Lovable Wally: Interview with Lovejoy's Chris Jury

By , Contributor

BBC

(L-R): Lovejoy's Chris Jury, Malcolm Tierney, Phyllis Logan, Dudley Sutton, and Ian McShane

"He wasn't quite as bad as Steve Martin in The Jerk," says Chris Jury when asked to describe his character of Eric Catchpole on the popular BBC dramedy/mystery series Lovejoy (the entire six seasons of which have been released as a collection this week by Acorn TV). "He's innocent and means well, but ineffectual and not full of the social graces. As we say over here in the UK, he's a lovable wally [blockhead]."

Ian McShane plays the title role of an East Anglian antiques dealer who always seems to stumble upon an international con artist, desperate old friend in a fix or the occasional dead body during his searches for valuable bric-a-brac, expensive furniture, and old paintings. Helping (and sometimes hindering) him is a young man named Eric Catchpole whose father is paying Lovejoy to teach his son the tricks of the antiques trade.

Jury obviously looks like his Eric character on Lovejoy but that is where the similarity ends.  While he is a likable, even lovable, guy, the actor is definitely not a wally. Born in Coventry in the English midlands in 1956, Jury was interested in ornithology and other animal studies while growing up, and at one time thought about pursuing a career as a country veterinarian. "The training to be a vet in this country is longer and more difficult than it is to be a doctor," explains Jury, "and the qualifications are quite severe.

"I realized during my first year of G.C.E. [General Certificate of Education] exams that if I carried on doing sciences, which is what I was taking in order to be a vet, I wouldn't get near the required grades needed and would end up with nothing. So I changed in a single weekend from sciences to arts without knowing what I was going to do with it but just knowing if I remained where I was I'd be in big trouble."

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As with many young actors, Jury's interest in the craft was fostered by his involvement with the local youth theater in his home town. "There was a woman called Jill Cable who ran the theater for most of the time I was there," recalls the actor. "She was a fantastic influence on my deciding eventually to go into the arts." Jury found himself at a teacher training college for a year and then in 1976 went on to study drama in the North of England at Hull University. "It was an amazing time at the university then," recalls Jury. "One of the teachers there, and a friend of mine, was director Tony Minghella, who directed Truly, Madly, Deeply with Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson. Another guy who was then a contemporary of mine at Hull, Simon Moore, wrote the Sharon Stone film The Specialist. It was quite a hot bed [of artistic creativity] during the three years I was at Hull and many of us came out of there at the same time.

"When I first got to university I really didn't want to act, but rather produce and direct television. Hull had its own television studio attached to the drama department so I did end up doing some acting there, which turned out to be very successful. The question was then raised as to whether I should stay with the acting or go after my original desire to work behind the scenes.

"I decided to start applying for both types of jobs and to take the first one that was offered to me. One September morning in 1979, two letters dropped through the letter box, one for a post at the BBC and the other an acting job. My way of deciding hadn't worked, so I ended up taking the acting, which has turned out all right, but in recent years I’ve been spending more time on the other side of the camera. So I've sort of come full circle."

Jury's first professional acting job was helping to uphold good dental hygiene with the Theatre of Education Company in Lincoln. The touring group traveled to various schools around rural Lincolnshire and performed plays of an educational nature for youngsters. "We did one play for five-to-seven-year-old children called Desmond the Dentist," says the actor with a laugh. "It had characters in it like Baroness Plaque and the Plaquettes, the terrible gum disease monster Gingivitis and my character, Freddie Fluoride."

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After working with this company for a year the actor received a call and job offer from Mike Bradwell, the director of the Hull Truck Theatre Company which was recognized as a major player in British fringe [the equivalent of off-Broadway] circles. Jury accepted the job and came down to London to perform at The Bush, a professional pub theater, playing the character of an office junior and somewhat similar in personality to Eric. "Little did I know that two doors up the road at Threshold House they were casting this new series called Lovejoy," says Jury, "and they couldn't find anyone to play Eric.

"One of the secretaries came to see the play after work, went into the office the next day and said, 'I've seen Eric and he's in a show at The Bush.' The producer, along with Lovejoy's first director Baz Taylor, came to see the show and asked me to come see them, which I did. After this there was a three-week gap where nothing was said and I just assumed the whole thing was off. I imagine, in fact, knowing what I know about the business now, that the part was actually offered to somebody else. They were negotiating with him and in the end when it didn't work out they said, 'Well, get that other bloke in, whatever his name is.' I came in and I got the job, which was all in the very early part of 1985. We shot the series later that year and then that was it. There was a five-year gap where it was all off and suddenly in 1990 it was all on again."

The character of Eric went through a subtle metamorphosis since first appearing on the program. This change, due partly to Jury himself and partly to the production staff, became much more pronounced as the series progressed over the years.

"Originally, he was completely ineffectual," says the actor, "and there was a certain amount of comedy in that. What they eventually did was give him enough knowledge about antiques to hang himself. After this there was a different type of comedy because Eric's innocence developed into a sort of pretentiousness. Most comedy in one way or another, and certainly British comedy, is based on the exposing of pretension. So they did this with the character, which was very clever because it gave them a different level of comedy to work with. Occasionally, very occasionally, he'd actually pull the scam off, which was great as well.

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"I've always said that I'm not like Eric—that's the character and I can't apologize for it. If I wanted them to make him more like I really am, all I would have done was screw things up and in the end have had nothing, neither one nor the other. The character's not going to suddenly turn into a presidential aide or something like that. He's this nerd and you just enjoy it."

As is normal practice for most actors appearing in a television series, a typical day on the Lovejoy set usually began at dawn for Jury. When he and his fellow cast members started working on the series again in 1990, he, Dudley Sutton (Major Tinker Dill), and Phyllis Logan (Lady Jane Felsham) rented cottages for the summer near to where they were filming. "You'd have to get up at half-six [six-thirty] in the morning to be at breakfast call by seven," says Jury. "We always used to drive ourselves because it was easier at the end of the day to get out of there. Also, we were only about an hour-and-a-quarter from London, so if you had a few days off you had your own car and were able to drive home.

"A half-hour after breakfast we went into wardrobe and, depending on what they had planned, we were at the location or on the set by eight or eight-thirty to run through the scenes with each other. It was at this point that you'd work up any comedy, if there was any, and other little bits and bobs that needed to be put in. While you're doing this, the director is working out where he's going to put the camera. The director obviously has preconceptions about how they see the scene, so they will then try to get you to give them what they want as well. If everything is working together in harmony what happens is the actors are given enough room to be relaxed in their performances and the director gets to do something near to what they had in mind," smiles Jury.

"When we finished rehearsing, the lighting people then came in and lit for the first setup while we went away and got into makeup. Then we sat around and did whatever, read, told stupid jokes, horsed about, until they said, 'Right, we're ready,' and we'd go and do the scene. Lunch was scheduled for one but could be anywhere from twelve-thirty to two in the afternoon. After that we continued the same process with different scenes until about six.

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"It took two weeks, or 10 shooting days, to do an episode. It used to be 12 shooting days with no overtime allowed, so that meant you were in front of the camera from eight until five. This was then changed to 10 days, which enabled us not only to go on filming until six or seven in the evening, but also meant people could have a two day weekend. We normally shot Sunday through Thursday because you can get access to places on a Sunday that you can't get into on other days of the week. Personally, I hate that because I like Sundays, but I understand there are reasons for it."

Out of all the episodes he worked on, is any one a particular favorite?  "Well, there are two really," answers Jury. "The Christmas special we did, 'The Prague Sun,' was a fantastic experience for me. I'd worked abroad very little and it was an extraordinary opportunity to be able to go to Prague for a fortnight [two weeks]. It's a wonderful city and working with a film crew is a hell of a way to see another country because you get behind closed doors and are forever going places that tourists don't go. This, along with the fact that it was a very good story, made this episode special.

"The other was the first one Ian [McShane] directed which was 'Eric of Arabia.' That episode was just great because it was a big story for Eric and one of the first times he actually was able to pull it off. In purely selfish terms I've got to like it," laughs Jury.

The Lovejoy cast and crew found themselves having to contend with a somewhat colorful local character when they traveled to Ireland for an episode. "We were filming in this bar in Dublin," says Jury, "and this very drunken bag lady came staggering past the pub. 'What the f--- is going on here? Jesus....' And we said, 'Excuse me, could you keep it down? We're filming.' She goes, 'Filming is it? Jesus Christ, what are you filming?' When we told her we were filming Lovejoy, she came out with, 'F-----g Lovejoy! F-----g fabulous Lovejoy! Is your man here? Where is he?'

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"She saw Ian in the darkness of the pub and called out, 'Lovejoy, come here and give us your autograph!'  Ian saw this terrible aberration of a bag lady and ran off into the back room. 'F-----g Lovejoy! Did you see that? Did you see that f------g bastard?! Well, listen here! Just remember this, you're in Dublin now! You're not in f-----g Jersey, mate!' and she staggered off. We all turned, looked at each other and said, 'Jersey?' Then suddenly we started to cry with laughter because we realized that she had the wrong series. She thought we were filming Bergerac [a British detective drama series] and that Ian was actually John Nettles, the star of that series!

"The great thing about Lovejoy was that all the leading actors are all dear, dear friends, and the fun just never stopped. We were crying with laughter all day from start to finish. We used to do these ridiculous routines that would send everybody into complete spasms of laughter. All of us have the same sense of humor and things would be sparking all the time."

The actor has nothing but praise for his Lovejoy castmates including star, Ian McShane.  "Ian's a very, very talented guy," says Jury," and was closely involved in everything to do with the series. As the leading man he had a lot to do with setting the tone on the set and the result of that was great atmosphere and five terrific years."

Jury calls Phyllis Logan the nicest woman in show business. "She's so nice, in fact, that it gets on your nerves!" he laughs. What about Dudley Sutton? "Dudley's a dear friend of mine," answers Jury."We all know each other and each other's families so well. Dudley's wonderful and in many ways one of the wisest men I know. I've always said that one of the greatest things about this business for me is that although Dudley is older than my father, I count him as a very close personal friend. I look at my relationship with Dudley as his not being a mentor or a dad, but a completely equal friend. 

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"I'm fortunate enough to be able to talk to these people and learn from them, but not in a paternalistic way. Very few people have this type of opportunity. Most peoples’ relationships with other people who are older than them are based on authority and hierarchy, but that's not the case here. People are just friends to each other and I treasure that."

When Eric is asked to help out at his uncle's pub, Lovejoy's lovable sidekick jumps at the chance. However, what is meant to be just a short working holiday turns into a permanent job when his Uncle Jack is arrested for smuggling stolen furniture. This signaled Jury's departure from the series as well as Eric's. "Everybody was very kind about me and the character and all the rest of it, "says the actor, "but, technically the character should be about 17, which meant that I was 20 years too old for the part. It would have gotten ridiculous and it just reached the point where I couldn't go on playing Eric. I also wanted to have the time to concentrate on the producing and directing sides of television [after leaving Lovejoy, the actor set up his own production company, Picture That Independent Productions].

"Obviously, I had mixed emotions about leaving," continues Jury. "On the one hand, I was very excited about moving on. I had a clear idea about where I was going and what I was going to do, so that was very exciting for me. The mixed emotions part of it came from the fact that the members of the cast as well as the crew, many of whom had worked on the show all the way through since the beginning, were friends of mine. I had been working with them for so many months out of the year for five years and that was going to be the wrenching part. But since I left I still see them as friends. Dudley says, 'Christ, everybody's on the phone,' and that's wonderful. It was great fun, but I don't regret leaving at all."

Besides Lovejoy, the actor has appeared in various other British comedies and dramatic series including a stint for two seasons on the popular children's soap opera Grange Hill.  "Tony Minghella got that one for me," says Jury. "I played a teacher at a school located in quite a rough section of London. It was a fantastic opportunity because it gave me a chance to learn a lot about working on both sides of the camera. Some of the actors on it used to get fed up because they were never given anything to do. My attitude was, well, you shouldn't be given anything to do because we were just there as foils, the bad guys if you like, for the kids. It was a kid's show, so just take the money and shut up.

"Most actors here and in America are what the British term jobbing actors. This means that they go to audition after audition and from job to job. They aren't requested but just turn up to fill a part. Now, if you're doing that, which is what I did for many years, you go onto a set and do a couple of days here, a couple of days there, and it's very difficult to get any sense of continuity. You're so nervous when you go in to do your part that all you do is concentrate on what you're doing and leave. If you're fortunate enough to play a regular character on something, you can actually watch what's going on around you and begin to learn something. Grange Hill gave me this chance very early on in my career."

Please note, all Lovejoy photos copyright of the BBC. For information on Lovejoy: The Complete Collection, please go to http://www.acornonline.com/

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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