Prolific actor Neil Stuke, whose best known TV series include Game on and Silk, lays out his plan to save our highstreets and, most importantly, the Great British pub over a very long lunch at Boisdale of Mayfair.
What do you call a Royal Marine Cadet, punk band member, club promoter, professional chef, property developer, farm-shop owner, campaigner, saviour of our pubs and general champion of, ‘all things that make this country great’! Well… you might start by calling him an actor.
The man in question is Neil Stuke, star of Silk, Reggie Perrin, Doctor Foster and Silent Witness, to name but a few. He is a successful, prolific and popular actor, who’s been gracing our television screens since the early 90’s. We meet at the new Boisdale of Mayfair on a sunny winter’s morning and explore what’s driving this ‘living life to the full’ polymath, husband and father. I couldn’t help thinking throughout, of Edison when he said, ‘If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.’
A myriad of careers eventually led Neil to acting, but it all began in Kent, specifically in Deal where he grew up – as it turns out – mostly watching films. “We were very lucky, there was a gang of us down in Deal that were obsessed with French films. Aged fourteen or fifteen, we were watching Louis Malle films, before we moved on to Mike Leigh and then Ken Loach. We thought we were quite sophisticated, going to France all the time, drinking Pastis, eating moules et frites, smoking Gitanes and wearing Eau Sauvage!”
So far, so good, Kent-lad obsessed with films, ends up treading the boards. Not quite that straightforward. There’s a huge amount crammed in, before the pivotal casting of Neil in the role of Matthew in the 1996 series Game On. My apologies to both Neil and Boisdale Life readers for my obsessive Game On quoting, not forgetting his immortal line to flatmate Martin: ‘I can’t believe she’s gone into the bedroom with him. I can’t believe she’s gonna shag that psycho when she’s never had the common decency to give me or you one!’. However, in Neil’s own words, “before acting I had five years of chaos.”
So I ask, before that role, what the disarray entailed? “It started with the Royal Marines, which had always been an integral part of my life. The Royal Marine School of Music is based in Deal and growing up, we had the band march through the town, I thought they were fantastic. I was a drummer in the Cadets for about three years and then I became a punk. Being a punk and a Marine doesn’t go. I remember twisting my cap around, in a form of anarchy, coming back from a display one day. The Regimental Sergeant Major saw it and I got banned.”
“After that, I was running club nights at Legends, I was running stuff in Ibiza, I’d gone a bit mad. When I decided to become an actor, I needed a night job after drama school. So I became a chef at Fred’s, the member’s only club on Argyle Street. It was a fantastic place, on three floors and Dick Bradsell, who died sadly last year, was the cocktail barman. He said to me, ‘you’re too good looking to be a chef; I need you down on the bar.’ Suddenly I became a mixologist, trained up by Dick Bradsell and Nick Strangeway.”
Talk of bars and drinks brings us neatly round to Neil’s key passion outside of acting. Before our lunch was set up, we started following each other on Twitter. I’d heard Neil was a ‘local pub supporter’ – naively thinking it might be a fairly casual relationship with the cause – quite the contrary! I refer you to @NeilStuke for proof. He is absolutely at the forefront of saving our high streets and pubs in particular (not to mention a partner in the farm shop, Franklins on Lordship Lane).
I wondered where the passion came from? “Well it’s more an interest in the fabric of our society and Britishness, localism, history and community. What I first got into was trying to save high streets, obviously having a Farm Shop on what is a quintessential high street, in East Dulwich. But you’ve got to try and get people out of their apathy, 7,000 pubs closed in seven years and people think it’s because of the smoking ban. That’s bullshit when you know the facts of why so many pubs are closing.”
And what are the facts? “The asset stripping starts with Punch Taverns and Enterprise, who are now closing pubs because they’ve overbought and they are bankrupt. They don’t even sell them as pubs. They run them down, churn the landlords, put the rents up, put the beer prices up, remove whatever the locals were drinking, take away the bar stools and make sure it’s unsuccessful. After this they go to the Council and say ‘We can’t make it work’, they get planning permission and developers build another Tesco Local, Morrison’s, McDonalds, Costa, Starbucks, whatever. To me it’s a vision of hell; I mean this is not how I want this country to be. I’m fucking angry about it.”
A cursory glance at the research shows he’s not wrong. CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) figures indicate pubs are closing at a conservative rate of 27 a week and the introduction of new business rates are unlikely to help matters. Neil goes on to add, “We recently lost a huge battle in Kent – I say huge, it really wasn’t that huge – not that many people cared.
But we lost a 764 year old Grade II listed pub which is cited in the Doomsday book (so remember that’s up in the 5% of most important buildings in Britain). It’s going to be turned into two houses. A 764 year old pub, referenced by Chaucer is to be turned into two houses.”
Is this battle is built on your love of our history and culture? “It’s community, society and localism. All the things that made this country great, we’re losing and I can’t bear it. It used to be fantastic to have a lovely local pub; everybody knows each other, there’s weddings, people meet each other, they fall in love. They have drinks after the rugby game and local kids start working there. Now they are going to work in Morrison’s. I mean seriously, really?” I’m enthused by all Neil’s rhetoric, its compelling stuff, I ask where Boisdale Life readers might lend their support? “We’ve got Protect Pubs, People’s Pub Partnership and Pub Defender, but we’ve had no help in our crusade from the Heritage Minister, Tracey Crouch, I mean no help whatsoever and that only leads us to believe that she’s been told not to intervene.”
So what is driving this longing for the picturesque and is that the right sentiment? “I think I have it built into me. I’ve been trying to work it out recently, trying to analyse it. I can’t cope with anything that’s ugly. So a supermarket, to me, is ugly. What it does to the town is ugly. A high street is pretty, a village is pretty, with small independent shops. For me, that works. If you go to the Cotswolds, or Tuscany, or to Spain, you have the aesthetics and people take care about where they live, the society, the community, all those things are more important, but there is so little support for it. Starbucks is ugly to me. The problem is you can come across as being a bit of a loon. If trying to save high streets, villages, pubs… if that’s just a romantic vision of England… then I’m fucked really.”
Changing tack, what are you working on at the moment? “Well we’ve got Doctor Foster II coming out soon. I had Paranoid on last year, that’s now number one in America on Netflix. It didn’t do very well here on ITV, but we’ve got these lunatic fans in America demanding a second series.” I remember the cast of Doctor Foster was particularly good – it must have been a pleasure working with that very high calibre of acting? “I know, I’ve been very lucky, I’ve worked with a lot of good people but it’s hard to beat Pete Postlethwaite. We did a series together called Sins – he was a proper old school theatre actor. I look at British television now and my heart sinks, there are literally only a handful of things that are very good and they, of course are very successful. I feel very lucky to have been in a lot of them.” Has it always been an ambition to break America?“Yes always, in fact I was up for West Wing, years ago, so it’s always been a big thing. It’s difficult when you’ve got a family and I’ve got a lot on here, developing houses, running the Farm Shop.”
What’s been the constant thread in your life? Your marriage? Your children? The countryside, farm shops, music, acting, partying – it’s a lot of great stuff, what keeps you anchored? Or doesn’t that matter? Are you rolling with the punches? “You’re cleverly trying to get into my psyche and see what makes me tick. I think I’m kind of on the spectrum, possibly, of all sorts of different things. I’m always running to something I think, people used to call me ‘man in a hurry’, but striving for more is great. It can affect the people around me; my wife worries about me, because she thinks I’m never satisfied. It’s exhausting being around me. She will also be the first to say it’s fantastic because you really live a full life, you never really stop. Why would you want to? You’re really only on the planet for a very short amount of time. Cooking is my thing – it’s the one moment where I have clarity. When I cook, I’m in heaven.”
By this point in proceedings we have moved over to the Groucho, Neil is greeted warmly by the staff at the door. It’s been a long afternoon of good food, good wine and engaging company. I’ve even managed to hold off the Game On references, although as soon as we walk into the Groucho, none other than Ben Chaplin walks out (Neil’s predecessor in the role of Matt in the sitcom) which I feel warrants a mention! Neil is definitely the ‘real deal’ when it comes to our pubs, he’s abundantly talented and if he wasn’t an actor we would call him an entrepreneur. For the sake of my Sunday night on the sofa and British television in general, thank god he is acting. Now we just need the BBC to get on and commission another series of Silk… set in a local pub.
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