Daredevil actor Peter looks at real dangers of war

Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace in Birdsong
Peter Duncan as Jack Firebrace in Birdsong

TV daredevil Peter Duncan is playing a character on stage who really faced danger, tunnelling under the trenches of World War One.

The former Blue Peter presenter and Chief Scout, who also had a spin-off series Duncan Dares, is appearing in wartime drama Birdsong next week in Doncaster.

He said: “I’m playing Jack Firebrace, a tunneller and a sapper. The character is the leader of all the sappers.

“At the beginning he meets a captain and their stories bond together.

“Jack is a very strong, unemotional man but events occur to destroy him and he can’t cope in the end.”

Peter said he had never heard of the sappers whose dangerous job was to tunnel directly under enemy lines before he read Sebastian Faulks’ best-selling 1993 novel. It weaves the story of the sappers with a wartime love story.

He said: “Because it was a secret during the war, it’s not something that’s been written about a lot, so it didn’t make it into the public consciousness.

“When you think of English and German men digging tunnels under each other, it was the most hellish kind of warfare you can imagine. If you did get to them, you had to fight hand to hand as you didn’t have any guns.

“The play is very powerful and tells of the effects that war had on people in terms of the emotional stress.”

Peter said that the tunnelling scenes in the play are very powerful with sound effects that help to re-create vividly what it was like for the men.

He added: “I wondered why would people want to go to the theatre to see such tragedy? There’s something about our nature that wants to understand, so this kind of play can help that understanding.

“Everywhere we’ve been, people don’t know quite how to respond to the men going over the top of the trenches. They end up clapping but there’s always a bit of a delay as people think whether it’s appropriate.”

Often, as in Cork last week, there have been standing ovations, said Peter.

He said Birdsong wasn’t an anti-war play but hoped it would give people pause for thought. Birdsong is also taught on the GCSE curriculum.

“You certainly come out feeling pleased you never lived in that era as a young man. My generation was a lucky generation, we avoided any major kind of conflict. It’s easy to say you’d be a pacifist but you could feel indebted to do something.

“I’ve got a son of the same sort of age as the troops, so you imagine your own family going and how you would prevent it.

“When you’re younger, you’re much more impassioned about a cause. With everything that is coming out about the whistleblower Edward Snowden and GCHQ, you realise how much covert work goes on to convince us about things.”

He said he didn’t think that people could be duped now into supporting the carnage of a war that felt inexplicable looking back on it after 100 years.

Peter said that his Blue Peter days were so long ago that many people don’t remember them. He still enjoy physical challenges and has been seen recently on Celebrity Total Wipeout and celebrity sports challenge The Games, which was filmed in Sheffield.

“If things come up I’ll do them because I have no fear of live TV as such but I don’t think it enhances your career as a proper actor!”

He will be busy soon writing two pantomimes, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, and is a good friend of Paul Hendy, the former TV presenter and actor who masterminds the Lyceum pantos. He also knows Lyceum dame Damian Williams and the two have played Laurel and Hardy on stage together.

Birdsong is at Cast in Doncaster next Tuesday to Saturday. Tickets: go to castindoncaster.com or call 01302 303 959