Lloyd Evans

How we killed comedy theatre: Nigel Planer interviewed

‘We used to have a theatre of comedy in London but it got hijacked': the playwright and Young Ones star discusses the death of farce – and how he's trying to revive it

How we killed comedy theatre: Nigel Planer interviewed
Nigel Planer: ‘We did some damage with alternative comedy in the 1980s, and our sarcasm, which meant that the older generation of farces were no longer applicable’. Credit: Harvey Planer
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Nigel Planer is on a mission to bring farce back to the West End. ‘There’s a lot of snobbery in comedy,’ he tells me when we meet at a hotel bar near the Old Vic. ‘People say, “Oh that’s comedy. It can’t have any meaning”.’

The actor and writer is still best known for playing Neil the hippie in the 1980s sitcom The Young Ones and he can recall a time when farce was a staple of London theatre. ‘I remember going along and really enjoying myself, you know, a nice big cast, actors falling over, characters treating someone differently because they think it’s someone else. All that stuff simply delights. But it’s become unfashionable.’

He particularly admires the plays of Terry Johnson, which blend comedy with moments of pain and emotional truth. ‘That’s my favourite thing — laughing and crying at the same time.’ Planer has written a new farce, All Above Board, about a pompous banker who wants to repay society by setting up a charity. ‘He’s divorced. And he’s got his daughter on weekend access and she’s brought along the Finnish exchange girl, a standard device in farce. And he has a neighbour who’s a once-famous artist suffering from Pick’s Disease.’ This is an aggressive and deadly form of dementia that affected an old friend of Planer’s, Michael Healy, to whom the play is dedicated.

‘I’ve added scenes where the artist has moments of lucidity, and he says, “How long have I been like this? It must be a nightmare for you.” So the script is quite moving. I thought to myself, “Why should he not have agency just because he’s ill? Can’t he get some laughs too?”’

He adds that the artist is ‘randy as hell, just like the original’, which creates opportunities for ‘farce-like jokes — it’s quite rude’. Planer glances down at his lap in mock-startlement. ‘Good Lord, I shouldn’t have one of these at my age.’

He struggled to find a home for the show. ‘A lot of very esteemed people were turning up their noses and saying, “Are you going for a play that has [meaningful] stuff in it, or are you just going for laughs?”’ After several rejections he admits that he ‘lost confidence’ in the script until Shaun Chambers of the Northern Comedy Theatre read it. ‘We’ll do it,’ said Chambers, ‘it’s hilarious.’ Planer was thrilled. ‘For a writer, that’s your favourite answer.’ It especially pleased him that the production company uses the words ‘comedy’ and ‘theatre’ in its title. ‘We used to have a theatre of comedy in London but it got hijacked.’

He fears that too many London stages are taken up with ‘meaningful plays that want to “change the world” — and it’s not going to work’. In part, he blames himself and his generation of comedians. ‘We did some damage with alternative comedy in the 1980s, and our sarcasm, which meant that the older generation of farces were no longer applicable.’ He tells a story about John Kane, who created the hugely successful marital sitcom Terry and June in the 1970s. ‘I loved Terry and June,’ says Planer, ‘but John Kane saw the very first episode of The Young Ones in 1982 and said to his daughter, “The game’s up. No going back. ”’

Planer says that the demand for farce is strong but it goes unacknowledged. One of his friends is the veteran writer Ray Cooney, who continues to work in the theatre. ‘He’s still directing around the world. Recently he did Move Over Mrs Markham at a theatre in Reading and the whole neighbourhood came to see it. It was packed.’ Planer has re-written Cooney’s 1980s farce Run For Your Wife and given it an Asian flavour.

‘The bigamist taxi driver is a British-Asian character. So are the two women. And I’ve expunged the unfashionable elements and added a lot of new stuff and new references. It’s still Ray’s play but I’ve called it Rani For Your Wife. We’ve done a deal. Ray loves it. But no one’s interested. Nobody’s answering any calls.’

Planer is also keen to keep his hand in as an actor. ‘I’ve just filmed an episode of Diane Morgan’s Mandy [a comedy for BBC2]. I play a sea captain who chokes to death on a tangerine.’

He reels off a list of radio series in which he appears regularly. ‘Bits of telly keep coming up but I’m not playing lead roles any more, which suits me down to the ground.’

I ask if he harbours any particular ambition, and he thinks carefully.

‘If somebody offered me an ongoing role in EastEnders, I’d probably curse and moan and say, “Look at the writing time they’re taking away from me. It’s awful. How dare they?” But then I’d do it and enjoy it. Because I always do.’

Would he play Lear in the West End if he were invited? ‘I can say “yes” quite happily because nobody is going to make the offer.’

He admits that he’s a keen student of politics and I ask him what advice he would give to the Prime Minister. ‘I’d probably prefer to be one of those unseen people putting ideas into politicians’ heads and then sneaking away so nobody knows I did it.’

He’s thinking of Peter Mandelson whom he played in a Comic Strip film for Channel 4, The Hunt For Tony Blair, in 2011. The research involved reading Mandelson’s biography and watching documentary footage of him at work. ‘He’s meant to be this evil figure and I just found myself really liking him.’

Between writing and acting, which does he prefer? ‘Both,’ he says, ‘but the thing that causes me the most anxiety and delight is writing plays. When it goes well there’s nothing like it.’

He’s accustomed to waiting ‘years and years’ to get a show up and running. He collaborated with Ade Edmondson, his Young Ones co-star, on a Beckettian farce about two film actors stuck on location in Iceland with a female producer. Five years elapsed between the first draft and the first night. And only then did the real work of rewriting begin. He recalls the gruelling experience of creating a Renaissance two-hander, On the Ceiling, about two master-plasterers sacked by Michelangelo. ‘It had all kinds of incarnations. It was at Birmingham Rep

and it came into the West End, very briefly, to the Garrick. But the reviews, my God, were just awful. I thought, “Well that’s a failure.” But it wasn’t ready for the West End. I own up.’

A fringe company expressed an interest but Planer refused to accept any payment for the rights. ‘They just put on a performance. And they solved the problems, they found ways around the things I’d mistakenly written.’ The show is now a hit in Catalonia where ‘two well-known local comedians have made it their own. It’s the best production of it yet’.

Clearly it’s too soon to think about a West End transfer for All Above Board. The show is due to tour nine venues in the Midlands and the north of England. ‘At the end of that we’ll know if we have a play.’

All Above Board opened at the Gladstone Theatre, the Wirral, and is now on tour until 14 September.