From The Comic Strip to Castle Donington: An Interview With Nigel Planer

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Nigel Planer as Den Dennis, Castle Donington, 16th August 1986

If you were a British teenager in the mid-’80s, ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘The Comic Strip Presents’ were pretty much required viewing. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that period without them. They fused comedy and music with anarchic zeal and have endured as bona fide TV classics.

Nigel Planer was an integral part of both groundbreaking shows, working alongside Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Peter Richardson and many more. He brought the world such classic characters as the perennially-prickly hippy Neil and Den Dennis, heavy metal’s unluckiest guitarist.

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Since then, Planer has appeared in countless quality TV productions, written several books and plays and starred in the hit musicals ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘Evita’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Wicked’, ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Hairspray’. He’s also worked on several BBC Four music documentaries and is currently revisiting an early interest in songwriting.

I began my chat with Nigel by asking him about his musical influences.

MP: There was a great punky energy about the early days of The Comic Strip troupe, but I’m guessing your own musical tastes weren’t rooted in punk. Did you play in bands before becoming a pro actor?

NP: I was more into psych-folk and new-age jazz stuff. I didn’t so much play in bands but I did make a bubblegum pop record with my brother Roger, and I had a publishing deal for my songs which were sort of sub-Nick Drake, soft, liberal, poetic things.

We all loved your portrayal of Neil in ‘The Young Ones’ (I think I still have ‘Neil’s Book Of The Dead’ somewhere…), but how much of that character was yours and how much of it Ben Elton and Lise Mayer’s?

Well, the original Neil comes from a show I wrote and performed with Peter Richardson and Pete Richens called ‘Rank’. Many of the characters later to appear in Comic Strip films stem from this show. We first did it at the Roundhouse and then on tour with various bands. We were trying to be like Alberto y Los Trios Paranoias or The Fabulous Poodles, if anyone remembers them. We ended up more like a Mike Leigh play with a rock band in it. When we made our double act, Neil came along with us and so he was my character in the ‘Young Ones’ setup. He was mostly my character but Ben and Lise made him more stereotypically hippyish.

Your cover of Traffic’s ‘Hole In My Shoe’ got to number 2 in the charts in July 1984! Any good memories from Neil’s ‘pop’ period? 

It was an incredible experience, to be a pop star all of a sudden without having to take the consequences of that decision because I was in character. I learned that I would hate to be a pop star.

Who or what was your inspiration for the brilliant Den, the hapless rhythm guitarist from The Comic Strip‘s ‘Bad News Tour’ and ‘More Bad News’?

I’m afraid Den Dennis comes from deep inside my soul…

You famously played the 1986 Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington with the News, how was that? The festival was probably at its peak during that time.

It was our first gig. We were terrified. It looks pretty good in the film – you see all the usual spoof documentary gags, we argue, get ready for the gig, go up the stairs onto the stage. And then in one panning shot you realise it’s real, there are actually 40,000 people there baying for our blood and throwing bottles of urine at us. The compere (Tommy Vance) had to wear a helmet and face guard, but we just walked out there like idiots.

‘Bad News Tour’ famously appeared on British TV long before ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ was released. Have you ever met any of the Tap guys? Are they aware of ‘Bad News Tour’?

I think both ideas were in germination at the same time. Funny how things happen like that. I never met any of them but have a huge admiration.

In Ade’s Comic Strip film ‘Private Enterprise’, you play this great character Derek, a bow-tied, extremely effete A&R man. It’s a brilliant portrayal of a lot of those public school types who got into the music biz in the late-’70s and early-’80s. Was Derek based on anyone you knew?

Not really. I didn’t think of him as a public school type, I just came up with this weird voice. A lot of the time things are just done on instinct and it’s best not to work it out too much. I did feel I knew the kind of person he should be, ie it wasn’t exactly a stretch.

In later Comic Strips, there were cameos and musical contributions from the likes of Jeff Beck, Kate Bush and Lemmy. Any printable memories of working with them?

We used to do this gag where one of us, probably Ade, would turn down volume on his guitar and mime, and out would come the most amazing solo. Then out from behind a speaker would walk Brian May, Jeff Beck or whoever we’d managed to con into doing the solo. Then Ade would stop and shout at the guitar hero: ‘I paid you a fiver to stay behind that speaker, you bastard!’ At The Marquee, we did it not once but twice – after coming out, Brian then turned down volume on his guitar and out walked Jeff. Jimmy Page did the gag with us once too, but I can’t remember where we were playing. Ah, memories… I do remember an early morning filming call in a hotel in Devon on a Comic Strip film. There had been a lot of drinking the night before. I’d gone to bed early, being a professional ‘actor’ you know, but others had stayed up trying to keep up with Lemmy. The next day at 6am, I get down to the lobby for pick-up time – none of the cast are there, not even the runner nor the driver. In fact, the only other person turning up on time for work, with his lines learned, was Lemmy.

You’ve been in the original casts of several very popular West End musicals (‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’, ‘Hairspray’, ‘We Will Rock You’) in the last ten years or so – what are the challenges of singing live night after night?

It’s a slog doing eight shows a week on a raked stage. Lots of injuries and physio and the like. The singing is the nice bit. One is also fighting boredom on a grand scale. It’s hard to stay cheerful. But on ‘We Will Rock You’, I remember thinking to myself: ‘Shut the f*** up, you are about to go on in front of 3,000 people and sing a beautiful song with a band of incredible musicians handpicked by Queen and then do about 20 minutes of jokes and make everyone laugh and you’re complaining?’ I’m good at complaining. Ben used to call me Niggle Complainer.

In recent years, you’ve been the go-to voiceover guy for music documentaries on BBC4 – do you enjoy them and are there any more in the pipeline?

None in the pipeline at the moment unfortunately, but they are a really, really good gig. You get to sit for a day listening to all this brilliant music and hear some people talking who maybe meant a lot to you when younger. I particularly enjoyed ‘Blues Britannia’ which I thought was very interesting. The idea that the Brits re-imported the Blues back to America where it was dying.

What are you up to at the moment? A little bird told me you’re working on a music project alongside the acting…

I have a couple of musical projects at the moment. One is a stage musical I have written with Hannah-Jane Fox and Andrew Holdsworth who I met in the ‘We Will Rock You’ days. We’re trying to place it in a theatre now. It’s not usual musical theatre fare. It’s heavy-rock/pop based, a very dark gothic horror story called ‘She Devil’! The other is a psych-folk band called Rainsmoke I have formed with my musician brother Roger and a guy called Chris Wade who is behind the Dodson And Fogg albums. We have one song up on Bandcamp now, and are hoping to finish the album by the new year. Most of the songs are based on all those songs I wrote in the early 1970s when I was a young, green, poet-type guy.

Thanks Nigel.

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Nigel receiving his Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Edinburgh Napier University in 2011

Marvellous Marvin Gaye: Five From 1983

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Marvin entered 1983 with mixed emotions. His comeback album Midnight Love, released in October 1982, was a certified hit, with decent sales, good PR and an attendant single ‘Sexual Healing’ that was building up quite a Grammy buzz.

But there were plenty of other problems brewing: in his rather paranoid state, Marvin believed that pretenders to his throne like Teddy Pendergrass, Frankie Beverly (whom Marvin had mentored early in his career) and Michael Jackson were cashing in on his style and sound. The latter had even taken to wearing aviator shades and ‘military’ garb.

Elsewhere, Marvin’s relationship with his father had hit a new low. Bitter and resentful, he considered physically ejecting Father from the family home but decided instead to stay away completely.

The other problem was cashflow. Marvin was spending so much money on ‘extras’ that he had been forced to give up his houses in Bel Air and Palm Springs.

Despite all this, in the first few months of 1983, Marvin reminded the music world of his luminous genius and, against all the odds, provided a few career high-points.

Broke and entering an introspective period, he found himself spending quite a lot of time at his sister Sweetsie’s pad. It was there, on Saturday 12th February 1983, that he got together with chief musical collaborator Gordon Banks to cook up a version of the national anthem that he would sing the next day before the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game. Despite the last-minute planning, there was no margin for error: Marvin’s performance would be broadcast live on national TV.

He not only pulled it off – he smashed it out of the park. Only Marvin could have come up something so singular. His huge respect for the athletes ensured that he raised his game accordingly. Funky, spiritual, heartfelt and yet controversial, it was a triumphant reading of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, and one of the highlights of his career. It still makes the hairs stand on end.

Less than two weeks later, on February 23rd, there was another personal milestone for Marvin when he was awarded his first Grammy awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. That the Best Male Vocal and Best Instrumental Performance awards were ‘only’ in the R’n’B category scarcely mattered. He had moved out from behind his Grammy nemesis Lou Rawls’ shadow and finally gained the acceptance of his peers, something that was extremely important to him. His speeches were heartfelt and touching.

His performance of ‘Sexual Healing’ was not an unqualified success (it was 10 or 15 BPMs too slow and Marvin seemed slightly uncomfortable), but it’s still essential and moving stuff.

Another very happy moment happened a few months later when Marvin appeared with Gladys Knight and the Pips on another TV special. According to David Ritz’s classic book ‘Divided Soul‘, Marvin and Gladys argued backstage about whose version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ to do. He finally deferred to her, but still turned in another joyous and brilliant performance.

Then, on 25th March 1983, the Pasadena Civic Auditorium hosted the ‘Motown 25’ anniversary concert, most famous for Michael Jackson’s spellbinding reading of ‘Billie Jean’. Marvin once again defied expectations and provided one of the highlights of the evening.

Though looking somewhat haggard, his blues/gospel piano playing and philosophical pronouncements on the value and history of black music were nothing less than captivating. His subsequent performance of ‘What’s Going On’ was perhaps perfunctory in comparison, but still essential viewing.

Tougher, tragic times were to come over the next year, but for a few months in early 1983, Marvin was seeing a lot of his professional dreams come true. No one could take that away from him.