Doc Martin & Poldark Actor Rory Wilton, takes time out of his lead role in The Trench to chat to me.

Rory Wilton, cornwalls regimental museum
Rory Wilton playing Officer Stokoe in The Trench

Rory is probably best-known for his roles in Doc Martin & Poldark and is soon to hit the big screen in the upcoming Fishermen’s Friends movie.  He tells me he’s been working as actor in Cornwall since leaving drama school in 1992.

“I’ve been in Doc Martin for 10 years playing lobster fisherman ‘Chippy Miller’ whose main job is to get on Doc Martin’s nerves!”

How did you get involved in The Trench?

Jason and I have known each other for over 20 years.  We’ve worked together on some of the biggest theatre productions in Cornwall.  He first approached me to be in the original Trench production but I was busy working on a film at the time so I couldn’t make time to do it. So then, about 8 months ago, when he decided to do The Trench at Bodmin and said he wanted me on board, I had heard such marvellous things about it that I leapt at the opportunity!

Where was it done before?

Levant Mine in 2016.  It’s changed quite a lot for the Bodmin production, and we have constantly changed it on our feet… it’s ever-evolving.

Why did you want to be involved in this production?

I wanted to be part of celebrating the extraordinary sacrifices that people of this country made during the Great War as history is very important to me. We learn so much from our history. And the worries that there have been globally and politically over the last couple of years have made people really think about the possibility of war and ask if there could be another world war, which is horrific.

I’m of a generation where my grandparents were involved in World War 2 and saw the real horrors of what war was all about, which are not like a computer game or film; it’s real and affects people in a terrible way. So, I think anything that can help to get people to understand that war is not a glamorous thing, that when the Great War happened everyone lost somebody.

My Granddad was the youngest of twelve brothers and six of those brothers went away to war, but only 2 came back, so it resonates.

The idea that whole villages of young men went off together, in fine fettle and excitement, and only a few would come home, is devastating.

I notice that in this production, the audience members go off smartly marching together in their platoons, jubilant and excited about the experience ahead of them, and they come back shoulders bent over, in straggling groups. They have clearly been affected emotionally by the performance they’ve just been part of.

I’m very lucky that in the show, the way it has organically happened, I end up talking to everyone, when they come out of enlistment and when they come back to the Museum at the end of the performance.  So, I really do see the physical and emotional effect it has had on them. To have big grown men come up to you with tears in their eyes, shake me by the hand and say, “that was absolutely extraordinary!” Thank you very much!” you can see that it has really affected them.

The school pupils have been equally moved by it.  We’ve been sent some lovely testimonials by parents, explaining that their kids have been really engaged and telling their parents all about it; the performance and real-life character they played really resonated with them.

Ah, that’s great to hear!

Can you tell me a bit about your role in The Trench and the character you play?

Yes, my character is Colonel Stokoe and I’m the horrible one, I’m delighted that my role… well he’s not a villain, he’s a stern man, he’s a career officer, from a family with a very strong military history, he went to military school in India, and joined up as soon as he could in India and he went off to all the major theatres of war.

His father was a General, as was the tradition in the family, that the men went off and joined the army. He’s actually a great character to play and I have a lot of respect for him because when everything starts to fall to pieces he’s the one with the strength of character and organisation to muster everyone together and to keep organisation ready for the big push.

Not everyone can be nice in war, you need these characters!

I have a lovely double act with Dominic Power who plays Carus Wilson – he’s much more chatty and friendly with the troops and I’m the one barking orders at them telling them to keep their eyes open, pull themselves together and get their hair cut, that sort of thing. But when we lose Carus Wilson, I’m actually the one who takes them through to the very end.

I might not be very nice but I get the job done.

You survive then?

Yes, I survive to a grand old age and live happily ever after!

How has portraying a real-life character from WW1 added to your preparation for the role and did you carry out any personal research?

Yes, I did do some research, I’m very interested in history anyway, and I knew quite a bit about The Great War anyway, but I did do some more.

My agent wouldn’t let me shave my beard off, so I know I’m breaking all regulations.

Does Chippy in Doc Martin have a beard?

Yes, and I’m known as a bearded actor so my agent insisted I keep the beard, so hence the ‘walrusy’ moustache!

Stokoe did actually have a big moustache and I was quite gratified when I saw a photograph of him in the attic, taken a couple of years after the war, and he was a larger chap(!), well-built – that was in 1919!  – it’s upstairs in the attic of the museum.

What was the most challenging part of bringing your character back to life for this project.

The physical exhaustion, heat and simply shouting for 2 1/2 hours each day… twice a day!

My voice is a lot more resonant now, because I basically bellow for two hours. It’s a very physical part and we’re in the role from the moment everyone arrives to enlist until we all come back to the museum after we depart the train. So, it’s about 2 1/2 hours, of bellowing and being Colonel Stokoe. I don’t speak to anyone, I only BELLOW. So, it’s exhausting.  My diaphragm is in a marvellous condition now, and I’ve lost over a stone since we started the shows!

Maintaining a huge voice that can fill an eighty-foot trench with 80 actors, no acoustics and constantly battling against the sounds of ‘war’, ‘shells’ and ‘gunfire’, people talking all the time and being able to command 80 people with just your voice… is probably like doing about 1000 sit ups a day!

What’s the funniest or oddest thing any of the public have done when they’ve been in The Trench?

One woman refused to wear a tin hat because she thought it would ruin her hair! And she didn’t like the cape as she thought it looked silly.  So, when the barrages were occurring and we were being showered with debris I must say we took a little delight in seeing her hair get a bit ruffled.

What’s next for you acting-wise?

I’ve just been confirmed in another feature film, not Cornwall based, up country. Then I’ll be reprising my role as ‘Tom, The Fishermen’ in the stage adaptation of The Mousehole Cat – the children’s book. In November, we do a school’s tour with it, then in December we’ll be in residence at the Solomon Brown Hall in Mousehole

Then, next year we have a huge adventure in September, where we are taking The Mousehole Cat to the United States for a month. Then a National tour of the UK with another residency in Cornwall for Christmas.

Then next February and March keep your eyes peeled for my face on a bus near you! As that’s when the film ‘The Fishermen’s Friends’ gets released, and I play one of the Fishermen’s Friends. It’s inspired by their story, it’s not a biography so I’m not actually one of them.

It’s going to be Britain’s next big ‘feel good movie’! Similar to Calendar Girls and The Full Monty –  that kind of thing.

I’ve actually sung with The Fishermen’s Friends. I had a pretty good singing voice before this! When we finished the Cornish shoot they hosted our wrap party – their first gig of the year, so we sang with them. We actually did all our own singing in the film.

Right, I’d better get ready for shouting at people…

OK great, thank you for taking the time out of character to chat to me, I’m glad you were Rory and not Colonel Stokoe…!