Creative Caversham – Richard Usher

CREATING A successful career on stage or screen is famously fraught; so many aspiring actors set out to set the world ablaze, only to face disappointment. However, Caversham resident Richard Usher has been quietly building a successful career as an actor, voice-over artist and film extra – sometimes known as a supporting artist. He can be spotted in the likes of Downton Abbey and The Crown, as well as The Darkest Hour. With a fascinatingly varied career already under his belt, Richard is always keen to learn from others, and to get new ideas from older well-established stars. “As an extra, you have a great opportunity to watch the main actors and the directors at work. And it’s great to meet such a broad range of people who have decided they want to work as extras” he says.
Interestingly, Richard didn’t start out by going to stage school – in fact he began working with the BBC in 1996, with plenty of on-the-job training in the early days. “You could start the day reading the news, and end by doing the sport,” he recalls. Moving to Reading in 2001 while still with the BBC, he has lived in Caversham Park Village for the past 16 years. “It was while I was with BBC Berkshire that I and three colleagues were asked if we would like to take part in a Progress Theatre production of Romeo and Juliet in the Abbey ruins. I played a servant – my first acting role,” he explains. Having left the BBC in 2012, he continued to develop his voice-over career, performing over 20 audiobooks of Shakespeare stories for children, and more than 30 Sherlock Holmes tales.
“Around then, I spotted an ad for a new Goon Show about to tour the country, so I auditioned. There was a part recreating Peter Sellers – and I got that part!” In fact, Richard had already had a long fascination with The Goon Show, the iconic radio comedy series which ran from 1951 until 1960 famously beloved of Prince Charles. In the mid-80s and still at school, Richard began writing scripts and shows. “My dad said, ‘This reminds me of the Goon Show’, but I’d never heard of them. So he took me to the local library and we took out an LP – and I was hooked!”

With the cast of the Goon Show

Richard’s Goon Show tour led to other roles which have recreated, or been connected with, many of the greatest names from the ‘golden era’ of radio comedy. A great friend of comedian Tony Hancock was the Goon Show scriptwriter Larry Stephens, who wrote Vacant Lot as a pilot for Hancock. This remained in the BBC archives at Caversham, until finally rediscovered in 2015. Produced as a stage show in 2017 by Dave Freak for the Birmingham Comedy Festival, Richard played roles originally intended for Peter Sellers, Kenneth Connor and Sydney Taffler. More recently, Richard has been playing in the first stage adaptation of the long-running Navy Lark comedy, recreating Dennis Price and Commander Shaw in the national tour. Richard has noticed that not all the audience who come to the theatre to see these shows, based on radio hits from more than half a century ago, is from the older generation. “We get a cross-generational mix of ages coming to the show,” he says. “We were in Croydon doing the Goon Show, and there were members of the audience who’d never previously heard of the show. But we also came across a chap who said he had actually seen the original cast, and he thought our production would be terrible. But by the interval had decided it was brilliant!”

Richard, playing Dennis Price/No.1, with James Hurn as Leslie Phillips, in the Navy Lark Photo Primrose Productions and Sally L Davey

Richard doesn’t confine himself to recreating new shows based on the old radio hits. For example, he has been working as assistant to a TV commentator at Wimbledon this summer. In the autumn he is taking on two solo shows, narrating chilling ghost stories by EF Benson (of Mapp and Lucia fame) for NeuNoir Theatre Company. This follows a successful debut last October performing stories by William Hope Hodgson about the exploits of the fictional supernatural detective, Thomas Carnacki. He has spent time teaching broadcasting and voice-over skills for the Bridge Theatre Training Company in Camden, and has also recently become interested in sound design.
Another of Richard’s passions is the river, and as a member of the River Thames Society he has acted as a warden for a section of the Thames, checking that lifebelts are intact and the condition of the paths. But he has also become fascinated by the river’s history and the characters connected with it. He has discovered his namesake, the clown Richard Usher, born in the 18th century, came up with a stunt in which he sailed from Westminster to Waterloo Bridge in a bathtub towed by a flotilla of geese!
Sounding like an episode from the original Goon Show, Richard admits he remains endlessly fascinated by the show. “If I could play the Goons for the rest of my life, I would be happy!”
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Richard Usher (top left) Photo Claire Newman-William