They call themselves ‘The Family Von Trout’, love their cricket, and are our very own acting dynasty. Deirdre Shields meets the Troughtons
We all remember our first Dr Who. Mine (ahem) was Patrick Troughton, so it’s slightly surreal, if a real thrill, to be looking across a table at those familiar Troughton eyes of his son, the actor David Troughton.
David is sitting at his kitchen table with his wife Ali, having just returned from a play in London. His father Patrick liked to claim he didn’t have much time for theatre – he called it ‘All that shouting in the evening’ – and when the young David got his first break at the Royal Shakespeare Company, his father told him, ‘Oh well, something else might come up.’
David laughs at thememory, although he is pretty quick at the one-liners himself. When a journalist asked him whether he preferred performing on stage or screen, he replied ‘I prefer working.’ David Troughton is one of those class British actors we do so well, who instantly up the quality of anything they appear in, from MidsomerMurders to Poirot. He does Comedy (BBC’s ‘Outnumbered’) and Villainy ( Richard III, ‘New Tricks’) with equal ease, and he is an acclaimed Shakespearean actor.
‘I’d like to do Prospero and Falstaff’. He would make a haunting Prospero, and I wouldn’t mind betting a Falstaff to rank with Robert Stephens’ great performance for the RSC. ‘I love making people laugh,’ says David. ‘It’s much easier to make them cry.’
He never got to play a Dalek, like his brother Michael, but acted in several Dr Who’s, old and new. Ali first met him when he was playing King Peladon opposite Jon Pertwee’s Doctor. She chuckles: ‘I thought ‘Mmm’m!’, and we got chatting. Everyone thought it was very funny, because I was the only person who didn’t know who he was.’ The Troughtons are a good double-act, topping each others’ stories with a flourish, and finishing each others’ sentences.
David went on to play Dr Bob Buzzard, the mad-eyed GP who hated patients, in the BBC’s A Very Peculiar Practice. The programme was the creation of the screenwriter, Andrew Davies, and was based on his experiences at Warwick University.. It was Davies’ first big success, long before he set the nation fluttering by putting Colin Firth in a wet shirt for his BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
A Very Peculiar Practice was an odd one. Funny and dark, it was neither straightforward comedy or drama, and became something of a cult show. The Box Set has just been released, so it may gain a whole new following. ‘It was before its time, in many ways,’ says David Troughton. ‘Bob Buzzard was the forerunner of those monstrous comedy heroes, like David Brent.’
This autumn, David joined the latest series of the BBC’s comedy phenomenon, Outnumbered. He played Ben’s long-suffering teacher. (The look he shoots when young Ben asks him ‘Why have you taken up smoking again?’ is worth an Oscar). ‘I had a great time,’ says David. ‘They really do point the camera at the children, feed them a line, and let them roll. It’s the most fantastically well edited programme, because the end result is seamless. The children’s working hours are so strict, I hardly ever got to work with them – I said most of my lines to Andy Hamilton.’
Acting is in the Troughtons’ blood. David’s half- brother Michael was a regular on Minder, and is best known as Rik Mayall’s hapless sidekick in The New Statesman. (He played the witless MP Piers Fletcher-Dervish, who was always being humiliated by Mayall’s Alan Bas’tard,) David’s nephew Harry Melling porked up impressively to play horrible Dudley Dursley in Harry Potter.
Back at home, David and Ali’s oldest son Sam is one of our Bright Young Hopes of British acting. His TV and film work include Foyle’s War, Judge John Deed and Vera Drake, and he was in the BBC’s Robin Hood – as was his grandfather before him. He won some rave reviews with his modern-dress Romeo in the RSC’s Romeo and Juliet this Spring. (‘I can’t recall as exciting a revival since Zeffirelli stunned us with his version in 1960’, Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian). The production had just opened in New York, when Sam injured his knee and underwent keyhole surgery. Ali, who still blanches at the memory, says proudly: ‘He was back on stage as Brutus two weeks later, held up by metal.’
Ali herself was practically born in a theatre. She worked as a professional actress, and is a co-director of The Drama Pool, which brings acting workshops to schools, but her biggest role has been Matriarch of the Clan Troughton. She is the still centre (if anyone so buzzy could ever be called ‘still’) of the family.
The Troughton’s youngest son William (known to all as ‘Wigsy’) says: ‘Mum’s definitely the leader. She’s the one in the kitchen when we meet up on Sundays for roast dinner.We’re a very close family, and everything has always happened around her, as Dad’s away a lot working.’ In return, his parents call Wigsy ‘the wise one’. He laughs at this: ‘Yeah, I usually have to talk them down from a few ledges. You could say I have a brighter outlook!’
He has been having ‘a fantastic time’ these past few months, acting in The Ladykillers, a popular remake of the old Ealing Comedy. ‘It’s great,’ he says. ‘I get to dress up like a woman every night.’ His other brother, the cricketer Jim, who is Captain of Warwickshire, once said ‘With our family, it’s acting or cricket, and with Wigsy, the two combine.’
Wigsy shrugs: ‘I had to make the decision when I was about 14 on whether I was going to go acting or cricket. Acting just pipped it. But I’ve played cricket since I was 11.’ (He played for Stratford First XI in the Birmingham League.) I’m hoping I might be able to get back there this summer. But I’m loving the acting. Mind you,‘ he adds, ‘I worked on the boats on the Avon for four years. I don’t think I’m ever going to find a job to top that.’
Jim Troughton skippered Warwickshire in a nail-biting finish to the County Championship last year, when they just lost out. He calls himself ‘the black sheep of the family.’ Brother Sam says: “When I started acting, people would say ‘Are you David’s son? Is Patrick your grandfather?’ Then it was ‘Is it your brother who plays for Warwickshire?’ Like the rest of his family, Jim learned his cricket at Stratford, and he has played professional cricket for Warwickshire since 2000.
All the Troughton men love their cricket. David once said if he could swap places with any one person, it would be ‘Ian Botham in 1981 at Headingley. I’d love to know what went on in his mind when England were going to lose the test match and we won an extraordinary victory, thanks to him.’
Jim is presently immersed in pre-season training and cricket skills, in preparation for Warwickshire’s campaign next season. ‘We’ve got to keep our heads down, stay focussed, and aim for the Championship,’ he says. ‘We have a great squad – they’re a pleasure to captain.’ His parents find it hard to watch him play. ‘We found it so unbearable, I said ‘Right, we’ve just got to get over this,’ says David. Jim laughs: ‘I understand, now I have children myself – it’s that feeling of having no control over what becomes of them. There are similarities between our jobs. You get very nervous as an actor, and you get very nervous as a sportsman – you might be in for 1 ball, or 101 balls.’
The Troughton boys all speak fondly of family life, which they describe variously as a ‘bit hectic’, ‘bit manic’, and ‘bit energetic’. ‘We’re happy kids,’ says Jim. Grandchildren have been added to the mix, and their drawings paper the walls of David and Ali’s kitchen. The entire family is being pressed into service for their Christmas show, The Holly and The Ivy, at The RSC’s Courtyard Theatre. This year the show will be raising funds to develop youth club cricket, and for the Shakespeare Hospice.
Traditionally, the whole family performs. ‘Wigsy made his first appearance at two. He played Tiny Tim, and fell asleep on a cushion,’ Ali recalls. They will be joined by Harry Potter veteran, nephew Harry. They make an impressive ensemble, but with characteristic Troughton mick-taking, they call themselves ‘The Family Von Trout’. ‘It’s great fun, and something always goes wrong,’ says Ali. David laughs: ‘But we’re always at our best when things go wrong.’