Olivia Coleman. Griff Rhys Jones, Clive Owen and Ralph Fiennes among the 25 greatest actors from Suffolk and Norfolk
- Credit: Bill Smith - Archant
The death last weekend of East Anglian acting legend John Hurt brought home the fact that we have so many talented stars of stage and screen living on our doorstep.
Arts editor Andrew Clarke and local arts providers nominate 25 of our greatest acting stars, people who help put Suffolk and Norfolk on the cultural map
1. Sir John Hurt
One of Britain's acting giants. He lived in north Norfolk and was a staunch supporter of Sheringham Little Theatre, appeared in productions made by Holt-based Capriol Films, was patron of Cinema City in Norwich and became the first chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts.
He made his name on film and TV, making his screen debut in Z Cars but his performance as Quentin Crisp in the groundbreaking The Naked Civil Servant made him a star quickly followed by memorable starring roles in I,Claudius, Alien, The Elephant Man, White Mischief, Scandal and as Winston Smith in 1984. His role as Ollivander in the Harry Potter films made a greater impression than his limited screen time would suggest.
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Although, he was largely a screen actor he had tremendous success on stage in Chekhov's The Seagull as well as Brian Friel's Checkhov-inspired Afterplay and Samuel Beckett's solo masterpiece Krapp's Last Tape.
2. Sir John Mills
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Sir John Mills was a true East Anglian. Born to a school master in Belton, near Great Yarmouth, he grew up in Felixstowe and worked briefly for corn merchants Pauls in Ipswich before following his sister Annette to London to seek fame and fortune in such films as In Which We Serve, Scott of the Antarctic, Ice Cold in Alex and Ryan's Daughter. He retained fond memories of his life in Suffolk and leant his name to the home of Eastern Angles theatre company.
Artistic director Ivan Cutting remembers meeting him: 'I only met him once, when he came down to University College Suffolk (as it was then), with his friend the actress Dulcie Gray, since his wife was too ill to travel, to be awarded his honorary degree. Off stage as we had dinner he was quiet and clearly a frail old man, but on stage he was marvellous, thrilling the audience with great anecdotes and name dropping like mad.
As we left to go and have a look at the theatre in Gatacre Road named after him, he walked slowly through the college towards his car, a magnificent Rolls Royce, parked outside, which his manager was driving. But as we approached it he suddenly came alive again and started telling me how he'd got the car. I got that for £5,000 he said. His eyes sparkled and he chuckled at the deal he'd pulled off so many years before. And that was what made him such a good and popular actor, to be both a star and also have the common touch.'
3. Bill Nighy
Bill Nighy, a big supporter of the HighTide theatre festival, has a bolt hole in the Suffolk countryside just outside Saxmundham. A terrific character actor he spent many years working at the Liverpool Everyman and at The National Theatre with Ken Campbell. He found fame later in his career when he found himself cast in film and TV productions.
He can be spotted at cultural events in and around Suffolk and has a great supporter in Leiston Film Theatre's Wayne Burns. 'We love the warmth of Bill Nighy at Leiston Film Theatre and it's always a buzz when he is appearing on our screen, especially as he is one of our patrons.
'For me, it's Bill's memorable performance as washed-up pop singer Billy Mack in Love Actually that sticks in my mind, directed by Suffolk resident Richard Curtis, - another regular visitor to the Film Theatre. The audience clearly enjoyed his on screen antics in that film and in the Exotic Marigold films too.'
4. Diana Quick
Diana Quick has been a Suffolk resident for more than 30 years and is heavily involved in East Anglian cultural life. She has been a patron for the HighTide theatre festival when it was based in Halesworth and appeared in two new plays Midnight Your Time and The Big Meal.
Best known for playing Lady Julia Flyte in the landmark television production of Brideshead Revisited, she is still a regular on screen and on stage. Recent TV includes The Missing and The Living and the Dead.
She is on the board of directors for Aldeburgh Cinema as well as being the artistic director for the long-running Aldeburgh Documentary Festival.
5. Sir Michael Gambon
Stalwart of the The National Theatre, famed for his roles in The Singing Detective, Maigret, and more recently as Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film series, Michael Gambon has enjoyed a quiet life away from the spotlight on the Suffolk coast.
Although he has had high profile screen roles like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, he has spent most of his career on stage in plays like Harold Pinter's Betrayal and working alongside Sir Laurence Olivier at The Old Vic.
In 2012 he played a leading role in Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut with Quartet, based on the same-titled play by Ronald Harwood.
6. Martin Shaw
Judge John Deed star, Martin Shaw has been a long-time Norfolk resident living just yards away from his partner in two separate houses.
The former Professionals, The Chief and Inspector George Gently star has gained fame for his TV series but has made a conscious effort to balance this with stage work. His portrayal of Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde saw him follow the long-running production from The Globe on the Southbank to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, a theatre he returned to as Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons.
Martin Shaw keeps a low profile in Norfolk, seeking out the peace and quiet of country living.
7. Griff Rhys Jones
A champion of country living and community life, Griff Rhys Jones has lived outside Ipswich for the best part of 30 years and is fiercely protective of the natural heritage to be found in the Suffolk countryside. He was a major voice in the fight to get high voltage power cables buried underground rather than marching across Constable Country.
He first came to prominence as a member of the ensemble who brought Not The Nine O'Clock News to our screens before forging a long-running partnership with Mel Smith which gave rise to the long-running TV series Alas Smith and Jones as well as two feature films Morons from Outer Space and Wilt.Elsewhere he founded the Talkback TV production company as well as being a campaigner for restoring classic theatres, old buildings and preserving our waterways which was reflected in his TV series Three Men in a Boat.
On stage he won Olivier awards for his roles in Charley's Aunt (1984) and An Absolute Turkey (1994). He also appeared at the National Theatre as Toad in Alan Bennett's production of The Wind in the Willows in 1990 and starred as Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh's acclaimed production of Oliver! in London's West End opposite fellow Suffolk performer Kerry Ellis.
8. June Brown
EastEnders legend June Brown was first seen as Dot Cotton on Albert Square in July 1985. Dot was a sanctimonious, interfering busybody with a wayward son, Nick, who tried on more than one occasion to bump off his 'ma'.
Over the years, Dot has become an iconic character, one of the touchstones of EastEnders. Born in Needham Market, June Brown went to primary school in Ipswich and then to Ipswich High School before training for the stage.
Although Dot Cotton has softened such is Brown's acting ability that she has always given us a wonderfully consistent and believable characterization. The actress celebrates her 90th birthday later this month.
9. Helen Fraser
Helen Fraser first came to the public's attention in the hit film Billy Liar opposite Tom Courtenay, who she trained alongside at RADA. She played Billy's prim and proper girlfriend Barbara while he dreamed of running away with the more free-spirited Liz, played by Julie Christie. Following Billy Liar Helen was cast in Roman Polanski's swinging sixties horror film Repulsion alongside Catherine Deneuve and Ian Hendry.
Helen moved to Suffolk in 1969 with Oscar-winning sound-recordist husband Peter Handford who she met on Billy Liar when he loaned her his coat during freezing location filming. During the 1970s she was a regular on the Dick Emery show and kept busy with guest appearance on The Two Ronnies, The Likely Lads, Rising Damp, Casualty and One Foot in the Grave.
She has also had two runs in Coronation Street. But, her career took on another lease of life when she was cast as head warder Sylvia Hollamby 'Bodybag' in the long-running prison drama Bad Girls, a role which she reprised on stage in Bad Girls: The Musical.
10. David Morrissey
David Morrissey is one of the nation's most versatile actors. Married to author Esther Freud, he lives on the Suffolk coast near Southwold. He has just enjoyed a sell-out London run in Hangmen by Martin McDonagh which followed the life of Harry Wade, England's second-best hangman, and what he did after the abolition of hanging in Great Britain in 1965.
In his early career Morrissey always balanced theatre with television and film work but recently he started working more on screen in such series as Finney, where he assumed the role originated by Sting in Stormy Monday, along with high profile roles in Our Mutual Friend, Hiliary and Jackie, State of Play and Captain Corelli's Mandolin. He even played an alternative Doctor in a Christmas Dr Who with David Tennant.
In addition to his acting work, David Morrissey is also writing and directing a series of independent films. In an interview he said that he feels a weight lifting from his shoulders when driving along the A12 to Suffolk. 'Once I get past Chelmsford I feel that I am coming home.'
11. Sam Clemmett
Sam Clemmett is a rising star who cut his acting teeth in Norwich and is now starring in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End. John Bultitude, from Norwich Theatre Royal, remembers the young actor. 'A great depth of acting ability and characterisation always helped Sam stand out and has helped him carve out a hugely successful career.
Although he is currently wowing West End audiences in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Sam has enjoyed a very varied acting career and a versatility that has seen him play everything from a sinister stalker in the emotionally-wringing BBC3 drama Murder Games: The Life and Death of Brock Bednar to gracing the Norwich Theatre Royal stage in a cameo role in the family musical The Wind In The Willows.
Coupled with his undoubted skill and stage-craft is a dedication to his work and an off-stage charm which are only going to enhance his career and range of roles in the weeks, months and years ahead.'
12. Roger Lloyd Pack
The Only Fools and Horses star wasn't born in East Anglia but he fell in love with Norfolk after working at Melton Constable Hall on the film The Go Between in 1970. His friend, film-maker Tony Britten, who directed him in the Cromer-set film In Love With Alma Cogan, explained: 'When shooting The Go Between they found a house in the woods for him to stay at, rather than a hotel, and he just fell in love with Norfolk and decided to stay here. It really was love at first sight for him.'
A versatile character actor his career took him from small-part supporting player in Hammer horror films of the 50s and 60s to appearing in the Harry Potter films, but he was best known as Trigger in Only Fools and Horses and as Owen Newitt in The Vicar of Dibley.
'He was such a wonderful, well-rounded actor and I thought it would be great to see him in a leading role, rather than in a comedic supporting role, which he was so good at,' said Mr Britten of his In Love With Alma Cogan leading role of Norman. 'He was great to work with and was professional to the fingertips. Off set he was very 'un-actorly.' He was happy to just go for a beer. He wasn't a luvvie.'
13. The Nimmo Twins
Norfolk natives The Nimmo Twins - neither twins or called Nimmo and technically three: Join Owen Evans, Karl Minns and Nigel Woolston - have been delighting Norwich audiences for over 20 years with their Normal For Norfolk shows.
Sam Moreno, from Norwich Playhouse, said: 'The three teamed up after working together in local theatre groups in Norwich and from humble beginnings in pub bars and foyers they've become an essential feature of East Anglian life, enjoying sold-out residencies at their spiritual home the Playhouse as well as selling out the Theatre Royal.
With a stable of characters taking a sideways look at life in Nelson's County, the Twins have conquered the national comedy circuit, TV and radio. Their finely observed comedy is full of rural ribaldry and agricultural arsing about with songs, monologues and sketches riffing on everything from Norwich City Football Club to the difficulties of staging a bicycle race in Norfolk.'
14. Olivia Coleman
Olivia Coleman is the face of modern television, appearing on everything from Channel Four's Peepshow to 2012, W1A and Broachurch to the films London Road, Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur, Simon Pegg's Hot Fuzz, The Iron Lady and the big budget Queen Elizabeth in Hyde Park on Hudson.
Douglas Robb, headmaster at Gresham's School, near Holt, Norfolk, says staff and pupils take a great pride in watching a former student achieve great things in her chosen profession.'Every time it's announced that former Gresham's pupil, Olivia Colman has taken on a new role, there's a wave of excitement at the school. From days where peers talked about her performances in school productions long after the curtain closed to her much anticipated return as DS Miller in ITV's Broadchurch, Olivia has always excited, intrigued and inspired her audience.
'During her time at Gresham's she was noted for her versatility, determination and unassuming hard work, qualities that have seen her go on to become one of the country's best loved and respected actresses. And when Hollywood actress Meryl Streep, during her BAFTA award acceptance speech for Carol, described Olivia as 'divinely gifted', we couldn't have agreed more.'Olivia had since credited Gresham's and former head of drama, Paul Hands for her love of acting noting that she was encouraged 'to have a crack at' what she enjoyed. We are so delighted that Olivia did have a crack at it and feel immensely proud of her for all she has gone on to achieve.'
15. Ralph Fiennes
One of the greatest actors of his generation Ralph Fiennes is also one of the busiest – hurtling between playing Shakespeare on stage with the National Theatre and the RSC to conjuring up pure evil as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films.
Born in Wangford, near Southwold, into a very creative family – his father was a photographer, mother Jennifer Lash, a writer, his brother Joseph is an actor, Magnus is a composer, Jacob a conservationist while sisters Martha and Sophie are both film-makers.
He lived for his first six years in Suffolk before the family moved to Ireland. His great love is Shakespeare and his directorial debut was bringing Coriolanus to the big screen. Other great film moments include playing Amon Göth in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, Count László Almásy in The English Patient, Justin Quayle in John Le Carre's The Constant Gardener and his award-winning Monsieur Gustave H in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
15. John Le Mesurier
John Le Mesurier was born within sight of Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal and alongside the brewing operations of Greene King, two things which would have pleased him very much. John Le Mesurier was part of Britain's acting establishment for many years appearing alongside Tony Hancock in his television shows and on screen in British comedies with the likes of Peter Sellers, Eric Sykes and Terry Thomas.
He was often accused of playing himself but he had rare gift of making acting look easy. He found huge fame playing the incredibly relaxed Sergeant Wilson in the TV classic Dad's Army and writer-director David Croft said that as the years progressed the dividing line between Arthur Wilson and John Le Mesurier just evaporated.
Although he was sent away to boarding school as a young child, filming Dad's Army in Thetford and west Suffolk must have seemed like a return home.
16. Ian Lavender (Pike from Dad's Army lives at Woolpit) (Theatre Royal)
John Le Mesurier's Dad's Army co-star Ian Lavender lives just outside Bury St Edmunds and is a keen supporter of the Theatre Royal as well as having played there. Danusia Iwaszko, Ian's director who worked with him in Bury and on tour, says: 'I directed Ian Lavender as Tommy in a tour of You're Never Too Old by Steve Wood (AB Productions).
During the rehearsals, it was a revelation to see the character of Tommy emerge.
He worked on intuition, tried different approaches week by week, until he had created a perfectly formed character which he played with ease. He brings natural comedy timing, real talent and very high standards to everything he does.'
17. Paul Eddington
Good Life and Yes Prime Minister star Paul Eddington lived for many years outside Sudbury in west Suffolk. His son, Dominic, a carpenter, still lives in the county and is reponsible for a large number of sets which appear on stage in the region's theatres.
Paul was a jobbing actor mixing theatre and guest roles on television until his 40s when he landed the role of Jerry in the classic sit-com The Good Life opposite Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal and Penelope Keith. This turned into a major star and led onto Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. During his TV career he found time to play Sir Paul Plyant in the Restoration Comedy The Double Dealer at the Wolsey Theatre.
It was a return to Ipswich having played a season as a young actor at the old Arts Theatre in the town.
18. Stephen Fry
Norfolk resident and cultural icon, Stephen Fry is a writer, actor, campaigner, presenter, his grandfather came to Britain establish the sugar beet factory at Bury St Edmunds. Although born in London, Fry grew up in the village of Booton near Reepham, Norfolk, before attending various boarding schools and having a troubled childhood.
He made friends with Hugh Laurie at Cambridge University and with Emma Thompson was part of the Cambridge Footlights. After leaving university he and High Laurie continued a creative partnership resulting in the TV shows A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster and worked on Blackadder together. After going their separate ways, Stephen had a breakdown during the run of the stage play Cell Mates and largely avoided stage work for many years afterwards but enjoyed a successful return in Twelfth Night at The Globe in 2012.
He makes frequent guest appearance on film and TV and from 2003 to 2015 became the presenter of quiz show QI. He lives outside Kings Lynn.
19. Sam Claflin
Pirates of the Caribbean and Hunger Games actor Sam Claflin was born in Ipswich and was raised and went to school in Norwich. David Lambert, director of the Norwich Theatre Royal Arts Courses, remembers the charismatic young actor's first steps on stage.
'I always remember that Sam was more interested in football than acting when he first started on the course.
We moulded him and worked with him and he became one of the course's leading lights playing a number of leading roles including Fagin in Dodger. 'He was great on stage but there is no doubt the camera loves him. He has got presence and personality which just jumps through the cinema screen at you. I am very proud of him and how well he has done. It is so great that a lad from Costessey can make it big like Sam.'
20. Joan Hickson
Miss Marple lived just outside Manningtree and was a frequent visitor to the Wolsey Theatre and to the Mercury in Colchester. Joan had a long-lived career that spanned cutting drama on stage, appearing in hard-hitting plays like A Day In The Death of Joe Egg, to being a sem-regular character actor in the early Carry On films.
She was particularly memorable as the acid tongued matron in Carry On Nurse and the inebriated old lady in Carry On Constable. But, it was as Miss Marple, the definitive Miss Marple many may say, that she became a household name.
She never over-played the role and took great pains to make the character seem real. She was a huge supporter of local theatre and enthusiastically told me one evening at the Wolsey. 'I always like coming here. There's no such thing as a poor seat. You can always see everything.' Which for an actor is always important.
21. Clive Owen
Hollywood star Clive Owen loves the local life. A patron and huge supporter of the Harwich Electric Palace, the second oldest purpose built cinema in the country, loves to just turn up with his family, watch a movie and disappear again.
He lives quietly in the wilds of north Essex and has said that a rural life with his family keeps him grounded in the topsy turvey world of big budget TV and movies. He first shot to fame in the ITV series Chancer before landing lead roles in high profile movies such as Stephen Poliakoff's Close My Eyes, Croupier, Gosford Park, Sin City, Inside Man and Children of Men.
Since 2014, Owen has played Dr. John W. Thackery on the award-winning medical drama series The Knick.
22. Ruthie Henshall
Stage star Ruthie Henshall lived in Lawford, outside Manningtree for many years before moving deeper into the Suffolk countryside and finding a new home outside Hadleigh.
West End star Ruthie made her name in Cats before landing leading roles in Miss Saigon and in the so-called early 'dream' cast of Les Miserables. She also played Nancy in Oliver opposite Jonathan Pryce before landing her own star vehicles in Peggy Sue Got Married and Marguerite. She also co-starred alongside John Barrowman in Stephen Sondheim's Putting It Together in New York.
Her biggest success came in Chicago where she played both leads, Velma and Roxie, both in the West End and on Broadway. She has just finished an extended run as Mrs Wilkinson in Stephen Daldry's award-winning stage musical Billy Elliott.
23. Kerry Ellis
Kerry Ellis is proof that sometimes the understudy can steal the limelight. Born and raised in Haughley, outside Stowmarket, Kerry was Martine McCutcheon's understudy in the National Theatre's production of My Fair Lady and was on stage playing the role of Eliza Doolittle when Queen guitarist Brian May was in the audience.
Brian was in the early stages of developing We Will Rock You as a West End musical. Impressed with Kerry's voice and stage presence he invited her to audition, she won the role of Meat and spent three years in the show before moving onto become the first English actress to play Elphaba in the West End production of Wicked – playing the role for a further three years.
This was followed by playing Nancy in Oliver at Drury Lane opposite Griff Rhys Jones before establishing a solo singing career which she alternates with stage roles. She has just finished a London run of the new musical Murder Ballad and is currently touring in a new musical Wonderland in which she plays Alice.
24. Jane Lapotaire
A former Northgate High School student in Ipswich, Jane was a contempoary of Trevor Nunn at the school. Trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the 1960s, it was her performance in the title role of Marie Curie in 1977 that first brought her to wide attention.
In 1978 she performed the title role in Pam Gems's play Piaf, directed by Howard Davies for the Royal Shakespeare Company, in Stratford-upon-Avon and then at the Warehouse Theatre, Covent Garden in 1979.
Two years later, the show moved to Broadway where Lapotaire won the Tony Award for Leading Actress in a play. In later years she started to balance acting with writing. In Everybody's Daughter, Nobody's Child, she talks of her childhood growing up in Levington Road, Ipswich. In 2000, while working in France, Lapotaire suffered a cerebral haemorrhage which became the subject of her book Time Out of Mind.
25. Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill is one of the dominant figures in contemporary British character acting. He moves seamlessly between independent British films and Hollywood epics. He is equally accepted as Yosser Hughes in Boys From The Blackstuff, King Théoden in Lord of the Rings or as Captain Edward J. Smith in Titanic.
Living quietly between Halesworth and Lowestoft, Bernard Hill fell in love with Suffolk while filming Drowning By Numbers at Thorpeness and decided to stay. He is a big supporter of HighTide theatre festival and as artistic director Steven Atkinson remembers helped give the fledgling event some professional clout. 'Think of Bernard Hill and you probably picture The Lord of the Rings, Titanic or Boys from the Blackstuff. He is also a passionate East Anglian, and in particular a champion for local arts.
Bernard appeared in the 2010 HighTide Festival under the direction of a newcomer called Joe Murphy. Bernard was right to trust him; Joe is now directing Star Wars' John Boyega in Woyzeck at the Old Vic. Bernard was one of the first to champion the need for ongoing arts coverage in the East Anglian Daily Times. For that and much more, Suffolk arts leaders are all grateful to him.'
Nominate your top East Anglian actors using the comments section below.