THE new leader of the Forest of Dean District Council is hoping to apply his experience “slaying vampires” to tackling climate change.
Green councillor Mark Topping also works as an actor, and has just starred as Van Helsing in Prime video hit Wrath of Dracula, where he wards off his enemy with a cross.
Prior to that he was a trainee monk in a friary, before working as a local newspaper and BBC radio reporter and then a charity publicity officer in London.
The 60-year-old, who represents the Lydney West and Aylburton ward on the Forest Council admits he is an unlikely politician.
He now splits his time between acting and leading the minority Green Party administration at the council HQ in Coleford, and believes anyone who expresses any desire to become a politician should automatically be excluded.
“I think that’s quite a popular idea,” he said. “I probably fall into the permissible category. I’ve had no intention of becoming a politician.
“Becoming a leader must have been due to a momentary lapse of concentration.”
Cllr Topping, who was born in Hackney, started his working life training to be a monk but he soon had second thoughts and pursued a career in regional press.
“I was a Franciscan novice, The Order of Friars Minor,” he said.
“I was connected with the friary for a couple years. Only doing the novitiate for about six months. I went to college in London, studied theology at King’s College.
“Then I went into the friary and six months later came out of it and got a job in journalism. I graduated in 1984 and left the friary in 1988.”
He then became a journalist working for newspapers in South London.
He was the Wimbledon News’ chief reporter and worked for the Surrey and South London News.
“I was the chief reporter of the Wimbledon News for some years. They train you and agree to pay you very little.
“Then you get a better job next time. Then I was a press officer for an aid agency, The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), in London.”
He said the time he worked for CAFOD was fascinating and involved some travel to far flung places such as Ethiopia and Vietnam.
“I also went to Croatia during the war and Mozambique during their war.
“But as a press officer, you’re almost trying to sell a message rather than tell a story because it’s interesting.
“It was a relief to get back to the other side of it and work on BBC local radio in North Yorkshire.”
“Then I left journalism. That was probably the second best decision of my life. I did it because I had to make a living when I left the friary, but I don’t think journalism was quite right for me.
“Particularly in radio. I do like writing and creating a piece for radio, telling a story in a few minutes. That was good.
“It was just the relentless demand of having a piece for breakfast and a piece for lunch everyday.
“This was in the sort of wilds of North Yorkshire were there wasn’t enough news going on of interest to anyone.”
After leaving journalism and moving down to Thornbury, South Gloucestershire, Cllr Topping got his first taste of acting.
He started doing a historic re-enactment at Methodist founder John Wesley’s Chapel in Bristol.
“That then grew into presentations to visitors as Wesley, the guided tours. Then I went around the country doing one man shows around the country as John Wesley.
“I did Passion plays and thought this is brilliant. I got into working with other people Equity, Spotlight and all the rest of it.”
He is most proud of the Wrath of Dracula which was released on Prime Video this summer in which he plays the mysterious professor Van Helsing.
“It’s entertaining, I like to think of it as an important kung-fu vampire film,” he said.
“Hopefully there will be a sequel. I had it on my campaign leaflets, a picture of me with the crucifix, which is a still from a previous vampire film I did.
Cllr Topping had moved to Aylburton near Lydney in 1999 where he and his family have lived ever since.
He says his journey into politics, and in particular the Green Party, was not a straightforward one.
But the climate climate and biodiversity crises were the main catalysts for getting involved.
“I had previously been in the Labour Party for some time in the early 1990s. Left that and gravitated towards the Green Party after moving to the Forest.
“I was not really active but I wanted to support the Green cause. It was ultimately the growing climate crisis.
“When someone came around from the Green Party asking if I wanted to stand in the 2019 election.
“There was no likelihood of getting in. But then it was a three way split and in 2019 both Labour and the Conservatives seemed unpopular and I came in through the middle and won that seat by 12 votes.
“That was a bit of a surprise. Without much premeditation about what it would involve. I thought, let’s rise to the challenge.”
And it proved to be something of a baptism of fire for him as a year later the coronavirus pandemic unfolded.
“Then Covid-19 happened which created many challenges. There was a lot of district council work but the parish council had a very active network. Then the next election came along and the Greens did very well.”
The Green Party won 15 of the 38 seats on the district council in May and now run a minority administration with tacit support from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and some Independents.
He says their goals of making sustainable changes for the authority will have to be done within the increasing financial constraints and with the support of other groups.
“On one level you want to encourage a sustainable economy, thriving communities, and up to a point, you would write a council plan that every councillor across the country would write.
“You want to do it within the financial constraints that you have. What would make us distinctive, not unique, is that what it’s our intention to have that climate and nature emergency hardwired into what drives us.
“We need to remember we are in an emergency. Covid was such an educational experience, a really serious thing happening here, and the council responded magnificently.
“That does not tend to happen with the response to the climate crisis. We declare emergencies generally across the country, nationally and internationally and then put it on the to-do list and it’s business as usual.
“We are a minnow really, but we are one element in the solution which has got to involve all partners.
“If it’s important enough, you find the money, you face that existential threat with meaningful resources. We are in a strange situation where that isn’t happening nationally.
“We are the people who are having to respond to the national emergency as local authorities and we don’t have extra resources.
“But we are already struggling to meet our statutory obligations. So we’ve got to find extra money to meet this challenge.”
He said it’s his group’s intention is to grapple with the climate crisis and get the council to do as much as it can to help the district become carbon neutral by 2030.
“We have to work collaboratively with others and can’t go off and plough a green furrow as we don’t have an overall majority.
“In a way, that’s a healthy situation for local government, OK we have an influential position here but have to take other people’s thoughts and opinions into account.
“It’s always worth remembering, we don’t have all the answers. It’s possible to get things wrong and you need other people’s input.
“We as a council, a district, need to get to carbon neutral by 2030 but also do what we cna to help the district as a whole, residents and businesses to be carbon neutral. It’s a tall order but it’s what we’re engaged with.”