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'Million Dollar Quartet' at Queen's Theatre Hornchurch Peter Duncan
'Million Dollar Quartet' at Queen's Theatre Hornchurch

Interview: Peter Duncan on ‘Million Dollar Quartet’

Expectantly waiting for the phone to be picked up, I pondered what interview style to adopt; the probing intellect of David Frost; the anarchic wit of Jonathan Ross perhaps? Nah, I’ll just be me, I decided, as Peter Duncan chirped ‘hello’ on the end of a refreshingly clear line. Of course we all know he’s a Blue Peter legend, daredevil, actor – and, as I discovered, a really nice guy. We kicked the conversation around, discussed his upcoming role in Million Dollar Quartet at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch . . . and Jerry Lee Lewis at a wedding reception?!

You’ve just returned from the Edinburgh Festival. How was it for you?
Edinburgh was fine, I did a play called Dame and got some good reviews.

I heard it was a bit of a bear pit?
Well it can be – it’s the theatrical equivalent to Glastonbury, but it was great to get a good reaction.

Most people associate you with Blue Peter. How do you think it’s impacted your acting career?
It’s hard to tell really, I was an actor for 10 years before I got Blue Peter. But I can’t imagine what might have happened had I not done the show.

You’re playing Sam Phillips in Million Dollar Quartet. What first attracted you to the role?
Being offered the part! I was recommended by a director friend. I found it to be a lot classier than a typical jukebox musical. The narrative is a lot stronger and explores the influence Sam Philips had, particularly on Elvis Presley. Sam is a fascinating character – he was looking for an artist who could light a fire under a song, like those great black R&B singers. He found that in Elvis and nurtured the raw talent they all had.

Is it easier playing a person that actually existed, as opposed to a character that’s been invented?
Not especially – people have an image of someone – but Sam Philips is largely unknown, so the persona’s not as clear as, say, Elvis Presley or Johnny Cash. You have to go by what’s in the script.

Sam was a southern boy from Memphis, Tennessee. How’s the accent coming along?
Really well, I was practising before you called. I got some dialect coaching at the National Theatre. There are nuances in pitch and delivery; [as] you and I are speaking now, it goes up and down. The Southern States accent is much more limited; vowels tend to flatten out a lot more. So for instance ‘sure’ would come out as ‘shurr’.

What about visual enhancements for the role?
I got my hair cut, but need to shape it into a rock and roll quiff!

Fantasy time: If you could book any member of the quartet for a wedding reception, who would you choose and why?
Haha! That’s a good question. I think it would have to be Jerry Lee Lewis, he would get the party going . . . and he could bring his wives with him!

You’ve had a varied career: Blue Peter, chief scout, actor, director, documentary maker. Is acting still the biggest thrill?
It is when you get a great part. I would still like to do some short telly roles. Mixing stage work with telly is always interesting.

What’s coming up after Million Dollar Quartet?
Starting in November, I’ll be directing a production of Cinderella at the Lighthouse in Poole. Rehearsals for Million Dollar Quartet start on Monday.

Better get off then, let you fine-tune that Memphis twang.

Million Dollar Quartet plays at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch from 25-30 September.

About Brian Penn

Brian Penn
Civil Servant. Brian flirted with drama at school but artistic differences forced a painful separation. At least he knows what his motivation is. Now occupying a safe position in the audience he enjoys all kinds of theatre. He was bitten by the theatrical bug after watching a production of Tommy in his teens. Other passions include films, TV and classic rhythm and blues. He also finds time for quizzes, football and squash. A keen sports fan, his enthusiasm crashes to a halt whenever anyone mentions golf. A musical based on the life of Tiger Woods could be his greatest challenge.