Entertaining Mr Stuke

Patrick Marmion, Daily Telegraph, 18 Jan 2001

People tell Neil Stuke he's the perfect Sloane. They don't mean the former second-hand car salesman and Game On star wears rugby shirts, lives in Fulham and quaffs Chardonnay. They do mean he's the perfect lead for Joe Orton's 1964 play Entertaining Mr Sloane. But it's a mixed compliment. The titular hero of Orton's comedy, revived by writer-director Terry Johnson and co-starring Alison Steadman, Clive Francis and Bryan Pringle, is a manipulative, murderous, self-centred chameleon. But if, like Sloane, Stuke has many sides, they are also united by his cheekily evasive sense of humour.

The most striking feature that makes Stuke the perfect Sloane is the boyish twinkle in his piercing grey-blue eyes. At the age of 34, this could also be his last chance to play the 24-year-old troublemaker. More intriguingly, a major attraction for Stuke was the metre of Orton's language. "I like the music," he explains, speaking a terse, Michael Caine-like cockney. "The rhythm of it. He writes in an almost musical way. Like Pinter. I love the music." Which cues up the first of Stuke's assorted personae.

As well as being a well-known actor, Stuke is also a lapsed musician. In his youth in Deal in Kent he was drummer in a band called Frigid Sister. Moreover, playing percussion clearly still exerts a powerful hold on him - even if his days on a drum kit are over. "I play the drums all the time in my head. And with my hands. I still think of rhythms all the time. I hear the music of plays and films. It's the first thing I hear."

He may get revved up over bands like David Gray, Grandaddy and Sneaker Pimps today, but there will only ever be one band for Stuke. "The Clash. There's never been anything like The Clash before or since. They're still the greatest. Paul Simenon [bass guitarist] to me is like Montgomery Clift for Marlon Brando or James Dean. The Clash were probably one of the most important things in my life. Ever. Paul Simenon was just God, wasn't he?"

But lest we be sidetracked into Stuke's theological persona, let us not forget that he is first and foremost a highly regarded actor. Which is why he's appearing in the film version of BS Johnson's 1973 novel Christy Malry's Own Double-Entry. Due for release later this year, Stuke stars with Nick Moran and Kate Ashfield in the tale of a young man who uses the principles of double-entry book-keeping to get even with society. "I'm a guy called Headlam. He takes Malry [Moran] under his wing and looks after him for a bit. Very funny character. He becomes Malry's mate in that cold, shallow world Malry's living in." There's one particularly memorable scene in the book in which Malry has an encounter with his girlfriend [Ashfield] involving shaving cream and a Hoover. Stuke's face lights up. "Kate Ashfield gives very good Hoover. Nick Moran receives it well. Obviously in private I worked it all out for them. Tested the Hoover. I took it to my hotel room and worked on it for a few weeks. The Hoover, that is. Not Kate, obviously. I feel quite sorry for actresses. On a cold frosty morning it's hard to get yourself perky."

Significantly, the screenplay adaptation of Christy Malry was written by Stuke's friend, playwright Simon Bent. Having appeared in, among other new plays, Bent's drama Goldhawk Road at the Bush, Stuke is proud of his roots in new writing. "I like to think that's how I made my name. Doing new plays. It's a really exciting way to get up the ladder. It's a kind of worthy way as well. People know I've worked for it. I like that."

Not only does he feel good about the source of his success, he's obviously learned something from it too - being an occasional writer himself. He wrote a short film called Police Cycle, which he hopes to produce this year, and he is under commission to film company Working Title to write a full-length screenplay. Another professional persona? "I'm not sure I can comment on that 'cos I sort of let myself down. I haven't stopped working - acting, I mean - so any thought about writing has gone out the window. It's still there. But I can't tell you about it. It's such a good idea someone might steal it."

One of the acting jobs that has kept him from his commission is another BBC sitcom, called Office Gossip, written by Paul Mayhew-Archer, cowriter of The Vicar of Dibley. In this, Stuke appears with Pauline Quirke and Robert Doors. "It's traditional British sitcom: we work in a toy-factory office and I'm shagging the boss."

All in all, you'd have thought Stuke had enough fish to fry. But no: cooking turns out to be his favourite pastime. He even worked as a chef while training at the Central School of Speech and Drama. "My dad was a chef and I had a mate in Brighton who showed me the art of good cooking. Now I've got friends who are chefs and restaurateurs. I think eventually that would be a nice thing to have. A small hotel. Or restaurant."

Finally, aside from Stuke the actor, drummer, theologian, writer and chef, there's Stuke the erstwhile West-Ham supporter. But a happy Hammer he does not seem to be. Even on this very personal, very sectarian subject, he is Sloane-ishly elusive. "I've moved very close to the Arsenal football ground and I'm sorry but I want a place where I can just walk and see football. Can you see what I'm saying? Shall we leave it slightly ambiguous?" Whatever role he chooses in life, Stuke seems destined to remain an actor. And a pretty good one too.