Norwich panto star Graham is good cop, bad cop
Well-known TV cop and panto baddie Graham Cole OBE is very excited about returning to the stage of the Norwich Theatre Royal this Christmas after a very difficult 18 months during the pandemic. Keith Morris reports.
Best-known for his 25-year role as PC Tony Stamp in the long-running TV show The Bill, Graham, who now lives in Norfolk with his wife Cherry, is playing Alderman Fitzwarren and his twin brother, in Dick Whittington, which opens on December 11.
“It has been a very, very difficult 18 months and as a self-employed actor there was no furlough,” said Graham. “I am so excited to be on stage again as it has been a tough period not only for actors but also for support teams, sound, technical volunteers, usherettes etc.”
Graham has been able to run his one-man show called “So you think you know me” in which he talks about his incredible 50-year acting career, and many of the over 160 characters he has played on stage, including in 12 musicals and 37 pantos.
Graham loves to be the baddie and his favourite role was playing Abanazar in Aladdin at the Theatre Royal back in 2012. He has also played King Rat in Dick Whittington.
“I went down the baddie route and love playing them. Coming out to a cacophony of boos from the kids who get so involved is just brilliant,” he said. “It's great fun performing to families and especially children, looking at their faces, hearing the cheering and booing.
“I love pantos and Christmas time as it is a time when families will get together and maybe see three or four generations come to the theatre together. We can hear the audience coming in through mikes in the auditorium and can pick up snippets of conversation. It is so exciting to be back in the dressing room. 2021 will be a year none of us will forget, this Christmas we will make memories together at the Theatre Royal once again.
“This time we will have to do some social distancing, but I am triple vaccinated and had the flu jab, so there is nowhere else to put a needle now,” said Graham. “But seriously, it is so important to play our part and we get tested every time we go into the building,” he said.
“Christmas is such a special time for me marking the birth of Jesus. I love singing Christmas carols and when I was in The Bill the whole cast used to go along to a carol service at the Albert Hall for charity and I loved that.”
Graham has a strong Christian faith and said: “My faith never leaves me, it is in every aspect of my life and work. I firmly believe that Jesus is with me and He influences every decision I make. And the way I choose to live my life is a reflection of what He means to me. It really matters how you treat people, especially those who don't seem particularly nice on the outside."
Every pantomime story has a moral, good over evil, triumph over tragedy, mirroring real life, says Graham, and Dick Whittington is no exception. Graham’s character Alderman Fitzwarren takes in a homeless and jobless Dick and his cat Tommy – offering him a job and board and lodgings. Showing kindness to a complete stranger is something Graham himself is used to doing in his role as a volunteer on an NHS support helpline during the pandemic.
“One of the toughest and most moving calls I took was a man in his 80s who called after lying on the floor for ten hours after a fall and not wanting to call paramedics knowing how busy they were. I was able to call them while reassuring him till they arrived. He was ok after a check-up and a cup of tea. Our older generation are a constant inspiration,” said Graham. “We all need to take responsibility for our actions and decisions and together we are a stronger society - caring for each other is vital.”
Graham has lived in Wroxham before and is now back living in Norfolk with Cherry, who is from Leiston in Suffolk originally, and says he has a lot of mates in the area.
Graham attends a local church and has done so wherever he has lived. “I also love going into churches during the day,” he said. “I have been into Norwich Cathedral several times and just sat and got my thoughts together. Having a working faith has helped me tremendously during the pandemic.”
Graham has put his faith into action as a supporter of the Childline charity for 34 years and also has a particular concern for mental health and the emergency services, given his work on The Bill: “Playing PC Tony Stamp I felt helped to put a heart inside of the Police uniform. I started a charity with Gary Hayes, called PTSD999. The pandemic has put many of the blue light services under tremendous pressure, especially paramedics. The biggest release from stress and not taking it home is to talk about it – talking is absolutely vital,” he says.
“I have never had the dark cloud, the black dog, myself and maybe my faith has helped with that but I do feel it is important to support people who do have mental health problems and have been working with various charities in that field.
“As an actor you really have to know yourself very well to be able to immerse yourself in the many characters you play. Some people say that an actor’s job is to make people think.”
In 2013, Graham was made an OBE for services to the voluntary and charitable giving sector in the UK, including his work with Childline, the showbusiness charity The Grand Order of Water Rats and as President of the National Holiday Fund, which takes sick and disabled children to Disney Florida.
Born in Willesden, Graham was deeply moved as a teenager by the famous US evangelist Dr Billy Graham – and he made a life-time commitment 'to follow Christ' at one of Billy's London meetings at Earl's Court in 1966.
While Graham has seen national success in showbusiness, there have been hard times, too: "my faith and the support of my church and family helped me to keep upbeat," he says.
As a Christian, Graham has sometimes said no to particular acting roles that he was offered as he felt they were in conflict with his faith, but something else has always come along he says: “after all I have the best agent in the world.”
Pictured top is Graham Cole as Alderman Fitzwarren in Dick Whittington at the Theatre Royal in Norwich (c) Richard Jarmy and, above, Graham as PC Tony Stamp in the Bill.