Tom Watt


"Getting Mileage Out Of Lofty" by Larry Jaffee

Remember Nigel's recent pathetic attempts at organizing a Queen Vic football team at the behest of Mrs. Mitchell. Little did he know, at one time there was a ringer right there in the pub. No, I'm not talking about the dearly departed Aidan from a few seasons ago, purportedly the Walford soccer team's rising young Irish star, who suffered a career-ending (life-ending?) injury before he ever played in a real game.

Rather I'm talking about that meek, asthma-ridden Queen Vic bartender known as "Lofty," an original EastEnders castmember, whose alter-ego, actor Tom Watts, is one of Britain's leading football journalists.

Just my luck I chose to come to London in late May the day before Watt's one-man, fringe-theatre play, Fever Pitch, is closing.

The play was adapted from the book of the same name written by Nick Hornby, who chronicles his obsession with the Arsenal football team (which also counts among its ardent fans Susan "Michelle Fowler" Tully, Watts' erstwhile on-screen wife).

When Watt and I finally make contact on the telephone to set a time and place for our interview I realize that my timing couldn't have been worse since the Euro Cup competition was just starting and he was busy trying to firm up his press credentials for the opening ceremonies at Wembley Stadium. In addition to acting career, Watt writes a regular column on football for The Observer newspaper, and has authored two acclaimed books (The End and A Passion for the Game) about the sport, which he also covers for BBC Radio and a London cable television station.

We end up meeting in the lobby of late afternoon at the BBC's Broadcasting House where Watt was taping a session. A car is waiting for Watt, who apologizes for the abrupt introductions and invites me to take a ride with him to North London, near where he lives and grew up. It's not easy interviewing someone in a car, but I'm willing to give it a shot, considering I might not get any other chance.

It's apparent that EastEnders was nearly a lifetime ago for Watt considering he left the show nearly nine years ago. Yet the often-derided Lofty made Watt a recognizable face with the British public, which is not necessarily a bad thing for an actor.

I ask him if he's surprised that a publication like the Walford Gazette exists. Watt replies that he's not and remembers participating in a 1988 public television junket to America, in which he and several other castmembers met EastEnders' fervent New York fans at a downtown pub for a WNYC fundraiser.

WG: EastEnders must be ancient history for you.
TW: It was quite a long time ago.

WG: Do people still associate you with Lofty
TW: Yeah, there is that association.

WG: Has that been a hindrance to your career?
TW: No, a great help. I haven't been out of work for nine years. Know what I mean? How many actors can say that. It's been great. [EastEnders] opened a lot of doors. It was a great time. I worked with a lot of great people. It was a fantastic part. It was interesting. EastEnders changed how soap operas were looked at. Half of the [British] population was watching some of those early episodes.

WG: Does anything in particular stick out about your experience?
TW: For the three years I was in it, EastEnders was mad, wasn't it? It was on the front page of the newspapers. I remember one day, there had been some big train crash down in South London. People were hurt, somebody may be even got killed. The train derailed. The story about the train crash was on page two or three of this tabloid. The front headline was "LOFTY WED IN MENTAL HOSPITAL." It was insane and got completely out of hand. It's obviously more interesting being involved in it than it would be on the outside looking in sort of thing.

WG: Were you ever victimized by the tabloid press?
TW: No, what would be the point of victimizing the person who played the character that I played. There was no mileage in it. There were no newspapers to be sold. The only chance I got to be slagged up was things like a big trade union dispute that got very ugly and violent down in Wapping when Rupert Murdoch took over The Sun and Times Newspapers and sacked a lot of people. Basically, the idea was to break the unions. I felt quite strongly about that. There weren't a lot of people prepared to put their hands and say "I support the sacked workers." So I went down to Wapping a few times. Obviously, The Sun slagged me off. They printed a picture of me with the director-general of the print workers' union; we looked like the couple from heaven.

WG: Are you involved in any political issues now?
TW: No, I'm not involved in party politics at all. But if there's something that seems important to me, like that Wapping dispute, the miners' dispute, the Nicaragua Solidarity campaign. So if I'm asked, I'll do something.

WG: What kind of acting jobs have you had in recent years?
TW: For the last three or four years, I've just seemed to go from one theatre job to another. I've also done the odd [television programme] episode and pilots for things. I did a few episodes of series for the BBC called South of the Border, a South London detective show. I did a film in 1990 for ITV called And the Nightingale Sang, which has been shown more than once in the States on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. It was a love story set during the war. And I've done yards and yards of presenting stuff for Channel 4, Radio 1, Radio 3, Radio 5, and cable TV. I do features for a programme on Radio 4 called "Afternoon Shift" that aren't necessarily about football. I'm prodcuing this summer a new television series for Channel 4 a kids sports show called Rookies. It's my idea; I'm producing it, directing it and presenting it. It's the first time in a long time that I've done a long run in TV for a while. It starts in the middle of July and goes until Christmas. Ten half-hour episodes. We're looking at sports in an unusual way. We have kids doing a lot of the presenting an interviewing. Our experts will be kids, not adults.

WG: Weren't you in Patriot Games, the movie starring Harrison Ford?
TW: Four minutes. I was excited because I had never done a Hollywood movie before. I was in the only scene in the film that somebody doesn't get shot. The thing about TV and film, you need to be around, meeting people, give it time for things to happen. To be honest, I'm never around because I make a great living doing theatre.

WG: Do you prefer one medium over another??
TW: Obviously for the fun of it, stage work is in a different class. That's live. You can't compare it. If the right theatre job comes along I'll always say yes to it. I have a show scheduled in the West End in November.

WG: What do you write for The Observer?
TW: Match reports and features on football. The newspaper saw my two books about football and asked me if I wanted to write for them.

WG: I was already familiar with Nick Hornby through his second book, High Fidelity. I'm a huge record collector and could relate to someone who's completely obsessed with his records.
TW: Every time I go to America I come come home with loads of tapes and records because there so much more expensive here. The music I listen to is American music. I like blues, R&B, soul and hip-hop. I'm an American passport holder; my mum's an American. She's lived here for 30 years.

WG: A sales clerk from Virgin's Megastore in London a couple of years ago told me you recorded a single of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues."

Were you serious about a music career too?
TW: No, that was just a good laugh really. Most people in soap operas have more money than sense, and I was no exception. I had these mates in Manchester who had a band and I worked them ages ago just messing about doing comedy routines and theatre stuff. They had this idea for a record and this idea that I might like to pay for the studio time. Yeah that went to number sixty-seven with a bullett, that one.

WG: Have any copies survived?
TW: Yeah, they do survive, but you can't get one in a music shop. I think they might be up in my mum's attic. It was a good record, 'electro' version of "Homesick Blues." Great video. New Order was on the video. The only time they were ever seen smiling. It was just a good crack, you know what I mean. It wasn't the kind of record that people in soap operas are supposed to put out, a money-making exercise.

WG: Being a big fan of Arsenal, when you read Hornby's Fever Pitch did you say to yourself that this book was written for you.
TW: No I'm nothing like the guy. I've known Nick for some time and in fact he contributed to the first book I wrote (The End, which was also about Arsenal). I don't particularly see eye to eye with him about football or even Arsenal. But I did see it as a really great piece of writing. There was a lot in it that's true about the game and about how people feel about the game. To be honest, when I was asked to do the show (Fever Pitch), my first reaction was to say no simply because it was a bit obvious. But I've never done a one-man show and the money was good. You know, bollocks, "When do we start?"

WG: What was the experience like doing a one-man show?
TW: It was fantastic. I really enjoyed it. You learn to concentrate. You can't afford to have an off night. When you're in a show with other people, you're doing your best every night, but there are nights when you're on and nights when you're off, when you let other people carry you, or people have a bad night and you're carrying them. But in a one-man show, you're in your jacks. It's just you. You've got to be on the case every night. And that's a great feeling. Every night is a good night because of that.

At Watt's request, the driver drops us off at an outdoor cafe, not far from where Watt grew up in Finsbury Park. He mentions to me that he still stays in contact with Susan Tully, who he calls a "great actress and a great lady." Watt notes that Tully lately has been been very active in actors union affairs.

We're about to enjoy our drinks, when a motorist waiting at the traffic light on the corner interrupts, honks his horn and yells toward Watt, "YEAH, ARSENAL!!!" It's always nice being recognized, offers an embarrassed Watt.

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