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Centre Stage: Peter Duncan

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 18 April 2008

He is Chief Scout, a former daredevil Blue Peter presenter and a Laurence Olivier Award nominee – Peter Duncan is a man of many talents. He is currently pouring his creative energies into the season at the Open Air, appearing in the theatre’s production of Macbeth and taking the title role in children’s show Fantastic Mr Fox.

Beginning his acting career in the 1970s, both on television and with the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, Duncan has since built up a long list of stage credits starring in productions including Barnum, Me And My Girl, The Little Tramp and The Card. He is also a seasoned panto performer, having played Buttons, Peter Pan and Captain Hook throughout the years.

If that wasn’t enough, he has made travel documentaries for CBBC, created his own production company and held his own in the last series of celebrity sporting competition The Games. Caroline Bishop spoke to Duncan about the stage, scouting and being Fantastic Mr Fox…

Why did you want to be in Fantastic Mr Fox?

Peter Duncan: Well, I’ve worked with [the show’s adaptor] David Wood before, who is the children’s laureate playwright for young people. So we’d done a couple of shows together before, and he said did you fancy being Mr Fox? He still thinks I’m 25! It’s great. That’s how that happened.

How do you play a fox?

PD: Well, in all these Roald Dahl shows, you’re humans with animal characteristics to some degree. Usually in mythology the fox is the bad guy, but in this one he’s the good guy. He’s pretty anarchic really. In some ways – like all Dahl books – you think it’s about goody-goodies but he encourages children to drink cider, Mrs Fox is pretty sexy, he encourages them to steal if their children are starving! It’s not like the perfect world, it’s a Roald world really.

In one way you could say it’s just for kids, but actually all the best children’s plays are quite profound in the statements they make. All his plays are like that, that’s why young people love them so much – they’re not like adults telling you to behave, they are actually quite naughty.

What will your costume be?

PD: I’ve got ears and a tail, and I’m actually, perversely, dressed quite neatly as a hunt – in a red jacket with a nice, slightly piratey neck scarf and boots. The fox has kept the cunning side of his characteristics, but he’s a good guy, a good fox – a fantastic Mr Fox!

Who are you working with?

PD: [In addition to five other professional actors] We’ve got a cast of seven students who have come from a few drama schools, they are towards the edge of graduating, so that’s like having seven other adults in it. They play things like the chickens I massacre, or other animals, or even humans sometimes. And then we’ve got 24 kids that we did open auditions for, who play the smaller versions of the bigger animals, and obviously play the fox’s children. So it’s a big production, nearly 30 people on stage. Not as big as The Lord Of The Rings of course! But heading there!

Why do you like working on children’s shows?

PD: Obviously being involved with the scouts and having made travel documentaries I still like working with young people – especially in theatre actually, it’s much more often an exciting audience than a more grown-up, jaded audience. If you can entertain young people and get them to be quiet and listen, there’s nothing quite like that silence in a theatre.

Are you trying to focus on stage particularly at the moment?

PD: Well I’ve always done theatre – I started at the National at the Old Vic 25 years ago. I’ve always come back to it and done lots of big musicals and things, so that’s where one’s roots are really. It’s always nice to come back. It’s nice to play the provinces too as opposed to town because it’s less of a mixed audience – you actually get people who come to theatre because they like it as opposed to the tourist thing which you get in town a bit.

Do you have fond memories of your time in Blue Peter [1980-86]?

PD: Yes, although it is a long time ago and one has done so many other things. I just went back and got my gold badge for my scouting volunteering.

I think although we have multi-channels and digital channels and it’s influence is less than even 10 years ago because the audience is spread out, still its concept has spawned a thousand programmes and a thousand genres really, and it’s 50 years next year. So I have a great affection for it.

I still have the green and white suit in the attic. It’s just about beyond being brought out now really, it needs to be laid to rest I think. But it is there.

Tell us how you got to be Chief Scout.

PD: I kind of got headhunted really. It’s the centenary this year and they were just looking for someone who would be amenable to their ways. The kind of work I’ve done with children’s theatre – obviously they have their gang show – and because I’ve done adventurous stuff, that fitted in too really, and yeah they needed stirring up a bit so they took the chance. It’s a huge organisation, the scale of it is extraordinary really.

What do you do in your role?

PD: As a volunteer I could almost do something every day, but what it means when you are having to work to make a living to support your family, it’s a different kind of job. Usually they [the Chief Scouts] have been retired people who have worked their way through the movement, so I was a leap into the unknown. In some ways, as the head of the organisation, I’m more of a front man who talks about it really and knows what’s going on. Obviously I make visits and meet people, with the big events in the summer…When you’ve got 50,000 people coming from every country in the world it’s quite a huge operation really.

What do kids get out of coming to see a show like Fantastic Mr Fox?

PD: Drama, if you participate or you watch the show, is a magical place. Good children’s theatre that is directed at young people is a very powerful thing in their lives. It’s often connected to becoming involved. We’ve got young people in it, so lots of the stuff that they do, it’s that nervousness of being on the stage. I’ve done lots of drama workshops with young people, it’s an empowering process. It’s working as a collective, doing things within a certain time, aiming for an opening night.

I think the children’s show here has grown over the years. It started off as a small idea and actually when they realised that there’s a big market for it, it’s got bigger and bigger every year. Even if we do 20 performances and there are 1,000 people, that’s still 20,000 kids that might come to the park in the summer.

What’s next for you?

PD: I’m off to Malawi, I think, to do a bit of scouting. I’m directing a Christmas show at the Oxford Playhouse, I’m going to be in a Christmas show, a panto, at Guildford.

I’ve just been to Nepal and made a film about some people climbing up Everest. You know, one ducks and dives a bit.

Fantastic Mr Fox plays at the Open Air from 31 July-25 August



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