Teesside Actor, James Gaddas on Starring in Fishermen's Friends: The Musical
‘It was a happy time,’ James says of growing up in Stockton. ‘It was kind of idyllic. When I was a kid, I remember getting my first big green Raleigh bike and every day in the summer holidays always seemed to be sunny (I’m sure it wasn’t). My mother would pack sandwiches in waxed wrappers – I’m starting to sound like an Enid Blyton book!’ he laughs. ‘She’d stick them in my backpack and away I’d go on my bike.
People always have a knock at the North East. They’ll say “it’s a bit grey, and a bit grim” but honestly growing up in Stockton, I never found that. We’d take trips out to Sadberge, and we’d go up to the Moors and to Captain Cook’s Monument. There’s so much to do that I never felt I had to get out of there and go down South – until work came knocking.’
For James, work is acting, and almost always has been (save for a brief stint when he worked in a tailor’s in Stockton). He became interested in acting when he studied at Grangefield School (now known as The Grangefield Academy). Film director Sir Ridley Scott, his brother and fellow film director Tony Scott, and The Attractions’ bassist Bruce Thomas are all Grangefield alumni (as am I – I just haven’t found my claim to fame just yet).
James attended the school with his friend and actor Jeremy Swift, and they took part in school shows together. ‘Jeremy suggested we should go to Billingham Technical College to study drama. When I was all set to go to Stockton Sixth Form, he said: “I’ve got my place at Billingham, when’s your audition?” I hadn’t applied! I felt really guilty so went to Billingham with him and then I applied for Bristol Old Vic. I’ve been stumbling into work ever since.’
Casualty, Bad Girls, Coronation Street, Billy Elliot, Monty Python’s Spamalot and Mamma Mia are just some of the shows on James’ CV, but he modestly says he’s ‘been lucky’ to star in them. ‘A lot of actors say this but a lot of it has been being in the right place at the right time,’ he explains. ‘I know an awful lot of actors who I trained with and have worked with who are much better actors than I’ll ever be. If it’s not the right place at the right time, it’s the right role at the right time. I remember in the late 80s they were looking for a tall, skinny Geordie to play a lead in The Black Candle. I got that which led to Medics. Medics led to Class Act, Coronation Street and Bad Girls.’
Although he’s loved his work on screen, his acting career began on stage, and in the pandemic, feeling a little lost, James decided to write his own one-man play in a bid to get back out in front of a crowd – his own twist on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the most famous Gothic horror story of all time.
In his show, James comes across Bram Stoker’s original handwritten copy while working on a satellite channel TV show. The copy contains pages which were never actually published and leads him to a terrifying discovery. The show last toured in spring, to great success.
Now James is back on stage; this time not alone, but with friends. Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical is based on the true story of the Cornish singing sensations, Fisherman’s Friends, and the 2019 film about their life. When a group of Cornish fishermen came together to sing traditional working songs, they hoped to raise money for charity, but nobody expected their story to end on the Pyramid stage of Glastonbury.
‘The songs are so catchy,’ James says. ‘People will say they don’t know sea shanties – but you do! Everyone does, even if you think you don’t. It’s such an uplifting show. It’s one of those shows that’s just so warm and enveloping.
'The village they come from has two harbour walls and, as James [Grieve the director] was pointing out, it’s almost like they embrace the village. In the show, they embrace anyone who wants to invest their time and money into seeing it. My daughter watches Love Actually every Christmas because it gives her a real lift (that and Mamma Mia) and I think this show is similar in that sense – it just speaks to you.’
James is playing Jim, a typical Cornish fisherman who is hardworking and drinks plenty. ‘His wife has left him and he has a daughter who he adores,’ James adds. ‘Bitter is the wrong word, but since his wife left him and went to London, he hasn’t remarried and hasn’t looked for anyone. He’s very much a man who trusts people when they show their true colours.
There’s a real reconciliation with the daughter during the show. He has to accept that she’s growing up. The beauty of it is that it’s all about Cornish traditions, family, friends, trust and community (something we definitely had in Stockton).
I was actually talking about this to someone I work with. I remember in 1973 my dad said if Sunderland got to the FA Cup final, we’d buy a colour TV – and we did. The whole street came round to watch the final because you knew all your neighbours back then. I know one neighbour in London now, after all these years! Community is a big thing for him, and me.’
Looking to the future, James can’t decide whether he prefers working on stage or screen. ‘It’s more to do with the project than whether it’s film, television or stage. We do tend to pigeonhole people in this country. We’ll say “they’re a television actor” or “they’re a theatre actor” and that really isn’t the case. We should just embrace actors for what they bring, and if they can do both television and theatre then that’s great.’
See Fisherman’s Friends: The Musical at Newcastle Theatre Royal from 11th–15th October 2022, at Leeds Grand Theatre from 8th–19th November 2022 or book tickets to see the show at Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield from 7th–11th February next year.
What have been your favourite roles?
I loved playing a doctor in Medics. Bad Girls was another great five years. Theatre-wise, I would say playing the dad in Billy Elliot and King Arthur in Spamalot. That’s so far! It’ll be interesting to see what this show is going to be like when we get it up and running.
What are you watching?
I’m late to the party but I’m watching The Last Kingdom and Resident Evil on Netflix. We just finished Ozark – that was the best piece of television in years. You’ve got to get involved in that. Once you dip in, you’re hooked.
What are you reading?
I can’t remember the last time I sat down and read! It will have been Dracula when I was researching the play. I do like a bit of horror.
Another North East-born actor you’d love to work with?
Jeremy Swift! We’ve known each other since we were 11. He wrote the music for Dracula but we’ve only worked together once, on a BBC series called Dogtown, and that was pretty short-lived. In an ideal world I’d love to work with him more.
Is there a quote that inspires you?
“This too shall pass.”
Tips for budding actors?
Never let people say that you can’t. There was no history of acting in my family. They were miners and builders; my dad said “you’ve never done a day’s hard work in your life”. Certainly, when I started you couldn’t have a regional accent – thankfully, that’s not the case anymore. You just have to have a passion. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t, just show them that you can.
Plans for the future?
We’re on with this show until May next year. But I’m working on a two-man version of The Three Musketeers. After I finished Dracula, I thought it would be fun to do another show, but it’ll be nice to have a bit of company on the road this time!