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HE’S the ultimate entertainer, but it’s taken him four decades to bag a role in his dream show.
Comedian, TV presenter, singer and actor Brian Conley, best known on screen for his ITV chat show The Brian Conley Show and off-screen for his frequent portrayals of Buttons in pantomime versions of Cinderella, he’s now treading the boards in Oliver.
Brian has always fancied picking a pocket or two, but was turned down for a role in Lionel Bart’s hit musical during a childhood audition – because he was overweight.
“I was quite a chubby kid,” he tells me. You can’t stand there singing Food, Glorious Food with a begging bowl if you’re fat.
“It’s taken me 40 years, but I’ve got there in the end.”
Now aged 50, The Mayflower favourite is returning to Southampton once again, with the famous frockcoat and illgotten gains of Fagin.
Based on the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, Cameron Mackintosh’s new musical tells the story of a street urchin who falls under the spell of the man operating a gang of young pickpockets on the streets of Victorian London.
“I’m a London lad and I’ve always wanted to do it. Everyone grew up with the music of Oliver and this production has it all.
“I was totally blown away by the London show when I saw it. This is a lot darker and it’s a really big, spectacular production with 57 of us on stage, a big orchestra and 108 people in total a part of it.
“It’s been so well produced, lit and staged, it’s like a movie. I’m thrilled to be part of something so exciting.
Hugely enthusiastic and frequently bursting into song, he continues: “As for Fagin, he’s a dark character, but there’s definitely enough comedy in it to satisfy me.
“He works on lots of levels. As well as being evil, he’s a fun character with great songs and plenty of situation comedy.
“I would say this is the greatest British musical ever.”
Famed for his catchphrase ‘it’s a puppet’, Brian is used to stealing the limelight in past TV variety shows and has become one of the UK’s most versatile stage performers, appearing as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Al Jolson in Jolson, for which he was nominated for an Olivier Award.
“I think Jolson changed everyone’s views about me. Yes, I can do comedy, but people started to realise that I can sing a bit as well. I feel like I’ve now been accepted into musical theatre, into the West End and it’s been a wonderful time for me ever since. Lots of challenges, but some great times.”
It seems theatre is where his heart now lies, rather than in the current crop of TV shows.
“I turned down EastEnders and Coronation Street. It just doesn’t appeal to me and it never has.
“I like Strictly and old Bruce, but I decided against that as well. Never say never, but I’m very lucky to enjoy my job and every day is different.
“I certainly didn’t want to do Celebrity Big Brother or anything. I don’t need celebrity.
“I realise it’s part of what I do, but I can take it or leave it.
“My daughters go to an American school and no one there knows what I do for a living and that’s the way I like it.”
Brian does reveal a TV pilot is in the offing, but for now, it’s all about live theatre.
“Ever since the days of Live at the Palladium, I’ve loved it.
“And there is nowhere better than The Mayflower. It’s a beautiful theatre with a great atmosphere.
“You go out there and it’s all about that immediate response that you get from 2,500 people. It’s the danger of it, that you have to make them laugh.
“I couldn’t do accountancy or work in a bank. Everyone’s different and everyone’s got something they’re good at, but for me it’s always been about entertaining.
“I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s all about taking people on a journey and ensuring they have a great night.”
Brian stars in Oliver, which is at The Mayflower until Saturday May 26.