This year’s Sainsbury’s festive commercial stars 10-year-old Chris Dunkley, who landed the once-in-a-lifetime role of the young Father Christmas after encouragement and training from his local Stagecoach school honed his talent
It’s that time of the year, before the big day itself, when the Christmas adverts have us all reaching for the tissues. And the one that has warmed so many hearts this year is the advert celebrating 150 years of supermarket Sainsbury’s.
We follow the story of Nicholas the Sweep, and how he eventually becomes St Nicholas. In London in 1869, Nicholas is wrongly accused of stealing a clementine and banished to a bleak winter landscape, but Mary Ann Sainsbury visits him and gives him a sack of clementines.
Nicholas decides to give the clementines away to his fellow orphans, dropping down the chimney of the orphanage and slipping one into each of their stockings as they sleep. Then he disappears into the frozen wilderness, with snow falling on his red hat and coat.
Ten-year-old Chris Dunkley landed the role of Nicholas after a nationwide search. Chris has attended singing, dancing and acting lessons at his local Stagecoach in Fulham since he was four years old, which has given him an invaluable grounding in performing arts.
Stagecoach is the world’s largest network of performing arts schools, training students from the ages of four to 18 every weekend across five continents, and providing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities such as this.
Stagecoach Fulham’s principal Alison Bullman recognised Chris’ talent and encouraged him to attend one of the audition experience days hosted by the Stagecoach Talent Agency. Bullman explained that Chris has a natural talent for acting, “but it is the combination of this with his fantastic work ethic that has made him stand out as someone who can do it all”.
The Stagecoach Talent Agency represents young performers and has worked with some of the biggest brands and organisations in the country – including Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Outlander and Sherlock Holmes – to find acting roles for Stagecoach students.
Tarquin Shaw-Young, managing director of the Stagecoach Talent Agency, gives some insight into the audition process: “We put Chris through his paces with singing and script-reading at the audition experience days, which offer green-screen practice to ensure students are ready for whatever is asked of them at auditions. When I reviewed the tapes, I knew the agency needed to offer him representation because he was brilliant. We thought he was amazing, delivering very mature, yet natural, performances for his age.”
Soon afterwards, the Sainsbury’s opportunity came up. Shaw-Young remembers there was a huge buzz from the casting directors. “Chris’ name was written all over it.”
For Chris himself, landing the role was “the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. I had to work hard but I loved every minute of it. I ran around my house singing at the top of my voice without my shirt on when I found out I’d got the part.”
But Chris’ mum, Jenny, says “he has stayed grounded, still enjoying playing football with his friends and leading a normal life”.
As well as training young people for high-profile roles such as the Sainsbury’s advert, Stagecoach also teaches its students Creative Courage for Life: that is, using the power of the performing arts to foster confidence, imagination, creativity, resilience, self-expression – everything a young person needs to face a changing and often challenging world.
Many students go on to be professionals and world-renowned actors, singers and dancers, with past students including Emma Watson, Jamie Bell, Tuppence Middleton and Danny Mac.
Bullman is looking forward to welcoming Chris back to Stagecoach Fulham soon and, as she points out, “on the back of this news, it is going to be mad!”