Chat with star of 'To Serve Them All My Days'

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Television's most admired Welshman is actually from Yorkshire.

John Duttine (pronounced DUH-teen), who plays the part of veteran schoolmaster David Powlett-Jones in Masterpiece Theater's current 13-part mini-series, ''To Serve Them All My Days'' (PBS, Sundays, 9-10 p.m., check local listings), came a-visitin' the other day.

Mr. Duttine was hardly recognizable - instead of the conservatively clad, slick-haired David of this series - which has captured the imagination of American audiences like no other British series since ''Upstairs, Downstairs'' - he wore blue jeans, his hair combed but not slicked down. And he sported a healthy growth of reddish beard. Not at all an appearance acceptable to the headmaster at Bamfylde. But comfortable and a la mode in London and New York these days.

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Mr. Duttine, like the hero of the series based upon the book by R.F. Delderfield, hails from a mining town, but in Yorkshire rather than Wales. He, too, attended state schools rather than upper-class public (the equivalent of American private) schools.

He says Bamfylde, the fictional school, is supposed to be in Devon. And the students were of the upper class or military. In what class would Duttine place himself?

''I come from a working family, but by merit of my profession I suppose I am now middle class. English society used to be a great deal more black and white. You had the aristocracy and you had the middle classes and they seldom combined. I suppose what has happened is that the middle class has expanded into both the aristocracy and the working class. Middle-class people do send their children to public (read private) schools now, because they have the money to be able to do that. But the class differences are still there nevertheless.''

Mr. Duttine is proud of the fact that he has been complimented on his Welsh accent by many Welshmen. ''I had a Welsh dialogue coach. And the guy who plays my brother and the girl who plays my mother were both Welsh. I also have a Welsh sister-in-law, and I know Wales quite well - my girlfriend comes from Chester, on the border of Wales. So I had a lot of people to help me through.''

Mr. Duttine was voted best television actor of the year by TV Times magazine in England for the ''To Serve'' series, but he has been acting mostly in movies since then.

''I seem to be perfect to play villains,'' he says, chuckling. ''Most of my past roles were as villains - that's why I loved doing a hero like David. I play a terrorist leader in a film called 'Who Dares Win,' which you may be seeing in America soon.'' He also plays a hero, however, in a TV version of ''The Day of the Triffids,'' which has already been acquired for American cable.

Does Duttine, like many young British actors, aspire to playing Shakespeare?

''I did a lot of Shakespeare when I was training with the Glasgow City Repertory company. I would like to go back into the theater and do some Shakespeare now. Hamlet and Macbeth, especially.''

Mr. Duttine is amused that wherever he goes, wherever ''To Serve'' is shown - it has already been sold to Australia, New Zealand, France, and West Germany - everybody relates it to Mr. Chips. ''But,'' he says carefully, not wanting to denigrate Mr. Chips, ''that story was too sentimental, whereas our story is more involved in the politics and catastrophes and the wars. More of the outside world.''

Does he like the fact that a teacher is used as the hero of the piece, that he serves as a rather good role model for young people?

''It really hasn't even occurred to me,'' he says, just a bit embarrassed. ''Although there has been some positive reaction from young people to the idea of a teacher who can actually help students solve personal problems. I found fine guidance from a teacher in a state school who persuaded me that I was good at acting. She helped me become aware of myself.

Mr. Duttine feels that ''To Serve Them All My Days'' is more than just a good entertainment. ''I think it is also a good history of that period between WWI and WWII. Maybe it will make people think about wars.''

Then he reconsiders. ''But I don't want to sound pompous about it. I think really it is just a good show. Maybe it will get people to think, but not in any serious depth. It doesn't claim to be a great analysis of that period in time; it only tries to be good entertainment.

''Is there anything wrong in that?''

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