‘I LIKE him a good deal more now than I did when we started!’ John Slater talking about Tom Stone, the character he has played in Z Cars. The programme reaches its two hundredth episode this week.
‘It takes you a good thirty or forty episodes to get really settled with a character, but after that the rest come very easily!’ Stone, John Slater thinks, is basically a kind-hearted man who has had to impose the nastier side of police-work almost reluctantly on his own character. ‘Of course, he’s changed over the years and having three different bosses has helped.’
Hudson (John Barry) was a great warm bull of a man so Stone had to be hard and sour. Then there was Todd (Joss Ackland) who was harder and sourer than Stone could ever be so the character started to warm a bit. Now, there’s Witty (John Woodvine), a dour man with a very dry sense of humour, and this has allowed Stone’s own cockney sense of humour to come out a bit. He sets up the gags for Witty’s telling dry smile. ‘Takes me back to my five years at the Whitehall as Brian Rix’s feed…’
For an actor who has always been renowned for his versatility, appearing in a popular long-running series like Z Cars could have been a risk. ‘Long runs don’t really worry me – at the start of my career I did lots of Ealing comedies, then went into the Shaw Festival, then up to Stratford-on-Avon to play Bottom and Iago, then to the Whitehall for five years, so I don’t think a few years in Z Cars will affect my career that much.’
He began his career when he was eight with appearances as mid-shipman and drummer boys in amateur productions of Gilbert and Sullivan. From the age of fourteen onwards he acted with left-wing theatre groups like The Workers’ Circle and the Unity Theatre. ‘Not that I was particularly politically committed – if the Young Conservatives had had as good a theatre group I would just as likely have joined that!’
Actors, he thinks, should not involve themselves in politics. He added, tongue in cheek, ‘Nor should they be expected to support their families, nor be given the vote, nor pay income tax. Everyone else makes a transition between the ages of about eleven and fourteen, from playing “make-believe” to being self-conscious and responsible. Actors never really grow up.’
John has one regret – that he doesn’t have the time any more to write and tell his own stories on television. ‘I keep promising myself that I will start writing again, but somehow I never quite get round to it.’