Play fit for heroes

The true horror of the first world war is brought to life in Journey’s End, a stage play which arrives in Norwich. Sarah Hardy talks to Philip Franks about his role of Osborne and the show’s timeless appeal.

Why would anyone want to either see or be in a harrowing exploration of the trench life in the first world war? It's hard to imagine quite how horrendous it must have been – waiting in those dark, cold and wet trenches until it's your turn to go over the top to face an almost certain death.

Thousands of our servicemen, many just teenagers, did just that and much has been written of their courage and the desperate struggles to gain just a few yards of shell-churned mud.

One play that stands as a tribute to this brand of stoical heroism is Journey's End. Written in 1929, while wounds were still fresh, it remains one of the most vivid portrayals of trench life and one that leaves you in no doubt as to how the soldiers suffered.

Revived in the West End last year, it proved to be a surprise hit, possibly as people's minds were sharpened by events in Iraq.

The play follows a group of young men, led by Captain Stanhope, as they prepare for a daring raid across no man's land on the eve of the great German spring offensive of March, 1918. Its realism comes from the fact that it is based on the author's own experiences. RC – Robert Cedric – Sherriff, a former public schoolboy turned soldier, served in the Great War as an officer in the 9th East Surreys.

Philip Franks plays 'Uncle' Osborne, a mature, pipe-smoking schoolmaster who reads Lewis Carroll before his imminent death. Philip, who has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, jumped at the chance to take part in such a dramatic piece. “I'd been in it at school – it's a great play for a boy's school – playing company commander Stanhope. But I had a friend in last year's show and when I went to see him in it, I was knocked sideways,” he says.

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He admits that the play is immensely draining. “It is an emotional piece. You do have to go through it. But it is our job to move you, not ourselves!”

He says the play's strength lies in its simplicity. “It makes people think about the moment-to-moment details, the individual acts of heroism. There's a quiet courage about it all that is very effective.”

Philip says that the play is not anti-war but rather a study of men compelled to fight a pointless battle and heroically doing the “decent thing” under extreme duress. Whether that would happen today is another matter and gives the audience something else to ponder.

He says: “A whole generation was wiped out and it changed the face of the world in every way possible. It was an enormous upheaval – that Edwardian confidence was blown out of the water.”

Philip has never performed in Norwich before and is looking forward to exploring the city a little. “I always try to get out and see the sights when I'm on tour – that's the upside. We have basically three days – Monday's out because we're travelling and often there are matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays so that just leaves the other days. I don't know Norwich but I've heard good reports! But I did hire a boat on the Broads this summer which was very relaxing.”

Philip is well known for his many television roles which include Welsh policeman Sgt Craddock in Heartbeat, that highly-popular Sunday evening series, and tax inspector Charlie Charlton, Catherine Zeta Jones' husband, in the Darling Buds of May.

“Yes, I like to mix stage and television work. They fertilise each other. Television obviously raises your profile but you'd be hard-pushed to find a television script that is as well-written as a stage play. Plays follow a much more vigorous vetting procedure,” he says.

Philip, who was born in Buckinghamshire and spent much of his youth at various air bases as his father was a RAF pilot, is leaving the show after Norwich, explaining: “This is the third cast I've worked with and I've been with the show for about 18 months.”

He jokingly says that he intends to simply sleep for several weeks but in reality he'll be busy, starring alongside Michael Kitchen in an episode of ITV's popular detective series Foyle's War, and appearing on stage in The Tempest.

Away from work, Philip, an Oxford University graduate, is a big fan of quizzes and puzzles. He is a regular in Dictionary Corner on Channel 4's teatime show, Countdown.

“I like inventing quizzes, working with words, working things out,” he says, adding that it's also a great way to pass time when not on stage.

He also enjoys going to the theatre. “Not many actors do, which I always find surprising. There's a whole heap of stuff that I'd like to see so I'll catch up once this tour finishes.” t

t Journey's End opens at Norwich Theatre Royal, on Monday, March 21, and runs until Saturday, March 26. Tickets are from £4. More details on 01603 630000 or

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