Nobody, it seems, expects Kelvin Fletcher to succeed.
When he was a teenager at school in Oldham, his teachers told him that acting wasn’t a viable career.
“The character of Andy Sugden really resonated with me. I thought, yeah, I can make a go of this.”
“I was probably earning more than the head teacher at that point,” he says, without resentment or smugness. He had not been long in the role of tearaway Andy Sugden in the ITV soap Emmerdale, a part he played for 20 years.
Similarly, at the age of 28, when he started to indulge his other passion of motor-racing, Fletcher was seen as a dilettante celebrity playing with fast cars. Next week he faces off against Jenson Button in the British GT championship, in which he has been creeping up the ratings for the past eight years.
And when he was parachuted in at the eleventh hour to replace an injured contestant in last year’s Strictly Come Dancing competition, Fletcher – who had never danced before – was far behind on training and not expected to do well. He went on to lift the glitterball trophy in the final.
This underdog bites back – by nailing it. So it’s only natural to anticipate that his latest ambition – to get behind the camera and write and direct his own dramas – will come with the usual low expectations and high level of success.
“I get this all the time,” says Fletcher as we both tuck in to a hearty full English at a café in Alderley Edge, where he lives with wife Liz and children Marnie, four, and Milo, coming up to two. “I got it with acting, and I’d never really had any acting classes. I got it with Strictly, and I’d never been trained to dance. I mean, I’d think I’ve got rhythm and I can dance in a club after a few beers, but who can’t? And I got it with racing, until I started beating professional drivers. People don’t seem to allow for you being good at something you’ve never done before.”
Fletcher, now 36, is un-starry and self-effacing. He tells me of how his mum took him for a modelling job when he’d first started acting, and he was told in no uncertain terms that “he had an actor’s face”. By his own admission, he never set out to be famous. He turned to acting because he loved it – the same with racing and dancing on Strictly. And for the same reasons, he’s now looking at directing and screenwriting.
“Life’s too short to do anything I don’t enjoy,” he shrugs. “Obviously there are little things you have to get through – rehearsing for a week in Cuban heels wasn’t much fun. But overall, I just want to do things that I love.”
Fletcher has spent the lockdown working on drama scripts and forging links with production companies in the north. He’s got projects he wants to move ahead with next year. But that doesn’t mean he’s turned his back on acting. He’s just wrapped on two BBC dramas that he can’t talk about yet.
And, like his acting, his nascent career in the director’s chair owes a lot to his years on Emmerdale. It taught him far more than the craft of his business, though. “The character of Andy Sugden really resonated with me,” he says. “And I thought, yeah, I can make a go of this and I did that, because over 20 years he turned into a character that was well-loved and relatable. I got so many letters from young lads, from people in prison – Andy went to jail for a bit and they seemed to really relate to him – people who had not had a fair crack of the whip and had people give up on them, and that is when the power of drama, especially serial drama, hit me.”
Fletcher was six when he joined Oldham Theatre Workshop. There was no grand acting tradition in the family; he grew up as the eldest of three boys to Karen and Warren Fletcher in Derker, Oldham. But the Oldham Theatre Workshop was a popular haunt for the town’s kids, not so much an acting hothouse as a youth club that attracted children from all backgrounds.
“I thought it was great,” he says. “It was just what a lot of people did. It sounds unusual because lads from Oldham are encouraged to play rugby and I did do all that but Oldham youth theatre was this unique thing and it was absolutely acceptable to go there and prance around a stage and play something in a pantomime, put a show on every six months. It was great for a kid.
“Acting gave me great confidence. I still go and teach classes at the youth centre in Oldham. And I say to all the kids, you don’t have to want to be an actor – it’s just good to meet different people. And you all learn about acceptance, allowing people to be a bit different. Drama is an amazing tool to have for any young person.”
But work started to come in – first commercials, then a small part in Cracker (“I was eight or nine. My mum and dad were so impressed that I had a scene with Robbie Coltrane. To me he was just a big, friendly Scottish bloke who was lovely”) – eventually leading to Emmerdale, which he would do until he decided to leave the soap at the age of 33.
While he was on Emmerdale, Fletcher took a keen interest in what everyone else was doing on the set. By a combination of learning by osmosis and a fierce need to understand, he not only honed his acting chops but gained a self-taught knowledge of the whole process.
He says: “I learned a lot on the set of Emmerdale. Never trained as an actor and learned that on the job. But I also wanted to know how everything else worked. I wanted to know the dynamics of it all, the camerawork, the lighting, why they want to create a certain shadow, what it means, why this costume, why that make-up. I just love the feeling when all those creative minds come together and they do something like that. When everybody is on their A-game, it’s just magic.”
Magic of a different sort was wrought this time last year when Fletcher, after three failed auditions to get on the Strictly Come Dancing line-up, received a call to replace Made in Chelsea star Jamie Laing who had injured his foot days before the start of the competition.
It was a gamble for the producers, but it spectacularly paid off. Fletcher and professional dance partner Oti Mabuse were the first couple out on the first show, dancing the samba, considered one of the hardest dances in the competition. And they absolutely smashed it.
As this year’s competition gets underway, he recalls: “All that week training I had no idea how I was doing. I had nothing to compare it against, hadn’t seen the other celebrities. The first night was the highlight of the whole series for me. I came in as the absolute underdog and just let myself go. I remember thinking, come on, give it some. You only get one shot, lad. You shouldn’t be here. I think being an actor helped. I just lost all my inhibitions, standing there in a tight blue costume and Cuban heels. I knew I had to just embrace it and in that moment I thought, I’m going all out here, and I did.”
The next morning, Fletcher received a text from his mum. It detailed all the triumphs in his acting life, which he started at the age of six. He pauses over his brunch, and has tears in his eyes as he remembers it. “It was a random list, like, in 19-thingy you did this, then you got a part on Emmerdale, when you were little I entered you in a beauty pageant, and you lost – all of these things she did as a parent and some of them I didn’t even know about. And she said: ‘But seeing you on Strictly last night, I well up when I think of it.’ It was just beautiful to know your mum and dad are proud of you.”
He went on to win, of course. There followed a six-week live Strictly tour, which also had a competition element that Fletcher won. It sounds as though he’s hugely competitive and driven to win, but he says that’s not the case at all. When told by his careers teachers that acting wasn’t really a proper job, he thought he might be a car mechanic, like his dad. He’d always loved cars and finding out how they worked.
But he admits to being the sort of child who took his toys apart to see how they were put together, just like he later did with cars, and acting, and the whole TV industry.
“If I fail at something, that’s fine,” he says. “So long as I know I’ve tried my hardest at it. You’ve got to believe in yourself. That’s not arrogance – it’s just that if I don’t believe in me, then who will?”
What sort of stories is he planning to tell from behind the camera? “I don’t know if it’s a projection of myself but I go for stories about the underdog,” says Fletcher. “Everybody’s got a story, my dad always says that. I’m really interested in people’s stories.”
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