A TV favourite drops in for Christie whodunnit

Emma Lee A galaxy of stars takes to the stage at Norwich Theatre Royal in the classic Agatha Christie whodunnit And Then There Were None. Denis Lill tells EMMA LEE about his unconventional route to treading the boards – and what it was like auditioning for one of acting’s all-time greats, Sir Laurence Olivier.

Emma Lee

Ten strangers are lured to a mansion on a remote island off the Devon coast and an unseen voice accuses each of them of having a guilty secret.

Later that evening, one of them is found dead - poisoned by cyanide - but there's no escape as the weather closes in and the guests realise there is a killer among them.

With that scenario in place, the stage is set for one of the queen of crime Agatha Christie's classic whodunnits, And Then There Were None, which opens at the Norwich Theatre Royal on Monday, June 2.

The latest production from theatre impresario Bill Kenwright, the dark thriller's impressive cast list reads like a who's who of stage, screen and television.

It includes the familiar soap faces Alex Ferns (EastEnders baddie Trevor Morgan) and Chloe Newsome (Corrie's Vicky McDonald), Gerald Harper (Adam Adamant Lives), Peter Byrne (Dixon of Dock Green) and top Sixties recording artist Mark Wynter.

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The company also includes accomplished actor Denis Lill, who over the years has become one of TV's best-known character actors thanks to roles in shows such as Doctor Who, Rock Follies, Mapp and Lucia, and Rumpole of the Bailey.

Only Fools and Horses (he played Rodney's father-in-law) and Outside Edge are also among his credits and he's currently playing Mr Rose the pipe-smoking surgeon in ITV's The Royal.

His plummy accent only betrays the merest hint that he was born and grew up in New Zealand - the country his parents emigrated to from Britain in the 1930s.

Denis first trod the boards while serving in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and confesses that it wasn't the idea of seeing his name up in lights that drew him to the stage.

“Well, to be honest, I thought it would be a good way to meet girls,” he laughs. Denis laughs a lot and is a wonderful raconteur.

“I was actually in the air force at the time - a particularly ill-advised career move for me. Rules and regulations don't appeal to me so I used to get into trouble quite a lot. At this time New Zealand didn't really have any professional theatres as such, but it had very good amateur societies. I went along to an audition with a friend and I ended up getting the part. I thought 'this is rather fun - it's not like working at all'. My motives eventually became a bit more serious,” he says.

In 1967 Denis moved to the UK to further his career.

“To a certain extent it was like coming home because I had heard so much about it - my father was from Lincolnshire. But the last thing England needed was another actor,” he says.

Having been impressed - and slightly intimidated - by the quality of the productions in London's West End, Denis cut his teeth and built up his confidence in rep theatre in the provinces, including a stint in Canterbury.

He made a move into television - and while he was working on the soap Crossroads, he received a call from his agent offering him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“It was literally poo your pants time,” he says. “My agent called me to say that I had an audition at the National Theatre and I had to audition in front of Laurence Olivier, who was a particular hero of mine. The idea of meeting the man in the flesh - and I wasn't long off the boat from New Zealand. I didn't feel like I was ready to make that enormous leap. I read a classical piece and a modern piece and I was ushered into the room. He gave me a few ideas to play around with - it was amazing to have a masterclass with him. That was quite a moment,” he says.

Funnily enough, auditions haven't seemed anywhere near as scary since.

As well as being a familiar face on the small screen, Denis has appeared in films including The Eagle Has Landed, Batman, Evita, Mrs Dalloway, Empire of the Sun and Richard III.

Does he have a particular favourite medium?

“When you play a role sometimes you get that combination of the right part with the right company and the right script. Mr Rose, who I play in The Royal, is a gift to an actor,” he says.

“But there's something about the theatre. No two nights are the same. You are saying the same words but the audiences are different. Some sit there with their arms crossed and some enter into the fun,” he adds.

So, what should audiences expect from his character in And Then There Were None. The unexpected, it seems.

“Well I can't really tell you anything about him without giving it away,” he says with a knowing laugh.

Guess we'll have to go along and find out for ourselves, then.

And Then There Were None is at the Norwich Theatre Royal from June 2-7. Shows start at 7.30pm, and there are matinees on the Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets cost from £6 to £20.50. Box office: 01603 630000 or you can book online at www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk.