The King and I
Best known for his role as Carl King, Tom Lister talks to Joy Tibbs about acting, faith and his work with Hope for Justice.
Emmerdale’s Carl King wasn’t known for his altruistic side. Best known as a womanising troublemaker, he was involved in three suspicious deaths and left a trail of destruction in his wake. He couldn’t have been more different from the actor who played the part, Tom Lister. However, Tom had an amazing time playing the part and believes God is actively guiding his career.
The Yorkshireman has also been led by God in his spare time, not least through his work for anti-trafficking charity Hope for Justice. On hearing the story of a girl who was taken from Latvia to Southampton and sold into prostitution, Tom and a team of volunteers flew out to her home country and cycled back to the UK port city, covering 1,800 miles in 19 days. The £250,000 they raised was enough to establish a new UK-based team of anti-trafficking investigators. In 2015, this team rescued more than 100 victims of human trafficking.
Whether he’s on the stage, in front of the camera, at home with his family or carrying out challenging sporting feats for charity, Tom’s faith is what motivates and underpins him.
How did you get into acting?
I kind of fell into it really. I’d grown up in church and done little skits and sketches and things like that with my friends. I grew up thinking I was going to be a PE and geography teacher, but then when I started doing A level geography I was bored to tears.
I started doing English A level and we had a great teacher who started getting me interested in Shakespeare. He asked the school football team to audition for a show they’d written, which was all around the 50th anniversary of VE Day about this football team going out to fight in the war. So we all auditioned for it and I got the lead. And then I got the bug!
What was life like as Carl King?
Oh, my word. Well, if you’ve ever watched any of the soaps, if you’re in them long enough you end up getting yourself into all kinds of scrapes. Over my nine or ten years on the show I had countless affairs, marriages, fights, blackmails and romantic liaisons. And I was involved in three people’s deaths. So just an average village boy in the Yorkshire Dales!
Was it hard playing a villain as a Christian?
No, it wasn’t, because it was obviously a heightened reality. One of the things I love about acting is that you get to play people in extreme circumstances and I love figuring out why people do those things. We’re all fallen men and women and we’re constantly in a battle with ourselves. I find that intriguing, and that’s why I love the job I do.
How did people react to you (or Carl) when you were out and about?
One of the things I used to get was old ladies slapping my wrist in Asda and things like that, which was always comical. Although my character did all these things that weren’t so great, I tried to play the part a bit like he was a lost soul. So all these old ladies used to go, “Oooh, you’re a one, you are! Oooh, I tell you, I need to take you home and sort you out!” I used to say, “I’m not evil, I’m just misunderstood!”
How did you feel when you heard Carl was being killed off?
I’d been in Emmerdale for such a long time and I’d pretty much done all the things I could do. It was such a blessing for us as a family because through that period we got married, had kids, bought a house and settled down, so it saw us through all of those early days of setting our life up. But there was part of me that had all these other dreams and ambitions. I didn’t want to be somebody who only ever did one role for the rest of his life. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just wasn’t for me.
I could sense they were struggling to write new storylines and come up with fresh ideas. It was all around the time of Emmerdale’s 40th anniversary and they were having their first-ever live episode. There were two people giving birth, there were a couple of weddings, and then they needed a death. I think the hat must have been passed around every single character in the cast, and it ended up landing on me. I think it made sense, actually, and I couldn’t have picked a better ending.
Is it difficult being a Christian in such a secular world?
Some people think all actors are completely debauched and get up to hedonistic things every single waking moment. But the reality is that’s not the case. I work with wonderful people on a daily basis, some of whom are married with children, and who do it because they love it.
I don’t know why I’ve ended up in this industry, but I have. It’s something I’ve always had a passion for and luckily I’ve got a bit of a talent and managed to make money out of it. If somebody meets me and happens to see something different about me and wonders what that is, then that’s enough for me. If I can point them to my faith and the thing that’s actually underpinning all of my life, then I think that’s the best I can do, really.
You’ve being doing musical theatre, among other things, since leaving Emmerdale. How have you found that?
It’s been great. Fortunately enough, I’ve been able to do four or five. I’ve actually just come back from South Korea. We went over there with Legally Blonde: The Musical for two weeks. I played the sleazy professor. How depressing is that? He’s in his early 60s in the film! But he wasn’t in this production. We played him more like Harvey Specter from Suits.
What advice would you give other aspiring actors?
It’s important to know the voices in your life that you trust: the people who knew you before. I’ve always had great people in my life to ground me, from my parents, to my wife, to great mentors who’ve helped me in lots of different ways.
I quite often get asked this by people who’ve got children who want to get into acting. Their parents are worried sick because they don’t want them to go through the heartache of going up against all these other people. That’s one of the things my faith has really helped me with. God’s got a plan for my life and he’s numbered all my days. If something isn’t right, then there’ll be something else that’s more right.
What would your dream acting role be?
Me and my wife love watching Spooks. I always used to watch it thinking, “Man, it would be so cool to be in that show; running around being a spy and talking into your ear all the time.” I’d love to do movies, I’d love to do drama, I’d love to do things in the West End, so I’ve got lots of dreams and ambitions. I’m excited to see what’s to come.
Who would you most like to work with?
I met Judy Dench at the BAFTAs once. I walked past her and she smiled at me, and I was like, “You are so flipping cool! And not only are you cool, you’re an absolutely unbelievable actress.” Anybody I’ve met who’s worked with her before says she’s an absolute hoot as well. So anybody like that would be wonderful.
How did you get involved with Hope for Justice?
When I was on Emmerdale we used to do a lot of charity events. I did the Great North Run and the London Marathon. I’ve done those about three or four times. I went and did the London Triathlon and I’ve done outdoor swimming events – Great North Swim, Great Manchester swim – and things like that. I was doing it for this amazing cause called Bloodwise, but I felt like there was something missing; a cause I felt personally passionate about.
I was at an event in Life Church in Bradford once and I walked past the Hope for Justice stand. I’d heard a bit about it but didn’t know that much. So I wandered up and said, “Look, I’m interested in helping you guys out. This is who I am, just let me know if I can do anything.” As a result of that I went and met [CEO] Ben Cooley about five years ago at a Starbucks in Leeds. We shared some muffins together and had a couple of lattes. Sparks flew, emotions ran high, it was love at first sight!
He just told me these incredible rescue stories and the fact that people were being trafficked into our country and exploited in horrendous ways. Scales fell from my eyes.
What was different about this charity?
Just from that first meeting something inside me broke, and I felt God saying, “This is something I want you to put some of your energy into, all of the stuff you love doing for charity. I want you to help these guys out.”
Ben had told me about a girl called Zoe who was trafficked into the UK from Latvia. Basically, she was taken to a hotel where she thought she was going to work, and given some underwear to wear. She was like, “I’m not here for that. I’ve come here to do a proper job.” By this time they’d taken all her identification papers off her. She was only 19 years old and she’d come over on her own.
They said, “You’re going to do what we tell you to do, when we tell you to do it.” From that moment her world just came crashing down around her. She was sold from man to man, from town to town, all across the UK. She tried to put an end to her own life because what was happening to her was so horrendous. Thank goodness Hope for Justice were able to rescue her and start her on the road to putting her life back together.
How much time do you devote to the charity?
It really depends on the work that comes in. I was on the road with the musical Calamity Jane for about 18 months. I couldn’t really give a lot of time then, although we did another ridiculous bike ride while we were on that tour. I manage to corral people into joining me on these stupid things. When we finished that I decided to take a break and spend a bit of time at home with Jen and the boys, so I was able to give a lot more time to Hope for Justice.
What do you do in your spare time?
Cycling is something that’s come in more and more. The boys are obsessed with football, so they’re old enough now that I have to drive them round to training and football matches, and take them to Anfield and teach them that there’s only one football team to support: Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool! I mean, Jesus supports Liverpool, just saying [Tom laughs]. He doesn’t support Man. United, that’s for sure.
January Love - By Rob Parsons
If the course of married life has seasons, then most begin in summer. They are days filled with warmth when we not only say we are in love, but we feel in love. Of course, to love in summer is relatively easy, but marriages that are to last have a much harsher test ahead: it is the challenge of ‘January love’– of surviving the winter of our relationship.
Just as the first chill winds of autumn may catch us by surprise, so a change in the climate of a relationship can be devastating. Whereas our relationship in summer was characterised by warm breezes, we find that biting winds now test our love. These are dark and cold days, but there is no relationship that does not, at one time or another, have to love in January – times when we have to love our partner not ‘because of’ but ‘in spite of’.
Marriages break up, relationships fail – those things are a fact of life. But it’s also a fact that we will never find a lasting relationship with anybody unless we are ready at some time to fight to keep our love alive against the odds – to love in January.
I remember counselling a couple in their mid-20s; they had a baby girl aged six months and were about to divorce. I asked the man why he wanted to divorce his wife. He said, “I don’t feel in love anymore.”
As he spoke, I looked at the little bundle being cradled in his wife’s arm, the first man in her life about to walk out on her forever. I said, “Did nobody tell you when you married that there will be times when that happens – you won’t feel in love, or the feeling of love will diminish? Did nobody warn you that love that lasts, does so by loving – at least for a time – with not the heart, but the will? Did nobody say that unless you understand this, you are doomed to move from relationship to relationship at the mercy of your feelings?” He looked genuinely surprised. “No,” he said. “Nobody told me that.”
Nobody had told him this simple truth and yet grasping this principle would allow his and many relationships that fall at the first hurdle to at least have a chance of surviving. You will not keep your family together if a prerequisite is that you and your partner always feel in love with each other.
Couples that stay together are prepared to go through periods in their relationship where commitment, responsibility, and sometimes “what’s best for the children” is what keeps their relationship going. “For the sake of the kids” is not always the right reason to stay together, but it’s still a good reason. Of course, none of us want to live our whole lives loving our partner through gritted teeth, but there are thousands of couples who tried again, perhaps “for the sake of the kids”, and in the process found again a love they’d thought was gone forever.
In almost every marriage there will come a time when the ‘feeling’ of love is at a very low ebb. Such times may creep up on us over the years, or they may be linked to specific strains in our relationship – perhaps following the birth of a child, financial pressure, sickness, or redundancy, when the self-esteem of one partner is very low. It’s at this point that something sometimes enters the relationship that, in its ability to destroy families, is in a league of its own: the affair.
The price tag reads…
I’ve seen all kinds of things destroy families. But I believe that nothing comes close to the affair for having the ability so quickly and with such surgical skill to decimate families – and often for so little. It’s as if the affair whispers: “Trust me. I know you’ve heard what this can do to families, but it will be different for you. Just take the next step.”
Of course, the end results of the affair can vary. Some people find new and fulfilling relationships, and some feel cheated after just a few days, but in my experience those involved in an affair exhibit the same two characteristics time and time again.
The first is what somebody called “a period of temporary insanity”. During this time people act totally out of character. They set aside previously held personal or religious beliefs. They sometimes begin to dress differently – perhaps younger, more daring –and almost everything in their lives – children, job, home – comes second to the sheer thrill of this affair.
During this period, people often ‘rewrite’ the story of their lives. They say things such as, “We were so young when we got married – we didn’t really know what we were doing”, “We’ve never really been happy”, “I was always dissatisfied with our relationship”. It’s not necessarily that these things aren’t true, or that they haven’t gone through difficult times, but the trick of the affair is that it manages to wipe out every memory of genuine love and happiness in the relationship that ever existed.
If that’s the first characteristic of affairs, then the second always follows. It may come within a few weeks, or it could take a few years to happen, but there is no exception. It’s the moment when reality kicks in. For a while, everything in the new relationship is thrilling and fun, but eventually the excitement dies and the couple discover that even in their new love nest the taps still leak, the bills still need paying, and babies still wake up crying in the middle of the night. In short, they discover that “the other man’s grass may be greener, but it still needs mowing”.
The shock of this second stage is often cataclysmic. It’s as if the cost at the beginning of the affair is negligible, but quickly changes. In the early stages the price is rarely on the ticket; in fact, at the beginning, the price tag reads, “Free”. There’s no harm in what is happening – some flirting, a little time spent together. But as the affair progresses, it’s as if there’s somebody at the back of the store changing the price ticket because suddenly it’s more expensive. It now calls for a little deceit – “I’ll be home a bit later on Tuesday, darling.” But, hey, even if the price is getting higher, the rewards are fantastic – fun, almost teenage-like conversation, incredible sex. They say to themselves, “This is the person I should have married.”
Then one day, the couple walks into the shop and the price tag has changed for the last time. Now it reads: “Everything”. They gasp when they see it. They protest that they couldn’t possibly pay it without losing almost everything they’ve ever loved – their husband, their wife, their kids, maybe their friends and wider family, and perhaps their home or even their job.
I get angry listening to so-called experts talk about affairs being good for a marriage. Can marriages recover from affairs? Yes, of course. Can those marriages be stronger than they were before? Yes, without doubt. But the affair is a breach of trust so great that it tears at the very heart of a relationship, and although the love may return, it may take a long time for trust to be restored.
And affairs are bad for kids. Over the years I have listened to the stories of many people who have experienced family break-up, but one small boy sticks out in my mind. He was ten years old and his father had just left his mother. He was sitting on a step outside his house, looked up and said, “My father doesn’t love my mother anymore and he has left us now. What does a kid do?”
Breaking up is hard on everyone
But it’s not just young children who feel this experience so deeply. Laura Telfer, a Relate counsellor for 18 years, says that splitting up when the children are older can seem like an attractive option: “There is definitely a susceptible time when the children leave home when all possibilities seem open. But it does not make the unexpected desertion any easier. What can be an exciting venture for one partner is invariably a painful grieving episode for other family members. Children watch appalled as their family, that secure and safe place that survived all their childhoods, is swiftly dismantled.”
Some time ago I met Jeremy. He too had reached a period in his marriage when he said he no longer felt in love. Whether that was hastened by his being attracted to a woman in his office is something we’ll never know. But I suspect his marriage had been going through a stale patch, and the new woman made him look at his wife, his life – his lot – with a growing dissatisfaction.
He told me his story on a rainy Saturday afternoon in a McDonald’s next to a cinema complex. He was now divorced and had recently broken up with the woman he’d left his wife for. He had access to his children once every two weeks. Rhys was five and Victoria, ten. They were sitting at a nearby table, colouring and looking bored. He said, “It’s hard to know where to take them if it’s raining,” and then added, “I’d like to tell all the men out there that the affair is great – for a while. The sex is great, and the excitement is great, and the feeling of being young again is great – but it’s just not worth it. These are my kids, for goodness’ sake. I’m their father and I’ve just been with them for three hours stuck in a lousy cinema because there’s nowhere else to go, and now I have to take them back like a couple of library books.”
I know that marriages break up. I know that some marriages cannot survive. I understand that. But the affair is in a class of its own for destroying the world of ordinary families – families that weren’t perfect, but could have made it and been relatively happy together.
Some years ago I went to see a London play. In the last scene, the lead actor breaks down in tears. It was one of the most brilliant pieces of acting I have even seen; his wailing seemed to come from his very soul. After we left the theatre my friend said, “I have never seen such a portrayal of grief. I felt I could hear the mucus catching in his nose as he wept.”
The affair could happen to you and to me tomorrow, but as I watch couple after couple pay the incredible price that it so often demands, and as I see the fallout in the lives of children, I am reminded of something George Bernard Shaw said: “There are two great tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”
We live in a world where personal happiness is put at a premium, but often when we pursue it, we find it eludes us. Sometimes, even for the sake of our own long-term happiness, we have to begin with not what is “best for me”, but for them.
We have to love – at least for a time – in January.
Beware the three Gs
A pastor friend called Jamie once said to me that as a man becomes more successful, he must always watch out for the danger of the three Gs. I was intrigued.
He said that the higher we climb, the further there is to fall and that these three Gs have shown themselves to be successful people’s undoing time and time again.
I wanted to know what these Gs were. He smiled and said: “They are glory, girls and gold. Look at the wealthy man who loses his family through an affair, or who loses all sense of self through the empty pursuit of more money or greater status.”
As you grow in your success, it is worth keeping an eye on what these three Gs stand for to avoid them ever becoming stumbling blocks. Now, don’t get me wrong – those three Gs are not all bad! I mean, I am married to an amazing girl, we have earned some money, and along the way have received a bit of glory in terms of the occasional award or accolade. But it is when you get too greedy, too needy, or too unfulfilled without more G – that’s where the danger looms.
The pastor’s warning was that status, adoration and/or financial success don’t guarantee personal success; those three Gs – girls, gold and glory – are fickle masters. But how many of us as young men aspired to all three of those Gs when we started out on life? We are human, aren’t we? We hope and are led to believe (you have to thank the newspapers and glossy mags for this) that girls, glory and gold will all make us feel brilliant. And they will, maybe, for a fleeting moment or two.
But in the long term, I promise you, none of them helps to fill that aching hole inside. Open up any newspaper and you’ll find the story of a life gone wrong in the sole pursuit of one of the Gs or, in the case of some high-profile footballers, sometimes all three.
But we also learn. And a wise man learns from other people’s mistakes. That was all the pastor was pointing out. Learn from others, never get complacent and know where the classic old dangers come from.
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