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The Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Love’s Labour’s Lost features a number of Stratford debutants. Among them is Last Tango In Halifax, Lead Balloon and My Parents Are Aliens actor Tony Gardner, whose first appearance at the home of Shakespeare is just what the doctor ordered - as he explains to What’s On...

It’s fair to say that Tony Gardner has taken an unorthodox route to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage, where he makes his debut this month at the age of 60.

He’ll be familiar to TV viewers for roles in the likes of Last Tango In Halifax, Lead Balloon, The Thick Of It, Gentleman Jack, My Parents Are Aliens and many more. He’s also appeared in a host of plays and films, but got his first taste of the business as one half of a comedy duo that performed five sell-out seasons at the Edinburgh Fringe, earning two Perrier Award nominations in the process.

Both he and his one-time comedy partner Phil Hammond have gone on to bigger things since then, but not in their intended fields - both are qualified doctors, and they met during their early years of training at Bristol’s Frenchay Hospital. Each qualified in 1987, and they became GPs in 1991, but neither could find a cure for the showbusiness bug they caught while performing Christmas review shows at their respective hospitals. So much so that when Phil called to say he’d been doing some stand-up routines about medicine and healthcare, Tony instantly suggested they team up and head for Scotland.

“We formed a double act and went up to Edinburgh, which you could do then - it was the place to try stuff out. We were called Struck Off And Die, and we worked there from 1990 to 1995. As a result we got an agent and a Radio Four series, and that’s how I started falling into acting.”

The fall was obviously a significant one career-wise, but Tony had a safety net to hand.

“I was still working as a locum GP between acting jobs. It would have been mad to leave general practice and 100 per cent employment to enter the acting profession.”

Eventually he did just that, partly through the support of his wife, a consultant anaesthetist, and partly because of the success of My Parents Are Aliens, which gave him regular acting work for eight years. 
“It was never, ever my intention - even when we started going to Edinburgh, which was just a bit of a jolly - but it snowballed. Eventually I felt like I wasn’t doing enough medicine, and there was more and more acting coming in, so I stopped in 2000 and I’ve never been back.

“So that’s my story, really. I loved being a doctor - it’s all I ever wanted to do - but I found something else. All my friends are doctors, my wife’s a doctor, my son’s a medical student, so it’s very much who I am, and I wouldn’t have been an actor if I wasn’t a doctor.

“It’s a strange journey and one I’m often asked about. I can’t recommend it or anything, it’s just my journey and I don’t know any other way. But I’m very, very happy doing what I’m doing.”

His working-class parents clearly made sacrifices to put him through medical school - so had they complained when he packed it in to join the (acting) circus?

“Yeah is the answer! It must have been quite difficult for them because it was an amazing thing for me to go to medical school and become a doctor, the first doctor in the family. My father was a lorry driver from Bristol, so it was always a case of (adopts West Country accent) ‘You can always go back to general practice if it doesn’t work out.’”

It was his recurring role in BBC comedy-drama Last Tango In Halifax and, crucially, being watched by their mates, that finally ended his parents’ doubts, says Tony.

“All their friends started saying they’d seen me in it, so they realised this was what I do now.”

Mercifully no more tuition fees were required either - for all the years of training it took to become a doctor, Tony’s had precisely none to be an actor, having to learn everything ‘on the job’.

“I’ve been very lucky because I’ve been in quite a few shows that went on for more than one series,” he says, citing the five seasons of Last Tango, four of Lead Balloon, and eight of My Parents Are Aliens - which ran for an amazing 106 episodes.

“That meant a lot of screen time. I’m not trained, I didn’t go to drama school, so that was my education into television and screen acting.”

Stage performance came a little later. After initially failing to get, let alone get through, any auditions, he crossed paths with one of theatre’s greatest directors, who also happens to be the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

“I couldn’t get seen by anyone for theatre until Peter Hall saw me and cast me. So my first three plays were with [him] over two years, and that was my very steep learning-curve into acting on stage.”

That was nearly 20 years ago, and Tony’s clearly delighted to have finally made it to his mentor’s spiritual home. He’ll play Holofernes in director Emily Burns’ contemporary new production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which stars fellow RSC debutants Luke Thompson (aka Benedict Bridgerton from the popular Netflix drama), Melanie-Joyce Bermudez, Ioanna Kimbook and Rilwan Abiola Owokoniran.

The play is the first to be programmed by the RSC’s new co-artistic directors, Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey - so the stakes are high, admits Tony.

“We all feel very privileged but also nervous as a result because there’s gonna be a huge magnifying glass on the production,” he says. But his overriding emotion is excitement, and I’ve come across few actors so genuinely enthusiastic about their latest role.

“When I was offered the part, I was overwhelmed, and I still am. I’ve just turned 60, so to be offered my first Shakespeare is incredible.

“I just adore acting, and this is obviously a huge big deal for me. I’ve never done any Shakespeare before, so again I’m on this steep learning curve - and doing it at the RSC!”

It turns out there’s quite a bit of learning too, with voice coaches, movement coaches and even lectures about various aspects of the play, both historical and contemporary - the production is set at the swanky resort of a tech billionaire on an unnamed Pacific Island.

“I think the vision Emily has will really bring the play out. You’ll be able to see it with new eyes, and also see how brilliant the writing is, as there are so many themes within this play.

“We’ve had lectures on the oceanic islands, migration, language, flora, fauna - it’s all going to come into the play. We’ve all soaked it up and know what problems those islands are having. For example, global warming and the climate-change crisis is gonna hit the Pacific Islands before it hits anyone else.

“It’s fascinating to get all this information when you just thought you’d turn up to play a bit of Shakespeare.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost shows at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from Thursday 11 April to Saturday 18 May.