AFTER 20 years as soap’s best-known vicar, Emmerdale’s John Middleton opted to move on from the screen death of the Rev Ashley Thomas and become a US cop in the stage adaptation of Strangers On A Train.

“It’s a hell of a contrast to what I’ve been doing for the past two decades and that’s one of the reasons I took the role. It’s so different, I’m playing a hard-bitten American cop,” says Middleton about the drama tour which reaches York’s Grand Opera House in March.

“When my agent contacted me about doing it, I recognised the title because I’d recently read the book and it’s one of those novels where you’re thinking, ‘Why haven’t I read this before?’ Patricia Highsmith also wrote The Talented Mr Ripley and this work is an incredibly, intriguing psychological thriller. That’s what attract me in the first place and it the play was anything like as good... and it is. This is a very faithful adaptation. So it was the piece and the part that appealed to me,” he adds.

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The Harrogate-based actor made a brave decision to leave Emmerdale under an award-winning storyline of the clergyman developing dementia.

“The most important thing about the plot was its relevance because not a day goes by without someone stopping me in the street and saying, ‘Thank you very much for telling that story’, and then they’ll tell me their story. It’s happened twice already today,” says Middleton during a publicity tour of Strangers On A Train to York.

“It was about telling it right and there was actually something uplifting about these responses, because then you know you’ve got it right. If you’ve got it wrong, then people would be furious with you and not mention it at all and dismissed it, and that hasn’t happened.”

Middleton says he looked in numerous directions to create Ashley’s struggle with dementia and medically got a lot of advice. “We were specific about the nature of his dementia because Ashley is comparatively young and it was stroke-related vascular dementia. To be honest, we picked on that because we are storytellers and this form is dramatic with sudden declines in his condition. A mini-stroke would make things worse.

“Then there was meeting people with dementia and carers. The Alzheimer’s Society was amazingly helpful and Methodist Homes assisted and I visited a home in Ilkley and, in particular, the Pathways Breakthrough group in Bradford who specialise in young dementia. I met them a few Christmases ago and got them into a studio for a chat and it was one of the most productive afternoons that we’d ever spent. Two producers and four storyliners and five writers plus Charlotte Bellamy, who plays my soap wife Laurel, sat and listened to the group’s stories. Some of them were funny and some were surprising, shocking and said things that would never have occurred to us. Every one of them went into our Emmerdale story,” says Middleton.

He feels that this level of research gave Ashley’s scenes great depth because it was based on reality.

“I was mainly absorbed in the story and you can’t afford to be too introspective. I’m engaged as an actor to tell a story and the one you want is the one that takes you to the extremes of emotion and human understanding. So, we did that and it was immensely satisfying in that respect. I think we all should have an awareness of this condition as an issue, both as a society and individually, because it is the biggest health issue that we face,” he adds.

Middleton says he hadn’t encountered dementia until the Emmerdale story came along and knew little about it. “Unusually, it hadn’t affected anyone in my family, and I thought it was something to do with memory loss. Then I realised, ‘Oh my God, it is so much, much, more than that’. I did know that there could only be one ending for Ashley and that was a tragic one. The only thing you realise about a show like Emmerdale is that, inevitably, you’re going to have to go at some point. They’re not going to let you push yourself around in a zimmer frame on set. You hope you’re going to be given a good farewell story... and I couldn’t have asked for a better one and a better time to leave because Emmerdale is in such good shape and won every award going including a Bafta.”

He recalls that when he first landed the role of Ashley it was only for eight episodes.

“I remember the story was that the Dingles tried to pull the wool over his eyes concerning some kind of monetary scam. I thought that was that, but I was told it would be great if I was available as and when Emmerdale needed a vicar to hatch, match and despatch. Fortunately, although I was doing loads of other things, I was always available, otherwise the role would have been re-cast. Then, the soap was intrigued with having a vicar permanently around but they really didn’t know what to do with me for the first 12 months. I told one of the writers, ‘I think you need to look beyond the dog-collar’ and then they hit on the idea of Ashley’s unrequited love for Bernice which changed when she falls in love with him. So I became the vicar who went to soap hell and back.”

Now he’s ready to play Arthur Gerard, the down-to-earth detective from Ohio in Strangers On A Train. “He’s not the East Coast sophisticate like the others in the play and very much looked down upon and dismissed by the manipulator at the heart of the crime (immortalised by Hitchcock’s Academy Award-winning 1951 film).

“The plot-line of two strangers who meet and agree to exchange crimes is now well-used in TV and film and has even appeared in Emmerdale,” jokes Middleston. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘This is Strangers On A Train... cheeky buggers’.”

  • Strangers on a Train, Grand Opera House York, Monday, March 5 to Saturday, March 10, with tickets from £18.Box Office: 0844-871-3024 or atgtickets.com/york