day with a real G P in his surgery but I didn’t really watch procedures. I just watched manner and attitude. The actual procedures – how to take blood pressure and that sort of thing – I picked up as I went along.”

He is currently touring with The Safari Party, a play written by Tim Firth (Neville’s Island and the hilarious Calendar Girls). “He writes the most brilliant dialogue, and the play is hung on a safari party where you move from house to house for each course of the meal. Works best if you’re very local to each other, because then people can drink and they don’t have to drive – but really the play is about snobbery and aspirations and relationships”.

How difficult is it to change from Doctors with a new script every week, to a play with the same lines every night?

“Of course there is a difference! Working in something like Doctors you learn your lines, you say the scene and then forget them because you then have to remember another scene, and another scene. Doctors is pretty fast, so actually absorbing stuff and holding and retaining it for days on end just doesn’t happen unless you’re insane - there’s only so much the mind can contain. The theatre is where I was trained, that’s my job – it’s not difficult – no more difficult now than it was when I was younger. Learning lines is the difficult part of it – that’s the real hard work – but I just love what I do, and I love actors.”

As with so many others – it was pantomime which first drew Timothy to the acting profession. “ It wasn’t so much that I wanted to perform, I was just intrigued by the beautiful scenery. I didn’t know about stage managers or lighting or producers or directors, I just thought the only way to get up and to be in that picture would be to be an actor. About the same time I began going to the pictures and I remember being aware at a very young age of the effect that a close-up had on a audience and I thought I’d like to be able to do that. And it wasn’t anything to do with showing off or vanity, it was that I wanted to be part of this process.

“I’m not interested in fame and I’m not interested in celebrity. I think that’s been done to death. The sooner we return to excellence and the striving for excellence, the better for everybody. Celebrity has its place, but suddenly it’s become the be all and end all and I think it gets in the way of real creativity and excellence”

Are there any plans for the future or just whatever comes along? “Well, I hope it’s not ‘whatever comes along’ I like to be in a position to be selective, that’s everybody’s luxury isn’t it? To have choice, that’s the height of success, I would say.”

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©Peter Lathan 2006