In the summer production of The Sound of Music at Chichester Festival Theatre, William Ilkley played Franz alongside a cast including Gina Beck as Maria and Edward Harrison as Captain von Trapp. Last year, William toured as Mr Boo in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, and in 2021, he was due to appear in the one-man show Alexa, Cry Me a Dance at Ilkley Playhouse, but unfortunately, he tested positive for COVID on the first day so was unable to continue in the premiere. For a number of years, William played Arthur Narracott in Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse at the National Theatre and on the UK/world tour, and he played Alan/Alf in the UK Tour of The Full Monty. Having played Major Metcalf in the West End production of The Mousetrap, William reprised his role when the Agatha Christie thriller went on tour. William has had numerous guest role appearances on screen, including in Doctors and crime dramas Endeavour, DCI Banks and Midsomer Murders, and played characters in most of the soaps and also Disney films amongst his almost 100 credits on screen. Speaking to us, William told us about playing Franz in The Sound of Music this summer at Chichester Festival Theatre, touring in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice and his time as Arthur Narracott in War Horse.
How was your time playing Franz in The Sound of Music at Chichester Festival Theatre and what was the show like to work on?
As an actor who is mostly in plays, I was delighted to be asked to play Franz. This is a classic musical show and Chichester Festival Theatre is the home of the summer musical in UK, so I had absolutely no hesitation in accepting their offer. And I am so glad I did. The experience was wonderful. The creative team were superb, the rehearsals a joy and the company had an abundance of talent. On top of that, they were gorgeous people to spend the summer with playing to full houses and receiving standing ovations every night.
What did you enjoy most about performing with the rest of the cast and being part of a Chichester Festival Theatre production?
I loved hearing the music and the songs every night. In between my scenes I rarely returned to my dressing room, preferring to wait backstage listening to the wonderful orchestra – who at Chichester are positioned at the very rear of the backstage area. I never tired of that. It was uplifting and energising. Being in Chichester for the summer allowed time to discover the sights of the area in my free time – Bosham, Bracklesham, Selsey, Itchenor and Arundel being some of the highlights.
Last year, you toured the UK with The Rise and Fall of Little Voice as Mr Boo, what was this like?
Ah, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play MR BOO! What a great fun time that was. And to spend time with Jim Cartwright! I had a ball experiencing in a very small way what it would be like to be a stand-up comedian. Again, I was lucky. We had a wonderful company including the American singer Christina Bianco as LV. What a singing impressionist she is! Incredible! So many laughs along the way on that tour.
Can you tell us about your one-man play Alexa, Cry Me a Dance and how was it premiering the show at Ilkley Playhouse in 2021?
I’d long dreamt of doing a one-man show and during the long emptiness of COVID and the lockdowns, I put this plan into action. I teamed up with a long-standing friend and writer – Suzanne Ellison, and for a year we worked together creating a 55-minute piece. Ilkley Playhouse – where I started out as a young actor in my schooldays – supported the production and we rehearsed for a month leading to tech and dress rehearsals in the theatre at IP. Suzanne came along to the final full dress run to see the fully completed product of our endeavours. The next day, the day of the first show, I tested positive for COVID – it was the time of very strict regulations still and the two performances had to be cancelled. Suzanne had by then been diagnosed with cancer and, very sadly, just a few weeks later she died. I have never re-visited the play. I am so pleased that Suzanne got to see it in all its glory. It was really rather good.
You starred as Arthur Narracott in War Horse for a number of years, what are some of your favourite memories from touring with the show?
Wow! I spent three years on War Horse! 832 performances on the UK and World Tour. We played all over the UK including at the National Theatre and we were there for the special gala performance on 11th November 2018 – 100 years after the end of the Great War. That was an incredibly moving experience with so many former service personnel in the audience. Internationally, I did the show in Dublin, Paris, Hong Kong, Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne. We were about to open in Perth, Australia when COVID hit! Michael Morpurgo joined us many times and I chatted to him a lot. On several occasions he joined us on stage for the opening auction scene, in full costume, which he loved!
What was Arthur Narracott like to play and how was it getting into character?
Arthur is a lovely role. Of course, he is a member of the main family and it is the warring between him and his brother Ted that results in the family buying Joey at the auction. There are 34 performers in War Horse and everyone plays several roles so I did also pop up as a German soldier here and there in the second half. We had eight weeks rehearsals for the show so the research time was very comprehensive and detailed. I like to think that I was able to bring a lot of that research to my characterisation of Arthur.
How was it being in the UK Tour of The Full Monty as Alan/Alf?
I’ve done two shows in my career where the audience response made you feel like you were a rock star in a gig and not an actor in a play! Bouncers was the first and The Full Monty was the second. Crazy, wild, full houses and, in the case of The Full Monty, mainly female, who may have enjoyed a glass or two before arriving at the theatre. I loved it!
What was it like being in the West End cast of The Mousetrap as Major Metcalf and then reprising your role for the UK Tour?
Gosh, I seem to have been in all the ‘classics’ don’t I? I guess if you are going to do an Agatha Christie then this is the one. I did the West End show for a year and then did a further year out on tour in the UK with it. And no, I’m not going to tell you who did it! Keep the secret always!!!!
How do you find the experience having guest roles on TV shows such as Doctors, Endeavour, DCI Banks and Midsomer Murders?
I’ve now done close to 100 TV/movie productions and have always enjoyed mixing the work I do. I trained at Rose Bruford as a theatre actor and then learnt to be a camera actor by doing it on set. The experience is so different. It’s lovely to pop into long-established shows and to get to know some of the regulars. I do love the theatre though.
Can you tell us about some of the other projects you’ve worked on over your career so far and what are some of your stand-out highlights?
Well, I’ve been in most of the soaps – EastEnders, Emmerdale, Coronation Street, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs, and my family certainly enjoy it when I’m doing something like that. I’ve also done a couple of movies for Disney – where I filmed in France, Spain and Fiji, and several other movies that were filmed abroad. Can you tell how much I love travel!!!
How did you get into acting and was it something you always wanted to do?
Yes, it was my drama teacher at school – David Wildman – who first cast me as Lord Capulet in Romeo & Juliet. Then I did several plays for David at the Ilkley Playhouse and toured with them to the Minack Theatre in Cornwall before heading to drama school in London for three years. I certainly got the bug in the first show and I guess now after 43 years of professional work, the decision to go down that line has been a good one.
Do you have any favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch?
Favourite movies include The Shawshank Redemption, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Pulp Fiction; favourite musicals include Billy Elliot and Come From Away; favourite plays include Salt of the Earth by John Godber and War Horse; favourite TV shows include Ozark, Money Heist, Fauda and Call My Agent (original French version).
How do you like to spend your free time?
You guessed it – travelling! Everywhere and anywhere! I’ve just had a week in Lindos, Rhodes. Will be in Valletta soon and then Cambodia and then Cape Verde!
What advice would you give a new actor starting out in the industry?
Learn the craft. Don’t chase celebrity. Never stop learning. Be professional.
Do you have any upcoming plans that you can tell us about and what are you hoping the rest of the year brings for you?
Up to Xmas now I will be working with several international schools on theatre projects for them and travelling. I am looking forward to new exciting acting roles in the new year…………………………