REMEMBER Neil the hippy in the Eighties’ student sitcom The Young Ones or maybe Ralph Filthy in Filthy Rich And Catflap?
They were but two of the creations of British comedy legend Nigel Planer, actor, West End musical theatre performer, comedian, novelist and playwright, whose latest premiere is on its way to York.
Planer, Westminster-born star of The Comic Strip Presents, Blackadder and Death In Paradise too, has penned All Above Board, his sixth stage play, for St Helens company Northern Comedy Theatre to tour across the north and the Midlands.
On Thursday and Friday, this typically British farce of mistaken identities and disastrous decisions will play the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York.
“You send out loads of plays to loads of theatres, but a friend of mine, who also writes comedy, suggested I should get in touch with Northern Comedy Theatre artistic director Shaun Chambers, and three words appealed to me,” says Planer, 68, explaining how the new partnership was formed. “Northern! Comedy! Theatre!”
“After a sketchy first draft caught Shaun’s eye, it’s on to its fourth draft for the rehearsals, and I went up there for the fourth read-through, with a really impressive casting pool. All of them are just good, funny people.
“It can make you a bit nervous going to a read-through, especially as serious actors can subtract from the jokes, but that wasn’t the case!”
All Above Board finds an unlikely bunch of modern-day do-gooders trying to make the world a better place, but they lose the plot, their morals and even their clothes in farce tradition.
In a nutshell, Timothy Upton-Fell has quit the world of banking and now – for all the wrong reasons – he wants to give something back by helping those less fortunate. Along with his brazen and shameless PR agent, Florence, he plans a charity auction to raise money for good causes, but misguidedly he enlists the help of narcissistic television personality, Matthew Board, a man clearly on the edge in more ways than one.
Matters are made worse by Sir Ommany John, a geriatric world-famous artist who still has an eye for the ladies; Katia, a confused Finnish exchange student, and not least Cressida, Timothy’s crazed and vengeful ex-wife. Furthermore, will Walji, the Punjabi plasterer, ever turn up?
“It’s a high-risk show, as it’s a farce, which is pretty out of fashion,” says Planer. “It’s high risk too because, with a farce, you just set off and it can all come crashing down around you as it relies on speed, dexterity and team play.
“It’s like a sports team: they have to play with each other, whereas in the days of doing stand-up comedy, that’s something they’re not used to having to do. You have to pick up the baton and pass it on.
“I say it’s high risk, but when it’s working, there’s nothing like a good farce, like those Brian Rix farces on television that were always broadcast live – and that’s the way to do it.”
Planer’s last but one play was based on an 18th century farce, The Game Of Love And Chance, re-set in the suburban world of a well-off, middle-class Asian family, with an arranged marriage at its core. “It was that play that made me feel, ‘maybe I should have a go, not at an adaptation, but an original piece’,” he says.
In the rehearsal period for his plays, Planer likes to combine being involved with keeping his distance. “In the past, I’ve gone in for the first two days, then I’d leave them for three weeks and go back in when there’s still time to have a look at what they’ve got. Once it’s the final few days, you’re best out of the way, when it’s all about getting it right and you mustn’t get in the way,” he says.
“But this time I’m going in a week before it opens, maybe to make a few cuts, or maybe to write a few things, though it would be wonderful if I could just say, ‘that’s wonderful, darling’!”
Planer’s participation “depends entirely on the director”. “For my first play, On The Ceiling, a historical comedy about two guys working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, who got fired by Michelangelo, I was there for half the rehearsals for the original production, putting my oar in,” he says.
“Then, another company said they wanted to do it in a Clapham fringe, but I didn’t know anything about it until it was about to open, so I just watched it, rather than having any input.
“I was involved in the radio version, and then there was a Catalan version in Barcelona that I had nothing to do with as I don’t speak Catalan…and it was the best version yet! The Catalan cast were hitting each other on stage, whereas English casts couldn’t give it that oomph.”
Planer has sought to maintain a balance between performing and writing. “I’ve been doing more of the writing in the past two years, partly because of Covid,” he says. “For ten years, I was doing shows in the West End, which was pretty time-consuming. The last one was Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and now released from that, I can concentrate on those things I couldn’t do, but I’m comfortable with still doing a few weeks’ TV acting work here and there, like doing Father Brown and Death In Paradise.
“It’s great fun to go on other people’s shows, like There She Goes, working with David Tennant and Jessica Hynes, where I play grumpy Gandalf Pat. It keeps you in touch, and that’s part of the joy of it, whereas writing is lonesome.”
What’s coming next? Planer hopes to re-activate the play he co-wrote and performed in 2018 with The Young Ones cohort Adrian Edmondson, Vulcan 7, a Waiting For Godot-echoing comedy wherein two past-it actors are stuck in their trailer on the slopes of an Iceland volcano, unable to film their low-budget sci-fi adventure because of an avalanche.
“We’re hoping to remount it as It’s Heading Straight Towards Us,” he says. Not only the title is new, but the cast will be too. “We’re slightly too old to play these characters now, and besides, when you’re performing it, you have half your brain going, ‘Oh, that’s a line I could re-write’, or ‘Does that work?’, so there’s too much over-thinking going on.”
What does not change is Planer’s appreciation of comedy and farce. “If you look at farce, historically it’s about pompous people having their pomposity punctured. It’s fun seeing someone who thinks a lot of themselves with their trousers down,” he says.
“In this new play, it’s a cast of indefensible characters, where the Punjabi plasterer is pretty much the only nice person in it!
“Farce is a much-maligned artform and yet there is such delight in revisiting characters that we know really hit the spot, like Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army: the man who’s in charge is incompetent but determined to put everyone in their place. To go back to those kinds of characters, or to Brian Rix’s characters, there’s a recognised hilarity in them.”
How come farces are “out of fashion”, Nigel? “I can’t give a definitive answer, but I suspect there are a number of elements,” he says. “Firstly, they often need big casts, when theatres are now saying, ‘Can you write a two-hander for telly stars?”, which is a producer’s dream.
“Farces are difficult to stage, because of the design requirements, and they’re difficult to get right. It’s also probably my generation’s fault that there was a big shift to stand-up comedians, who just needed a microphone, when farces can need a cast of 12.”
British farce became associated with Brian Rix and then Ray Cooney, “a good friend of mine, who’s still at it, still directing his plays”, says Planer. “But these farces have elements that are now seen as antiquated in terms of their content, gender politics and the concerns of people today, so farce is no longer fashionable, but what I’m hoping is to be able to take the form and make it more acceptable to modern audiences, more groovy, more cool.
“In fact, I’ve been working with Ray Cooney on another farce, giving Run For Your Wife an update, making it Asian as Rani For Your Wife (Rani being an Asian name). It works, and we’re just waiting for a theatre to have the courage to take it on.”
How do characters in All Above Board differ from farces of the past? “Now they have to behave in the right ‘woke’ way, which is part of their pomposity, and hopefully it will be a relief for the audience to be able to laugh at that. If the comedy manages to tickle the funny bone, it will take off.”
Asked to reflect on Planer’s five-decade impact on British comedy, he says: “At the beginning, it was all a mad rush because it was brilliant to find the opportunities at the Comedy Store and with the Comic Strip, with my comedy partner, Peter Richardson.
“We had compatriots who wanted to do stuff like us, forming a company with Ade Edmondson, Rik Mayall and Alexei Sayle, later joined by [Dawn] French and [Jennifer] Saunders, but it was a stroke of luck that it gave us the chance to be able to do so many things.”
Planer had been working as a “straight actor” too, starring in Shine On Harvey Moon, for example, “but after The Young Ones, we were very well known, which was wonderful but also limiting, as I’d always played ‘weird’ characters,” he says.
“Through all that exposure, the character of Neil took over and I exploited that: I did the record and the book. But Neill wasn’t a part that I played that was scripted for The Young Ones. He was a character that I’d created four or five years before we ever got on television. He was already my Dame Edna Everage for years before the TV series. He was my alter-ego.”
Neil the hippy lives on, still Planer’s best-known and best-loved character, one who could only be British. “It’s the individual sense of humour we have,” Nigel reasons. “There are different types of comedy in different countries. In America, they may speak the same language as us but they don’t like losers, whereas we love the losers in our comedy, with all the cruelty that goes with that.”
Northern Comedy Theatre in Nigel Planer’s All Above Board, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, August 26 and 27, 7.30pm. Box office: josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
Nigel Planer on his past appearances in York
“I’VE never worked as an actor at a York theatre, but I may well have done a gig there as we did various tours with the Comic Strip and The Young Ones. I bet I have, but sometimes when you play all these one-night gigs, you can’t remember, though the chances are that I must have.
“I seem to remember hanging around York on a poetry tour, when I was hanging around as a performance poet in 1995-1996, touring with Henry Normal.
“I do have a memory of coming to the Theatre Royal in the Seventies, either for an audition or because I was working at the Leeds Playhouse.
“Hang on…I have a memory of being in York for a book launch at the Barbican with Joan Le Mesurier, John Le Mesurier’s wife, who was there to promote her book Lady Don’t Fall Backwards. I must have been promoting one of my books and had to make a speech.
“So, you could say All Above Board is officially my York debut but I have a long association with the city.”
Copyright of The Press, York