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Suffolk's acting dynasty

PUBLISHED: 13:16 17 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:10 20 February 2013

Lex Shrapnel, right, with Shane Ritchie in the Channel 5 remake of Minder

Lex Shrapnel, right, with Shane Ritchie in the Channel 5 remake of Minder

John Shrapnel's explosive stage performance inspired his son to follow him into the family profession. Dave Gooderham spoke to the actors, whose family home is in Wattisham, about their relationship

Shock & awe


Lex Shrapnel can remember the exact moment when he realised he wanted to continue his familys rich heritage of acting.
As an impressionable 12-year-old, Lex sat in a darkened theatre transfixed by the Shakespearian acting ability of his father, John Shrapnel.
As John took the applause for his Royal Shakespeare Company role as Creon in The Thebans, a new wannabe actor was born to follow in the footsteps of his father, and also his grandmother the legendary six-times Oscar-nominated actress Deborah Kerr.
Lex said: I can remember that dads performance as Creon was stunning. There was one amazing theatrical image that I have never forgotten, and that was dad crawling across the stage, howling at the Gods.
I knew it was acting, but it had such a profound effect on me, just as a member of the audience in the theatre. Seeing my old man crawl around the stage was the moment that I knew I wanted to become an actor.
Given his upbringing immersed in theatre production, some might think Lex had no choice but to enter the precarious world of acting.
Not a bit of it, retorts the 30-year-old who admits his old man has always been an inspiration, but never a forceful one.
My father was massively supportive, Lex recalls. You often hear about parents being dismayed that their child wants to become an actor and they look to discourage them. But mine were completely supportive, and have been to this day.
Any time I saw a film of my dads or my grandmothers, it just made me realise how brilliant they were. I am so impressed and inspired watching anything they have done.
It is a memory shared by John, who admits he had a massive glow of pride upon hearing that one of his three sons wanted to follow him into the profession.
As it transpired, all his sons have followed suit. Joe is a screenwriter who has also received an Oscar nomination for the short film The Tonto Woman, while Tom is both an actor and a producer.
Following in your fathers footsteps is not uncommon for a proud son, but few professions have as many pitfalls as the world of acting.
But John said: I was very pleased to have just one of my kids follow me into the profession to have all three was just great. It is not something either myself or my wife actively encouraged, or discouraged, but we are very pleased and proud with how it has worked out.
Aside from his grandmother, who found fame with her roles in From Here to Eternity and The King and I, Lex had a fantastic role model and teacher in his father. A renowned actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, John has also appeared in hit films such as Gladiator and Notting Hill.
In a career dating back more than 40 years, John boasts a fantastic portfolio full of distinguished roles in stage and screen.
It is a diversity and adaptability that Lex learnt at a young age. He said: Having a varied career is extremely important and something I have always known growing up. When I was a kid, I would see a lot of my dad on stage for the Royal Shakespeare Company and also the movies both he and my grandmother did. I had a fascination with all areas of acting and it was inevitable that I would absorb all this at a young age and that it would stay with me when I had my own ambitions.
I think you cannot afford to be pigeonholed and even people like Keira Knightley are being diverse and taking to the stage at the West End.
With an impressive number of stage and screen roles himself, Lex admits that he and his dad sometimes trade frank acting advice over the dinner table.
He revealed: I sit watching my dad and I am beaming with pride, although I now have a critical eye myself. Part of being an actor is taking criticism, and if you cant take it from your own family, then you are in trouble.
It works both ways and it is important to discuss certain roles and performances, even though I am sure my dad knows what I think about him.
I can remember seeing my dad opposite Helen Mirren (last year in Phedre) and he had this big climactic speech in the last part of the play and he was just brilliant. There isnt often much to criticise.
John has equal amounts of praise for his son, claiming that any actor can always learn from a role but that Lex was a little old for tips.
John said: Lex did a lot of classical acting work from an early age and I think that training has stayed with him throughout his career. Each production is a new experience but there isnt a lot of advice I can give to Lex.
He has always been serious about acting and his work, whatever level he has been playing. He takes on each role with a high degree of seriousness and whatever advice I gave him when he was younger, he has always put it into practice.
The family, who have lived in Suffolk for 30 years, remain very close and share a deep love of the county despite their profession taking them all over the word.
John, who lives with his wife Francesca in Wattisfield, said: I do spend some time away from the county but it is always delightful to come back, whatever time of year it is.
Lex will next be seen on stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Death of a Salesman and admits his leap from stage to screen is something very important and something he has inherited from his father.
Lex has played John Tracy in the film version of Thunderbirds and starred alongside Harrison Ford in K-19 Widowmaker but also starred in smaller films on intimate sets which gave him a chance to work in a creative atmosphere away from the Hollywood glitz and glamour.
But whether its working on big screen blockbusters or lesser known small productions, Lex admitted there were low points to the acting profession, citing rejection and criticism.
The latter slightly marred his biggest British role to date when he was cast alongside Eastenders actor Shane Ritchie in the Channel 5 remake of Minder.
As well as breaking his hand in a boxing scene on the last day of film, Lex said the reluctance of certain parts of the media to judge the series on its own merits left a scar.
He revealed: Minder was a great experience and I loved many aspects of it. But I was also frustrated by it in so many ways. I loved working with all the people involved and so many had put their heart and soul into the project.
But it was frustrating as there was this instant backlash from the media. I understand the original show was so popular but there was a reluctance to accept any new version, although we received tremendous support from the public.
John was speaking to the EADT Suffolk magazine as he neared the end of his run on the production of An Enemy of the People at the Sheffield Crucible, which reopened after a two-year, 15.3million makeover.
After spending much of the last two-and-a-half years combining stage and screen work, he admits he is yearning for a break.
But when it is suggested that he might decide to slow down as he approaches his 69th birthday, the veteran actor quickly dismisses such a notion.
He said: I certainly wont stop if I can help it. You pick up more tools as you get older but each job I get is like my first job and that is what keeps me going. It is still as exciting and exhilarating as it was years ago.
It is this passion that has been a hallmark of such an established career and something that 20 years ago inspired one young impressionable teenager sitting and watching in awe of his father.

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