John MIDDLETON is in the middle of the storyline of his life at present, but his role as Emmerdale's Ashley Thomas has become a bittersweet one. When it was proposed to him two years ago that the vicar he plays so wonderfully would develop stroke-related vascular dementia, he didn't demur although he knew it would mean the end of his 21-year-run on the popular soap.
"I didn't hesitate as it's the best story anyone has ever given me," he says. "I started researching and realised the duty we had, because it would be a massive disservice to people with dementia, their families and carers if we didn't get this storyline right. We almost have to try twice as hard because we're a soap opera. I really didn't want to do a sensationalised story, which means cheapening things to go for the emotional hit, nor did my producers."
It's hardly surprising that John (63) became an actor as his mum, Marlene, was an English teacher and dad, Richard, was a drama teacher and writer for television. "He died in 1998 and it was dreadfully upsetting," John says. "He was central to all of our lives, a wonderful friend to me and also my most severe critic. A lot of actors say that in their mind, they have an audience of one, and he was mine."
Although he claims he was the "bossy eldest" of six, John was also quite shy as a child, and says he still is, to a certain extent. He was bitten by the acting bug when his family moved to Newcastle and he joined a youth theatre company. He then went to the East 15 theatre school, which he loved.
"Because of my very left-wing politics, I didn't want to do what I described at the time as 'elitist theatre'," he says. "I wanted to do theatre that would connect with most people and make them think, so I did a lot of touring productions in small venues for small pay packets. I sometimes think I'm still doing the same job in many ways, but I'm getting better paid for it now."
In case you're wondering if he's any relation to those Middletons, he isn't, but his real name, John Cooper, was already taken by another Equity actor. He landed the Emmerdale role in December 1996, but as John isn't religious himself, playing someone who is a profound believer in God is an interesting challenge.
"I recognise the central importance of religion in a lot of people's lives, and therefore it has to be treated with the greatest respect," he says. "What has been fascinating about playing Ashley is that he has his moments of doubt, like any person, and he has flaws too. He is central to village life, and there is great fun to be had with him, and around his ineptitude with women, in particular. There is also a central dilemma because he is supposed to be a man of morals but, like any human being, he is tempted in ways that might be morally dubious."
In real life, John is married to Christine and they have two sons, Jack (33) and George (28). He feels lucky that life has been good to him and he has had a more stable life than Ashley. The 54-year-old vicar is married to Laurel and is dad to Gabby and Arthur, and he's now in a care home. "After Ashley realises that he eventually won't recognise his children, he loses his faith in shock at the cruelty of the disease," says John. "He regains it, but that was interesting to play."
John will leave the soap shortly as Ashley's illness finally takes him. While he'll miss it, he is looking forward to the new challenges that lie ahead. His wife is not in the business, and she keeps him grounded, he says. "If I start getting too pretentious, I'm swiftly brought back down to earth," he laughs. "Christine's answer to me being around more was that I can rediscover my cooking skills. I'm a hopeless gardener so she will be directing me around that. Meeting my wife, falling in love and having children have been the major highlights of my life. Also, it's a major bonus knowing that acting was all I ever wanted to do, and I've been fortunate to get to do it."
Emmerdale, TV3, 7pm weekdays