Emmerdale star Freddie Jones is bowing out of the show after 12 years playing Sandy Thomas. Here, the 90-year-old actor tells Radio Times why now is the right time to leave…
What has kept you going on Emmerdale for so long?
Actors need to act. Plus, it’s the only thing I can do with any decency and I draw great satisfaction from it. I try to wring all I can from a sentence. It’s rewarding and it depends upon creativity and invention.
Does it keep your mind young?
Undoubtedly. People do seem to stay young in this profession — there’s something rejuvenating about it. I’ve found being in Emmerdale incredible — I’m almost in love with the people here. And that isn’t actors’ hyperbole!
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How do you manage to keep pace with the schedule at Emmerdale?
Well, it’s demanding when there are last-minute changes to the script. For a long time, I was nervous because one word can throw the rhythm of a line. I did introduce a very large vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon to the studio — people were fainting in the gallery! But the hippocampus is like a muscle — if you exercise it, it will work for you. And when you do conquer the difficulties, it brings you great joy.
Do soaps celebrate older actors in a way other genres maybe don’t?
The public does celebrate youth, so it can be a bit prejudiced. But soap operas rejoice in older characters. Just look at what happened when Shirley Stelfox [Emmerdale’s Edna Birch] died — everybody’s heart broke.
So why have you decided to leave?
It’s about the balance of my life. The company generously offered me another 12 months. But I just thought, “I have no idea what I’m going to do in another bloody year!” The drama that Ashley’s death [Jones’s screen son, played by John Middleton] gave me last year was monumental. But that’s gone now. I travel three hours by car, book into a hotel and then get up the next day to say maybe three sentences. And then do a three-hour journey back. I can’t justify staying, even though Emmerdale was very generous in asking me to.
Will you ever retire?
No, actors don’t retire — they die. The story goes that Sir John Gielgud, at the age of 96, rang Maggie Smith and said in a deep depression, “They’ve forgotten me — they don’t know who I am any more.” He apparently added, “I’m seriously thinking about changing my agent.” He then died, so — in some sense — he did.
What will be your overriding memory of Emmerdale?
A feeling of friendship. And overwhelming love from every quarter — props, lighting, make-up… nobody could have been kinder. My life will easily be more impoverished.