Culture: Expelling Demons of a Resistant UK; Andrew Davies Finds Hugh Ross Is Always Keen to Test Himself in Difficult Roles on the Stage

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Byline: Andrew Davies

Hugh Ross is getting used to posing as a high-ranking cleric. For the past two Fridays, he has been gracing our small screens as a cardinal to Lenny Henry's Pope in Lenny Henry in Pieces. And over the last three weeks, the 49year-old actor has been on stage at the Birmingham Rep as the Bishop of Southwark in Racing Demon, the first of David's Hare's state-of-the-nation trilogy.

It is a role he has been relishing. 'It's a lovely part in that he has the very first scene, when the people in the vicar Lionel's parish are doubting him and doubting his belief,' enthuses Ross in his low, smooth voice with a trace of Scottish accent - the kind of voice the word 'mellifluous' was invented for.

'Then in the second half there's a big confrontation scene where I dismiss him - it's just a great scene.'

Ross has central roles in all three plays currently in rep. In The Absence of War, a look at the Labour Party based on the leadup to and events of the 1992 general election, he plays political advisor George Dix, while in Murmuring Judges he plays Sir Peter Edgcombe QC, a conservative judge who takes on a principled, young, black, female lawyer as an assistant.

With such in-depth studies of three of the nation's largest, most monolithic institutions, actors were pleased to get input from lawyers, policemen, bishops and vicars during the eight-week rehearsal period.

'We had discussions with someone from the judiciary for Murmuring Judges and the Bishop of Aston to talk about the Church for Racing Demon, which was wonderful - we liked him a lot,' says Ross.

Another source of help and authenticity for Racing Demon was the Birmingham Rep's chaplain, the Rev Joe Evans.

'Every theatre has some sort of cleric attached to the theatre to look after the well-being of the actors - it's a funny thing. He's very, very hands-on and he's been great telling us what to wear and how to put things on.'

Working on the trilogy has been something of an educational process for Ross.

'They're all about how amazingly fixed these institutions are and how they are ingrained in the fabric of England,' he explains. 'There's a lot about the class system - one thing I didn't know, for instance, is all the bishops go to one school, then Oxford or Cambridge. The Church is very much a club.

'These plays are all vaguely critical of the clubs that run Britain - these ancient, traditional clubs.'

Despite first being performed ten years ago as a trilogy, and 12 years ago for Racing Demon, Ross feels they are still very relevant.

'Racing Demon is amazingly topical - I heard, on Radio 4 the other day, a debate about how stuck on biblical teaching the Church is and how relevant that is to the Church's work.

'In Racing Demon, the central character Jack Shepherd is playing believes pastoral care is more important than the sacraments.

'The bishop believes that rules are to be adhered to, and uses this vicar with a parish in London as an example, to show that the Church still exercises an authority.

'All three have central compassionate characters who are pitted against a particular huge institution. Irina in Murmuring Judges, a black barrister training with me as an assistant, is a token character because there aren't many a) women and b) black people in the legal profession. …