He made his name on television and is known for satirising theatrical stereotypes, yet Nigel Planer is a stage actor through and through, finds Caroline Bishop.
It can be difficult fitting into the cast of a show that has already been running for a year and a half, but Nigel Planer knows the way to the heart of a West End company: cake. “They did get cup cakes,” he smiles. “Bought, but custom made with writing.” Not that they last long backstage at Hairspray. “They’re like gannets, dancers. The energy they’re putting out, any amount of carbohydrate will go like seagulls. You just put it anywhere backstage, as much cake as you like.”
Fans of Planer’s fictitious thespian alter-ego Nicholas Craig, which started with the BBC series The Naked Actor, will know that cheesecake is meant to be the key to peace and harmony backstage, but actually, it seems any variety of baked goods will do. “I love it, this job,” he smiles. “My first Saturday matinee, one of the cast knocked on my dressing room door and delivered me some flapjack, some brownies, home baked, from Wicked. Because one of the cast members in Wicked used to make brownies; there was a baking contest and I used to be very appreciative of sweets, of cakes. It’s lovely. It’s very silly.”
He chuckles to himself, a childlike smile lighting up a face that, when serious, can look rather curmudgeonly. In fact, reading about Planer before meeting him in a Waterloo restaurant near his home, curmudgeon is the impression I am given; a man whose two divorces, custody struggles and therapy sessions have made him a bit of a grump.
But today, he doesn’t seem grumpy at all. Ponderous, yes, and perhaps a little cautious, with a touch of the mad professor about him thanks to his unruly grey hair; and the corners of his mouth still occasionally turn down in the manner of depressed, folk-singing hippie Neil, his character in 80s television sitcom The Young Ones. But generally, Planer seems jovial and content, buoyed by the experience of performing in the Laurence Olivier Award-winning musical Hairspray. He has taken over from Ian Talbot to play Wilbur Turnblad, the husband of Michael Ball’s Edna and father of Tracy, the big-haired, wholesome heroine of this feelgood show about being true to yourself. “It’s just brilliant isn’t it? You see that and think oh yes I’ll have some of that thank you, that’s very, very nice isn’t it.”
Planer arrived in the show – with his cupcakes – on 2 February. Though he has a wealth of West End experience under his belt, the 56-year-old has never taken over a role in an existing production before. “I’m not doing any of that ‘oh no I want to make it my own’ because it seems to work so well… I’m not going to try and be pretentious about it; you just think, look, that works, I’ll just catch up.”
Pretentious is something that Planer certainly is not. Unlike that stereotypical breed of self-important actor that he parodies – on TV and in novel I, An Actor – with Nicholas Craig, Planer has no air of grandeur. Nor does he go in for false modesty; he is dryly honest about both his deficiencies and his talents. “I’m quite tall and I’m quite old now in terms of musicals. I think I’m quite difficult to cast,” he says, before adding about Hairspray, “this one, I feel this is right. I would have cast me in it,” he grins.
“I’m not going to try and be pretentious about it; you just think, look, that works, I’ll just catch up”
“My character has to be a man who likes a larger woman, that’s the joke. And somehow I think that my skeletal frame, my lankiness, helps in that, it just looks funny. You’ve got Mrs Round next to Mr Bones, it just looks right.”
The misshapen couple and their dance-crazy daughter are the only functional family unit in the show, a message that Planer is happy to promote. Dad of two sons from two previous marriages, the actor became a patron of the charity Families Need Fathers following his own experiences of being separated from his children through divorce. “A functional family doesn’t often get centre stage do they? And they all love each other and the reason she’s [Tracy’s] got the confidence is because she’s got the dad and the mum behind her,” he says. “It’s good and it’s a real gift; I’m taking great pleasure in fulfilling that function.” It is refreshing, he adds, to play a male character “who is not the problem, because these days usually to get the gig the male character would have to be the problem.” He gives the example of the role he played in his last West End show, the Wizard of Oz in Wicked. “He’s conflicted and he’s not a good father. That’s what Wicked’s about, girls learning to be independent from their fathers. Not to trust men is the message behind Wicked, which is a sad message. Whereas Hairspray is saying, get on with it. It’s a much more uplifting thing, that.”
Wicked is just one of the plum West End shows which Planer starred in prior to his Hairspray debut. In addition to appearances in fringe productions, a role in Alistair Beaton’s satire Feelgood and stage outings for Nicholas Craig, Planer has fashioned a niche for himself in West End musicals. His lanky frame made him the ultimate Mr Cellophane in hit show Chicago when it opened 11 years ago, he donned a wig to play Pop in Ben Elton’s Queen musical We Will Rock You on its premiere in 2002 and went on to join the original cast of Wicked at the Apollo Victoria in 2006, where he stayed for nearly two years.
As he says, these are “serious hit shows”. Even We Will Rock You, which was snubbed by the critics, is still pulling in punters by the coach-load years after opening. “The audience go bonkers every time, they never fail to get up and give a standing ovation. Whatever you think, two and a half thousand people having a really good time, getting their money’s worth, is a nice feeling and that is good. That’s a big plus to feeling like you’ve done a day’s work,” he says.
“These days usually to get the gig the male character would have to be the problem”
That is one of many reasons why Planer loves working on the stage. Television may have pushed him into the public eye, putting him at the forefront of the British alternative comedy scene of the 1980s, but, with some exceptions, the small screen has featured less prominently in his career since the hey day of The Young Ones. “I don’t feel I fit in so much these days. I’m not young, I don’t know that I fit their requirements,” he says. But the fond way he talks about his experiences on stage seems to indicate that theatre has brought him more than enough satisfaction and enjoyment over the years.
That is, even if a two-year stint playing the same role takes a certain toll. “You go to a funny head space; you have a sort of out-of-body experience. You’ll be outside thinking what do I say next? Oh I just said it. Or have I already said that today? Is it a matinee day? What show is this?” he laughs. But then, he adds, he can find something new in a role, even after two years, especially if a new cast member joins the show or an understudy steps in. He raves about the delight of working with the swings and the dance captains in a musical, and the fascination of the system of covers that can see “endless combinations” of people playing various roles. He even enjoys the warm-up routine he does before a show: “It’s like a sport in a way. The discipline of it, it’s great, I love it.” It is this almost geeky delight in the workings of a show, coupled with the cake-based camaraderie backstage, that fuels his passion for theatre.
“Cake’s very important,” he grins. “Or clothes peg games; how many clothes pegs can you get on someone? Or the coat hanger game, or the contest between the wardrobe department and the wig department. At Christmas people had to decorate their rooms and then you get a star in from another show, like Christian Slater came to judge at Wicked. The lengths people go to, with bribery and corruption. It’s very funny.”
Planer’s immersion in theatre has extended to writing, too. He is preparing to stage his second play, Death Of Long Pig, at the Finborough theatre in July. His debut, On The Ceiling – a play about the underling artists who helped Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel – played at Birmingham Rep before transferring to London’s Garrick theatre in 2005, where it was savaged by many of the print critics. “It was an upsetting experience because the critics are so nasty,” says Planer. “Some of them are saying things and they are wrong, ignorant, historically wrong, actually criticising you on the grounds of scholarship and you’re saying no, I’m sorry you don’t know what you’re talking about, I spent four years researching this.”
Luckily, he had already written a draft of his second play before letting the critics see his first “which was deliberate planning. Because I thought if I get shot down I’ll never get up again, so I’ll write it now.”
“You go to a funny head space; you have a sort of out-of-body experience”
Death Of Long Pig is another historical offering which juxtaposes the lives and deaths of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson and artist Paul Gauguin in the Polynesian islands in the 1890s. “It’s about people dying and being eaten,” he summarises succinctly. “But it’s not in any way going anywhere near what the Germans call a baby stoning play. So it’s not one of those, there’s not any kind of severed head f**king. And there’s a lot of wit, because both Stevenson and Gauguin were very, very witty, very articulate guys both of them.”
Writing his own plays has also introduced him to the financial side of theatre, and, specifically, the lack of money available to stage plays. He is planning a fundraiser for Death Of Long Pig, until our conversation sparks an idea. “If I could raise the money to put on the show at the Finborough by doing a Neil gig, I would do it. But I don’t think I would look very convincing. Actually I’ve still got my We Will Rock You wig, which is a similar sort of long hair, but it’s grey. So I probably could do Neil as an old man.”
The thought evokes memories of a previous stage performance as the long-haired hippie at the Hammersmith Apollo in the 1980s. Despite packing out the venue, the gig lost money, mainly due to Planer’s “whims” which included a live band, bubble and smoke machines and low ticket prices. “We even got them [to write] on the front of the Hammersmith Apollo, ‘Neil’s Farewell Gog Oh Dear I Got That Bit Wrong Please Don’t Print This Bit’” he recalls with a chuckle, “right up big like that. It was all very expensive. But it was bloody funny!”
He is bringing Nicholas Craig out for another telly special soon. Given his obvious love for the stage, satirising the profession could be seen as a tad disingenuous. But then again, perhaps it gives him more right than anyone. In any case, it is all done in good humour and without malice. “I don’t think there’s anybody as far as I know took serious offence,” he says, after telling me about the time he did a routine parodying Trevor Nunn’s leadership of the National Theatre, performed to an audience of industry guests at the Laurence Olivier Awards. “It got a lot of laughs but you just feel a bit embarrassed doing it in front of him,” he grins. Somehow, I get the feeling that was one more highlight in a stage career full of memories that bring a smile to Planer’s face.