22 September 2023

'The Salvation Army played a part in my acting career'

Interview by Claire Brine

A photo of Colin Salmon. Picture: BBC / Jack Barnes / Kieron McCarron
George at the Vic | Picture: BBC / Jack Barnes / Kieron McCarron

EastEnders star Colin Salmon explains how playing the cornet in a Salvation Army band paved the way for a career on screen – and why the world needs to understand the value of redemption.

When George Knight stepped out of the Queen Vic and clapped eyes on Cindy Beale – the wife who walked out on him nine years ago – it was a ‘doof doof’ moment for EastEnders. In recent weeks, viewers have been gripped by the shocking storyline of Cindy’s return to Albert Square and the devastating effect it has had on George and their daughters. They are even wondering whether there could be any unfinished business between the couple – especially after Cindy’s announcement that she planned to stick around.

While tension has been building for George as he tries to find a way forward for him and his family, actor Colin Salmon explains that he couldn’t be happier to be in Walford. Having landed the role of George earlier this year, he has been relishing every dramatic scene that scriptwriters have sent his way.

‘The challenge of working on EastEnders is that basically we are making a two-hour movie every week,’ he tells me over the phone during a break from filming. ‘It takes some serious craft and a willingness to jump out of your comfort zone – but I’m all for it, because that’s how you develop. I love challenging myself, learning huge scenes, knowing that we are filming to a time limit. Jumping all the hurdles is good.’

Speaking to me before Cindy’s jaw-dropping return was seen by viewers, Colin reflected on the character of George and shared what he thought might be in store for him in future.

‘George is a good man,’ he says. ‘And what he needed when he came to the square was a fresh start. Life hadn’t been great for him in Marbella. His relationship with Elaine, who runs the Vic, has given him a new opportunity. She’s a strong woman, and his daughters trust her – which he likes. Walford was meant to be the new beginning for them all.

‘But regarding the complexity of what has happened with Cindy, I feel that George can’t run any more. He’s conflicted. He knows that the future isn’t going to be simple. And yet he has got to face the storm and work out what’s going on in it.’

A scene from EastEnders featuring Colin Salmon.
Cindy and Ian | Picture: BBC / Jack Barnes / Kieron McCarron

Before joining the cast of EastEnders, Colin was perhaps best known for his recurring role as MI6’s Charles Robinson in the James Bond films Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day. In more recent years, his TV work has included roles in Doctor Who, Merlin, Bad Girls, Midsomer Murders and the US series Krypton. Despite a successful career in acting, Colin tells me that his love of performing stems from music after he learnt to play the cornet as a child in a Salvation Army band.

‘When I was about five years old, my grandad gave me his old cornet,’ he explains. ‘And when I was seven, I found out that one of my friends at school played the tenor horn. I asked him where he learnt, and he replied that it was with Luton Temple Salvation Army. I said: “How much do you have to pay?” He told me it was free. I said: “Can I join?” And he said yes. So that’s what I did.’

From the age of 7 until he was 16, Colin attended The Salvation Army at Luton Temple, opting to become a uniform-wearing junior soldier, a member of the young people’s brass band and, later, the children’s choir, called the singing company.

‘I got my sisters to join the singing company too,’ he says. ‘It was great. I can still remember the words to my solo: “Knowing my failings, knowing my fears,/ Seeing my sorrow, drying my tears,/ Jesus recall me, me re-ordain;/ You know I love you…” It was a beautiful song.

‘I remember on one occasion we got to sing at the Royal Albert Hall. I think my ability to perform today comes from what I learnt at The Salvation Army. Without it, I don’t think I’d be here, in this business – because you can practise all you like, but you’ve got to be able to perform. And at the Army, I was performing every Sunday. It was a place that taught me about stagecraft, discipline and the joy that can be found in music.’

While Colin was ‘blown away’ by the array of musical talent surrounding him, he was also struck by the Salvationists’ Christian faith.

‘They did amazing work,’ he says. ‘Sometimes church is about incense and candles, but The Salvation Army was about soup and blankets. I remember homeless people coming to the door and being brought inside to be looked after. Not turned away. That was a big lesson for me – that we don’t turn our backs on anyone. It was a kind place, and I loved it.

‘I also remember that women were at the forefront – and always had been, right from the beginning. Gender wasn’t an issue in leadership, and that was the beauty of The Salvation Army. I was always puzzled by people who had a problem with women bishops in church, because I grew up seeing women in charge at Luton Temple. It was an extraordinarily rich time in my life and one I’m very grateful for.’

A photo of Colin Salmon reading from a book to the camera at Christmas.

As well as playing and singing music, and clapping along during the congregational songs, Colin was impressed by the quality of the sermons he heard, preached every week by the leaders.

‘The captains spoke so clearly. I think one of the things the world is struggling with right now is redemption, but one thing I always stress is that people can redeem themselves. People can truly change. One act doesn’t define someone for life. If I learnt anything at The Salvation Army, I think that’s it.’

Although Colin tells me that he is no longer a churchgoing Christian, the years he spent at The Salvation Army were instrumental in shaping his approach to faith and his beliefs about God.

‘God is kindness,’ he says. ‘Christianity is about not judging people, because everyone has a story and everyone’s story is different. The important questions are: How good and how magnanimous are you? How big can your heart be? I believe God is forgiving and has room for everyone.’

It’s nearly time for Colin to be back on set, but before he heads off to the square, he thanks me for our interview, explaining that The Salvation Army will always be an important part of his story.

‘I was born in The Salvation Army Mothers’ Hospital in Clapton, so it has been there for me since the start,’ he says. ‘I think that, as an organisation, it’s needed now more than ever. It’s proactive, impactful and does extraordinary work. No question about it, the Army has shaped who I am today – and I consider myself lucky to have grown up around the amazingly kind people at Luton Temple. They gave me the gift of music which lasts a lifetime, and I’m forever grateful for it.’

Written by

A photo of Claire Brine

Claire Brine

Staff Writer, War Cry

Latest online articles from War Cry