Angus Deayton: Past laughter in the air

Angus Deayton. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA.
Angus Deayton. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA.
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For a medium intended to be seen only in the mind, radio has spawned a surprisingly prolific industry in stage adaptations.

First came Round the Horne, with actors delivering the innuendo-laced scripts to which the two Kenneths, Horne and Williams had first given life. A theatrical recreation of lost scripts from Hancock’s Half-Hour followed.

Angus Deayton with Radio Active co-stars Helen Atkinson Wood, Michael Fenton Stevens (left) and Philip Pope. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

Angus Deayton with Radio Active co-stars Helen Atkinson Wood, Michael Fenton Stevens (left) and Philip Pope. Picture: Steve Ullathorne

Now, making its way to Yorkshire, is Radio Active, one of the shows – Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy would be the other – that helped to define radio comedy in the 1980s.

The difference here is that it still has most of its original cast.

The show made a star of a young, long-haired and bearded Angus Deayton, a decade before he began to present Have I Got News For You on television. He became a big name not only in radio but also on stage, as straight man to Rowan Atkinson, and in the pop charts, with a hit single that poked fun at the Bee Gees. The title, Meaningless Songs In Very High Voices, said it all.

Deayton eventually became a household face behind the desk that separated Paul Merton from Ian Hislop on Friday evenings. But his career took an unexpected turn when he was revealed to have taken cocaine and indulged in sex with a mistress while his former partner, the comedy writer Lise Meyer, was expecting their child.

Ian Hislop, Angus Deayton and Paul Merton on Have I Got News For You

Ian Hislop, Angus Deayton and Paul Merton on Have I Got News For You

The scandal made him the subject of so many headlines that his ability to send them up was fatally compromised, and the BBC replaced him.

There were suggestions that Merton and Hislop had stabbed him in the back, but subterfuge had been unnecessary, Merton said.

“We stabbed him in the front,” he told Michael Parkinson on TV. “The person in the middle can’t do jokes about Jeffrey Archer if people then say, ‘Yes, but what about you?’”

In the years since, Deayton has been seen most often in character. He was already a straight actor, having spent a decade as Victor Meldrew’s exasperated neighbour in One Foot In The Grave, and he went into the comedy-drama, Pramface, and the long-running comprehensive school drama, Waterloo Road.

It was while working on the latter that he went to see his co-star Neil Pearson’s recreation of several lost episodes from Tony Hancock’s seminal radio series.

“It was basically a dramatisation of a recording of episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour,” says Deayton. “Everyone stood around microphones holding scripts, and I thought, well that’s what we spent most of the Eighties doing.”

Radio Active had itself begun on stage – an Edinburgh Fringe production that had grown out of an Oxford Revue satirising the then-novel world of commercial radio.

“It made sense for us to try it out and see if it worked for us again, and that’s what we did at last year’s Fringe,” says Deayton. “Now, we’re taking that show on the road.”

It’s not a reimagining exactly. Deayton and his original collaborators Helen Atkinson Wood, Philip Pope and Michael Fenton Stevens, are performing updated versions of the original scripts.

They were written by Deayton with his friend from Oxford, Geoffrey Perkins. But Perkins, who went on to produce Father Ted, Drop the Dead Donkey and Spitting Image, among many others, died 10 years ago at 55, the victim of an accident as he crossed the road.

“It feels very odd not having him there as a sort of sounding board,” says Deayton.

“I mean, it’s not like we’re actually writing new material, but even going through old scripts I’m aware of how much Geoffrey contributed and what an ever-present voice he still is.

“It’s partly a homage to him that we’re doing the thing at all.”

Local radio is not exactly the go-to subject for today’s humorists, but Deayton says the scripts still strike a chord with audiences.

“A lot of the bands that we parody are still around – Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, the Bee Gees – all of them have been to Glastonbury over the last few years, so it feels as if it still has a currency and a relevance. Either that or it was never particularly topical anyway,” he says.

“We thought about updating it but the idea is that you come along and see a show that was written and recorded in 1984, in a recreation of the old BBC Paris recording studio in London. So the scripts haven’t really changed in 34 years.”

Given the show’s longevity, it is a surprise to learn that the BBC did not, at first, like it at all.

“We had to hang around for over a year before they made up their minds about whether they wanted a series out of it,” Deayton says.

“It still wasn’t exactly overnight success, but then we won a Sony Radio Award for the first series and all of a sudden we were the blue-eyed boys.”

He and Perkins met more resistance when they tried to get their TV version of the show, a send-up of a satellite channel called KYTV, off the ground.

“I mean it felt like pretty much a decade of knocking on doors without anyone really being interested,” he says.

“It’s very different these days – if you have a half-decent series on radio there’ll be all sorts of channels and production companies wanting to develop it. But in our day, it was the BBC, Channel Four or nothing. And for us, for a long time, it was nothing.”

In between production meetings and fruitless pitches, he toured Britain and Australia with Pope and Fenton Stevens as their send-up group, The Hee Bee Gee Bees.

“We were actually more famous in Australia than we ever were here,” Deayton says. “Our album went gold there and the single got to number two, I think.”

An outing to the US with Rowan Atkinson was less auspicious. The two had been working on stage together for years, following Atkinson’s success on TV in the satirical show, Not the Nine O’Clock News. But their New York run ended almost before it began.

“We did Broadway for a week,” he recalls. “A week’s rehearsal, a week of previews and then a week’s run.

“It was in the days when the New York Times decided what went on Broadway and what didn’t and the critic laid into the show. ‘This man isn’t funny’, he said about Rowan. So that was that.”

Given that experience, and what was to come later, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that he does not have a career plan, nor does he retain ambitions.

“I’ve never really thought there’s been any point in having a game plan because in this industry you’re so completely dependent on work that comes your way,” he says.

Nor does he still watch Have I got News For You – or anything much else on the broadcast channels.

“Too much like homework, really,” he calls it.

• Radio Active is at the City Varieties Theatre, Leeds, on Friday, May 18. For tickets, call 0113 243 0808.