Lloyd Evans 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

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some damage with alternative comedy in the 1980s, and our sarcasm, which meant that the older generation of farces were no longer applicable’.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

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’.

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