Scott Turnbull had just finished filming the final series of Byker Grove before he joined up and marched off to the frontline. Steve Pratt reports.

SCOTT Turnbull has played just two roles as a professional actor - both of them Geordies. Which he finds a little odd as he comes from Middlesbrough, not Newcastle.

"I'm not a Geordie but the accent's good enough for most people," he says. "When I was at university everyone assumed I was from Newcastle. But I'm very proud to be from Middlesbrough and am a big fan of the football team."

As he prepares to take the stage as a young British soldier in Iraq, he'll also be seen in the next, and final, series of BBC1's junior Geordie soap Byker Grove. This isn't bad going for someone who, by his own admission, "lost my way and found myself unemployed for two years".

Having acted at school, Turnbull did arts and media studies at college and then more or less dropped out. At 19, and "just to get my mum off my back", he went back to school, studying performing arts at Stockton College.

"At the end of the two years you had to apply for university or stage school. I thought, 'hang on a sec, I'm going to have to do this', and I decided to study something I was good at, which was acting," he says.

He spent three years at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, emerging as an actor with a BA Honours degree.

Byker Grove came along almost at once. He appears in six episodes in the last series and, at 25, was one of the oldest performers on the set. His character, Jason, stars in a film being made by one of the youth centre kids.

He was surprised at the tough shooting schedule on the series. "It's long, long hours. I would get a call at 7am to get into make-up and costume, which meant I had to set off from home at six. I finished at 7pm at night, so I wasn't home before 8.45," he says.

He was then called up into the British army, playing a young soldier named Geordie in How Many Miles To Basra?, Colin Teevan's play having its world stage premiere at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds this month. Developed from his BBC Radio 3 play, it explores the experiences of journalists, soldiers and civilians caught up in the current conflict.

"Geordie is a very loyal character," says Turnbull. "The idea is he's left home because he ran up a lot of debts on credit cards. The only reason he went out to fight the war, which he doesn't even understand, is to earn money to pay off his debts."

The cast is being given a taste of army life with daily workouts with their drill sergeant. Is it tough? "Depends how many pints you've had the night before," says Turnbull.

The actors have had an insight into the situation from a soldier who served in Iraq. Turnbull also has friends who've served in the army.

The actors have had gun training. "It's quite exciting at first when you get your guns and equipment but, after a while, they become an extra part of you," he says.

"I went to army training camp when I was at school and was quite taken with it because I won two medals, for abseiling and the assault course. But I never dreamed of joining the army.

"What I see in Geordie is he has such wonderful traits that I'm quite envious of. He's loyal, honest and brave. He has all the attributes of someone you aspire to, but at times he's a little bit lost."

Although How Many Miles To Basra? marks his professional theatre debut, Turnbull has appeared at Stockton International Festival as a compere. He thought he'd just be introducing the performers but found he was required to entertain the crowd between the acts. "That was pretty intense for five days. I was learning jokes within the space of 20 minutes and then telling them to the audience. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end, but it's helped me a lot."

There is a downside to playing Geordie - he'll have to lose his long hair. "I'm having a buzz cut," he says with a tinge of regret.

l How Many Miles To Basra? is at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, from September 23 to October 21. Tickets 0113 213 7700.