This year, Neil Ashton has already appeared in two hugely popular TV series – Russell T. Davies’ Channel 4 drama It’s a Sin and CBBC’s adaptation of My Mum Tracy Beaker. Neil was cast as Grizzle in It’s a Sin, a show based on the 1980s gay scene and the AIDS pandemic, which saw him work alongside a cast including Olly Alexander and Omari Douglas and he played Fred in My Mum Tracy Beaker, which stars Dani Harmer who reprised her role of Tracy. Later this year, Neil will be playing Davey MacDonagh in Series Three of Brassic, and his other TV appearances have included The Last Kingdom, Bancroft, Drunk History: UK and Emmerdale. During lockdown, Neil was part of A Christmas Carol for Octagon Theatre, Bolton for their streamed Christmas show. Recently catching up with Neil, he tells us about his time filming as Grizzle in It’s a Sin, playing Fred in My Mum Tracy Beaker and his upcoming role in Brassic.
What was it like being cast as Grizzle in It’s a Sin and was there anything in particular that drew you to the role?
I have been a huge fan of Russell’s (Russell T. Davies) writing for many years, and I had worked on a show of his a few years previous (Cucumber), so when I found out that he was writing a new drama about the gay scene set in the 1980s and the horror of when the AIDS pandemic started, I hoped and prayed that I would be lucky enough to be involved in the project somehow. There weren’t that many older characters in the show that hadn’t already been cast so I just hoped there was a role that I was suitable for, and I was absolutely thrilled when I read the scripts and met Grizzle! I have known many ‘Grizzles’ in my time from the gay scenes in both London and Manchester and it was fantastic to see a character like her included in the story of the show.
Back in the 1980s, it was incredibly hard to come out as being gay (I myself found it incredibly challenging and it took a long time for me to accept my sexuality) but it was even harder if you were trans. It was seen as ‘men just dressing up’, ‘pretending to be a woman’, ‘cross-dressing’. Grizzle desperately wanted to be a woman but one, he couldn’t afford it and two, it was just too hard and too scary. What I loved about Grizzle’s journey in the ten years that the show covers is how she got braver with accepting who she really is. She got more confident with fashion and make-up and was more confident from stepping out from behind the bar where she felt protected and safe and went out into the real world. That was what was so special about her relationship with Roscoe. She learnt a lot from Roscoe in accepting who she was and to not be suppressed and trodden down by anyone else’s prejudice.
How was it telling the story and seeing the response to the show?
Incredibly important! There haven’t been many dramas that I can recall that really showed the realism of what happened back then and that showed just how brutal and devastating and heartbreaking it actually was. I was so scared of accepting that I was gay as I can remember so vividly the adverts on the telly with those gravestones falling over and I was absolutely convinced that if I was gay that I was going to die. So I wouldn’t and couldn’t accept that I was for such a long time. So many people had no idea just how terrible it really was and how people were treated and just left to die. It was fear and prejudice and no one knew what it was, where it had come from and it strengthened the hatred that already existed towards homosexuality and that it was dirty and disgusting and that they brought in on themselves! Even after all these years, it makes me so incredibly angry. So what I love so much is that the show is now there in history for everyone to look at. All generations and future generations and I hope to God that we can learn from it so that we never do that to another human being again.
I still can’t actually comprehend how overwhelming the response has been to the show. I tell you what though, it gives me a lot of hope for the future and that people of all generations have taken this story into their hearts and conscience. I’ve received so many incredible messages from friends and complete strangers telling me of their memories and their own stories and also what effect the show has had on them. I had an incredible message from a man I didn’t know saying how the show has made him question how he will bring up his children and to encourage them to be who they want to be and that he will never not be a part of their lives because of how he treats them. And, sadly, I’ve received so many stories from people who lost someone far too young and far too soon. I had a very good friend of mine who passed away from an AIDS-related illness. I am so glad that I was there with him when he passed and that he wasn’t alone. There are so many lives that HIV and AIDS have affected and still does to this day. A massive thing that has happened in response to the show is that more people are being tested for HIV! That’s so incredible.
Do you have any highlights from your time filming that you can tell us about?
Oh Lordy, hahaha, there are so many. Just have a look on all our social media and you’ll see! We all became incredibly close really quickly. I had met Olly (Alexander, who played Ritchie) before when we filmed the music video for Desire, the huge Years & Years hit, so it was so lovely to see him again. Even though I wasn’t part of the main cast, I still felt part of the family and we had so many laughs, both on and off set. The day we filmed the interview scene with Roscoe and Grizzle was actually the very first scene to be filmed on day one of the whole shoot so that will always be a highlight for me, and also the protest scene with me and Roscoe lying on the floor, and the scene where we are all in the back of the police van. So many special memories.
You play Fred in CBBC series My Mum Tracy Beaker, what was the role like to do?
It was so much fun. What did you think of my Dick Van Dyke mockney accent? Hahaha. I remember watching Tracy Beaker years ago with my nieces when they were young so it was brilliant to be part of such an iconic show that so many people had grown up watching, and who were really excited to see it back on telly. It was also so different from Grizzle and It’s A Sin, although I think Fred was just as gnarly as Grizzle!
What was it like working on a CBBC show that has such a huge following?
It was very special as I knew the show meant a lot to so many people. My nieces were very proud of their Uncle Nelly because they were such big Tracy Beaker fans.
Can you tell us about filming as Davey MacDonagh in Brassic?
I was already a big fan of Brassic before I worked on the show so I was so excited when I found out I had got the part of one of the MacDonagh brothers. I tell you something, these two brothers put the Kray twins to shame. Just wait till you meet them. Like Grizzle, I think a lot of people won’t recognise it’s me. My sister will be pleased though as I definitely don’t look like her in this, haha. The brothers make their first appearance in the next season of Brassic that is out on Sky later this year.
Last year, you appeared in Cursed and The Last Kingdom, what were these both like to work on?
A few years ago I worked on a brilliant show called Outlander, which was the first period drama that I had filmed. I was a huge fan of the books so I was so excited to be a part of the show (if you haven’t read the Outlander books, or watched the series, then I urge you to do both! So, so good). It was so incredible to work on a show set in a completely different time of history. I’ve always been fascinated with history and also fantasy stories so it was a dream to work on both Cursed and The Last Kingdom. Especially The Last Kingdom because I had more to do and I was playing such a dirty, disgusting character, I loved it! The set for The Last Kingdom was amazing! They have literally built a whole village with to scale buildings and market stalls. It was literally like going back in time and actually being there. The make-up and costumes were phenomenal as well. It’s breathtaking just how talented the creative teams are on shows.
You played DS Jim Stuart in Bancroft, can you tell us about the character and appearing in the show?
I absolutely loved reading the scripts for Bancroft when I got them and again, although I didn’t have too much to do on the show, it was incredible to be a part of and to work with an incredible cast. We had so much fun filming it and lots of fantastic memories. I especially loved it as I got to play a firearms officer which is actually what my brother does for a living so I could really wind him up about how much more convincing I was as a police officer than he is, hahaha. Can I also say a special mention to Kenny, who was one of the drivers on the show, who we sadly lost to COVID? He was such a lovely guy who always had a smile for you and made you laugh. He will be terribly missed and my thoughts and love go out to his family and friends.
What was Drunk History: UK like to be part of?
Oh, I love this show so much. It’s absolutely hilarious! Please watch it if you haven’t already. It’s such a great concept for a show as you don’t know what to expect when the celebrity guest has had one drink too many, and we as the actors get to act out their version of a particular story. I’ve filmed a couple of episodes for them now, and I’ve played the Pope and an Undertaker in a Cowboy movie. We have to lip-sync to somebody else’s voice which they playback on set so, after everything I learnt to be able to do that, I think I could totally slay a lip-sync battle on RuPaul’s Drag Race!
Having played Nelly in Cucumber, what did you enjoy most about working on the show?
This was the first time that I got to work with Russell T. Davies and with an incredible cast of actors who I had admired for years, so I was so excited! Originally I auditioned for one of the other characters, which I didn’t get. I was absolutely devastated, but I got a lovely email from Russell saying that he really liked my audition and if another role came up they would keep me in mind which was so lovely of him. Then I got a call from my agent asking if I would like to audition for another character that would appear in the last two episodes of the show. When I read the script for the casting, I couldn’t believe that the character’s name was Nelly, which has been my nickname for so many years! After I got the part, Russell told me that there was no one else who could have played that part and I can’t thank him enough for all the incredible opportunities he has given me and to be part of such special shows.
What are soaps such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale like to film?
I grew up watching both of these shows and they are national treasures. So to actually work on them is so special. I had worked on Corrie and Emmerdale before, just one or two lines that you would probably have missed. But I was really lucky to be asked back by both shows to appear as different characters. I played a really nasty landlord in Emmerdale who was evicting a tenant from one of his flats. Such a brilliant character that I had so much fun doing. The second time I worked on Corrie was a completely different experience altogether!
On the day of filming, I was lying in bed when I got a call asking if I would like to go and film on Coronation Street as one of the actors was sick and couldn’t do it. I, of course, said “absolutely”, to which the reply was “good because there’s a car coming to pick you up in fifteen minutes!”. You should have seen me leap out of bed. The next thing I knew, I was standing behind the bar in the Rovers! I had pages of script lying around behind the bar with my lines on as I literally had only just seen them about ten minutes before the camera started rolling! Although it was such a scary experience to be thrown in the deep end like that, the cast and the director were so lovely and supportive, and it ended up being one of the most favourite things I’ve ever done. I was just so glad I didn’t forget my lines or bump into any furniture, hahaha.
How was the experience working on A Christmas Carol for Octagon Theatre, Bolton?
I have always wanted to work with the Bolton Octagon on something. I did a general audition for them on Zoom during the first lockdown and I was delighted when they offered for me to be a part of their Christmas show, which they were going to film as a one-off special as their Christmas theatre show had been cancelled due to COVID. I’ve only done a couple of radio dramas before so I haven’t had a lot of experience reading direct from the script to the camera. I read and filmed the part of the story when Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Future. There were a lot of pages to read and there was a lot of me saying “red lorry, yellow lorry” before we filmed, hahaha. Once I got going though I absolutely loved it. I was so free and I got to really play with all the different characters in the story and their voices. So much fun! I hope I get to do something like it again.
Can you say about some of the other stage roles you’ve been involved with?
I actually started my career doing a lot of theatre but have recently worked predominantly on TV which I absolutely love. One of my dreams is to work at the National Theatre and to be on stage there. That would be so incredible.
The theatre shows that I have performed in that really spring to mind are Fetish Knights and Weekend Breaks. In total, we did three productions of Fetish Knights and I was lucky to be part of all three productions. We first performed it in a small studio space and the last production was on the huge stage at The Lowry Theatre. The show was a comedy and it was a challenge just trying to keep a straight face most nights. The show got such a great response and a following, and it became a huge hit, and I got to work with a phenomenally talented cast. Weekend Breaks was totally different. It was a huge challenge for me as an actor as I was playing a stand-up comic. I was on stage the whole time, going from just me on my own in a spotlight doing a stand-up routine to then going straight into scenes with the two other actors who were playing my parents. I have suffered from stage fright three times in my career! Once on Weekend Breaks, once in a show we performed at drama school, and once when we were filming a big crowd scene on Outlander. Stage fright is something I hope I never ever experience again. It really is the worst feeling in the world and it left me in bits!
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you start?
I know it sounds corny as anything, but I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything other than an actor. When I was about nine years old, some friends and I used to write our own plays and then go round all the old people’s homes in the town where I lived and perform them for the residents. I was really bullied at school and what saved me was that we had a fantastic arts centre in Kendal which had a youth theatre group that I joined when I was fourteen, so I could escape there and be myself. I escaped into myself a lot as a child, and probably still do as an adult. I love stories. I love characters. I auditioned for drama schools when I was eighteen but didn’t get in and I was told to reapply when I had more ‘life experience’. But then real life got in the way, and I ended up moving to London and working as a fashion editor for a well-known teenage magazine, even though I still always wanted to act. I finally ended up going to drama school when I was thirty, so quite old in comparison to most people. I gave up an incredible job with a secure salary and career etc to chase my dream of being an actor. I am so blessed to have a supportive family, inspiring drama teachers who believed in me and the most amazing agent, and although it is such a hard industry to be in and you have to have a really tough skin, I really cannot imagine myself doing anything else now. To be continued… hahaha.
Do you have any favourite TV shows or films to watch and did you watch any in lockdown you would recommend?
Hahaha, do you know, my friends have had such a go at me lately because all I’ve done since being in both lockdowns is watch TV shows, box sets and films! I’ve watched so many, I don’t know where to begin! It’s A Sin, of course, if you’ve not seen it yet! I’ve just finished watching Veneno, which is a Spanish show and oh my God, you have to watch it! Utterly amazing. I loved Succession. I am a huge Scandi-noir fan! I’m watching The Head at the moment, which is set in the dark months in the Antarctic, it’s so creepy, I’m loving it. Dark was incredible. A must-watch is the original version of The Missing. I also love shows about politics, like The West Wing and Borgen. Flack is a brilliant comedy series, utterly hilarious and I’m always watching Victoria Wood sketches and shows. Oh, and Larry Grayson! Who I met once, he was a hoot!
Two of my all-time favourite films that I can quote every line to are The Breakfast Club, and… wait for it… Grease 2! Yep, I am an out and proud Grease 2 fan!
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