Hollyoaks’ Tony Hutchinson (Nick Pickard) is a member of that special soap club that also includes Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow and Ian Beale from EastEnders – characters who’ve been there since the very first episode and show no signs of going anywhere.
We’ve watched Tone since he was a floppy-haired teenager, one of the original Hollyoaks cast members from 1995, and seen him grow into a husband (several times), father, entrepreneur and all-round legend.
As the soap celebrates its 25th anniversary in October 2020, the actor talks exclusively to RadioTimes.com about the milestone, and reveals why he’s never left TV’s most vibrant village.
How did the casting process work when Hollyoaks started?
It was a pretty big deal, a brand new soap from Phil Redmond who’d already made Grange Hill and Brookside. They had castings in London then train carriages full of actors and models traipsed up and down to Liverpool for auditions. Brookie was flying at the time because of the body under the patio storyline with Anna Friel, which gave Channel 4 some of their biggest ratings. I think that gave Phil the power to get Hollyoaks off the ground.
Were you excited when you got the part?
So many people went up for it I didn’t expect to get the role. I nearly never went to one of the last recalls as I was opening a pub in London at the time, and I had a plasterer booked in on the same day! My mum convinced me to go and I’m obviously glad I did!
How did you feel about the glamorous, youthful image?
Phil told us not to reveal our real ages to the press, he wanted us to be cagey about how old we were as it was meant to be the teen soap. Lisa Williamson, who played Dawn Cunningham, was probably around 10 years older than me and had actually played my mum in my first job out of drama school!
What were you told about the programme?
Phil originally billed it as ‘the show with no issues’. They wanted it to be like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Heartbreak High, although they had issue-based storylines. Not much really happened in the early days of Hollyoaks, ratings were okay but critics were really hard on us. After a few months they decided it needed more oomph, the drug ecstasy was a big problem at the time among young people so Phil decided to explore that and killed off one of the original characters by having her die from taking ecstasy. The issues came flooding in and we never looked back.
How do you look back on those early days when it was a smaller cast?
Genuinely it was the fondest days of our lives, working with Jezzy (Jeremy Edwards who played Kurt Benson) and Will (Mellor, aka Jambo). We’re still mates. I was living the dream, I’d just left drama school and got a nice long gig. At that age you just enjoyed the moment and didn’t worry about how long it would go on for. In 25 years I’ve only ever had a year-to-year contract, that’s how you live. It keeps you on your toes and stops you taking it for granted.
What was viewer reaction like at the start?
They liked it, we always had a positive reaction and I still get that today. It had a big student following in the old days when the Sunday morning omnibus was on T4. It was hangover TV for a lot of people, that’s how they discovered it.
You’ve had so many big storylines, which ones stand out?
Tony’s cancer and the death of his baby girl Grace were my two heaviest ones in terms of performance. They were draining, I’d come home and want to lock myself in a dark room. My daughter was around the same age as Grace when we did that storyline, it didn’t take a lot of motivation to get upset. Just looking at that little white coffin by a graveside was all it took, the tears just came flying.
Do the younger cast come to you for advice these days?
Not really, but I let them know they’re really lucky to be working and to always be grateful and respect it. Turn up on time and know your lines, that’s your basis!
Why have you never left?
If they get rid of you that’s one thing, but if you leave and look back and ask ‘Why did I do that when I was so happy there?’ you’d kick yourself. I went to Sylvia Young stage school and have so many pals who are great actors but aren’t working. I’m privileged to be working and doing what I love. The people are great, I’ve always been happy and still go to work with a smile on my face.
You must still enjoy playing Tony…
He’s got a big old heart has our Tone, he’s a good boy and knows right from wrong. He has a good moral compass which is probably why he’s managed to stay around for so long. Although I think he should grow a pair, as he gets walked over a little bit, doesn’t he? I try not to analyse the character too much, if you stop to think about how much he’s been through he’d probably be in some kind of asylum. Countless marriages, affairs, two dead children, being locked up by serial killers – he’d have gone bananas if this was real life!
What is the secret to Hollyoaks’ success?
It’s not scared to be first through the doors with big issues. Luke’s male rape storyline 20 years ago was so harrowing it couldn’t be shown at 6.30pm which is why we did the late-night episode. That storyline won our first ever British Soap Award. And the recent far right storyline – these things are going on in the world, why not highlight them and get people talking about it?
Do you feel proud the show has reached this milestone?
Incredibly proud. Something doesn’t stay on TV for 25 years if people don’t like it! We’re now on our third generation of viewers, people are talking about it and we’re getting awards, critical acclaim from our peers and the industry. If you’ve been here since the start and seen it grow you can’t help but feel proud.
Can you see yourself still in the show for the 50th anniversary?
I’ll be 70! you just don’t know, the next producer might not want to keep me that long! No one knows what the future holds, I’ll just keep working hard and will stay as long as they want me.