Tutt tutt, now it's time to be serious, Julian

Green Wing star Julian Rhind-Tutt is exploring his dark side in Victorian ghost story Darker Shores at Hampstead Theatre. He talks to Bridget Galton about what drew him to the role as she tries in vain to get a straight answer out of him IT S impossib

Green Wing star Julian Rhind-Tutt is exploring his dark side in Victorian ghost story

Darker Shores at Hampstead Theatre. He talks to Bridget Galton about what drew

him to the role as she tries in vain to get a straight answer out of him

IT'S impossible to get a serious answer out of Julian Rhind-Tutt. The actor's default setting seems to be cynical piss-taking, with his friend, the playwright Mike Punter coming in for much boisterous ribbing.

The pair met at Warwick University in the late 80s where both studied English and Drama.

"We didn't know each other very well back then," says the Green Wing star.

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"It was after university, when Mike had the ridiculous idea of staging the Bible in a south London park and I had to run around like a stupid arse with a cushion on my head pretending to be Pontius Pilate."

"It was a production of the York Mystery cycle at Crystal Palace and you were Caiaphas," corrects Punter with a gentle smile.

Either way, they became friends and Rhind-Tutt is appearing in Punter's play at Hampstead Theatre - he jokes as part of a benevolent charity for "underpriviledged playwrights".

"I am giving something back."

Darker Shores is a Victorian ghost story in the tradition of M R James - who wrote spine chilling tales of na�ve gentlemen scholars menaced by supernatural forces to be read aloud at Christmas gatherings.

Professor Gabriel Stokes (Tom Goodman-Hill, fresh from his acclaimed performance in the Royal Court's Enron) feels a supernatural presence upon moving into the atmospheric Sea House and calls in a noted spiritualist played by Rhind-Tutt.

He may or may not be a charlatan and Darker Shores cleverly keeps the audience guessing what is 'real' and what is staged.

"I have always wanted to write a ghost story," says Punter.

"People think there are lots of ghost stories but other than The Woman In Black there really aren't. It's a deeply theatrical genre, it's about absence and presence which is what theatre is all about.

"I hope it's fun entertainment but there are also ideas here that troubled the Victorians about how we can be certain of reality."

By now Rhind-Tutt is heckling Punter's big-brained theorising, but he gamely ploughs on.

"You need a haunted location - in this case a Gothic seaside edifice - an individual who is troubled by it, and the psychic plumber or ghostbuster called in, rather like Sherlock Holmes, by an intellectual gentleman in distress seeking expert help.

"If you look at any haunting movie from Poltergeist to Amityville to Paranormal Activity, the stories are the same and the fascination with them has never gone away."

Punter himself had a supernatural experience as a child when he saw a figure on a pathway leading down to a bridge that was a noted suicide spot.

"I looked at my mum, then looked back and it was gone. It's always bothered me. We are all fascinated by these inexplicable things."

Set in 1875, Darker Shores captures the fever for spiritualism in Victorian Britain, when it was taken seriously by men of science such as Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

"It was a whole new religion borne from nowhere," says Rhind-Tutt, who is learning illusions from two real magicians for the show.

"You imagine that spiritualism has been going on since time immemorial," adds Punter. But until the Fox sisters no-one ever thought about contacting the spirits. It swept through Europe and suddenly everyone was holding hands around tables."

The Fox Sisters were two teenage girls in New York who claimed to be in touch with a man who died in their house. They developed a method of rapping to communicate with the spirits and went on to help found the religion of spiritualism before exposing themselves as charlatans.

"Spiritualism was attractive as a kind of religion which offered empirical proof of life after death in the spirit world," says Punter.

Rhind-Tutt says there were few out and out fakes.

"Most mediums thought they had a gift, but would justify helping a spirit along. It's a bit like acting, you can't really do it unless you at least partly believe in it and temporarily suspend your disbelief.

"I learned as an actor it was critical to leave all your thoughts, emotions, cynicism, outside the rehearsal room and believe in your character, the play and - God help us - the playwright for the period of that production."

Punter started writing plays in his school library at Dulwich College "mainly to get out of rugby training in that classic geeky escape from sports."

His plays include Wolves For Paines Plough and Upstart Crows which was at last year's Edinburgh Festival.

Rhind-Tutt went to university as a back-up plan in case he failed to make it as an actor.

While there he appeared in a drama society production of Christopher Hampton's Total Eclipse, which he says "set fire to my enthusiasm and helped me find my true path".

Post university, he trained at Central in Swiss Cottage and jobbed around until landing the part as Mac Macartney in Green Wing.

He has since worked on stage and screen including an adaptation of Oliver and two episodes of Poirot.

"I never had a dressing-up box obsession with being an actor, all I knew was I was doing it, it was good fun and I thought, 'Carry on until someone stops you.'"

Darker Shores is at Hampstead Theatre until January 16.