“You Were Right, Lovejoy”

Jack Kibble-White, Chris Diamond and Rose Ruane interview Dudley Sutton

First published June 2004

Dudley Sutton is a mainstay of British television and film. With an acting career that spans over 40 years, his is an eclectic CV encompassing ubiquitous bit parts in numerous ITC thriller serials, stints as a quintessential “heavy” in crime dramas of the 1970s, a brush with the Children’s Film Foundation, teatime immortality through his role as Tinker in Lovejoy and a smattering of success in international blockbusters.

In 2003, OTT caught up with him as he performed his one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival. The following interview first appeared in a truncated form in TV Cream‘s Creamup newsletter.

OTT: So what kind of parts do you find you get offered these days?

DUDLEY SUTTON: Well, I played a toothless, raging Yorkshire peasant in a film called This Filthy Earth and in another film I made recently I played a West Cork Christian Brother in a very vicious boys’ home. I’m the only kind person in it.

OTT: Who else is in that?

DUDLEY SUTTON: Iain Glen, Aiden Quinn – it’s coming out at the festival. And the last film I’ve just made is called Football Factory about Millwall and Chelsea supporters, and the nice thing about it is it’s made by people who like punching each other in the head. If you want to know the nature of something ask people who like it, not those who don’t. We as a nation prefer people who don’t like things to tell us about things.

OTT: There are a couple of things that you have done that are probably of most interest to OTT. There’s the Children’s Film Foundation …

DUDLEY SUTTON: That was about 1812! I’ve forgotten what they were called now.

OTT: I tell you the one that sticks in my mind, I always remember because it was the early 1980s and videos were just starting out and my mum went and hired a video of Glitterball and you were in it. It’s about a little ball thing that had an alien in it. It’s very low budget.

DUDLEY SUTTON: Are you sure I was in it? I’ve never heard of it. I might have been drunk. I did some shows where I was so pissed I don’t remember doing them. I remember doing one at the quarries in Ffestiniog, Wales with a really nice boy called Toby – I can’t remember his full name. A sweet little kid. I was a sort of a hippy in those days and I lived in a van up in the hills. The film crew were coming in every day complaining about the shitty hotel and we were living on a headland with a baby in a cot. It was a wonderful time, and every Monday the company manager would come with a fistful of tenners.

The Children’s Film Foundation was run by people who hate children. They absolutely hate them, they can’t bear them. They won’t tell you that they hate them but they have no idea. I did a film with Ashley Walters full of wicked, wicked kids from Belfast and Dublin and they had a wonderful time and they didn’t destroy things, they just were alive. No CFF was awful. They had no imagination – something goes fucking wrong and then two smart arsed kids find out who did it and tell us.

OTT: There was one that we like called The Boy Who Turned Yellow and it was a Powell/Pressburger film.

DUDLEY SUTTON: Now that’s different.

OTT: My first recollection of you before Lovejoy is that you seemed to play the heavy or bad guy in lots of things like The Sweeney.

DUDLEY SUTTON: Yes I did for a long time and then I got fed up with it. I remember one day I was working with a lovely director called Bob Thompson on an American series and I was saying to him “I really don’t want to be tough anymore I’ve just had that bloke in The Sweeney chasing me [Dennis Waterman] and I’d said to Dennis ‘take it easy’ but his director had said ‘no, no he’s got his image to think of’ and I’m nearly dying of a heart attack standing in the middle of a street parading a fucking gun in front of the public”. So I said to Bob Thompson “can I play this part as a toff?” and he said “yes” so that’s when I stopped playing villains.

You needed to otherwise you just go on for the rest of your life. Casting directors got really angry with me.

OTT: Well it gives them a bit if work to do.

DUDLEY SUTTON: It does. I was offered Straw Dogs, but I just didn’t want to do it. I was trying to kick the booze at the time which was quite difficult, and I just didn’t want to go on with a bunch of piss artist actors and a director who was even worse for six weeks, so I turned it down. You’ve got to keep people guessing I’ve tried not to be pigeon-holed.

OTT: Certainly when you watch a film, particularly on telly, people always enjoy it more if they see someone in a role they don’t expect.

DUDLEY SUTTON: When I see an actor like Richard Watiss or John Le Mesurier I think “yes – we’re alright” and that’s the kind of actor I want to be, I don’t want to be a huge star. I want to be one of those actors who people say “oh he’s in it.”

OTT: John Le Mesurier played all sorts of different characters – people forget that.

DUDLEY SUTTON: Recently I played a West Country bloke in Casualty it was a really nice job. I played a guy from Nottingham in Paradise Heights. I get some nice work.

OTT: Are there any particular television roles you’ve had that stick out in you mind?

DUDLEY SUTTON: Well I like Tinker.

OTT: That’s the other role people will often associate you with.

DUDLEY SUTTON: Well I sort of invented Tinker because if you read the books, Tinker is like Callan’s sidekick – filthy, stinking and sniveling. I was feeling rich at the time because I had been making some film for a change and I was staying in a friend’s flat and I drove a Merc.

OTT: What was the film?

DUDLEY SUTTON: I can’t remember. It was with Martin Sheen. They changed its name several times it was a stupid film. It was so stupid it was unbelievable. It was produced by some deeply religious Catholics and the bloke who directed it made religious programmes. It involved a scientist who finds Saint Theresa somebody in an atomic machine …

OTT: But then the role of Tinker came up …

DUDLEY SUTTON: Colin Shindler and Tony Charles wanted to make the series. Tinker was a dirty stinking sniveling alcoholic and I said I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to play something more elegant for a change, so they said I could wear what I like. I lived opposite the Chelsea antique market at the time, so I knew what antique dealers looked like and I said “I’ll wear my Chelsea Arts Club outfit” and they said “what’s that?” I said it was a three piece tweed suit, silk hankie and a beret I bought in Paris and that’s how it came about.

OTT: Tinker was quite an iconic figure I think.

DUDLEY SUTTON: Yeah incredibly.

OTT: Lovejoy was an incredible success. Did you spot that from the script when you first read it?

DUDLEY SUTTON: No I can’t tell one script from another. I just look at the lines if I’ve got lots to say and not too many people interrupt I’m happy.

OTT: Did you enjoy doing Lovejoy?

DUDLEY SUTTON: We did it for many years.

OTT: It stopped and came back didn’t it?

DUDLEY SUTTON: Yeah 74 hours of it. It was a long time to go.

OTT: It started in 1986 and then stopped for a few years.

DUDLEY SUTTON: Yes, it’s always bloody politics. There was a bloke – Michael Grade was the boss of the BBC. He went to Hollywood, while he was away another bloke made the deal between the BBC and Witzend. So then we start and Michael Grade comes back and says “oh I didn’t do the deal” so as soon as he came back he stopped it out of politics. So he gets kicked upstairs at Channel 4 and then they start making Lovejoy again. It brought in a lot of viewers, and if you bring viewers in on a Friday night you’re in business. It seemed to me a piddly business decision made, I think, for personal reasons.

OTT: It was essential viewing.

DUDLEY SUTTON: Unfortunately then the Thatcher idea came that if you got below 10 million you were out of it, and it was quite an expensive show.

OTT: It did well in America didn’t it?

DUDLEY SUTTON: McShane did. He never took us anywhere though. He always wanted everything for himself.

OTT: I noticed that you have done a short spell in Emmerdale.

DUDLEY SUTTON: I did not so long ago. I did two episodes.

OTT: If they had offered you a regular slot would you have taken it?

DUDLEY SUTTON: No. I was offered a role in some series called Family Affairs. But it’s fucking hard work – and for what? Even with Lovejoy, after a while it was too long. There are certain things you have to learn, like learning to work with the camera. I learned a lot doing Lovejoy – I learned a lot of things not to do. Soaps are not much money for a lot of effort.

OTT: Did you feel the concept of Lovejoy was still valid when they took it off?

DUDLEY SUTTON: No I think they were spoiling it. I think they were doing what Ian McShane wanted more and more and letting him take all the decisions. His character had to get all the girls, his character had to answer the questions and I know Phyllis Logan got fed up saying “you were right Lovejoy”. We got fed up with it. We wouldn’t do anything except bloody well say “you were right, Lovejoy,” and I remember one time they went to Venice and left us behind and when they came back we were leaning over the fucking mantelpiece saying “you were right Lovejoy”.

OTT: I remember the one where Eric went to a Guns N’ Roses concert.

DUDLEY SUTTON: I remember when the Hothouse Flowers came on the show and we worked out an idea that Eric would go on stage with them and his bottle would go at the last minute and Tinker would go on. We had a very good producer at the time and she was very, very fluid she said “yes we’ll put that in” – no other producer would let us do things like that. During the change over of cameras I went on and danced and we did an Irish song. So the Hothouse Flowers said to me “why don’t you come on at Wembley Stadium?”, so I did. I fucked it up. I was so frightened. But it was wonderful!

OTT: What kind of reception did you get?


OTT: I was wondering if there is a difference for an actor between the small productions and the major international productions like Smiley’s People?

DUDLEY SUTTON: Smiley’s People was quite small.

OTT: It was a great series and it was a good role for you.

DUDLEY SUTTON: It was a wonderful role – no expression at all, and that really appealed to me. Plus, I had my hair dyed claret red.

OTT: But your character doesn’t actually meet Alec Guinness in it, does he?

DUDLEY SUTTON: I had just one scene.

OTT: No, you had the one scene at the very start, but you also had the little taped thing with the two naked girls.

DUDLEY SUTTON: I don’t remember that.

OTT: But no Alec Guinness.

DUDLEY SUTTON: I have worked with him.

OTT: Was this after Star Wars?

DUDLEY SUTTON: It was before he became world famous for waving a fluorescent light bulb – on points.

OTT: You can’t say it’s a lightbulb!

DUDLEY SUTTON: Well he did it very well.

OTT: You were talking earlier about how you didn’t want to be a named star. Are you happy with the way your career has turned out, because it seems to me you’ve done lots of really interesting things?

DUDLEY SUTTON: I’ve had enough work, but I always wanted more and bigger roles.

OTT: Have people tended to try and cast you as loveable eccentric because of Tinker?

DUDLEY SUTTON: Yes that always happens. I played lots of camp roles in the 1960s – real screamers – and so I ended up going into bars touching up the women and acting all tough and some queen would always come up to me and go “it’s alright darling – it’s alright we know”.

OTT: So is that how you got into your heavies roles in the ’70s do you think?

DUDLEY SUTTON: Yes. I did a film called The Boys and I did a television play playing the villain. When I saw it I was horrified because I was doing what they call giving away the family secrets – my face was all over the place. So the next thing I was in I kept my face very still and I was looking at this guy and had a switchblade and so I got a reputation for being really tough.

OTT: You were very scary.

DUDLEY SUTTON: Roger Moore was on the Wogan show and was asked “who was your scariest villain?” and he said that I was. I remember Roger being against the wall and my back was against the door and I figured if I keep my back to the door I can whack as hard as I like into the door with my fucking knife and so I went for it and the knife went straight through the door. He loved it but he went absolutely white. The other thing I do is talking this terrible dialogue: “You do that again tosh and I’ll do you over”.

OTT: Are there any parts that you wished you’d played?

DUDLEY SUTTON: So many things that I can’t remember.

OTT: And in terms of things that you have done yourself over the years, are you critical of yourself? Do you watch yourself on TV?

DUDLEY SUTTON: I never used to. I used to hate it so much. But now I quite like it.

OTT: Is there any particular performance where you think I really nailed that character?

DUDLEY SUTTON: Oh I don’t know. Not really.

OTT: Well do you look back on something and think I really enjoyed the part, or I really enjoyed the job? Does one matter more than the other?

DUDLEY SUTTON: Well, as you know I did Casualty recently. Now its been running for 25 years or whatever, so it’s quite scary going into a show like that because you think they are all going to be grand and dizzy, but not at all. They were absolutely lovely. I think it’s partly because they are away from the main BBC – they’re in a business park – and so they’re not into the hierarchy. What I hate is hierarchy. My Winnebago is bigger than your Winnebago – that kind of shite. I’m a democrat. Everybody should be on the same money. I mean it’s okay being a movie star, they get 48 takes to get it right. We come in do it in one and get off.

OTT: But is it the experience of making something that’s more important?

DUDLEY SUTTON: I don’t know. I want to have a good time and that depends on the director.

OTT: Can you think of any who were your favourites?

DUDLEY SUTTON: I loved working with Ken Russell on The Devils.

OTT: Of course that was with Oliver Reed.

DUDLEY SUTTON: Yes. He was fucking good! He’s got so much power.

OTT: People forget that he was really a tremendous actor.

DUDLEY SUTTON: Yes. The sad thing is he just became this drunken clown. You know I had trouble with drink, and you have to kick it, you have to get out of it. It’s no good becoming a kind of dependent baby – you finish up being a fool. Everyone thought it was terrifically brave of him to leap into a feminist show, but if he’d done it sober that would have been brave. It was a shame because he was a marvellous actor.

OTT: Did you find anybody’s reputation intimidating?

DUDLEY SUTTON: No not really I’m not one of those actors you know “I’ve worked with Larry” – fuck off! I don’t think actors should be made Lords anyway. I worked with Robert Mitchum. He came up to me and said “I’m sorry we smoked all the dope” so I said “that’s cool I’ve brought my own”. I worked with Bette Davis. Of course a lot of those Hollywood stars just talk about themselves all the time, they’re not interesting people. Martin Sheen is interesting, he’s interested in other things. Albert Finney is interesting.

OTT: Of course Martin Sheen has quite strong political views.

DUDLEY SUTTON: Well yes, too right! You’ve got to be interested in other things besides yourself or it just gets boring. I’m not interested in feeding someone’s fucking ego. You know when you get this ego lot, they’re just a nightmare to be around and the thing to do is just to quietly keep away.

OTT: How do you avoid becoming like that? Is it just people’s personalities?

DUDLEY SUTTON: It’s a very odd thing isn’t it? The camera loves an egoist. The camera loves somebody who is full of “self love” and when they are making love they are not making love to the other person they are making love to themselves. The camera loves them. It’s a bit like president of America – you’ve got be a millionaire to get that job. You’ve got to be an egoist to get a film star job which is a shame.

OTT: Have you done much theatre recently?

DUDLEY SUTTON: I’ve been on the road doing Romeo and Juliet. What I have found is that the centre of every city has become a morass. The theatres are falling down and the theatres have found they are in the wrong part of town. I’d liked to have played a lot of roles in the theatre, but my kind of theatre is seeing you. I don’t like to be on the stage miles away from the public. I played the Lyceum in 1989 – a beautiful theatre but so respectable.

I used to write pantomimes for a small theatre in Oxfordshire. I played the Dame, I played the villain …

OTT: The dame in the ’60s and the villain in the ’70s?

DUDLEY SUTTON: I got the idea from Ken Campbell. Write jokes that are very base, “poo poos and wee wees”, but the audience couldn’t take the pace. I wrote a song called Tits and Bums, and they said we’re not having our children exposed to that sort of thing – that’s ludicrous!

OTT: Do you have aspirations to do more writing?

DUDLEY SUTTON: I write in verse a lot. I wrote a play in verse it was based on a Molière play. It went out on the road in small venues.

OTT: I was surprised that your autobiography hasn’t been published. It is very similar to people like Tom Baker and Peter Ustinov and at the moment it seems that memoirs of anyone unusual or interesting is doing very well.

DUDLEY SUTTON: The thing is, all these publishing houses are owned by Americans. I was taken out to lunch by Simon and Schuster and the editor really wanted to publish but her sales department wouldn’t do it. I don’t mind, I carry on writing – I love writing.