Tom Varey hadn’t finished drama school, when he received a call saying he’d got the part of Bert Middleton in the second series of The Village (BBC One Sunday).
“I probably said, ‘Are you joking?’ and then jumped up and down a bit,” says the actor, laughing. “It took a few weeks for it to sink in.”
Written by Peter Moffat, the ambitious drama is set to chart the progress of the 20th century in one Derbyshire village and Bert - played by child actor Bill Jones and, briefly, Alfie Stewart in the first series - is integral to the narrative.
“Bill was just phenomenal, so I was a bit nervous about filling his very little but big shoes, because I think the nation fell in love with him,” admits Varey, who’s been brought in to play the slightly older Bert, now embarking on life in the roaring Twenties.
Although applauded for its epic scale, when the first series aired, some viewers described it on Twitter as a ‘misery fest’.
“It was the First World War and times weren’t good in a little Derbyshire village. Now you’ve still got the fallout from the war, and of course, people’s losses, especially the Middleton family losing Joe [Bert’s brother, depicted by Nico Mirallegro], but it does feel like the country is on the rise. It’s not all fun and games but it’s definitely perkier,” offers Varey.
Now 21, Bert realises there’s more to life than the village. “It’s a more happening time. Music influences from America are coming in, like jazz and the Charleston, and Bert’s introduced to other new things, like cars. He nearly gets run over,” the actor reveals.
“He goes on a real journey and certainly gets into a few scraps along the way. He’s uncertain of who to trust and what to believe in. It was a real challenge to play someone who’s so torn.”
Although he has aspirations of becoming a photographer, Bert’s a man of the farm, and when the new series opens, he’s working alongside his former alcoholic father John, a role reprised by John Simm.
“He still has a frayed relationship with his father and loves his mother [Grace, played once again by Maxine Peake] and would do anything for her,” continues Varey. “But he’s torn over the feeling of intense loyalty towards his family, and his true ambition to go to Sheffield and become an assistant photographer.”
Varey couldn’t have asked for “a better on-screen parent duo”.
“It’s not the worst first gig to have Maxine Peake and John Simm as your parents,” he says. “The amount of detail they put into everything [is incredible]. No line goes for nothing, everything has work behind it and means something on another level.”
Like Peake, Varey studied at the renowned Rada. “She knew what it’s like to go straight into a job,” says Varey, who was granted leave from the third term of his final year to film the series. “But I still managed to get back and do the final year showcase and graduate!”
He admits he didn’t have a lot of time to prepare though (“I just had to trust my gut a lot of the time, but that was an interesting experience”), but he did acquire a few physical skills. “I did some boxing training for the boxing match in episode one. In these scenes, we had over 100 supporting cast all roaring and involved, which made me feel like Rocky!”
He also learned farming skills like scything, and even had to do a spot of cow-milking in certain scenes.
Varey now lives in London but he grew up in Mossley, a village on the outskirts of Manchester. It was there that one of his mates told him he was going to drama club, and asked if he’d go along for support.
“I did, and I really enjoyed it and just kept it up,” reveals Varey, who later studied A-level drama. “It was at college my teacher took me to the side and said, ‘Have you thought about applying for drama school and taking it seriously as a career choice, because we think you’re all right’.”
He laughs when asked if he hails from an acting family. “My dad makes sheds for a living and is probably the shiest man on the planet, and my mam has no acting bones. They don’t know where it comes from.”
Following the intense 15-week shoot, he’s going to have a holiday - and start auditions.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky. Not many people would get this size role out of drama school, so I’m very grateful people took a chance on me,” Varey says modestly. “I just hope I can make the most of it and go on to do other things.”