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Interview with Robert Duncan

Robert DuncanRobert Duncan is probably best known for his role as chief executive Gus, in the 1990s sitcom Drop The Dead Donkey.

He has many television credits on his cv, including Where The Heart Is (ITV), London’s Burning (ITV), Songs of Praise (BBC), Casualty (BBC), Drop The Dead Donkey (CH4), Boon (Central ITV), The Bill (ITV), Enemy At The Door (BBC), and more…

One of Robert’s favourite stage roles is Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, with his numerous theatre credits including; A Streetcar Named Desire, The Taming of the Shrew, Jane Eyre, An Ideal Husband, Neville’s Island, Rosencrantz And Guildenstein Are Dead, Educating Rita, and many more, including pantomimes. He has also performed in films and on radio.

Robert is in the cast of three, alongside Andrew Lancel and Diane Keen in the Bill Kenwright production of Susan Hill’s The Small Hand. He recently took time out to answer a few questions about his career, and the new stage thriller, The Small Hand.

You have performed in numerous stage productions. Can you choose two of your favourites and what did you enjoy most about them?
I have always enjoyed Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. I played that at Theatr Clwyd. That was at the start of my acting career, and I have never forgotten it, as it was my first link with Bill Kenwright, as it was his production.

I do enjoy comedies, so I think Confusions by Alan Ayckbourn, which I did at Theatre Royal Windsor. I also enjoyed Verdict with the Agatha Christie Company at Windsor.

As well as stage you have appeared on television. Which screen role has been the most fun?
Well it has got to be Gus in Drop The Dead Donkey. We all had enormous fun doing that, and I think it showed. The last show was in 1998, and of course it has been repeated many times. I left drama school in 1981, so I was about ten years into my career when I started the show.

The role gave me a lot of notoriety and certainly spring-boarded a lot of other things that subsequently happened. Gus was quite unique and it gave me accessibility, as many characters that I played after that were as clones of him. It is to do with the strong persona that Gus gave. I enjoyed doing it and with fond memories, but it led me down a particular casting route where people thought I should usually be playing that type of character.

Going back into theatre after Drop The Dead Donkey, it was a great accolade when people would say “You can play comedy”, as I think comedy is one of the hardest to play. The show had a fabulous cast, with the likes of Neil Pearson, Stephen Tompkinson and Jeff Rawle, and we have remained good friends over the years.

We always felt that we were the vanguard of something new. Not just the logistics of doing the weekly topical show. The ironic part for me, unlike the rest of the cast, was that before I was an actor, I worked for a time as a journalist. So I had an insight into how a sub-editor would anticipate what the lead story would be in any week, so I had a kind of input there but in the programme I didn’t at all. I did quite a lot of documentary programmes, and many people said to me that they had someone like Gus, running their news.

As well as stage and television you have also performed on radio. What is the hardest aspect of playing a role on radio?
Of course techniques are different, but I do believe that acting is acting, whether on stage, screen or radio, but on radio it is almost painless, because you don’t have to get any garb on, you just have to get into your character and allow the audience to imagine.

I have been very fortunate working with Andy Hamilton, with Old Harry’s Game and Trevor’s World of Sport. It seems to be that many good writers start off in radio, and then move on to television and that’s the kind of ground where I have worked – with some very good writers.

The Festive Season is not too far way – are you performing in a panto this year?
I haven’t performed in panto for several years, but I do love them, they are brilliant, and I have usually played the villain. I did play a Dame once, Dame Trott in Jack & The Beanstalk at Richmond Theatre, which I have to say was the hardest job I have ever done! But it was wonderful and I loved every moment of it.

You are performing in the touring production of The Small Hand. Was there anything in particular that attracted you to this production?
Well, it’s a ghost story and I have always loved M R James, and writers like him. It is quintessentially English.

When I was studying drama it was suggested that I get a second string to my bow, and so I studied to be a teacher, in Drama and History. So, when I am not working as an actor, I teach. I found that at times I could use story-telling as a means to really grab the pupils’ attention, and at times I told a few ghost stories. So in a way it has come back to haunt me.

I have seen The Woman In Black and thought how wonderful and theatrical that story is, so when The Small Hand came up I was keen to do it and jumped at the chance.

With so many people watching scary films on television and at the cinema, with so many special effects, how difficult is it to create that chilling or scary effect, on stage in a theatre?
Well that is something I am about to find out. With the accessibility of television, film, games, the internet etc, on stage you have to go with what you know will work. A ghost story will work well as a radio play as you can create everything in the mind of the listeners. As with The Woman In Black, you have to scare people in the audience, in a good way.

The Small Hand has an element of redemption about it. Something is trying to connect with him to make him reveal something that has happened before. Our job is to serve that purpose and to engender the reason why these ghostly things are going on. Some ghost stories are left open-ended, but I think this one does have a resolution, but to get there you have to go through this shock and fear, fear of the unknown – “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” wrote Shakespeare. There are a lot of things we take for granted, but we don’t quite know and it’s questioning those things. As this person gets drawn in, it gets more terrifying. There is a moral tale to it as well.

It isn’t just about scaring people, but also about questioning why certain things have happened in the past, and why they happened.

Can you tell us about your role in the play?
We all narrate at some point, to focus on what is happening, there are flashbacks, so the narration helps to keep the story in a chronological order. As well as a narrator, I play several characters including MacPherson from Scotland, Hugo the brother of the central character, an art historian and more. They are all kind of ciphers of just one person. The question is, are these people real or are they just serving the purpose to enable the central character, Adam Snow, to come through a redemptive process.

Why do you think people like being scared?
There is a lovely cathartic feeling about being scared. With dreams, for example, as to what is real or not. With certain dreams you feel fear, of that little room at the top of the house, or the cellar that you shouldn’t go in – and this play forces you to go into that dark room, that should be locked, and you shouldn’t go in there.

Why should everyone get along to see The Small Hand?
It isn’t just a ghost story but also a thriller, a sort of whodunit, or why did they do it? You have to unravel a sequence of events. This guy seems to be pursued by a young child, and this child tries to hold his hand, and we need to create that. The boy, we learn has died and we have to learn why has he died. And he is a ghost. Of course, an innocent child is a wonderful weapon to use in that sense. Children have been used in that way to heighten the sense of dread and foreboding due to their innocence, and they can also turn quite vicious.

Hopefully, people will be shocked. This is the first time this has been put on stage, and we have got to make this quite telling. There are the usual elements that are used to tell a ghost story, they are in abundance.

Once this play has concluded its run, what does the future hold for you?
It would be good to do some television, and some light comedy, that would be good.

Interview by Neil Cheesman

For more information about Robert Duncan visit www.robertduncan.org.uk

Bill Kenwright presents The Small Hand


  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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