Harry Potter star Oliver Phelps on charity work, podcasts and dreams of a Fred and George spin-off

"Have you noticed over the last two years or so, there seem to be way more pigeons around?!"

It's not exactly the first thing I expected to chat about with Harry Potter star Oliver Phelps.

He has a point though. There are a particularly plump couple of pigeons hogging the bird table in my garden, but that's another story.

Oliver – who played George Weasley in the Harry Potter franchise, alongside twin James, as Fred, is particularly buoyant right now.

He's an Aston Villa fan so things are pretty rosy. His twin James is a Blues fan.

"My brother's gone very quiet," he says, as talk switches from pigeons to football.

My first impressions of Oliver are that you could be talking to a mate down the pub – perhaps even drinking a pint of Butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron.

And it's that likeability and approachability that makes him the perfect fit with the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, which he is supporting with a new national initiative.

Both Oliver and James have that ability to connect with young people.

"It helps to be as immature as we are!" he tells me. "We might be getting older on paper but we're always going to have a connection with younger people."

The result is Oliver’s hands-on involvement in #DoIt4Youth, a four-part, four-week DofE inspired sponsored challenge to raise money to support young people across the UK.

Bethany Griffin and Oliver Phelps at the United Reform Church Food Bank in Sutton Coldfield

He has been named captain for the Central region – other captains across the UK include Hannah Cockroft, JJ Chalmers, James McVey, Alice Beer and Matt Johnson.

"When the DofE asked if I'd be a captain I certainly wanted to stand up for the West Midlands, which I'm really proud to do," he explains.

"The DofE Awards is something I admire greatly.

“About five years ago now, James and I were invited to go and present the gold awards at St James’s Palace.

"You are acting on behalf of the Royal family and they have hundreds of kids go through from all over the country.

“We thought it was really cool and we have been fortunate to do a few now, a couple in the grounds of Buckingham Palace as well.

“It’s just inspiring seeing and hearing what these young people have gone through from the age of when they started up until achieving gold award.

“You hear of all these young people and what they learnt, improving themselves and learning new skills.

“It isn’t just a challenge to do, while at school, people adapt what they learn and take it into university life and beyond. It gives you a good grounding.

“Quite a few of my mates did it during their school days but, at the time, James and I had just got cast in the Harry Potter films so we couldn’t have dedicated time to even getting the bronze award, let alone going all the way to gold.

“So we cheated, in a way, and came in on the back end of things. The DofE did the Diamond Challenge which James and I were able to complete successfully.

“I’m just a huge supporter – the determination of those involved is great and it changes people for the better.”

Oliver pictured at the Footy 4 Harry game at St Andrew's

The new challenge which has been launched is in four parts – Get Up where people can choose a physical activity like cycling, walking, running or climbing, Skill Up where you can learn a new skill, Free Up where you can give up something like junk food, sugar, meat or social media and Hand Up where you can lend a hand in your local community.

And, rather than just promote the challenge, Oliver's on board himself.

“It’s going to be a really good thing,” said Oliver. “Whatever environment you are from it’s good to step out of a comfort zone and test yourself.

“I am doing one hour of exercise every day for four weeks. Now I'm starting it, I’m like why did I say that?

“For my skills challenge, I want to enjoy a standard conversation in Spanish. I have always toyed with the idea of it and now I have four weeks to learn basic stuff.

“We did a press tour in Spain a couple of years ago and I learned specifically how to say ‘I don’t speak Spanish but I speak English very well’ – it was a bit like a Family Guy episode. So I’d like to learn properly.

“For the freeing upside of things, I’m giving up cakes and biscuits which I thought would be okay but whenever I go for a coffee, I can’t seem to walk past them. I’m terrible at avoiding Millionaire Shortbread so that will be tricky.

“And for my fourth thing, I’m supporting food banks. I went to one in Sutton Coldfield recently, at the United Reformed Church to see the operation close up – seeing it first hand, seeing the good in people and how people have stepped up to the plate.”

Having something like DoIt4Youth to get involved in has been a pleasant distraction for Oliver during the pandemic, a time when we have all been penned in more than we'd wish.

"How my wife hasn't killed me yet I don't know!?" he says, "But our garden looks really, really good!"

He's been creative, though, and set up a podcast called Normal Not Normal.

"It went down really well," he says. "We have built up a really good group of people, listening from all over the world, which is crazy.

"We had messages from people from Australia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Chile and the USA.

"We did a couple of episodes where James and I just chatted and took questions.

"But we had people on as well such as tennis star Johanna Konta – she was our first guest and that was cool because she is great.

"It rolled on from there – Haley Joel Osment came on and Bonnie Wright, who played our sister Ginny in the Harry Potter films.

"That one really catapulted things because we were talking about life on the film."

Oliver and James in a scene from Harry Potter

That goes to show the timeless appeal of the Harry Potter films, as we prepare to celebrate 20 years since the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

And, though the books and, as a result, films have now ended, with Oliver's character George heartbreakingly losing twin brother Fred, perhaps it's not the end for the Weasleys.

"It's amazing there's so much interest and people still want to hear stories of us talking about Harry Potter," admits Oliver.

"There are children, aged eight or nine, who weren't even born when we finished, who love the films and so it's amazing to think there's a new generation to enjoy them.

"I met some fantastic people working on the films – as a cast, it's like people you go to school or university with.

"When you hook up, it always feels like exactly where you left off.

"I'd do it again and dye the hair for one more crack! It'd be good to do at some point and it would be well greeted I am sure."

So, having lost his twin, what would George be up to?

"I see him as a mad entrepreneur, the type of guy who would be on Wizard's Dragon's Den," Oliver laughs.

"Having a setback in the family, like Fred's death, things could have gone one of two ways for him but I'd like to think it'd have spurred him on.

"James and I have spoken about it and said that, maybe, George could still be running their shop, and Fred could be like the ghost, helping to stop people from stealing stuff.

"So there's always that possibility. There's a 20-part drama or a comedy series in that!"

And with that, Oliver bids farewell, set to head off for a spin class to make sure he's in tip-top con for the fitness part of his DofE challenge while I'm off to check on those pesky pigeons!

You can sponsor Team Central England at dofe.org/DoIt4Youth or set up your own fundraising page and complete your own set of challenges.

The money raised could help get more young people across the West Midlands and Central England involved in the DofE – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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