Vegetarians International Voice for Animals

In Search of the Real Jerome Flynn

Juliet Gellatley meets one of Britain’s favourite heartthrob actors to find out what makes him tick. She doesn’t have to dig very deep…

Juliet Gellatley meets one of Britain’s favourite heartthrob actors to find out what makes him tick. She doesn’t have to dig very deep…

The great thing about acting is that it allows you to hide inside other, very different people. You can be whoever you want to be, even run away from your real self if you find that self disappointing or burdened with emotional baggage. Many actors, who are fluent and mesmerising when speaking words written by someone else, about someone else, stumble uncertainly when they have to speak their own words in public.

I was about to meet a man who represented machismo in the raw in the role of Paddy Garvey in Soldier Soldier. As DC Tom McCabe in Badger he was still macho but with a heart. With the duo Robson and Jermone he was something entirely different – a pop star. As he climbed off his bike at the top of London’s green and sunny Primrose Hill and tentatively shook hands, he was clearly none of these characters. He was Jerome Flynn and the antithesis of macho despite a five-times broken nose.

It quickly became obvious that here was a man who, far from hiding or pretending to be someone he isn’t, has done the opposite. He has subjected himself to deep scrutiny in search of whatever it is that lies deep inside – his spiritual core, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. Even more interesting – he seems to have found it! And an essential part of it is humility – a denial that human beings are superior to any other creature in the grand scheme of things.

“There’s been just one evolutionary force from the big bang until now and so all living things are made of the same star dust. We each might vibrate differently but we are all from the same source of life. How could humans possibly be separate and apart? I believe there is an inherent perfection in this life source and by focusing on ourselves we lose sight of that. It’s this which makes me care for all life – but of course, you can’t expect any gratitude for that.

“It’s what we do that counts – the effect we have – and for that I don’t need any motivation. The thought of not being a vegetarian is ridiculous, it’s just unthinkable, like going backwards. I won’t eat meat again for the same reason I gave it up in the first place – I don’t want to be part of all that suffering.”

There are some silent, almost apologetic veggies; there are others who are cheerfully outspoken; but I have met few who have delved so deeply into their own psyche to explore the reasons for their commitment.

So what kind of background was it that produced Jerome Flynn, committed vegetarian, animal lover and seeker of answers? A pretty idyllic one, it seems – The Waltons meet Darling Buds of May, kind of a life. There was Jerome, his sister Kerry and brother Daniel and seemingly endless woodland and open countryside stretching away from their house a few miles outside Sevenoaks in Kent. They even had their own special piece of wooded land. So Jerome’s childhood memories are of exploring together, swinging from trees, making camps – and of course, animals.

Mum, Fern, was a kind of Mother Teresa of the animal kingdom and took in a variety of sick and injured wild creatures, nursing them back to health before releasing them into the wild again, including two families of fox cubs whose mothers had been gassed.

Their house, apparently, was a bit of a wreck so they pulled together to make it habitable, grew their own vegetables and split logs for the wood-burning stoves. You can almost hear the voices: “Have you finished cutting that wood, Jerome boy.” “Sure have, ma!” It’s the kind of life most of the world wants for their children.

In his teens, Jerome began acting in school plays before stumbling into the role of John Procter in The Crucible at Sevenoaks Youth Theatre. It was that which decided him to give professional acting a go:

“Because of acting, people showed more interest in me than they had before. All right then – girls showed more interest in me than they had before!”

Three years at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London followed – “one of the most exciting periods of my life.” It was here that a friend turned him vegetarian. Whenever Jerome sat next to her in the canteen with a sausage on his plate, she would growl at him. Of course, he eventually had to ask why she so disliked him eating meat and the answer changed his life.

Being away from home, Jerome became aware of just how much the countryside and all it contained was a part of him and how lucky he had been to have such a wonderful childhood and such intimacy with nature and living things. Perhaps its not surprising, then, that if anything haunts him it is animal suffering.

“I just want it to end and I believe that everyone can make a contribution to that, whether they’re famous or not. I do think about it because the alternative would be to close down my conscience and that would be the biggest crime of all.”

 
  Jerome with Viva!’s Juliet Gellatley  

With factory farming now the norm, the scale of animal suffering is almost impossible to comprehend, supported by the crass claim that Britain has the best animal welfare standards in the world. Does this convince Jerome?

“It doesn’t really matter if our standards are better than someone else’s or not. So long as we are inflicting any suffering on animals for profit it is entirely unacceptable because there is no excuse for cruelty. The claim is used to justify waiting and doing nothing, to justify evil, to justify suffering.”

This is the first time I have met Jerome and the reason is to interview him on camera for our anti-factory farming video, Not in My Name. However, he has so much to say that we talk much further and wider than is necessary for the few short sound bites required for our video. He wants to talk, wants his views to be publicised and feels that communicating is a vital part of getting people to change their thinking and their habits. And he knows it’s not easy to get them to do so.

“People are afraid of change, of taking responsibility because once they – we – start to care, our lives are turned upside down. All the things we accept as normal are challenged and the floodgates to our heart open up. Then everything’s up for grabs – our values, the structure of society, the status quo – most of which is connected to selfishness and our desire to keep control. But once we start to care, caring becomes limitless and limitlessness is very frightening.

“The whole political structure that we’ve come to accept would collapse if people genuinely started to care – our profit-driven world would fall apart. We’re talking about a revolution, a transformation of society, but it can happen and the amazing thing is, it can happen very quickly.”

The question which naturally follows is whether society’s failure to change and bring about this transformation poses any threat to our future or can the human race continue indefinitely to thumb its collective nose at what’s happening without threatening its own survival.

“I have no doubt that unless we radically change our attitudes and start to get in touch with our consciences, the earth, the environment, the entire biosphere will be threatened. Like the tobacco industry, the companies responsible can always find scientists to say that there’s no threat but if you listen to those who really know, they’re all saying that we have to do something soon otherwise the globe will be a desperately miserable place to live.”

Rightly or wrongly, we tend to think of acting as the epitome of egotism, of cut-throat individualism and self promotion. But none of this seems to fit with the impassioned views that Jerome is expressing. So which set of values dominate? He doesn’t have to think before answering.

“If I hadn’t met my spiritual teacher and learned about myself, I don’t think I would have carried on as an actor. I’d always though that an acting life and a spiritual life didn’t go together but that’s just a cop out. It’s our attachment to the material world – to our job, our possessions, our loved ones, our relationships – which causes many of the problems. Understanding this means I no longer see myself in any kind of stereotyped actor way and I know that acting is not the be all and end all. And funnily enough, I think this has made me a better actor.”

The teacher Jerome refers to is a man called Andrew Cohen who promotes a philosophy closely related to Tibetan Buddhism. What sparked Jerome’s interest was Cohen’s book, Enlightenment is a Secret, given to him by Linus Roache, son of Bill Roache, the ever-lasting and avuncular Ken Barlow of Coronation Street.

For someone who has clearly shed the scales from his eyes, I wondered if acting would be enough to satisfy Jerome in the future? Or does he feel it’s time to get his hands dirty – so to speak – in the fight to save animals and what’s left of this pretty fantastic planet of ours.

“I have thought about getting more directly involved. I enjoy acting and singing but they’re just a job in what can be quite a sick industry. When I was at college, I thought I could make a difference by becoming famous but now I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I ended up working in a much more hands-on way.”

In a profession where 80 per cent of people are unemployed at any one time, you tend to think that only total dedication to acting will lead to success – or sustain it – and that doesn’t leave much time for anything else. How does this square with Jerome’s beliefs?

“It takes away the drive to be successful for the wrong reasons, such as wanting to be famous for the sake of it. This need to be special is all part of society’s sickness and what disconnects us from our fellow human beings, the environment and the animals around us.”

I wonder if this was why Robson and Jerome had such a short but highly-successful run with three number one hits. And where did the idea come from in the first place?

“Money did have something to do with it. When the offer was made we thought about it, we laughed about it, reckoned it would ruin our careers and that people would snigger at us. I’d been thinking about taking some time off but I was having such fun with Robson that it just didn’t happen. We reckoned that singing together would also be fun so decided to give it a go.

“And we did have a lot of fun. But the pop world is even more extreme than acting and because we were immediately successful we were put on some kind of pedestal. People started to look up to us but in the wrong way and for all the wrong reasons. Everyone wanted a piece of us, wanted us to be a certain way and we were becoming parodies of ourselves – losing touch.

“We found it hard to keep our feet on the ground and as our friendship was always the most important thing, we just got out. I think our timing was about right. Music is a powerful medium and so I’m writing a few songs at the moment – songs with a bit of conscience to them. Mind you, I’ve been doing that for a while so I’d better start getting it together.”

Out of our conversation comes a realisation that we have many things in common and one in particular is swimming with the same dolphin. Funghi is a bottle nosed dolphin and clearly a bit of a complex character. He appears to have forsaken his own kind for human company and appears most days at a small inlet leading into Dingle harbour in County Kerry. I first swam with him 13 years ago and then again couple of years ago.

The effect was extraordinary – the feeling of making contact with a wild and highly intelligent animal. There was also a deep sadness that despite what humans have done to their species, they still accept us and want to connect with us. They are so much more forgiving than we are. I’m not surprised to find that Jerome had very similar emotions when he first swam with Funghi.

“I felt like he was a teacher and the message was that you had to let go. When I wanted something from him, he wasn’t interested. He just wanted me to relax and be at home in his environment. Once I did that he wanted to play and the message he gave out was so clear – ‘let go, let go, let go!’

“I was with my brother Daniel and an old fisherman called Paddy Garvey (Jerome later adopted this name for his character in Soldier Soldier). Paddy took us out in his boat and we got into a ring which he pulled behind on a rope, away from all the other swimmers. Fungi loved it, jumping over us as we moved through the water. We did it day after day.”

As Jerome talked, my own experiences with Funghi came back to me. Of the disrespect and lack of sensitivity shown to this unique creature by a crowd of rowdy divers. Of how Funghi completely ignored them and came to me as I kept my distance from them. And how early one morning I lost concentration when I was the only person in the bay and floated out to sea hanging on to my lilo. As I tried to quell the panic and slowly started to head back to shore, Funghi appeared from nowhere and swam backwards and forwards alongside me, staying with me until I made it back into the bay, when he disappeared after doing a triumphal leap over me. That experience made me feel very special.

Come to think of it, meeting Jerome Flynn and listening to his deeply sensitive, passionate and caring philosophy on life also made me feel very special. Thanks Jerome!