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24 September 2014
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When I'm 64
Alun Armstrong plays Jim

When I'm 64

Alun Armstrong plays Jim

Alun Armstrong has graced stage and screen with many virtuoso performances throughout his acting career, but perhaps his most unusual role has been as a gravedigger's assistant.

"I had gone to Newcastle University to study fine art and thought it was too poncey," he explains.

"After two years I left and moved down to Twickenham in London. I took this job as a gravedigger after meeting some guy in a bar," he laughs, "but it's thanks to that job that I am where I am now."

It may not be the most propitious start to a prolific acting career that has spanned more than 30 years and includes stage, screen and TV appearances from Get Carter, A Bridge Too Far, Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd to the more recent New Tricks, Between the Sheets and Van Helsing.

But it was thanks to his gravedigging manager, who Alun refers to as Alf 'Dunabit', that he got his first break.

"We called him Alf 'Dunabit' because whatever you'd say to him, he'd always 'dunabit' of that.

"Anyway, in those days if you hadn't been to drama school, the best way of getting into acting was by going behind the scenes as an assistant stage manager (ASM).

"I'd mentioned my aspiration to Alf in passing. A few weeks later, I was surprised to get a letter from the Cambridge Arts Theatre inviting me to come in for an interview.

"I thought my mum had sent it in at first and that I'd just been called in for a laugh, because my application form suggested that I'd had all this experience, that quite clearly I hadn't.

"Only later did I work out that Alf had sent in the application form on my behalf."

Despite not having the credentials required, Alun's interviewer was a Geordie and a sort of North-East nepotism saw Alun take on his first theatre role, albeit behind the scenes.

It was during these early years that Alun first came face to face with a young actor named Paul Freeman.

"Paul was just starting out on his career and he and his colleagues took me under their wing. But believe it or not, I've never worked with him since."

When I'm 64 reunites the two actors for the first time in over 30 years, when Alun's character Jim is picked up by cabbie Ray (Paul Freeman) on his last day as a minor public school teacher.

"That's ironic," comments Alun, "because that's how I met my wife.

"Jim is institutionalised," he adds. "He's leaving school at 65, an innocent savant, who has no real experience of the world.

"He has two ambitions when he leaves: to fall in love and to travel. He's determined to do something with his life and his first step is to have some cosmetic surgery done on his nose."

Despite the fact that they are from different backgrounds and have never met before, Jim and Ray strike up an unusual friendship.

"It's based on mutual interests and a fascination with one another," comments Alun.

"They are both from very different worlds - Jim's a bookish academic and Ray is a cabbie. However, Ray's act of genuine human kindness [in helping Jim get his frail father to hospital] means they forge a deep friendship and empathy for one another."

As the friendship between Ray and Paul grows, however, it has a negative effect on the relationship between Ray and his children (played by Tamzin Outhwaite and Jason Flemyng).

They become increasingly threatened by the thought of another person in their father's life and one who may well usurp both their mother's memory and their inheritance.

"In a way, When I'm 64 is about how children have a claim on the legacy of the parents," explains Alun, "and how when someone else enters that relationship the kids feel threatened, leading to conflict.

"It's a terrific story, full of very different characters with thought-provoking themes without being 'goody-two-shoes' about it."

As a man in his late fifties does When I'm 64 have a particular resonance for him?

"It does make you wonder what will happen to you when you get to that age, and how you become aware of your own mortality," he muses.

"Jim is discriminated against in the school, because they think he's the wrong age to meet the demands of a modern school.

"We tend not to give people credit for their life experience, although the world is changing and more and more jobs are becoming available to people of a certain age."

There has been no such discrimination in Alun's career, and certainly no worries about loosing parts as he has got older.

"There are more parts for younger men than younger women and more parts for older women than older men. But I'm one of the lucky ones - I'm a character actor, so my career has not been based on my looks.

"I'm more concerned about losing my marbles than losing parts - especially when it comes to learning lines!"

Alun refuses to believe that he'll retire: "Actors don't retire, they just get choosy," he jokes.

But he does have plans for the future: "I've been speaking to a couple of my close friends and we've decided that we should form a walking group.

"I love hill-walking and it would be great to take the time out and really trek in Nepal, the Himalayas, the Atlas Mountains or the Andes."

He allows himself a moment of reflection before adding wryly: "Or we could set up a communal nursing home - a sort of old person's co-operative - although, based on my recent experiences with the cast of New Tricks, I'm not sure I could cope with all that testiness!"

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