The stage and screen star talks to Chris Titley about truth, justice – and why York’s hell if you’ve got a car

Long-established as a movie masterpiece, Twelve Angry Men is now gripping 21st century theatre audiences.

Why? Because it’s a story with a hero at its heart, says Tom Conti, who stars in the play which runs at the Grand Opera House till Saturday (April 18).

“Audiences react more strongly to heroism than they do to tragedy, to love, to loss – any of that,” says Tom. “Heroism is what really stirs people. I just realised this a few years ago.”

Twelve Angry Men opens at the end of a murder trial, with 11 of the jurors ready to convict and send the accused to his death. That is until Juror No 8’s fight for justice challenges their prejudices.

Tom plays that juror, in the role taken by Henry Fonda in the 1957 movie.

Twelve Angry Men

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“The fact that this one man stands up against all these people – some of whom are moronic, some just don’t care, and some want to see him die because that’s the kind of people they are – and this one guy says, ‘you can’t do that. You have to think about this a little more deeply.'”

It turns out that Tom’s role as a crusader for justice doesn’t end when he walks off the stage. The actor is involved with two separate battles to overturn what he believes are serious judicial mistakes.

Real-life injustice

“People do rise to the possibility of miscarriages of justice,” Tom says, in the sunlit reception room of the York Pavilion Hotel, Fulford.

“Curiously I’m involved in two cases in real life, and one here in Yorkshire. A man called Colin Norris who’s in jail – he was convicted of the murder of some patients in hospital by use of insulin. There is now grave doubt about the security of this conviction.”

Colin Norris
Colin Norris
Norris worked as a nurse in two Leeds hospitals, and in 2008 was convicted of the murder and attempted murder of five non-diabetic patients by injecting them with insulin.

“Two jurors on that trial have come forward and said, had we known then what we know now about a certain condition that can affect older people we would never have convicted this man,” Tom said.

“The public is always enthusiastic for the exposure of miscarriages of justice. Nobody likes to think of somebody in jail for something he didn’t do.”

He is also part of the campaign to free Kevin Nunn, jailed for life in 2006 for the murder of his girlfriend Dawn Walker.

“Again no previous convictions, no accusations of any kind of violence against women have ever been levelled at him by old girlfriends or whatever. And then he’s accused of this absolutely horrific killing of a girl.

“None of it makes any sense. Forensics has advanced so greatly since 2006 when this trial happened, it could now be proved conclusively whether or not this man had killed this girl.

“And the police won’t release the exhibits – the bits of clothing and such like where there is DNA tracing.”

It’s amazing they are allowed to do that, I say. “It’s astounding,” Tom agrees.

Tom Conti

‘Police won’t release the evidence – it’s astounding’ – Tom Conti
‘Police won’t release the evidence – it’s astounding’ – Tom Conti

Photographs by Duncan Lomax of Ravage Productions photography

He became involved after a forensics expert helped him with a novel he was writing. They went for supper and she talked to him about Inside Justice, which investigates alleged miscarriages of justice.

“And she told me about these two cases, and I was rather astounded by the circumstances surrounding them, and I’ve become involved in trying to raise the profile.”

Despite these cases, Tom believes British justice is “fundamentally a very good system”. Are we right to rule out capital punishment?

“Oh god yes. Oh heavens yes – absolutely. That’s one of the silliest things ever.

“It certainly doesn’t stop people committing murder, because people commit murders for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they’re completely insane, and sometimes they have no control over their rage.

“But there are very few murderers who sit down before they commit the act and think, ‘Gosh, I might hang for this, or I might fry for this, I won’t do it’ – I don’t think that happens.”

Memorable career

Now 73, Tom Conti has been acting on stage and screen for 56 years. He was awarded a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his Broadway performance in Whose Life Is It Anyway?, nominated for an Oscar for his role in the 1983 film Reuben, Reuben and became an international heartthrob for playing the Greek tavern owner opposite Pauline Collins in Shirley Valentine.

The persuader… Tom Conti in Twelve Angry Men. Photograph: Anton Belmonte Photography
The persuader… Tom Conti in Twelve Angry Men. Photograph: Anton Belmonte Photography

“There are some jobs that have been particularly good fun. They’re all fun up to a point, some better fun than others,” he says.

“A musical years ago called They’re Playing Our Song was probably the best fun I’ve ever had in the theatre. It was absolutely terrific, with a wonderful script by Neil Simon.

And then there was a movie with Robert Altman of The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter. It was just a two-hander with John Travolta and me, and it was hysterically funny to do. Harold hated it.”

‘York’s enchanting – unless you have a car’

If he finds it tough to be on a tour like this – ten weeks in and counting for Twelve Angry Men – he does a good job of hiding it.

“It’s nothing special to me, it’s normal to me. You wander round the towns you visit. You’re lucky when you come to a place like York because it’s so enchanting,” he says.

Well, mostly enchanting.

“It’s hell if you have a car. I don’t understand local councils. They could let people bring cars in in the evening and it would help restaurants and clubs and all of that. There’s just no need to have double yellow lines on every street in the town for 24 hours a day.

“Cars bring life to cities and cities that are pedestrianised – and that’s almost probably all of them in England – die at 5 o’clock. Hopeless.

“London’s ablaze all evening. Everywhere else, dead at 5 o’clock. Why? There’s no cars.”

While he’s in York, Tom will be “sniffing around” the antiques shops during the day – and playing the heroic seeker of justice at night. A role, it seems, he is quietly playing off stage too.