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Robert's home in lavender

By West Briton  |  Posted: June 14, 2012

From left, Carol Macready, Hayley Mills, Belinda Lang, Robert Duncan and Robert Rees star in Ladies In Lavender.

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LIFE can be notoriously hard for actors, so it pays to have something to fall back on.

Robert Duncan – best known as TV executive Gus in Drop The Dead Donkey – has certainly ensured he will never be short of work.

As previously featured in What's On, St Austell boy Robert started life as a reporter on the Cornish Guardian in the early 1970s and trained as a teacher, before entering LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art).

Since then he has played in theatres the length and breadth of the country and beyond, as well as appearing in everything from Casualty to the recent Fall Of Singapore on television. Robert also has a cult following as the voice of Scumspawn in Andy Hamilton's radio satire Old Harry's Game.

He told me: "When I'm not acting I still teach history at a school in Luton. I have a certain notoriety among Year 11s. I'd just appeared in EastEnders and they all lined the corridor and started singing the 'doof doof doof' theme tune. I'm not sure the head was impressed."

Robert – who used his brother Duncan's name professionally when it turned out there was another actor called Welch – is now touring the UK again in the Cornwall-based play Ladies In Lavender.

Fittingly, it ends its run at the Hall for Cornwall on July 2 to 7.

The stage premiere is based on the film, written and directed by Charles Dance, and stars Hayley Mills and Belinda Lang.

Adapted by Shaun McKenna, Ladies In Lavender tells the tale of sisters Ursula and Janet who live in a close-knit fishing village in Cornwall in 1937.

When a handsome and talented young Polish-Jewish violinist bound for America is washed ashore, the Waddington sisters nurse him back to health.

However, his presence disrupts their peaceful lives and the community.

Robert said: "I couldn't turn down the chance to act with Hayley Mills and a stellar cast. The icing on the cake is being able to come home to my beloved Kernow.

"I play Dr Mead, the local doctor, who comes in to fix up this guy who's been washed ashore. I based him on a doctor I remember in St Austell called Dr Arthur – I'm not sure if that was his first name or surname – who was an integral part of the community.

"My character has an unrequited love for Abigail Thaw, John's daughter – she cannot stand me! There's a poignancy on all sorts of different levels in the play. The dark clouds of the Second World War are approaching. Hayley's character refers to Hitler as the 'rather nasty man with the moustache'. But there's a lot of hope. It's an English fairytale in a lot of ways – we will never see those days again.

"It's lovely to finish in Cornwall as I'm sure Cornish people will love it. There are a lot of references to the county.

"In fact, I had to have a word with the writer as Abigail's character refers to me as an 'incomer'. They let me change it to 'emmet' for the shows in Cornwall. I wouldn't be allowed out of the county alive if I let that stay in ...."

Robert is looking forward to seeing brother Duncan and sisters Paula and Susan who still live in the St Austell area.

He worked as a young reporter on the Cornish Guardian in the town from 1972 to 1975 under chief reporter Gil Griffin. Robert was quick to point out that former editor John Pearn "still owes me a drink".

Ladies In Lavender plays at the Hall for Cornwall from Monday, July 2 to Saturday, July 7. For ticket details contact the box office on 01872 262466 /www.hallforcornwall.co.uk

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