Brian Conley has hosted top-rated TV shows, starred in musicals and had a go at ballroom dancing; now he’s touring his new show. Phil Penfold reports.
There’s some sound advice for wannabe performers from someone who knows what he’s talking about. Olivier-nominated Brian Conley has been around longer than most, has starred in major musicals, hosted ratings-topping game shows on TV, and even turned his hand to tripping the light fantastic in Strictly Come Dancing. He’s an engaging comic, and he’s currently touring the UK with his new show Brian Conley – Still the Greatest Entertainer. In His Price Range.
He offers: “If you start at the bottom, and you rocket to the top, you’ll never sustain it. Go up in steps, learning all the way, have your time in the glare of the spotlights, and, if necessary, accept the fact that you might well drift a little back down again. Find your level – and never let up for a minute.” He took “years and years” to be the familiar face on TV and in the theatre that he is today, and reflects: “I don’t know where the ‘performing gene’ came from at all – my dad was a taxi driver, and I was brought up in Paddington.
“For some reason I knew that I had to go to some sort of stage school, and I’d have been in my very early teens, when I managed that one. The next step was being a Bluecoat at Pontin’s, and that experience was invaluable – it also made me grow up very quickly.”
He was on his way. He played in a showband for a few years (a support act for some of the biggest stars of the time) and then went into TV, not in front of the camera, but as a warm-up act in the studio for established entertainers like Kenny Everett, Terry Wogan and The Krankies. “You learn what gets a laugh, and what doesn’t pretty quickly,” says Conley. “But I do, hand on heart, think that the audiences north of Birmingham are the best. They want to be entertained, and if you can relate to the town, they love you for it. They come out wanting to have fun. Down south, it’s more of an attitude of ‘Go on. Make us laugh – almost daring you to be funny!”
When he was rising through the ranks, he says the people he admired were, “Peter Sellers, who was brilliant at comic timing in the Pink Panther movies. Tommy Cooper, a one-off; Eric and Ernie were perfection”. Making people chuckle is what Conley is great at, and he says that the sound of laughter “is my tonic, my medicine. It’s the biggest buzz ever. I don’t drink any more, I don’t smoke, so performing is my adrenalin. Not that I want to go back into doing another musical, that requires so much concentrated effort, night after night. I know that when I finished the last one, which was Barnum, I felt physically drained. Ok, ‘never say ‘never’’, but I think musicals and I have parted company. What I love now is ‘working the room’. It’s magic. It can be dangerous, but the sense of fulfilment on a good night is beyond description. And I do think that I’ve had a lot more life experience. Young comedians can be funny, but if you haven’t lived life a bit – marriage, kids, a little adversity – then you aren’t going to be as funny as you might be with some years under the belt!”
Theatre Royal Wakefield, May 22, Hull City Hall, May 23, Rotherham Civic, May 24, York Grand Opera House, May 25, Halifax Victoria Theatre, May 26.