How TV fame left Neil Morrissey wanting more

Best known for sitcom characters and voiceovers, Neil Morrissey is now tackling musical theatre. Rod McPhee found out why.

FOR almost 30 years he has seemed to be omnipresent on our TV screens. Boon in the 1980s, Men Behaving Badly in the 1990s and, erm, Bob the Builder in the Noughties, Neil Morrissey has carved a TV career out of being the archetypal everyman.

Which makes his latest role, as the unscrupulous Jewish miser in Lionel Bart’s stage musical, Oliver!, a surprise.

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Fagin doesn’t exactly fit the regular bloke mould which has made Morrissey one of Britain’s most familiar stars of screen and stage – and he knows it. Now aged 50, he’s also conscious of his comparatively limited musical theatre experience.

“Before this I did Acorn Antiques and Guys and Dolls in the West End. And that’s it,” he recalls. “I came into it by accident really. My agent just told me one day he’d put me up for Guys and Dolls and I was like: ‘Oh...why?’ and he just said: ‘Oh come on, I know you can sing – I’ve been to the pub with you’.”

But his local is a long way from the string of giant theatres he’ll visit on this long tour of the UK. Plus, he’s playing an iconic role in an iconic musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh.

Morrissey has just had his opening night at Leeds Grand Theatre after completing a run at Newcastle Theatre Royal. The pressure of being on the road, he admits, gets to him.

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“Last week I was a bit anxious – I couldn’t eat properly,” he says. “Because you’re putting the show together again in your head. New Dodgers, new Olivers, new gang. And you don’t know how everyone will react.

“You tend to enjoy these things in retrospect. At the time you just get on with it, you know? The real pressure comes from hoping you can raise yourself to the level of the rest of the amazing cast.”

You could easily form the impression that Morrissey was chosen on a whim for the role. He does seem a rather random choice – a big name to pull in the masses, not a seasoned performer. But the show has scored good reviews and he’s hardly winging it.

“Oh I had to go in and prove I could do it,” says Morrissey. “I auditioned a lot for this role – three or four times. People like Cameron and his team, they know it’s a departure from what I am known for.

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“But Cameron actually wants you to bring something different to the part every time. I’ve tried to come at this as much more of an actor than a musical theatre star. Still, everyone’s done it differently over the years.”

The daunting list of actors who’ve tackled Fagin, either on stage, on TV or in movie adaptations, ranges from Alec Guinness to Robert Lindsay, the latter winning an Olivier Award for his performance.

“But you can’t think of all the actors who’ve taken on Fagin in the past, you just have to go at it gung-ho,” says Morrissey.

“I think people are surprised when they see me doing this. They like to come and say ‘Oh my God!’ because people have said to me that they didn’t recognise me and were still waiting for me to appear after I’d been on stage and gone back off again.

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“And that’s good. Because you do get some stars where they’ll come on and you say: ‘Oh that’s a wig!’ But we do hark back to the ‘Neil Morrissey thing’ a little in one section of the show – though I’m not going to tell you what it is.”

The buzz surrounding Morrissey has died down since the early Noughties when he was hounded by press and paparazzi as Men Behaving Badly became one of TV’s biggest hits. That intensified when, in 2000, it was revealed that Morrissey was involved in an extra-marital affair: the wife was Britain’s Got Talent star Amanda Holden, and the husband was gameshow host-turned-actor, Les Dennis. Inevitably, it was played out in the eye of a media storm.

“Thankfully it’s been sorted out now, or at least calmed down for a while,” says Morrissey. “That whole period was bittersweet, but mostly sweet. In one sense the attention is flattering, but it can also be intrusive – and you have to get a balance.”

Over the past decade he’s had more TV roles, albeit nothing which attracted quite as much attention as the sitcom that made him a household name. Then there has been more straight theatre and his first tentative steps into big shows. So, is he prepared to enter another decade as a star of musicals?

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“By February I won’t want to do a musical for another year at least,” he says. “Though, you never know, because if Cameron comes along and offers me an absolute cracker of a part, what do you do? It’s the equivalent of Spielberg offering you a part in one of his movies. But, to be honest, I’d rather have a rest.”

To December 8, Leeds Grand Theatre, £20 to £48.50, Tel 0844 8482700,

Twists in the tale of Oliver!

Also known as The Parish Boy’s Progress, Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist was published in 1838. 

Transformed into the musical Oliver! by Lionel Bart, the production premiered in London’s West End in 1960 and went on to take Broadway by storm in 1963.

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The show enjoyed three revivals – in 1984, 1994 and 2009. The latter starred Jodie Prenger who landed the part of Nancy after winning the TV talent show I’d Do Anything.

Desperate for money, Bart sold the rights to Oliver! to Max Bygraves for £350 who sold them on for £250,000.

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