George Rainsford is really excited, he says. He’s touring the UK in a new production of Peter James’s thriller, Wish You Were Dead, adapted from his best-selling book, and he couldn’t be happier.
In it, he plays Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. “I haven’t been on-stage for about 10 years,” George tells Richard Barber, “so it’s good to be part of an ensemble again.”
This absence from the boards is explained by the nine years – some 300 episodes in all – he spent playing Ethan Hardy in BBC1’s Casualty. Before that, in the first two series of Call the Midwife, he was Jessica Raine’s unfaithful boyfriend, Jimmy Wilson.
After the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, George gravitated to theatre work. “I’ve always enjoyed the live element of doing a play, the audience reaction, the adrenalin it generates and so on. And the reaction we are getting from audiences so far on the tour has been amazing. They seem to be loving it!”
George Rainsford Plays Roy Grace in Wish You Were Dead
He auditioned for the key role of Roy Grace last August. “It’s a fantastic role, something I can really get my teeth into.” As a result, he’s been reading author Peter James’s back catalogue of murder mysteries – “always so beautifully plotted” – and watching the first two television series of GRACE with actor John Simm playing the eponymous policeman.
The TV series was an immediate success with audiences when it launched on ITV in 2021, with almost nine million viewers tuning in to watch the primetime drama. Series two returned to TV screens in spring 2022, with five more episodes being the most watched programme across all channels on each of the Sundays they were broadcast. A third successful series has just finished on ITV.
The twist in Wish You Were Dead is that Roy is on holiday in France with his wife, Cleo, and their baby. “He’s not working. But when a crime boss, Curtis, is released from prison, he’s a man desperate to take revenge on the policeman who got him incarcerated. So, crime comes looking for Grace.”
Is it scary? “I hope so. Roy has to use all his wits to ensure his loved ones come to no harm. It’s full of surprises. I think audiences like being scared. Hearing the audience jump and gasp each night is great! But it’s also great fun – there’s quite a bit of dark comedy that audiences are really enjoying”
Will it involve fisticuffs? “Oh yes, a bit of that and possibly some bodies although I’m not about to give the game away.”
George knows about pretend-fighting. In a play at the RSC in 2009, he was required to look as though he’d landed a punch in a bar room brawl on fellow actor Luke Norris. Except that, on one occasion, he misjudged the swing and made heavy contact with his assailant.
“The result was that I hit him in the mouth with enough force for his teeth to puncture his lip and take a chunk out of the joint on my fist. He looked worse than me but I ended up in hospital for a week.”
Wish You Were Dead kicked off a major tour of the UK at the Churchill in Bromley mid-February 16 and won’t finish until July 25 in Woking, twenty-three locations later. It plays Cardiff’s New Theatre from May 16-20.
This is the sixth stage adaptation of Peter James’s novels, making it the most successful crime thriller theatrical franchise since Agatha Christie.
Previous James novels brought to the stage include: ‘Looking Good Dead’ starring Adam Woodyatt and Gaynor Faye; ‘The House on Cold Hill‘ with Joe McFadden and Rita Simons in 2019; ‘Not Dead Enough‘ starring Shane Richie and Laura Whitmore in 2017; ‘Dead Simple‘ with Tina Hobley in 2015 and ‘The Perfect Murder‘ starring Les Dennis and Claire Goose in 2014.
“I’m really enjoying visiting places I’ve never been before,” says an enthusiastic George. “I’m only able to get home once a week or Sunday wash day, as I call it.”
He’s worked with Clive Mantle before; both were in a Doctor Who audio drama. “And then there was an edition of Pointless Celebrities featuring actors who’d been in Casualty.
“As I’m sure he’ll be only too happy to point out, I was kicked off at the end of the first round and he and his partner went on to win.”
Nor does Clive disappoint. “I thrashed him roundly on Pointless,” he says, eyes glinting. “I left him snivelling in the dirt. I’ve won Pointless twice, as it happens. I’ve half a mind to pin my Pointless trophies to my dressing room door as we tour the UK to wind George up.”
Clive Mantle Plays Curtis in Wish You Were Dead
Clive fell in love with his character, Curtis, he says, as soon as he read the script of Wish You Were Dead. “And I speak as someone who used to hide behind the sofa as a youngster when the theme music of Doctor Who struck up.”
Fun to play a baddie, though? “Oh yes. He’s been the head of a mob based in Brighton, an old-fashioned family villain with his own set of values. He has a personal moral code which covers slitting your throat without a second’s thought. And don’t you dare say anything bad to his mum.”
Curtis also has a lovely turn of phrase, says Clive. “He’s very sharp, very sarcastic, often very funny. I’ve enjoyed making the audience laugh – they seem to quite like Curtis, despite his criminal intent, but I do also like to frighten the audience at some points in the evening!”
Nor is the story left open-ended. “People like to try and solve the clues ahead of the action but, either way, they want a satisfying resolution at the end of play.”
He’s very happy to be involved in a project with Peter James’s name attached to it. “Go into any bookshop and half the crime section seems to be taken up with his books.”
In a career covering some 45 years, Clive has played everything from poor lumbering Lenny in Of Mice and Men (“seven times now, I think”) to longstanding cast member, surgeon Mike Barratt, in both Casualty and Holby.
He was a recurring character, Simon Horton, in the Vicar of Dibley and, more recently, he was seen in another light comedy, White Van Man, opposite Will Mellor, a big success on Strictly last year.
“I played his dad and he taught me a lot about comedy. But then, I taught him everything he knows about dancing,” he says, tongue firmly in cheek.
While on tour, Clive is also using any downtime to write the latest in his series of historical adventures for children aged from about eight upwards, each book based around a major event: the Great Fire of London, for instance, or the conquering of Everest. His leading characters are time travellers able to pop up wherever whenever.
Katie McGlynn as Cleo in Wish You Were Dead
From May 2 in Leeds, the part of Cleo will be taken by TV star and award-winning actor, Katie McGlynn, best known from The Syndicate, Waterloo Road and most particularly via her seven-year stint as Sinead Tinker in Coronation Street.
This is the first time she’ll have worked in the theatre. “I am quite nervous but also super eager to get started because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. And what better place to start than with a Peter James play? As soon as I read the script, I completely fell in love with it and the character Cleo.
“I’m excited. My career was born and bred on TV but on stage, you get to tell the story in the right order, something that rarely happens on television.”
On the other hand, if you make a mistake when filming a TV show, you can do it again. Not in the theatre. “That’s right it’s a completely different beast. There’re no second takes so you’ve got to get it right the first time! That’s what rehearsals are for. So yes, it’s nerve-wracking but that’s what adds to the excitement of a live performance”.
“When I left Corrie, I deliberately pursued things I’d never done before. That’s why I accepted the invitation to appear on Strictly. “It was a once in a lifetime experience I’ll never forget and I’ve made some friends for life.”
The tour is also an opportunity to work with seasoned actors like George and Clive. “I know I’m going to learn so much from both of them.” She’s also been talking to Giovanna Fletcher who played the role of Cleo on the first leg of the tour. “It’s been great getting to know Giovanna, she’s lovely! It’s just a shame we can’t both be in the show at the same time.”
Given the last two or three roller coaster years, says Katie, the role of theatre has never been more important. “The feeling you get being part of a live audience, the goosebumps that run up and down your arms, doesn’t happen at home in front of the telly.
“You get completely engrossed in a story, taken into a different world. In Wish You Were Dead, Grace and Cleo have tried to get a short break from their world and gone away on holiday, only to find that crime and trouble still follow them. I’m so looking forward to performing in front of people around the country and hopefully helping them forget about their own troubles for a couple of hours.
“This may sound a bit cheesy, but I can’t wait to be part of that magical experience.”
- For ticket availability visit Cardiff New Theatre’s website.