Tony Pitts: from Emmerdale actor to award-winning radio writer

The creator of the BBC Audio Drama of the year talks about his long road to writing success

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Tony Pitts: from Emmerdale actor to award-winning radio writer
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It’s not easy for soap stars to find success in any other field away from acting — apart from singing, obviously. Thanks Kylie.

Susan Tully may have become a credible TV director, Ross Kemp may have won Baftas for his documentaries on gangs and Michael Cashman may have become a Labour MEP. But look at poor Letitia Dean who, however many times she tries, doesn’t seem able to escape the vice-like grip of Albert Square.

Tony Pitts, who played Archie Brooks on Emmerdale Farm for ten years from 1983 to 1993, was no exception to the rule. When he found himself jobless after the infamous plane crash that transformed the soap, he struggled to move on.

“There was a definite feeling that I was in a very different place on the Monday after I'd finished on the Friday. It does feel like that party game where you drink whisky and then they spin you around and you open your eyes. You lurch from one place to the other.”

Archie BrooksA major consideration in the way Tony was feeling was the fact that he’d done a lot of his growing up on the show. He had started his acting career in 1981 when Ken Loach plucked him from obscurity after discovering him at college in Sheffield and gave him the second lead in his film, Faces and Smiles. But it was Emmerdale that first exposed him to a wider audience and introduced him to the strange vagaries of fame.

He admits that he didn’t cope too well. “Before you know who you are you're being treated differently to other people. That's a ride, that's a journey. I got to 30 and it took me a couple of years to get things into context and start to realise who I am and what I'm about. When you've had an identity pinned on you, it takes a little while to decide which way you're facing.”

He describes the time after Emmerdale as his “wilderness”, in which he retreated to his sofa for six or seven years.  “My life just sort of stalled. All the evidence was that I might be better pursuing something else.”

It may sound as if he was catatonic, slumped in front of daytime TV for days on end, but in fact there was one thing that kept him going. Writing. He’d been writing little bits since he was a child and then, with days to fill, came the deluge. He wrote huge amounts, but not with the intention of ever showing any of it to anyone.

“I wrote books and books and books. All pen and paper. I'd fill an A4-sized pad and just start another one. I had cupboards and cupboards full. I threw probably 90 per cent of it away.”

In a certain way, Tony sees his writing as a form of therapy, a way of dealing with the harsh realities of life — something he says he’s spent the majority of his time trying to sidestep.

“It seems to me, and maybe this is something that writers have in common, that when things happen to you, they just happen, they don't seem to touch. But there's some sort of osmosis. I swallow stuff, and then it makes its way out in time.”

Eventually that need to process experience through writing would lead Tony to a Sony and a BBC Audio Drama award, but not in any way that he would have liked.

Throughout the lean times he had always tried to stay fit — not only in body but also in mind — by doing anything from football to weight training. He attributes it to the working-class Protestant work ethic he witnessed growing up, but which he sorely lacks.

“I think if I’m doing something that raises a sweat, that’s work.”

It was while training in a boxing gym that Tony met a heroin addict called Liam Jones who had joined as part of an attempt to turn his life around. Tony took Liam under his wing and the two became close friends, but the happiness was not to last. Liam couldn’t free himself from addiction, and finally died of an overdose.

Tony Pitts Talking to Tony about Liam, it is obvious that the pain of the loss is still there. Sentences trail off as if there is something too terrible to be brought back into the world. But again, writing was there to help in the dark days after his death.

“The thing it taught me about myself was that I need to write to make things seem real in any sort of way. Because I knew it was going to happen, I absolutely knew.”

He wrote a play, On It, in which he eloquently narrates the ultimately heart-breaking story of his and Liam’s friendship, the effect of Liam's addiction on his family and friends, and the hard fact that despair can trump all the love and support in the world.

Adam Gillen gave a stellar performance as Liam while Tony's close friend Maxine Peake played Liam's mum. It went out in Radio 4’s Afternoon Drama slot in October 2011 and was immediately both critically and popularly acclaimed.

Radio Times's own radio editor, Jane Anderson, was on the judging panel for the BBC Audio Drama awards and had this to say about how On It was picked the winner.

“All the judges listened to it separately and when we came together it was a unanimous decision that it was the winner. Despite it being so sad, it's so moving and so well written, almost poetic, that anyone can readily identify with it – even the sort of audience that would probably never have that experience.”

Though he would he refute the notion that writing the play was at all cathartic — for him the fact that Liam is dead still remains and nothing can change that — it certainly released something in Tony.

“I did feel some sense of responsibility to tell that story and it weighs heavy. That play was me processing emotion and anger.”

The writing may have been part of the process — in fact it was so straight from the heart that it took Tony the same amount of time to write it as it does to read it — but preparing it for broadcast brought forth something new.

“At the time [of his death] there were no tears, there were no tears when I told my wife, there were no tears when I went to the funeral, there were no tears as I wrote it or when I went down to talk to his parents. But I got to the read-through with a cast, all friends, and got five lines into it and cried for two days.”

The play might have triggered unspent emotions, but there were further unsettling experiences to come. In March 2012, On It was nominated for a Sony Award and at the awards ceremony in May, it was announced the winner. Upon hearing those words Tony felt terribly conflicted.

“You could imagine that I was absolutely silent. It’s something I’d rather never  have had to write, but to then be patted on the back in a dickie bow tie is strange.”

In writing On It, Tony knew that there was only one person whose opinion mattered to him: Liam’s mother.

“I would say the only important thing ultimately is that his mum was pleased with it and that she felt she had a voice where previously I don't think she felt she had. If there had been any doubt about any of it, I never would have done it. “

But now On It has picked up another gong at the BBC Audio Drama awards. Speaking before the ceremony and before he knew the outcome, Tony joked about the competition.

“We’re up against Pinter [the Radio 4 adaptation of his play Betrayal]. It will be a walk, I’d imagine.”

Another strange experience came for Tony thanks to the fact that Maxine Peake was presenting the ceremony. Before he knew he would be picking up an award, he singled that out as something to add to the conflicted emotions he’d be feeling.

“It would probably be the most silent presentation ever. I’ll just say thanks and sit down. I really do think as a rule, the work’s got to speak for itself or else I’ve failed. It shouldn’t need any further explanation.”

While it may sound as if Tony is caught endlessly having to work through his emotions about Liam's death, that can't be said to be strictly true.

For at the same time as On It has been picking up plaudits and awards, he has not been idle. He’s been in demand as an actor, taking roles in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, Sherlock, Dirk Gently, Scott and Bailey and In the Best Possible Taste.

He’s also been filming a new series called Peaky Blinders, a multi-layered, epic-scaled gangster saga set in 1920s Birmingham, written by the writer of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, Steven Knight. Starring Sam Neill and Cillian Murphy, Tony describes it as the British version of Boardwalk Empire and has a great enthusiasm for it.

“Watch out for it - I never ever say this on a job that I'm on - it looks amazing, there’s some fantastic actors on it. So that's really exciting, I can't wait to see it.”

Peaky BlindersHe has also written a film specifically for his great mate Maxine Peake, which he is looking to get picked up, and the details of which he is tight-lipped about – perhaps falling prey to the writer's superstition of not talking about a project until the deal is signed, sealed and delivered.

On top of all that he's been writing and directing the surreal late-night Radio 4 comedy Shedtown, about a group of dissatisfied souls who set up a community of sheds on a beach in an attempt to flee regular life. Though he first envisaged it as a film, and is currently shopping around for it to be adapted for the big screen, he is glad that it is on radio.

“I think David Hare said the other day that theatre was great because you don't have to deal with stupid people. I think that's also the case with radio. Radio 4 have been fantastic to me. “

“The thing about radio is that it’s the last place you have a voice. Elsewhere you have these middle-ranking people who want to be writers but haven’t the cojones for the life.”

And that is what makes the thought of turning Shedtown into a film such a difficult proposition for Tony.

“I’d have to direct, because I couldn’t stand someone taking what I’d written and destroying it.”

It’s not as if he’s Michael Bay – though the name is apposite – and has a mega budget with stringent requirements...

“All I need is £3 million and a beach, and I could make it.”

Tony Pitts portraits by Phoebe Arnstein (phoebearnstein.com)