Q&A with BBC ‘Ghosts’ Star Peter Sandys-Clarke

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Ghosts star talks Bill Nighy, Havers’s favourite tune, and all things Button House.

Peter Sandys-Clarke studied Drama and Theatre Arts at Birmingham University. With an acting career spanning almost twenty years across stage and screen, Peter Sandys-Clarke can be most recently seen as fan favourite Lieutenant Havers in BBC’s Ghosts, stage plays Private Lives and A Touch of Danger at Theatre Royal Windsor, and the upcoming series Masters of the Air. When he isn’t acting, he loves scriptwriting, cricket, and venturing into the countryside.

Do you have a preferred medium for your acting? 

I’ve probably done the most in theatre, and I started out there. And I really do love that. I think that’s where I feel most comfortable as an actor. It can be tricky when you’re dropping into a project for a few days or weeks and you’re gone again, you don’t connect as much with the show. I think that’s one of the things that actors love about theatre – being in it from the start and in all those conversations from the start. Whereas sometimes you’ll come onto (a film or TV) set and a less sympathetic director will say, “okay, this is how we’re going to do it,” so you’re sort of pushed around a bit.

That said, the more TV and film I’ve done, the more I enjoy it and the more you learn about it as well. You learn the techniques – and they’re very different techniques, acting for the camera and acting onstage. They’re massively different. I think that’s why it can be a bit frustrating when shows are packed with star names from TV and film, because they’re there to sell tickets, but that doesn’t always mean they know how to play a theatre when they’re used to cameras. You’ve got to get your voice right to the back of the stalls and the top of the circle. Just like acting for screen, a lot of work goes into the technique of physically acting on stage.

I’m fortunate to do any of it, at all, and I really love doing theatre. But the more I do of film and TV, the more I feel like I’m getting a handle on how to do it.

It must be quite jarring going from one to the other.

Theatre is different every night, and that’s what’s amazing about it. You’re saying the same lines every night – hopefully! – but you get this feedback from the audience and your fellow cast members. It all brings a different energy to the show. It’s the same with filming to an extent – you’re picking up on what other people are doing and feeding off their energies and atmospheres. 

I’ve just done a little bit on a film called Joy and I was doing a scene with Bill Nighy, who was amazing, and his energy is incredible. It’s just so calming. He gives off this idea of being so sure and relaxed. He’s just always there and switched on.

Do you have a favourite role you’ve played?

Theatre-wise, I’d say my first professional theatre job. That was Raleigh, in Journey’s End, and I was really fortunate to get that job – it was eight months in the West End, with a fantastic cast, and we were really close. That play is incredible, I think it’s one of the most important plays of the last century. 

TV-wise, Havers is definitely right up there, because the connect that we’ve had from audiences and just being a part of that set was really special. I’ve been really fortunate with the jobs I’ve done – I’ve been in some fantastic plays with some really wonderful actors, and you just try and learn from them. 

Do you have a favourite role you haven’t played? Is there a dream role?

I’d love to do some Pinter or something – I’ve never had the chance to do that. I’ve never done any Shakespeare,but I’m not too fussed about it. 

I remember after doing Journey’s End and working for a few years, there was a production of Flare Path in the West End – if you know that – it’s a Terence Rattigan one about the WW2 bomber groups. It was a really beautiful play and I would’ve loved to have been in that. But, you know, plays come and go, and they come around again. So I try not to get too hung up on what I desperately want to do and be in. 

Over the last few years, your character in Ghosts seems to have become really loved by a lot of fans. How do you feel about that? Was it a surprise to get such a big response when at the time you’d only appeared in one episode?

In series two it didn’t feel like the story would go further. But Ben (Willbond) and I clicked well, and that gave us a better understanding of that relationship. The fan reaction was amazing even back then, and it probably helped increase the [Ghosts] crew’s confidence in bringing Havers back. The response from fans has been fantastic, touching – I didn’t expect to come back.

And a lot of your roles have been one-offs, haven’t they? What was it like getting to reprise your role three years later?

That’s the life of an actor – TV is often one-off parts, and that can be good or weird if you’re walking into an established creative group with a tight bond. But it was really nice. Having the time lag, too, and because we were giving (Havers) more backstory that felt great. A lot’s happened in the world between series – coming back, it felt like there was more weight to that relationship. To have those conversations about bringing Havers back, it felt really special.

A lot of people have really loved The Captain’s storyline in Ghosts, and your role in that, too. We see the whole thing from The Captain’s perspective, and don’t spend so much time with Havers or his thoughts. So what would you say Havers likes about The Captain?

I think The Captain’s sort of soldierly qualities are all completely there, but they’re slightly at odds with his personality sometimes, in terms of – he is so regimented, and he loves that sort of order and discipline, but at his core, The Captain is just this really kind man, and I think that’s probably the real – it’s that initial draw. We’re both quite old to be junior officers in the Second World War, but that generation fell between the two wars and so there was a bit of that strange feeling that they’d missed out on the first war – both missed the experience and felt a guilt that they didn’t do their bit. And so I think the army sort of languished a bit in those interwar years because they didn’t know quite what their role was. If that was the war to end all wars, you know, what was the future? And obviously, then it builds up towards rearmament and things like that.

I think The Captain is a career soldier, obviously. Probably more so than Havers, I think Havers is a late recruit – obviously, if he’s coming in at the start of the war as a second lieutenant then he’s only just joined up. Whereas The Captain will have been in the army for a while. I think The Captain’s big qualities are…his warmth, he’s so welcoming, but in that slightly fuddy-duddy way that Ben does so brilliantly, of feeling that he ought to put on this front, but actually, underneath, he is just this hugely kind man.

One thing I’ve always really liked is that in that very first scene, in series two, even though it is a funny scene – The Captain dropping the letter and running to the window to look for the Germans – it never feels like The Captain is the joke. Havers is sort of playful towards him, there’s that “I don’t think they’ll be here just yet” line, but we never feel as if Havers is laughing at him.

That was something we were really clear about, we never wanted it to feel like Havers was laughing at him. And he would totally squash any sort of resistance to The Captain, any backchat about him elsewhere. So we wanted that affection to come through and that respect to come through. And I think Havers really does respect him, as a man, as an officer, even not as a front line officer. But Havers isn’t either at that point. I think there’s so much admiration for him as a person, and we wanted that to come through from the beginning. So if there was any laughter from the others in the room – when the Captain, you know, suddenly panics and runs to the window in that first scene – we wanted Havers to be sort of on that, looking to them and sorting that out. It was very much that he was there to support The Captain.

I think that fits in very well with how Ghosts is such a kind show. There’s such care taken with these characters, to not treat them cruelly, and that’s one of the messages it carries throughout.

Yeah, it’s about supporting each other and – you know, they’re supporting Alison and they’re supporting each other over hundreds of years or thousands of years or whatever. And however much they annoy each other and things, they are there in those dark moments that they all have of staring into the “abyss of eternity” in Button House. And potentially alone, you know, at some point one of them might be left alone, in terms of their thinking of it. And so their support of each other is brilliant.

It’s lovely that you and Ben Willbond already know each other, as well, and I think a lot of people are wondering how you playing Havers came about – was there an audition, or did you get to discussing the show and the role as friends?

Obviously, I came into the show in season two, and I’d watched season one – we’d talked about it a bit playing cricket – and Ben had mentioned the idea of The Captain’s backstory a bit. We’d chatted it through on the boundary at cricket, and then he asked if I’d come in and audition for it. They were seeing a few people for it with a few different looks. I read with Ben and Jim (Howick) and Mat (Baynton) were both at the meeting, as well as the casting directors. I think they had probably suggested people as well – they know masses of actors, and I was very lucky to get it.

I had to go through the usual process, there were still people who had to give the green light to me doing it. So it was a conventional process but I was more in on what was wanted for the role. Sometimes you don’t get that at all and you go in with nothing, so it was very refreshing. A lot like being on set, it was a very lovely, warm audition space as well. And (the Ghosts crew) take so much pleasure in each other’s characters. They would come in and watch scenes even if they weren’t filming that day. Everybody gets it. On a show like that, you’ve got to feel like you’re a part of it, for it to work. You’ve got to get it. That’s the case with anything and I think it’s certainly the case with comedy. You’ve got to get what level you’re going in at. You’ve just got to know what you’re playing against and know your audience so you can let the comedy roll off you or around you.

Although you play a more serious character, I think Havers gets some little comedic moments of his own – he’s such a subtle character, it’s all hidden in little microexpressions.

The Roger Moore eyebrow comes in a bit, yeah.

I can’t help thinking of the questionnaire Alison puts each of the ghosts through in the companion book, and how Havers might answer a couple of those questions. Favourite song, for example? I can see him enjoying a bit of ABBA.

It’s a tricky one to do – because Havers is in the past, so at what point in time do you jump in? Whereas The Captain can look back, so he’s completely into ABBA – of course, he is – but I think it’s hard to sort of see where Havers will be and where he’ll go. If he and The Captain were together in another life, as it were, then would they both be sitting listening to ABBA or pulling on their flares (I hope not) and going out?

So it’s sort of hard to transpose Havers into the future – what is the future for him? If he hasn’t lived or died through that time? I think as he exists in the show, he was probably a dancer – I think he was probably quite keen on having a dance. And I think those sort of Big Band types – Joe Loss and all of that sort of thing – and then maybe in his more melancholy moments, someone like Julie London. There was a song which I listened to before doing series two which was one of my grandmother’s favourites. I really enjoy music and using it to get into a specific period for acting and there was one which was a Joe Loss one called ‘Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny’, which is just a really beautiful vocal but in that sort of swing way. So yeah, I can imagine them having a bit of a sweep around the briefing room when everyone else has gone out.

I’m sure everyone is looking forward to your upcoming roles, too. We’ve finally had a Masters Of The Air teaser – could you tell us a bit about what that was like?

It was incredible – I was only on it for two days, I think. But it was absolutely incredible to be a part of something that big. It’s on a scale, television-wise, that I’ve never witnessed before. I wasn’t even near the planes. When the audition came through I thought, “it’s probably for a Spitfire pilot, or something like that, and then it’s ‘Older British Officer’ ”, and I thought, “okay, fair enough!”

You have said that your typical roles are ‘war and moustaches’!

War and moustaches, exactly, you’ve got it. And I think it’ll be amazing. Band of Brothers remains one of my favourite TV shows, it’s so incredible as a show – and I think this will be different. It’s going to be a bit glossier and slicker as a show, probably, whereas I think one of the big strengths of Band of Brothers was that it’s so raw. Maybe that’ll be the same – I haven’t seen Masters of the Air beyond the teasers you’ve seen. To be a part of that set was incredible. And the scale of that sort of show and the amount of dedication that goes into making it – you know, from the wardrobe department and the set dressing and all of this kind of stuff – the detail is just phenomenal.

Watch the final season of Ghosts on BBC iPlayer now. You can also catch Masters of the Air on Apple TV+ this January.

Words by Casey Langton


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