I have to confess that I am very excited about going to meet William Beck. He is about to open a play in the West End, and he is a handsome guy, but these aren’t the reasons I am so excited. William Beck was in the BBC adaptation of Robin Hood last year. I know that for most people, Robin Hood was a bit of harmless Saturday night TV fluff, but for me and my flatmates, Robin Hood was sacred. We would record it and then gather round the television together on Sunday evening with a curry and get completely involved in the adventures of Robin, Marion, Guy, the Sheriff of Nottingham – and my favourite, Roy. Played by William Beck. So you can understand why I am a bit excited.
We have arranged to meet in a pub in South London, where Beck and his co-star Stephen Kennedy are rehearsing for The Agent. It is a rare sunny afternoon, and Beck is sitting on a wall outside with writer Martin Wagner, enjoying the warm weather and a sneaky post-rehearsal cigarette as I approach. He is warm and friendly, pitying me my long journey from our office in the West End, less so when I reveal I live ten minutes down the road from the pub. He lives fairly nearby too and, it turns out, knows my area very well, so much so that when I describe where I live, he knows exactly which house I live in. I hope he doesn’t have any stalker tendencies.
As we settle into an alcove in the pub, he is very eager to talk about the play. The Agent ran at the Old Red Lion in March this year, and Beck is taking over the part of Alexander from Hamish Clark as it transfers into Trafalgar Studio 2. He seems very keen on the venue, perhaps because it evokes some fond memories. “It reminds me a lot of my drama school,” he says, “I went to the Poor School, which is minute.” But there are challenges involved in playing such a small space. “It’s one thing being in the big proscenium theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, where you need to get a concept of just how far away everyone is,” he says. “Perhaps the biggest challenge of such a small space is pitching it just right so that you’re not causing people to get feedback on their hearing aids, but you do need people to be able to hear. There’s absolutely no excuse, for obvious reasons, for not being able to hear what’s being said.”
The Agent is a two-hander, and as such is perhaps ideally suited to the tiny basement studio. “It’s really nice to have somewhere like that in the West End,” he agrees. “You walk out literally onto Trafalgar Square. It feels like a little pocket.” The fringe-like atmosphere of the venue, as well as the history of the production, are making this a little different to your normal West End show. “It suits this production,” says Beck. “It’s really very tight knit, there’s essentially four of us involved and we know from day to day how many tickets are being sold and the rest of it. You’re not hearing it through a grapevine and it gives you much more of an interest.” He is enjoying being part of a close team. “The various people that are being brought on board to do lights, sound, publicity, it’s great because you get to meet each and every one of them and you all meet them together”, he enthuses. “I certainly have never felt out of the loop.”
“You hope you give humanity to people”
That Beck is having a good time on this play is obvious. He is passionate and excited about the process, and is very happy about everyone he is working with. “I do kind of get the impression that we’re all on the same wavelength, which is great. I’m very fortunate.” It seems rare to get a bunch of artists who all work together so well. He takes a moment to consider why this is. “Casting has an enormous part to play, but in this case I can say that having a writer on board is really great. He’s hands on at all the right times. It’s dovetailed very nicely, the roles that all of us play, it’s like an efficient workshop. It’s genuinely very good.” He grins. “It’s probably even more unusual than I’m even aware of at the moment, I’ll find out in years to come, no doubt.”
The role that Beck has taken over is that of Alexander, a highly successful London literary agent. “I guess it’s a profession that most people aren’t aware of,” he says when I ask him to describe his role. Alexander ends up being blackmailed by a client, but he sounds like quite a dark character himself. “I think it’s possibly more interesting to see it as somebody who has a complex set of agendas which aren’t particularly palatable perhaps to the artistic integrity of the people he works for, but they are nonetheless essential,” he says. “A good agent marries the motives of art with those of money. And the essence of being a successful writer is not only needing to be a good writer and an efficient writer and an enjoyable writer, but it’s also to be one who understands that you need to sell books for people to read them.”
Beck has played a number of roles that have a darker side, so he is used to finding the subtle complexities of character, the light and shade in some of the more unpalatable parts. “My job has meant…well, my face has meant that for one reason or another I’ve played a fair few bad guys, and I don’t think it’s particularly interesting to see people as simply being bad or good.” He has a fondness for Alexander, despite his more unpleasant traits. “You hope you give humanity to people,” he explains. “People don’t need it written in great big letters on your forehead, BAD GUY. I’ve got a lot of other sympathy for him [Alexander]. I’d have a lot of sympathy for the other character, if I’d been playing him.”
It has been two years since Beck was last in the West End, when he played Michael in Festen, the David Eldridge adaptation of the Thomas Vinterburg Dogme movie, at the Lyric. Festen explores a dark family secret at a father’s 60th birthday party, and was a huge success at the Almeida before transferring to the West End to further critical acclaim. Beck came into the play at the second recast. “I was the third person to be playing that part, and some of the actors in it had been there from the word go, some had changed roles, and some were new when I was new,” he remembers, “and it made for a fascinating melting pot of ideas, all grouped and kind of held in place by this fantastic staging, lighting and sound and all the rest of it…but it was hard work.”
Festen was an incredibly intricate set piece, vastly different from the small and intimate play Beck is currently involved in. He nods. “It was, essentially, like a gym routine.”
There are parallels to be drawn between the two pieces, as he has been recast for the West End transfer of the Agent, and so is again stepping into someone else’s shoes. “Yes, but it was really…” he struggles for words, not wanting to sound negative. “Sometimes one had to subvert one’s own instincts because there was not the time to go through things and say, well maybe I would have done it this way…and you’re a hostage to that.” He is keen to emphasise the positives, though. “It was a great learning experience. It was certainly a fantastic production.”
It is while discussing Festen that we touch upon one of Beck’s recurring frustrations with theatre. While he is an ardent and impassioned defender of live theatre, there are certain limitations that he feels he can explore further elsewhere. “One of the frustrations of it [Festen] was that I never got to see it, and that’s maybe a reason why I haven’t come back and done anything for a little while, I still feel that I’ve got a lot of learning to do in terms of the theatre.” TV and film, where he can watch back what he has done, are a better way for him to learn, he feels. And there are other reasons to do them. “Theatre can be quite…well, it’s exhausting for all the right reasons but sometimes you just need a break.”
“I had the most amazing time on Robin Hood”
Beck has done pretty well in his TV career so far. He played John Thorpe in the recent ITV adaptation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, he was in the BBC Army Special Investigation Branch drama Red Cap, and also in the BBC adaptation of The Canterbury Tales, among other things. But the one I really want to hear about is – you guessed it – Robin Hood. And he is more than willing to oblige. “I had the most amazing time on Robin Hood,” he says, suddenly very animated, “riding horses, playing with bows and arrows.” Even the difficulties that arose just made everything that bit more fun. “Everybody involved in a primary level with the production was absolutely determined for it to be as good as it possibly could, everybody put 100% effort in,” he reflects. “I find it very difficult to talk about the finished article because I think it was rushed. I enjoyed it thoroughly but I know it wasn’t as good as it should have been. But for all of that, I wouldn’t swap a single second of it. All of those restrictions meant that we had such a wicked time doing it; it was like a real siege mentality stuck out in Budapest for six months.”
The big shock of the series was that Beck’s character, Roy, was killed halfway through, sacrificing himself to allow the others to escape from Nottingham Castle, leaving the nation – well, alright, me – sobbing on the sofa. His demise had some interesting benefits, though. “It meant that I got away with stuff that I wouldn’t have gotten away with if I’d still been out there. I very definitely wanted to go for a strong accent, because I thought that it was important, it being a show that’s essentially set in the north of England, that at least we have a range of accents. But I don’t think I would have been allowed to go for quite so strong an accent if I’d had to do two series.”
His face lights up thinking about his time on Robin Hood. “The casting was great. We didn’t have a single argument the whole time we were out there. I instantly regretted not having been able to do more than 4 episodes, but…it was like a really good fling.”
Flirty liaisons with television drama aside, his future is looking very bright, with The Agent opening in the West End and some promising projects in the pipeline. Although he is quite laid back about what he is going to do next, he has some definite ideas about how to achieve his ambitions. “I would love to do as much theatre as possible to learn how to be as efficient in rehearsal as possible, and to make the decisions quickly and properly and for the right reasons. I would then like to employ that in film, because film is the thing that people are able to go and see.” So while the West End is appealing, he is thinking outside of London. “I think that while the theatrical profession is perhaps a more global profession, the movie profession is an American industry, and without being too crude about it, being an actor, or certainly being a screen actor, and not wanting to go to America, not wanting to go and try yourself, is a little bit like being a Muslim and not going to Mecca. I think you just have to do it.”
As we finish off our drinks, I ask him about the rumour that he represented his home country, Wales, at wrestling. He groans. “That one follows me around.” This is the place to dispel the myth, I suggest. We could lay it to rest right now. “I’m quite content with it really.” It’s true that there are worse rumours to have spread about you than that you can wrestle someone to the ground effectively, but I suspect there is something he is not telling me. “Alright, I’ll tell you one thing, but I won’t be too specific – I have represented my country at a sport but it wasn’t wrestling, it was something else.” I have a think about what it could be. Figure skating, perhaps? “I would love that! Figure skating, that’s great. I’ll work on my triple salco.”
He seems to know an awful lot about it. Perhaps I have accidentally hit on the truth. The new rumour starts here – William Beck; West End star, movie actor, ice dancer.