Former prisoner swaps the cells for life on the stage: David Lister meets an ex-inmate who discovered a talent for performing Shakespeare when he took up acting 'to pass the time' in jail (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online

WHEN Dave Walker's probation officer rang him last week demanding to know why he had not been to see him, the former prisoner uttered the priceless line: 'You'll have to talk to my agent.'

Walker, 25, released a few weeks ago after serving four years for robbery with violence, is now appearing as Lucius in Julius Caesar with the English Shakespeare Company (ESC). Before this autumn he had never been inside a theatre.

In two weeks' time the production, now touring in Malvern, moves to the Shaw Theatre in the West End of London. The power of theatre and indeed of Shakespeare to transform a life is often cited, but rarely has been more apposite than in Walker's case.

The story began last January when the ESC, as part of its education policy, mounted a production of The Tempest in Maidstone jail using two ESC actors and inmates for the rest of the cast. Walker volunteered 'because it would pass the time and I had nothing else to do'. He was given the part of Ariel.

'The director, Tim Carroll (impressed by his 'languid mischievousness') never told me I would have to sing,' he recalls. 'If I had known that I wouldn't have got involved. I mean, singing in front of other prisoners.' Walker suddenly fell in love with showbiz. 'I loved the buzz, the hard work then the appreciation.'

Back in his cell Walker read more Shakespeare, becoming particularly interested in the character of Iago in Othello. 'That's the part I would most like to play. He is so deceitful, so many twists and turns.' The Tempest was watched by Joan Brown, a theatrical agent and agent for one of the ESC actors involved. She 'went back' afterwards, not to the dressing rooms but to the cell, to tell Walker she might be able to get him work.

'My parents were over the moon. When my mum came to see me in The Tempest she was in tears. It felt good that she was proud of me after me being in court and the neighbours knowing and everything. My mum, dad and sister being proud is one of the things that drives me on. I can pay them back for the support they gave me when I was inside. I asked my cellmates what they thought,' he recalls. 'They said, 'If you're good at something then do it. You weren't good at the other thing or you wouldn't have been caught.'

'They all wished me luck but begged me never to play a policeman on stage. I never would.'

Joan Brown took him to see An Inspector Calls. 'I loved it, I was knocked out,' he says, even though the lead role is one he would not play.

Walker, the son of a chef, grew up in north London, leaving school with one O-level, later becoming a security guard. When he was 21 he took part in a violent robbery on a private house and was sentenced to eight years, only serving half the term. Now he has swapped a prison cell for digs in country cottages with fellow actors.

'Sometimes when we're driving through the countryside I think to myself I used to be lying on my bed thinking about going into the countryside and now I'm living it.'

And what will he do after April next year when his contract with the ESC ends? Already he is learning the jargon. 'I don't mind as long as I get some work. I might do some workshops.'


In the article in yesterday's paper about Dave Walker, an actor with the English Shakespeare Company, it stated that he took part in a robbery on a private house. In fact, Mr Walker made an attempted robbery on a bank.

(Photograph omitted)