It’s a fictional village somewhere in the vicinity of Warwickshire and Worcestershire. For millions of listeners it provides a daily drama fix they can’t do without. And it’s where Jazzer, aka Archers actor Ryan Kelly lives the life of a sighted tearaway turned milkman. Ian Macrae reports
It’s known as the Marmite effect. An extreme love or hate reaction to one particular thing. And in millions of homes at just after seven o’clock on six weekday evenings, it kicks in.
That bouncy-bouncy-tum-ti-tum tune gives the signal to turn off, turn up or tune out.
The character of Jazzer (actually Jack) McCreary first appeared in the Ambridge landscape in 2002. The village’s ne’er-do-well Grundy family had been evicted from their farm and had to move to the badlands of Meadow Rise, a run-down housing estate, part of the nearby market town of Borchester. And there, their youngest son, Ed, fell into bad company in the shape of Scottish émigré and all-round naughty boy Jazzer.
Like the character he plays, Ryan Kelly and his family moved from Glasgow to the English Midlands when he was very young. They followed other Scots to Corby in Northamptonshire where the massive steelworks had offered plentiful work opportunities. But by the time Ryan got there in the early 1980s, the works were winding down towards closure.
“Corby was my home, it felt like my home, I was there that young”, he says.
But apart from their Scottishness and that migration, Ryan doesn’t see many other similarities between himself and Jazzer.
“We both like a drink: I don’t drink as much as he does. He’s far more shallow than I am. We both tend to think what we want to think, you know, straight to the point and we don’t waste much time getting there.”
Regular listeners to what is the longest running radio soap in the world as well as Britain’s most popular radio drama know Jazzer as a bit of a “Glass half empty” kind of guy.
“Oh yeah,” Ryan agrees, “he’s a miserable git. I try not to be like that myself. I think I am a bit of a pessimist over certain things, but not in the same way”.
Putting Jazzer aside for a while, Ryan declares himself a deeply family orientated person.
“I’m from a very big family. Dad was one of nine and mum was one of eight and at the latest count there were nearly 70 of us. It was a very close family, and when I went to school that was what I missed most of all.”
His memories of family life before school are a mixture of the very detailed and the fractured.
“I can go back pretty far, but I can’t place anything. They’re just snatches of memory. The first German shepherd puppy I had. Little bits and bobs like that come back. My first budgie. Mostly they’re about animals because I always loved animals as a kid.
“I remember somebody saying ‘What colour budgie would you like?’ and I said I don’t know because it didn’t really matter to me. And I asked if I could have a green budgie because I liked the word green.”
But one of these fragmented memories is a strange pre-echo of things to come.
“We had a budgie that played football. It wouldn’t go anywhere without a ping-pong ball. You had to pin it to yourself if you wanted the budgie to sit on your shoulder and it would kick this ping-pong ball all day.”
Fast forward to Jazzer in Ambridge 2011 where he’s to be found training pigs to play football as part of a marketing stunt for one of his employers, sausage king Tom Archer. Ryan laughs at this synchronicity.
Meanwhile, back in childhood Ryan was sent to the first of three establishments for the education of blind children, Lickey Grange near Bromsgrove in the West Midlands.
“It wasn’t a good place in lots and lots of ways”, Ryan recalls.
“They were always going on about the ‘big wide world’. I wasn’t really frightened of that because I came from it.
“And there was the odd one who liked to bop you round the head.“
And it was here that perhaps he first started to act in order to ensure that he fitted in. Despite the move to Corby, the young Ryan had retained his Scottish accent because of those close family ties.
“When I was at school I used to change my accent completely. I spoke an English accent. It made me feel like one of the boys. and then I’d go home at weekends. And as soon as I got in the door it’d be ‘Aw-right ma!’, broad Glaswegian.”
When Lickey Grange school closed, Ryan transferred first to Exhall Grange near Coventry and then to the Royal National College in Hereford where they provided further education, including some O and A levels as well as vocational qualifications across a number of areas.
A slightly less restrictive regime meant a degree of greater freedom.
“That probably wasn’t good for me in the sense that I took the bull by the horns and went a bit nuts. Nothing bad. Binge-drinking and missing lectures. But I wasn’t taking drugs or anything like that. I was just really lazy, I suppose, because I could be.”
And this was where Ryan first discovered his talent and love for acting.
“I went there to study music tech, but it turned out that I was crap. Computer tech then wasn’t like it is now. You couldn’t make your computer talk. I’m one of these people, I won’t buy an alarm clock I can’t set on my own. And I resented the help from other people. What’s the point of having a job where you’ve got to rely on help from other people.”
He began to give more and more of his time to drama. And once again the parts he was given looked ahead to the role of Jazzer which would signify his success. Ryan explains: “I’ve always been cast as something negative. In the play Dead Fish I was a curmudgeonly stiff-necked wife-beater. I was a school bully. I did Graham in Alan Bennett’s A Chip in the Sugar and he’s slightly off his rocker. I always seem to get a villain or slightly dodgy part. I like it. It makes me laugh.”
Eventually Ryan was one of the people who was instrumental in getting the college to offer drama as a fully fledged BTEC course.
But the idea of progressing to theatre school was initially greeted with incredulity.
“I remember the night I told the tutor I really wanted to do this. ‘Go to theatre school! Behave yourself. That’s the kind of thing kids do in old black and white films’.
“I was fairly negative myself. I thought they’re not going to take in blind people. Once I knew that they were full of sighted folk I just said, it’s not going to happen. But you don’t let that stop you.”
He applied unsuccessfully to Birmingham School of Speech and Drama and then to Bristol Old Vic where, after a long wait and a struggle to find funding, he was in.
Back at home there was still some scepticism about making it in this notoriously risky profession.
“Dad didn’t believe I could do it. But that wasn’t negativity on his part. He just wanted me to succeed at everything I did and he didn’t think it would happen.”
When the big break came in the form of a call from The Archers at BBC Birmingham, Ryan, a fan of the show since childhood almost blew his chance right from the off.
“They phoned me up about the audition and I was out with my wife Sonya. We each had a dog with us and I was on the edge of a very busy road. And they said, ‘We’d like you to come and audition for The Archers’. Well, I was that blown away I immediately told my dog to go forward into a load of very busy traffic. So I nearly didn’t arrive for the audition at all.”
The fact that Jazzer avoided being the sort of Central Casting rural accented character common in a soap set in a Midlands village was a matter more accident than design.
“They didn’t know Jazzer was Scottish until I made him that way”, Ryan says.
“But when I did the Scottish accent they said, ‘Oh, we like that!’ and I got the job.”
Working on The Archers has meant that Ryan has worked with people he’s listened to and admired all his life. Carole Boyd, for instance, who plays the village busybody, has done everything from being Mrs Goggins in Postman Pat to reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement as an audio book.
“You have to put that to the side because they’re colleagues”, Ryan explains.
“But there’s a little element of that. You know, you’re going, ‘this is bloody amazing!’ But actually I try not to think about it because when we’re working she’s Lynda Snell.”
As Jazzer, Ryan has got to do things on air which, as a blind man, he’d be unlikely to try in real life. Car theft and taking the drug ketamine are two of his favourites. But he has no hesitation in naming his best moment.
“Getting the job. It has to be that because I’ve now been doing the job for ten years and I’ve never looked back”.