As the blustering professional northerner Fred Elliott in Corrie Street, John Savident became a national treasure. As he arrives in Norwich to take part in his first opera, he tells Sarah Hardy why telly no longer appeals - but the work of Gilbert and Sullivan does

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As the blustering professional northerner Fred Elliott in Corrie Street, John Savident became a national treasure. As he arrives in Norwich to take part in his first opera, he tells Sarah Hardy why telly no longer appeals - but the work of Gilbert and Sullivan does

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What's the difference between Fred Elliott, that bellicose butcher in Coronation Street, and actor John Savident? Mmm, that's a hard one, especially when Savident is giving something of a red flag warning for journalists wanting to interview him about his new role.

He's arriving in Norwich next week to play Sir Joseph Porter in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta HMS Pinafore. It's something entirely new for him and naturally people want to know about more about it and life after that soap.

The warning came that he'd be prickly. But, as often happens, John turned out to be a bit of a pussy cat when tracked him down to a hotel in Cheltenham, and chattered on happily about this and that - all things apart from that rather notorious incident in 2000 when he was attacked by a man he met in a gay bar in Manchester. The man, Michael Smith, was jailed for seven years and John appeared on telly with a plaster on his neck - where he was stabbed - with the rather coy explanation that he'd had a butchering accident!

But enough of that and on to what John is doing now. And what a great career shift. Now in his 70s, he's taking part in a much loved Gilbert and Sullivan piece, HMS Pinafore, his first ever opera, and boy is he enjoying it!

It's great fun, a real tonic for me. It takes the mickey out of pomp and ceremony and is very, very clever. You can see how it relates to what is happening today - to politicians being in jobs that they know nothing about, he says, adding rather naughtily: Just think of Alistair Darling!

He plays the part of Sir Joseph Porter, the first admiral of the sea, yet knows nothing about the navy. Oops! He is scheduled to marry a young girl, the daughter of the captain of HMS Pinafore but she loves another. And so it goes on, with all the usual fun and frolics you would expect from a frothy G&S piece.

John, who does have Fred Elliott's rather bellowing voice on the phone (and he told me to speak up more than once), does bring a bit of fun to the role, and a bit of Fred's love of pomp and ceremony, too. He also loves wearing the rather extravagant naval costumes!

Yet he admits that it's a real challenge for him, saying: It is a totally different discipline for me. I have to work with a 22-piece orchestra and about 15 classically trained musicians! It's great for me to do something fresh - it keeps me young!

He adds: I hope that people might come to see me, as Fred, but then really enjoy the opera and perhaps think about going to see more. They could spread the word, convert people.

John, who was born in Guernsey, knows our part of the world quite well as he used to do plenty of telly work for Anglia. Well, it was a marvellous place for great drama - think of Survival - the first programme to show wildlife like it really is, not all soft and cuddly. And I was in Weavers Green which was about the first ever soap. It was on twice a week and was very adventurous for the time. We shot on location and I remember the opening sequence had helicopter shot which was very ambitious.

John was also here about 18 months ago when he took the lead role in Hobson's Choice at the Theatre Royal which he enjoyed immensely and gained good reviews, too.

He's highly critical of what television offers these days and reckons that there's no appetite for good drama any more. Even soaps come a second place to reality shows, actors are just not important any more. It's all about becoming a celebrity.

It is just so sad. You cannot compare television to what it was in the 1970s. The BBC is unrecognisable and all those great independent companies such as Anglia and Granada have been all but done away with.

Away from work you won't find John on the golf course or watching football - he isn't much of a sports fan, saying: I used to enjoy sport on the television but it is just too commercial now, I like to listen to music and read books.

After this tour finishes in June, John plans to holiday in Italy, saying: Friends of ours have a very large farmhouse in Umbria, near a lake. You'll find me under an olive tree with a glass of wine. I might nip into Florence but usually I just collapse!

And then, who knows? John believes that he is in the tea time of his career but has no plans to retire!

t HMS Pinafore opens at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, on Tuesday and runs until Saturday. Call 01603 630000 for more details.

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