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There's no Peace for the wicked; Former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan and comedy actor Norman Pace star in a quirky new musical about a notorious Victorian criminal, writes CATHERINE VONLEDEBUR.

IT'S quite surreal to be having lunch with a children's TV presenter and a comedian I grew up watching in the Eighties.

Peter Duncan first joined Blue Peter in 1980. In those days he was known for death-defying stunts like cleaning the clock-face of Big Ben, fighting a sumo wrestler and running the first London marathon.

Now the daredevil adventurer, champion diver and former Chief Scout has gone back to his first love, acting.

An energetic and youthful-looking Peter plays notorious Victorian cat burglar and murderer Charlie Peace; while bearded Norman Pace - one half of comedy double act Hale and Pace - is the showman of a travelling 19th Century theatre troupe.

Charlie Peace: His Amazing Life and Astounding Legend is a new play by Nottingham crime writer Michael Eaten, co-produced by Nottingham Playhouse and Coventry's The Belgrade theatre.

Artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse Giles Croft, who directed the play, says: "The great thing about Peter is that he has all these skills that make him right for this.

"It needed someone who was physically agile. Charlie Peace was a cat burglar remembered for his daring escapes, disguises and bravery. Having an actor and adventurer is perfect. He's fearless in climbing a rope ladder to the top of the stage.

"Norman is perfect casting. He is a natural showman and a bit of a comedian."

Lunch has been arranged with the two stars of the show in between rehearsals. Health-conscious Peter, aged 59, orders a burger, but does not eat the bun or his chips, while 60-year-old Norman tucks into chilli and garlic prawns.

Father-of-four Peter does all his own stunts.

He says: "The part has a certain element of craziness that appealed to my slightly over-excitable nature. He's a chameleon.

"We have tried to replicate his cat burglary style. To get up to a Victorian manor he would bring this step ladder that he'd made, climb up to the firstfloor and lift up the window. He was known as a first-floor robber.

"The Ripper stole his thunder - those murders were so grisly. Charlie was the man before that. Eighteen years of his life were spent in the clink."

Well-dressed violin-playing Charlie, the son of a one-legged lion tamer turned evangelical preacher, had a tangled love life. Still married to his wife Hannah Ward - played by Game of Thrones actress Mia Soteriou - he fell in love with American Katharine Dyson, the wife of a civil engineer. When they split he moved in with "Nottingham Nightingale", Susan Thompson. Both lovers are played by Bridie Higson.

"It is quite a sexy piece. I'm pushing for nudity," jokes Peter. "When Charlie moves in with his new girlfriend, he also moves his wife in and pretends she's his mother. It's something I've always advocated."

Peter says his character is "dreadfully offensive".

He says: "I'm sure many members of the audience will walk out thinking: 'I hope I will never see him again', which goes against an actor's ego.

"He's a misogynist. There's not going to be a woman in the audience who warms to him yet he was supposed to have had a magnetic appeal to women."

Acting has always been a big part of Peter's life.

"My parents were variety show performers. I left school at 15 and got a job as Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island and worked at the National Theatre," he explains.

After Blue Peter he returned to the stage and learnt how to walk the tightrope for circus musical Barnum. He also performed in Me and My Girl and was nominated for an Olivier Award as best actor in 1995 for The Card.

"Working on the big musicals was nice," he adds.

In 1985 he left Blue Peter for Duncan Dares and filmed a sixpart series for CBBC called Travel Bug, which was a round-the-world adventure with his wife and four children.

"It was early reality TV. Technology was advancing. I used a small video camera and we transmitted live from obscure places. I had the idea. It followed on from Blue Peter, I thought it would be a great thing to film your children's response to the adventure. It was seen through their eyes.

"We went to China, Russia and India as a travelling filming family. I didn't do it as a commission.'' He has four children - Lucy, aged 27, who is working on a neighbourhood midwives project, Katie, aged 25, a would-be playwright, Georgina, 22, who is the lead singer in an electronic band Drop Velvet, and youngest, Arthur, aged 21.

"I frightened them off show business," says Peter.

He still looks back at his days as a Blue Peter presenter with great affection.

"I still love the idea of it. It was fun and adventurous like working with the scouts - the ethos is similar," he says.

This Christmas Peter is writing and directing Robin Hood at Oxford Playhouse. He also helps run the Natural Adventure Company, organising walking tours in the Balkans.

In Charlie Peace a cast of actormusicians sing and play a mix of original and traditional folk ballads, parlour songs and hymns popular in Victorian times.

Quick-witted Norman says: "Singing is how Gareth Hale and I first started. In the 1970s there were no comedy clubs so we'd go to folk clubs and take the mickey out of folk music and people who thought they were Bob Dylan."

The duo, who shared a room at college in London, trained to be teachers. Norman taught PE and drama.

"I wanted to go to drama college, but my mum persuaded me to be a teacher. I gave up my job in my late 20s. By the time Gareth and I made it we were in our mid-30s,'' he says.

"Gareth and I are more comedy actors than stand-up comedians. It's a different discipline. The last time we worked together was on a pilot sitcom for ITV and a play last year."

Like his character, Norman says he's always been a showman. True-to-form, Norman, the joker of the cast, reveals some of the magic tricks he has mastered for the role in rehearsals.

"A professional magician came in and showed us the type of tricks we could do," he says, squeezing a scarf into a fake thumb.

"We did quite a lot of research into Victorian showmen who did this for a living. One was called William Haggar, who had six children and lived a very handto-mouth existence.

"He'd set up camp in a field, for example in Coventry, stay there for four months and do a different show every day. He would carry up to 50 different plays in his head. We also went to the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham to see how prisoners were treated."

The father-of-three, who lives with his wife Beverley, announces that this is the last time he will be working away from home as he wants to manage his daughter's care package.

Holly, aged 25, was only the 14th person in Britain to be struck with a deadly and rare strain of meningitis - the streptococcus A bacteria - at just four weeks old. All the previous victims died.

Her illness left her with partial paralysis and some brain damage. She also has epilepsy and water on the brain.

"Holly is the big story this year as she has gone into supported accommodation, one mile from our home,'' says Norman.

"I am going to stay around the area for the next five years to make sure her care package is working. To our great relief she is really happy.'' | Charlie Peace runs on the B2 Stage at The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from Saturday until Saturday, November 16.

Behind the scenes | FOR Nottingham screenwriter Michael Eaton, Charlie Peace is a personal project.

The crime writer, whose docudramas have included ITV's Shipman, Shoot To Kill and Who Bombed Lockerbie?, said: "I came across Charlie Peace in earliest infancy.

My grandmother, who was born in 1880, sang me songs about Charlie Peace and told me tales about this scary night-stalker in Narrowmarsh, Nottingham.

"The next time I came across him was in the Buster comics where he had become an arch rogue of London and hyped into a Robin Hood-type figure.

"When I started to look into Charlie Peace I found it hard to separate reallife and legend.

"After his execution he became a legend.

"Lots of plays in travelling fairgrounds were made about him and the earliest film about him was made in 1905 by William Haggar, who ran a travelling theatre in South Wales. It's fantastic." "We wanted every part of the play to evoke the 19th century but I also wanted to use 21st century graphic art animation by Eddie Campbell.

"Mine is the last generation where Charlie Peace would have meant something.

"I felt it was my duty to bring him back."

'"The Ripper stole his thunder - those murders were so grisly. Charlie was the man before that. Eighteen years of his life were spent in the clink." PETER DUNCAN

CAPTION(S):

Norman Pace had to master magic tricks for his role as The Showman.

Left: Game of Thrones guest star Mia Soteriou as Charlie's wife and Bridie Higson, who plays his lovers. Below left: Alex Mugnaioni and Philip Rham. Norman Pace, as the showman of a travelling theatre troupe, and Peter Duncan, who plays cat burglar and murderer Charlie Peace, are in Coventry from tomorrow.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 25, 2013
Words:1564
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