Former EastEnders actor to star in George Best play

Altman as Nick Cotton in EastEnders with June Brown, Dot Cotton
Altman as Nick Cotton in EastEnders with June Brown, Dot Cotton
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The former EastEnders star John Altman talks to Helen McGurk about his latest role and why he has always loved visiting Northern Ireland - despite the Troubles.

Actor John Altman will be recognised by many for his legendary portrayal of EastEnders arch-baddie Nick Cotton, the leather-clad, chain-smoking, soapland villain, whose trademark ‘Hello Ma’(said with a dastardly smirk) sent chills down the spines of viewers and caused his long-suffering ole mum Dot ‘nuffink’ but grief.

Actor John Altman

Actor John Altman

But Altman, who admits typecasting has been a problem for him, is a superb, versatile actor, whose latest role sees him ditch the villainous persona for the virtuous as he plays man of peace, John Lennon, in a new musical written by former TV presenter, John Warrington.

The star, who still sports slicked-back hair and an abundance of bling, was in Belfast recently for an abridged reading of the musical, Living the Dream, at the EastSide Arts Festival.

The piece is based on the true story of a letter received by Manchester United legend, George Best in 1994, sent by a Romanian political dissident, Ana, who had been imprisoned by the Ceaucescu regime. George is played by local actor, Daniel Leith.

The letter stated that Best and John Lennon had given hope to many prisoners because they were the essence of the word, “freedom”.

Moving to the present day, Ana is on her death bed. Struggling to pass peacefully, the mystery surrounding the murder of her parents remains unanswered. In a morphine induced coma, the spirits of George Best and John Lennon arrive to help her discover the truth.

‘‘It was a terrible time of repression in that country and anybody who spoke out about the government was jailed or put in an asylum,’’ said John.

‘‘While this girl Ana was in prison in the 1960s, she managed to get knowledge about George Best and The Beatles on a crackly radio. They gave her a key to freedom in her mind while she was locked up.

‘‘She wrote a letter to George Best, I think she addressed it ‘George Belfast, London’, and somehow it got to him.

‘‘It covers the early part of his career when he was becoming famous. It’s a moving piece and it’s quite funny as well - it’s got a bit of everything, including music.’’

This is the second time Altman has played a Beatle; he portrayed George Harrison in the 1979 film, Birth of the Beatles.

‘‘I’m, a southern, born in Berkshire, so I had to learn the Scouse accent (he does it very convincingly). John (Warrington) called upon me, because he knew I had some Beatles connection.

‘‘How sad they are no longer here - what great talents - we touch on that as well in the play, how John felt about being shot. It was one of the saddest events in my life when John Lennon died. And George, of course, he got attacked in his house - there are some insane people in this world.’’

Altman speaks to the News Letter just after a weekend of mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, which left some 31 people dead.

‘‘Once again guns in America, that’s how John Lennon died - a shame he ever went there, he’d probably still be alive if he hadn’t.’’

The 67-year-old actor has a strong social conscience and two years ago considered standing as an MP with a pledge to tackle issues including student debts, dangerous potholes and social equality. These days Trump and Brexit are giving him cause for concern.

‘‘I’m not that keen on Trump. He’s been antagonistic towards the Chinese, the Russians, the Mexicans - he tries to make out that all Mexicans are trouble-making, revolutionary, murdering, drug dealing refugees. His attitude towards some of these countries is just ridiculous.

‘‘With regards to Brexit, I think it’s become too complex. I definitely think we should keep a free border in Ireland.’’

But he thinks another referendum would be futile.

‘‘If you have a football match between Arsenal and Manchester United and Manchester United win by one goal, you’re not going to have another football match - so having another referendum is a waste of time because you never know, you might even get more people who vote to get out.

‘‘I just hope if we do go for it that we (Northern Ireland and the mainland) become better off - we may suffer initially, but eventually, in a decade we could be doing very well. I like to be positive about any result that comes up. There’s a lot of fear being pedalled about. Don’t be fearful, I think it will be a lot better than people think.’’

Fear, doesn’t appear to be part of Altman’s character. While other actors refused to come to Northern Ireland during the troubles, Altman did, many times, and remembers being searched by the army and the seeing bomb disposal robots.

‘‘I saw the results of a big bomb go off - I was staying in a hotel surrounded by barbed wire. A lot of people from the world of British showbiz wouldn’t come to Northern Ireland because they were scared I suppose.’’

He has fond memories of Ireland, performing as Billy Flynn in Chicago at the Grand Opera House and on RTE’s The Podge and Rodge Show

‘‘I don’t drink anymore, but the Guinness always was better over here; something happens to it when they ship it over to England - it must get shaken up on the Irish Sea,’’ he laughs.

*Living the Dream opens in London in January 2020, before a planned return to Belfast in April.