Gareth Thomas is in the throes of growing a beard. Just in case. "I can't stand all that palaver of sticking a beard on with that dreadful spirit gum , and then peeling it off - makes your eyes stand out like organ stops when you have to remove it and it also brings me out in a dreadful rash. Not that I know yet whether or not I need a beard. I'll have to check with the director."
All this indecision (not a normal Thomas trait, you'd think) comes from the actor's most challenging and demanding role to date, King Rat in Newcastle's Theatre Royal pantomome "Dick Whittington."
"Well, rats are sort of pretty hairy things, aren't they?" he says, giving the undergrowth a contemplative tug. "I thought it might give a little to the sinister appeal."
It is, it turns out, Gareth's first pantomime - "and I'm not quite sure how things are going to work out. I accepted the job precisely because I'd never done anything like it before, and it seemed a challenge, even if other mates in the business all have their share of horror stories about the behaviour of some of the kids. "But you only find out about things by doing them, so I'm going to give it a bash."
Presumably by practicing naughty crackles in the privacy of his own loo, and demonic gestures while on the way to rehearsals. Anything at all, in fact, to enliven the rather drab atmosphere of the establishment where the gallant troupe will be belting though the show, and where one poster enquires politely if you might be a Unitarian and didn't know it?
Still, at least Mr Thomas doesn't have to be funny to order. He's part of the policy, in recent years - and one that has paid off handsomely - for the Royal's shows to feature classically trained actors or singers in the roles that demand it.
"I was delighted to hear that we're returning to the traditional values of pantomome, which I guess we all remember," says Gareth. "Let's face it - there have been some purlers in the dialogue, haven't there? Just in order to get the current pop star favourite in - or introduce a speciality act.
"I remember one fellow gets left on stage at the end of one scene and quite calmly delivers the line "And now that I am all alone, I think I'll play my xylophone!' which rather stretches credulity, doesn't it?"
Villains, says Gareth, should be really villainous, "It wouldn't be much point in everyone loving me at the end of the show, would it?"
It isn't the first time that he has played Newcastle since: "I had a very happy time with the RSC a couple of years ago, and I remember the city and the region with a lot of affection. That was one of the principal reasons why I decided to accept this panto offer.
"The RSC really are a wonderful company - but I can understand why some actors don't tend to like it when they've been with them for a while. "They are very intensive, they do demand the highest standards, and in a lot of ways they are like a very close knit family which can, to some, be rather intrusive.
"But as a grounding for one's craft, I don't think they can be beaten. I feel that I benefitted greatly from my contacts with them. Mind you, some of the actors are rather heavily imvolved with internal politics! Of course, to many people Gareth Thomas is still Blake - Blake's Seven has never been quite the same since he left.
"Well, I thought I'd done quite enough. I most emphatically do not want to become identified with one role and to spend the rest of my life either playing it or being remembered for it.
"I enjoyed Blake at the time, and had some every enjoyable moments during the making of the series I was in - but enough is enough. "Having said that, I do return for one programme at the end of the curent series to wind things up and to get rid of the guy for good. I expect that will be shown towards the end of our panto run.
"At the same time, though, I'm also appearing in a new serialisation of a contemporary classic - Ian (sic) Iris Murdoch's "The Bell" with Ian Holm whom I greatly admire - and that will also be breaking new ground for me. That's BBC, too."
For fans interested in private life, I can tell you...nothing. Gareth remains clam-tight on the subject. Genially, but firmly, he tells me that "an actor is there to go and present himself on stage, and to entertain an audience by exhibiting himself to the public as a professional. When I leave the stage I am private, and no-one ought to interfere with that. I want my home life to be my own."
Which is why, having had his phone number, I am politely requested by those in the know to eat it, or tear it into tiny peices, or otherwise dispose of it. And certainly not to communicate it to anyone else.
"I'm ex-directory, it's true," he says "and the fewer people who know the number the better." Maybe there is an undisclosed story of over-zealous fans, but I don't push the point any further.
He isn't too sure, either, that he's altogether over the moon about the tag-line on the Dick Whittington poster underneath his name, which uses the Blake's Seven programme as an aide-memoire.
"I suppose that it is necessary in this sort of show - and pantomime is in a class of its own, isn't it - but generally I'm not too keen on that sort of thing."
No, there was no real burning ambition to act - it just sort of materialised as "something to do. To be honest, I wanted to go on being a student, so I went to RADA." And there certainly wasn't any theatrical background to the Thomas tribe.
Long runs in one particular show hold no terrors "because I think you're always discovering something new about the part - even as King Rat, very probably.
"I do accept, though, that I tend to analyse my acting rather closely, and that there is a very fine dividing line between what one might think is an acceptable performance and what might give one cause for thought. "The public would have to come twice to see the difference - and even then I doubt they would, the area between is so narrow."
Variety of work means a lot to him - "I like to think that the range is ever increasing, " and he certainly seems to be one of that very small band of actors always engaged in doing something somewhere. You couldn't, I observe, get more varied than Shakespeare, television sci-fi and thigh-slapping booing and hissing pantomome. "Begins to make you wonder what there'll be next," he says reflectively. The incipient King Rat scratches the stubble.
Gareth springs a trap
Get out of that! King Rat - alias Gareth Thomas - gets his claws into Idle Jack, played by Ken Goodwin.
But in true panto style, there's no doubt who'll win through in the end. Gareth - in his first-ever panto role - and Ken both star in Dick Whittington, the third in a highly sucessful series of co-operations between the teams of the Playhouse and the Theatre Royal staffs.
Gareth's efforts to grow a beard have been worthwhile. " I wanted to look really sinister," he said. "The only trouble is, I've rather shocked myself. There's an awful lot of grey in it!"
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Last updated on 23rd of November 1997.