It is twelve-thirty on a cold and rainy Tuesday afternoon. Myself and renowned, though far from famous, former-Shakespearean actor, Gideon Ford, are sat in the Salisbury pub in St Martin’s Lane in Covent Garden. Ford is appearing at the nearby Piccadilly Theatre as a singing racecourse bookmaker in the musical Jersey Boys – a far cry from his critically acclaimed Hamlet at the National Theatre in 1987. But perhaps even further removed from his Sunday night TV appearances in front of millions in the 1990s and the first decade and half of the new Millennium. Because despite the lack of fame associated with his name, and despite the change in hair style and the absence of some trademark headgear, look closer and Ford’s is a face familiar to the nation, albeit in an unexpected context. Because for twenty years Ford played the character of West Country Field Archaeologist Phil Harding in Channel 4’s Time Team.
‘It was one of the most closely guarded secrets in showbiz,’ the sixty-five year old actor reveals with a smile, his words enunciated in a voice as rich as Christmas pudding smothered in brandy butter. ‘Like Philip Schofield’s wig and Terry Wogan’s third nipple. Even now, a lot of people still don’t realize that Time Team was what the TV bods call ‘scripted reality’.’
Ford takes a slug of his gin and tonic as I ask him to clarify what he means.
‘Well, darling, in some ways, it was a sort of TOWIE of its day – but for intelligent people. It was constructed from part fact, part fiction,’ Ford says, leaning back expansively in the booth. ‘Though a damn sight better than TOWIE or Geordie Whores shite – what a set of smug, unaware, vacuous twats, they are. But, despite all the smoke and mirrors, at the heart of Time Team was a genuine dig,’ Ford stresses, holding up an index finger. ‘They just had the idea of a few of us Thesps being chucked in to add some colour.’
Starting in 1994, Time Team ran for twenty series, before – much to the dismay of its millions of fans and Ford’s agent – the show was abruptly cancelled in 2013. Each week the programme would visit a different archaeological site and attempt to excavate it in just three days, with main anchor, Tony Robinson, providing an everyman’s overview of how matters were progressing. But most viewers never suspected that the programme was – at least in part – a fabrication.
‘We had to sign a whole raft of confidentiality clauses,’ Ford reveals. ‘It felt like I’d been recruited by MI5. I remember Carenza Lewis – who was really a magician’s assistant – mentioned something to TV Quick magazine about the time she got sawn in half by Paul Daniels during a summer season at the Great Yarmouth pier – and they dropped her quicker than you could say “Byzantine stirrup cup”.’
According to Ford the part attracted the attention of some big names.
‘After the first round of auditions it was either going to be me or McKellan. And I know Taffy Perkins had gone up for it but was told they didn’t see Phil as a shouty Welshman who kept slapping his head.’ Ford shakes his head at the idea. ‘So it was me or Mac. I thought I’d got one over the old queen when I bagged the job until he got the role of Gandalf and a knighthood. And me? I got Tony Robinson and chilblains from a weekend in the pissing down rain in Lincolnshire,’ the actor grumbled with a shrug. ‘But, hey, that’s show business.’
The actor explained how the programme was put together: ‘Tony had a basic script which he worked from, which was obviously quite fluid depending on what was coming out of the ground, and the rest of us fed off that. But most of it was ad-libbed, real improv, Jacques Copeau, Whose line is it, anyway? stuff. Unfortunately, due watershed restrictions, some of the best lines ended up on the cutting room floor.’
Ford recounts an exchange between him and Robinson which the Channel 4 censors deemed unfit to go out. ‘It was in the late 90s,’ Ford elucidates, ‘and they were a bit twitchy after Shaun Ryder from the Happy Mondays dropped a couple of ‘C’ bombs on live TV. They watched this exchange between myself and Tony where we were riffing about “getting dirty in a wet trench” and had a fit.’
With another gin and tonic delivered to the table, Ford continues his revelations.
‘All of the digging was done by genuine archaeologists – clever people who really knew what they were doing – most of whom never appeared on screen. And then I’d shuffle out of the trailer into the rain and jump into the trench just before the cameras got rolling to give the viewer something a bit more interesting to look at and listen to.’
The face is obviously the same, but the closely shorn grey hair with hints of black jars with what I expect to see. ‘I used to wear a syrup,’ Ford confirms, giving his shaved noggin a rub. ‘Salisbury sunset, I called it,’ he remarks with a fruity chuckle.
Ford describes his Phil Harding creation to be a cross between Long John Silver, Indiana Jones and Pam Ayres. ‘The part was a gift to play,’ the actor enthuses.
But unused to the kind of academic scrutiny that the programme attracted, it was a steep learning curve for the London-born actor. ‘I knew bugger all about archaeology before I got the job,’ he confesses. ‘Consequently I took a lot of flak from the archaeological community about the fact I was a right-hander using a left-handed trowel in the first series,’ he reveals. ‘School boy error. When Channel 4 gave us the thumbs up for a second series, the producer (Tim Taylor) sent me on a one-dayer to Lambeth Tech. They gave me a grounding in the basics. I even got a certificate.’
I ask what the hardest part of playing Harding was. ‘Apart from the British weather and Guy de la Bédoyère’s (NB. real name Gary Thistlethwaite) constant demands for re-takes?’ Ford shakes his head. ‘Any fucker who takes ninety-five goes to say “Neolithic hill fort” deserves their equity card taking off them,’ the actor reminisces bitterly. ‘Apart from those two irritants, the worst thing about Time Team was probably the beer,’ he says, screwing up his face. ‘I’m not a fan of the stuff. But it fitted the character of Phil. I couldn’t see him slaking his thirst after a day hacking through clayey alluvium on a glass of G and T, a Pinto Grigio or a nice Chablis, any one of which would have been my own choice. I tried to go with cider – which is a West Country as combine harvesters and racism – but I took one sip when we were digging a villa site and chucked my guts into a finds tray. All over some pieces of Roman mosaic and a Medieval poesy ring. I can’t stand the bloody stuff. So we compromised with best bitter.’
And what did Ford think was the secret of the show’s success and its longevity?
‘It made for good company. It was a character-based show, pitched at the post-Sunday lunch audience. People sprawled on their sofas after a big roast dinner who wanted something interesting to veg out in front of. We were a convivial bunch and took you to some interesting places. But I don’t think that any of us thought it had the legs that it proved to have. However, Tony had the foresight and pragmatism to keep the show successful. He was a realist and knew we needed bums on seats if we were going to keep getting recommissioned by the suits. He came up with some marvellous ideas to keep the viewer’s interest.’
Hence the troop of female archaeologists who would appear down the years, known to the rest of the crew as ‘Tony’s Angels’.
Ford winks. ‘He got a load of t-shirts printed up with the Time Team logo on them – all the women’s ones that got handed out were a couple of sizes too small.’ Ford shakes his head with a wry smile on his face. ‘Now that’s what I call a cunning plan,’ he remarks, referencing Robinson’s role as Baldrick in the sit-com Blackadder.
And that wasn’t the end of Robinson’s ingenuity. ‘Tony would have a few artefacts up his sleeve. If we were flagging by the third day, Tone would lob the odd Anglo Saxon bracelet or Civil War tunic button into one of the trenches and then kick some muck over it. The next day, we put Bridge or Raksha in a tight top with the neck line plunging down to her belly button, and… hey presto!’
I ask about the rest of the ‘cast’.
‘Francis Pryor was a bloody trooper,’ Ford says, grinning. ‘But he’s been doing the stand-up circuit around Northern Clubs under his stage name – Terry Drumgoon – for years. He was a dream to work with.’ Ford dips his fingers into a packet of scampi Nik-Naks. ‘As a Thesp I really admire comedians,’ he informs me, expanding his admiration of Pryor/Drumgoon. ‘Their conversational rhythm is amazing. People like Chubby Brown and Francis could turn their hand to any acting role. I saw Bernhard Manning once – timing like a Swiss watch; timing that Sir Larry or dear old Johnny G would have slit his throat to acquire. That infectious laugh of Francis’s always had me in creases. We once had to do fifty-four takes of me trying to winkle out the rib bone of a 7th Century monk because Francis kept making me corpse. And you wouldn’t believe how funny he could make the phrase ‘banjo enclosure’ sound.’ A wide smile lights up Ford’s face. ‘It was Francis who got me to say “that’s a lovely mott” to Tony when we were excavating a castle site somewhere or other.’ Ford shakes his head with a wry smile. ‘He’s a cheeky bugger.’
Pryor/Drumgoon’s on-set jollity drive many of the inside gags many Time Team fans have spotted with a sense of disbelief down the years.
‘Francis reckoned that Phil’s West Country diction would mask my words if I chucked a few cheeky substitutions in here and there,’ Ford reveals. ‘I’d lobbed in the odd risqué comment before that – it was almost a catchphrase when on day one of the excavations, before the digger striped the turf, I’d say to Katie Hirst or Jenni Butterworth, ‘come on, let’s have that top off!’ But when Francis joined the team the in-jokes went up a gear. Imagine me pointing down to a trench where Brid is bouncing around and exclaiming: “I think we might have nailed ourselves an Anglo-Saxon whore, Toe-Knee,”’ Ford burrs and suddenly Harding is before us.
I ask about Mick Aston. Surely Mick was a genuine archaeologist?
Ford raises an eyebrow and smiles. ‘Did you ever wonder what happened to Benny from Crossroads…?’ he says cryptically. ‘Mick was the show’s anchor. I liken him to Bet Lynch in the Rovers Return. Those hooped jumpers and woolly hats were a touch of genius.’
When the last show was filmed in the summer of 2013 Ford was allowed to keep one of Phil’s ex-Army surplus pullovers. The feathered hat was Ford’s own. ‘We tried a few alternatives – Salisbury City FC baseball cap, a flat cap, and I even went bare-headed for the pilot – before I spotted ‘Trevor’ (Ford’s affectionate name for the sweaty headgear) on the Portobello Road market one Sunday morning.’
But success comes at a cost. ‘As much as I love, Phil, he’s a bugger to leave behind. Before I got the gig I was a serious actor going places,’ Ford says slightly defensively, ‘My name was often mentioned in the same breath as Kenneth Brannagh, Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicholas Lyndhurst. But it’s the Harold Steptoe syndrome – once you get associated with a strong part, it’s difficult for people to see you as anyone else. All I get these days – particularly in terms of telly work – are offers of cider commercial voiceovers. My agent wanted me to MC for a Wurzels show in Andover last summer. The cheeky fucker. And I spent most of last spring as the arse end of a donkey in a low budget production of War Horse touring secondary schools in North Wales.’
So does Ford have any regrets?
‘Not really,’ he says after a couple of moments thought and another Nik-Nak. ‘The show was good to me. And, to be honest, I do miss the rambunctious, beer-swilling, cantankerous old bugger,’ he confesses.
And what of the internet campaign being ran through social media by Time Team die-hards to bring the programme back? Ford is up for it. ‘Anything to get me out of panto,’ he states glumly. ‘They’ve got me down for six weeks as the Widow Twanky in Barnsley,’ he informs with a shiver.
But if Time Team does make a welcome return to our screens, Ford wants the show to expand its ambitions. ‘Can you imagine Phil digging up the pyramids?’ the actor grins. ‘Or some Aztec temple? Tony could order the girls some skimpy tropical gear. Now that I’d like to see.’ He raises his glass. ‘Ooh-arr!’
Wednesday 3rd February 2016