With the third series of Peak Practice due back on our screens, ITV has a huge hit on its hands. Here, its three stars talk about playing doctors, the demands on family life and the downside of fame…
Temperatures soared and pulses raced at the end of the last series of Peak Practice when Dr Jack Kerruish and Dr Beth Glover sealed their on-off romance by finally getting married.
From the moment Jack joined Beth’s village practice, the two charismatic, headstrong GP’s engaged in the sort of verbal fireworks which could only end in acrimony or marriage – such is the law of TV drama. And Peak Practice – which became 1993’s highest rating new TV drama series with an audience of 13 million – is the best there is. The second series averaged 14 million viewers, while the new £4 million, 15-part series, which starts on January 31st, is expected to touch 15 million.
The stars are in no doubt as to why the most successful doctor series since Dr Kildare in he 1960’s has caught the nation’s heart. ‘Good storylines, good locations, quality production values and well-portrayed central characters’ says Amanda Burton, who plays Beth. ‘Humans in crisis always make a good drama,’ responds Kevin Whately, who plays Jack, ‘plus the fact that Joe Public really believes that doctors have a magic quality.’ Simon Shepherd, who plays their partner Dr Will Preston, muses: ‘The beautiful rural settings, the doctor stories which everyone can relate to, and the family and serial elements, add up to something compulsive without making the programme a soap.’
Certainly, the film locations – the Peak District of Derbyshire, where great hills soar majestically over miles of rugged and beautiful country – are the real stars of the show. Here, in a quiet vale is the village of Cardale and one of England’s most famous surgeries, The Beeches, where doctors Jack Kerruish, Beth Glover and Will Preston run a medical practice which has more dramas then Saturday night down at the nick.
In reality, Cardale is the village of Fritchley and The Beeches is an old limestone house. What distinguishes it from all the other houses in the village are the mobile-home dressing-rooms of Kevin, Amanda and Simon parked outside, along with the circus-like row of film-unit support vehicles and a 56-strong film crew.
The part of Jack Kerruish was written especially for Kevin, who had worked for Central TV during the previous 10 years, first as nice-guy Neville in the cult series Auf Wiedersehen Pet, later as Sergeant Lewis in Inspector Morse. Now Peak Practice allows the 44-year-old Tynesider to step into the limelight on his own.
‘I wanted a complete change from Lewis, but it was quite unnerving at first,’ he recalls between takes. ‘In Auf Wiedersehen Pet there was a big crowd of us and, with Morse, John Thaw always felt like a safety net. I feel more exposed in Peak Practice but I’m enjoying the challenge.’
In fact, Jack Kerruish is everything Lewis isn’t: a red-blooded divorcee, hot-headed, dynamic, short-tempered and, undeniably, a heart-throb. And as Kevin dashes out of the freezing Derbyshire rain into his snug film location camper, you suspect that even Morse would have trouble picking his old Sergeant out from a police line-up.
Amanda, 38, who amassed a huge following of male admirers as the sexy, intellectual accountant Heather Haversham in Brookside and as tough detective Margaret Daly in Boon, is equally ecstatic.
‘Beth’s an independent woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly,’ she explains. ‘But she’s also quite vulnerable at times, with a very sensitive side, and in this new series she’s definitely softer. She’s matured into her role as Jack’s wife and is happy with that.’
Simon, now 38 and still remembered as the blond, blue-eyed, scheming aristocrat Piers Garfield-Ward in two series of Chancer, is pleased to report that Will has grown up a lot since we first saw him in 1993.
‘In the first series, he was a dreamer and had a nervous breakdown,’ he says. ‘He got involved in fraud, was living beyond his means and his marriage was on the rocks. The second series ended with Will and Sarah splitting up. In the third series, he’s a changed man, more honest, more dynamic, stronger, although he and Sarah are not back together as a couple – but will they be? We’re not sure yet. I like Will and what they’re doing with him.’
Simon and Amanda attended the same drama school in Manchester, although he left after two terms. He says he once appeared in a three-part Miss Marple story with Kevin – ‘and if you think Kevin’s charming on screen, well, he’s even more charming off it. I’d also met Amanda before we came together on Peak Practice. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what people are like as long as you get on with them as actors, and I knew I could get on with Kevin and Amanda because I respect them.’
Kevin, who interprets Jack Kerruish as a Nineties man – someone tough but with a soft centre, explains: ‘As the series has developed, Amanda, Simon and I have become very dependant on each other. It would be hellish on a long-running series if you didn’t have a good relationship with your co-stars.’
What they all have in common is a pastoral background and a love of the country. Amanda grew up in Derry, on the border of Donegal, in Northern Ireland, where her father was headmaster of the local primary school. Simon spent his formative years in Stratford-upon-Avon. His parents ran The Dirty Duck, the famous theatrical pub that’s one step from the RSC and from Warwickshire’s leafy countryside. Sailors son Kevin, raised in rural Northumberland, says: ‘Some days when we’re filming in the Peaks, I feel nostalgic for my Northumberland roots. I love the open air.’
‘I’m still a country girl at heart,’ enthuses Amanda. ‘It’s marvellous to work up in the Peaks. It reminds me of the wilder spaces of Donegal, especially up on the moors.’ So captivated is Amanda by the Peak Practice locations that she plans to by a cottage in the area. ‘I want to keep goats and make cheese,’ she says. ‘I love agricultural shows. I’ll spend all day talking to people about cows and sheep. Maybe it’s in my genes – some relatives on my mothers side were pig farmers.’
Something else the trio have in common is a family life where children play a prominent role. Simon is married to theatre and television designer Alex Byrne, BAFTA-nominated for The Buddha of Suburbia. The couple have a seven-year-old son Joe, and three-year-old twins, Arthur and Billie. Twice-married Amanda has two daughters, Phoebe, nearly six, and four-year-old Brid, by photographer husband Sven Arnstein. Kevin, whose wife is the actress Madeleine Newton, is father of 11-year-old Kitty and 10-year-old Kieran.
They lament spending eight months on location in deepest Derbyshire while their families are so far away – Kevin’s in a Bedfordshire village, Amanda’s in Fulham, London, and Simon’s near Bath in Avon. To prevent their family life from suffering, the stars do a lot of juggling.
‘Let’s be honest, doing an on-location telly series can be difficult to handle when you have a young family,’ says Simon. ‘My wife’s work as a designer also takes her away a lot – she’s working on BBC2’s Persuasion at the moment. But I can only take the positive view that fulfilled parents feed that energy back into their families. I do a lot of driving at strange hours so that I can see the children in the morning before they go to school.’
Kevin, who researched the role of Dr Kerruish by spending time with his own GP, is emphatic: ‘The luck of my job, and Madeleine’s job, is that we can work for condensed periods and then have a lot of time off. When I’m not needed, I go straight home.’
‘Listen,’ cuts in Amanda, ‘I don’t believe in accepting a job that takes me away from my family for large chunks of time and then spending eight months moaning about it. Of course I miss them, miss being there when someone’s got a sore throat. But I have to make my life work and I do make it work because I’m very organised. But it’s exhausting and I don’t know how I do it.’
Whenever possible, Amanda brings her daughters on location. ‘They love being in the camper,’ says Amanda who, like Simon, employs a nanny. ‘They don’t bother to watch me filming. They’re so blasé about it all now. They go, ‘Oh mummy’s on set – boring!’ The biggest draw for them is not Kevin or Simon – it’s the camper.’
But, however they feel about the effects of location-filming on family life, both Amanda and Kevin met their real life partners through work. Sven was photographing Amanda on Brookside’s set when something more then the camera clicked. ‘There was a strong attraction’ she says. Simon was at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School when he fell in love with architecture student Alex – ‘though we were friends for a long time before we started going out.’
Kevin, whose theatre excursions embrace panto dame, Prince Hal in Henry IV and the title role in Billy Liar, met Madeleine in a stage play. ‘I knew I’d met a kindred spirit, even though we’re opposites,’ he recalls. ‘Madeleine walked into the theatre bar where we were rehearsing and I was instantly drawn to her. We had so much in common. She was born in Hexham, the town I grew up in, and we came into the world within a few days of each other. But we’re quite different in that she’s very bubbly and outspoken whereas I’m much more guarded. I tend to stand back and watch people and get to know them that way, but she goes straight in and makes friends.’
Madeleine, star of TV’s Spoils of War and James Bolam’s first wife in When he Boat Comes In, appeared alongside Kevin in Auf Wiedersehen Pet, played John Thaw’s murdered girlfriend in Inspector Morse and in Peak Practice was a mountain ranger who had the job of trying to lick Jack into shape when he joined the group at The Beeches.
‘We shot the scenes in the Peak District National Park, which is one of the most beautiful areas of the Peaks,’ says Kevin. ‘It was nice to share with Madeleine what had been keeping me away from her and the kids.’
Amanda says that one of the advantages of having her daughters with her is that they see that it’s all make-believe. ‘Last year, when I was smacked in the face in a traumatic scene, the girls were with me,’ she says. ‘We got over the problem of them being upset by my appearance by putting lots of make-up on their faces because then they realised that it could all be washed off.’
Kevin once had an ambition to be a GP, ever since at the age of 17 he saw his 53-year-old father die of a heart attack. The village doctor was a family friend who provided Kevin with inspiration as well as comfort. ‘He was always a very cheerful guy, who still lives in the village,’ he says. ‘He made the job appear effortless, even though he covered a vast area – as much as we do at The Beeches. He always seemed in control, always calm and happy. He sang all the time. He was much more laid-back than Jack Kerruish. He was how I would have liked to have been. Maybe I should have pushed myself more, because doctoring is much more worthwhile than what I do now. But them. I might not have had what it takes, to be a GP anyway….’ muses the man who has nine O-levels and three A-levels and qualified as an accountant before taking up acting.
He pauses, ‘And yet do I have what it takes to deal with my own success? I’m not good at being famous – I was very frightened by it when it first happened on Auf Wiedersehen Pet. I’ve always been shy, but TV fame has made me more aware that people are looking at me. I sometimes think, well, you’ve done it now, sold your privacy, so you must learn to love with it. But that’s easier said then done.’
What they all have had to get used to is being called sex symbols, which amuses and embarrasses them. ‘I’ve never tried to project myself as a sex symbol,’ insists Amanda. ‘I can’t understand how people covet that type of attention…sexuality is something personal.’ Kevin’s teeth gleam in his tanned face and his tumbles almost to his burly shoulders. He looks easily capable of raising a woman’s blood pressure while taking it. And yet blushes when he tells you, ‘It amazes me when the term ‘sex symbol’ is used about me…I’m a reluctant sex symbol.’ Simon, whose early film and TV roles were floppy-haired aristocratic types, such as Lord Alfred Douglas in Lillie, was propelled into Hunk-of-the-month-dom with poisonous Piers in Chancer. Playing Dr Will Preston has done him no harm either. ‘I read in the papers that I’m a sex symbol,’ grins the actor who will soon be seen as an army officer in Beyond Reason. ‘Yet all I see in the mirror are baggy eyes.’
Maybe the reason behind the propulsion of Peak Practice into the ratings stratosphere is that its stars, while giving their all on the screen, don’t take themselves seriously off it. ‘I never think, ‘Hey, I’ve cracked this!’ says Amanda. ‘I live by the rule that you never know when your big finale is, so I want to do as much as possible in my career and life.’ Simon nods. ‘When I’m away I think, right, today I have a heavy day, but tomorrow I can go home to my family – that’s most important to me. This job is great. I’m serious about it, but it’s not the most important thing. Although when I’m off colour I think, well, it beats working for a living!’
‘When I gave up accountancy,’ says Kevin, ‘I never considered TV, I hoped to become a theatre actor. Fame has come as quite a surprise, but I ain’t complaining.’ As for the rumours that he will quit Peak Practice if ITV chiefs turn it into a twice-weekly soap, Kevin says: ‘I like the pace of a one-hour show in a fortnight – if it becomes a half-hour show, I’ll leave.’ With that the trio of actors return to the make-up vehicle to prepare for another afternoon of gruelling, peak-viewing acting. Tough work, but someone has to do it.