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YOUR NEWSRomeo and JulietMetcalfe Gordon Productions

Romeo and Juliet
Metcalfe Gordon Productions

Above: Emily Redpath as Juliet and Sam Tutty as Romeo. Photo: Ryan Metcalfe, Preevue

You Wait for One, and Then… Three Come Along at Once!

by Paul Johnson

Sir Derek Jacobi has joined the cast of the new filmed theatre production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet starring Sam Tutty and Emily Redpath in the title roles. He will play the Narrator.

The production, which utilised new, cutting-edge technology to produce and film the show under current restrictions and regulations, will be available via from 13 – 20 Feb 2021, with tickets on sale now. A portion of proceeds will be going to Acting for Others.

As well as Tutty, Redpath and Jacobi, also featured in the cast are Brandon Bassir as Mercutio, Daniel Bowerbank as Benvolio, Jonny Labey as Paris, Sylvester Akinrolabu as Tybalt, Helen Anker as Capulet, Marc Ozall as Montague, Lucy Tregear as Nurse, Vinta Morgan as Friar, Jessica Murrain as Prince, Timmy Driscoll as Sam, Tats Nyazika as Gregory, Iskandar Eton as Abe and Ollie Tennant as Balthasar.

This production of Romeo & Juliet is directed by Nick Evans, with assistant direction by Gwenan Bain, edited by Ryan Metcalfe, production design by Jamie Osborne for Preevue, costume design by Natasha Bowles, original music by Sam Dinley, sound design by Olly Steel, lighting design by Elliot Smith, visual effects by Preevue, production management by Gary Beestone and casting by Jim Arnold CDG.

The filmed theatre production of Romeo & Juliet is produced by Metcalfe Gordon Productions.

Sam Tutty shot to fame in 2019, making his West End debut in the title role in Dear Evan Hansen (Noel Coward Theatre), for which he recently won the Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical. Earlier this year, he also won the What’s On Stage Award for Best Actor in a Musical for Dear Evan Hansen. Prior to this, he starred as Daniel in Once on This Island at Southwark Playhouse.

Emily Redpath graduated from Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in 2019 and has since appeared in P**n Flakes for Spilt Milk and the feature film Help for Ridder Films.

Meanwhile, Sir Derek Jacobi needs little introduction. Twice awarded an Olivier Best Actor Award, first for his performance of the eponymous hero in the RSC production of Cyrano de Bergerac and then for his Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

In addition to being a founder member of the Royal National Theatre the multi-award-winning actor has also enjoyed a successful television career, including lead roles in I, Claudius, Cadfael, The Gathering Storm, ITV’s Vicious (alongside Sir Ian McKellen), Last Tango in Halifax and The Crown.

Previous film appearances include The Day of the Jackal, Henry V, Dead Again, Gladiator, Gosford Park, The Riddle, The King’s Speech, My Week with Marilyn, Cinderella and Murder on the Orient Express.

Twitter: @RomeoJuliet2021
Facebook: Romeo & Juliet 2021

Derek Jacobi as the Narrator. Photo: Ryan Metcalfe, Preevue


Man for All Seasons

Man for All Seasons

Above: Sir Derek Jacobi CBE and Pat Jones have known each other for fifty-six years. Photo: Paul Johnson

You never quite know when being a super-fan will pay off do you? (That’s a 60s style super-fan, by the way, rather than one of today’s Twitter-crazed fanatics.)

For Pat Jones – whose contribution to amateur theatre sees her stage manage several shows a year for Bromley Little Theatre – it has just bagged her a cover-story with one of the world’s most famous and critically acclaimed actors.

In the fifty-six years that Pat and Sir Derek Jacobi CBE have known one another, their relationship has gone from fan – to acquaintance – to friend.

Just over a year ago Pat persuaded the publicity-shy actor to appear on BLT’s stage ‘in conversation’ for charity, much to the delight of Bromley Little Theatre’s members.
Well, Derek and Pat really must be good friends as he has now taken time out from his busy schedule at The Garrick, where he is appearing in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s production of Romeo & Juliet, to talk with Pat and Paul Johnson…

During the early sixties a friend and I used to see every show put on by The Birmingham Rep Theatre. One evening in 1960 a blonde young man walked onto the stage, and afterwards we decided to go and ask for his autograph! After the following show, we snuck backstage to his dressing room to ask for a photo. The next time, we went for a drink with him …and so it went on.
Three years later, my Mum writes to Derek at the Rep inviting him to my birthday party – to which he comes!

When Derek went to Chichester and Stratford (actually, wherever he was performing) I continued to meet up with him. To date he has appeared in more than fifty theatre productions (400 performances of Hamlet alone) more than fifty films and numerous television ventures. I’ve seen nearly all of them and, whenever possible, I’ll still try to meet him after a theatre performance. Even though ‘Sir’ Derek is now an internationally-acclaimed actor, loved and adored by millions, he is still the kind, gentle man he always has been.

Over the years I have collected a pile of letters and postcards from our correspondence, not quite tied up in pink ribbon, but I have saved them nonetheless. Nowadays, of course, it’s emails. Not quite the same as hand-written letters, but at least we can keep in touch. In one letter from the early 70s he says that his tour with the Prospect Company was so exhausting, he would never tour again! Today, some forty years later, the seventy-eight-year-old shows little sign of stopping.

Currently appearing at The Garrick eight times a week, surely the word ‘exhaustion’ has taken on a whole new meaning?

Oh, and isn’t it quite unusual for Mercutio to be of your… erm…

“…Of my advanced years? Yes it is,” says Derek, saving my blushes. “It was Ken’s idea and I did ask him, ‘Why? It’s a bit odd isn’t it?’ But he’s always been fascinated by a story he heard many years ago about George Orwell. He went to Paris one weekend with some friends, and they were in a bar and noticed an older gentleman in the corner. So they bought him a drink and he came over to join them. They had a few more drinks and he was a lot of fun, he was witty, and they all got on very well. Then the old guy left. And they asked the barman whether he was a regular, and the barman said, ‘Yes.’ So they said, ‘Do you know his name?’ to which the barman said, ‘Oh yes! That was Oscar Wilde.’ And that would have probably stayed with Ken who might have thought, ‘Yes, Mercutio could be the older man, a more experienced man, a man whose got a likely story to tell. And it works very well in the death because there’s no way he’s going to beat Tybalt. It’s perfectly obvious.”

As he speaks it’s obvious that Derek’s voice is feeling the strain a West End run demands. He takes a Vocalzone from his pocket and continues: “My heart has always favoured the theatre, although now at this stage in my life I am opting, I think, for the easier option of acting for the camera. The stress of theatre with which I have been able to cope for fifty-six years is beginning to be a little too stressful. Not that I’m forgetting my lines; I’m not doing a Gambon. But vocally it’s getting more stressful as you can probably hear; I had to even think twice about doing this interview because I need to save my voice. I’ve probably got five or six more years of active acting.”

Around the time Derek and I first met I worked in libraries and I’d personally renew his library books to save him from any fines (I still have his library ticket!). There’s also a very tenuous connection there with his first-ever experience on a stage. “I think a lot of actors are born as actors. It was certainly not nurture, it was nature. I was in the local library aged about six or seven taking part in the Christmas production, The Prince and the Swineherd – and I played both, ha, ha!” From such an early age he knew exactly where his strengths lay: “I had no talent for anything else, certainly no creative talents in any other way; I don’t write, I don’t paint, I don’t play an instrument. But I did have a lot of creative acting talent; it just seemed the natural thing to do. Nothing else attracted me. I got to university really because I wanted to act, not because I wanted to be an academic, and it was a hotbed of acting.”

A hotbed might be something of an understatement with the likes of Ian McKellen and Trevor Nunn also at Cambridge around the same time. But it was Derek’s next move opting for Rep theatre rather than drama school which was to forge the beginning of an illustrious career. “Well yes, I was very young at the time, just nineteen,” recalls Derek. “So when I left I thought ‘do I go and spend three years at drama school or do I try and get into the business?’ I was very lucky and got into Birmingham Rep where I stayed for three years, and that was my drama school – in front of a live audience.”

With the huge swathe of acting talent that rose up in the sixties through Rep Theatre it’s hard to understand exactly how and why so many Rep companies have vanished over the years. With the highly competitive drama school industry now so prevalent, today’s young actors have a much more recognised path to follow into the profession.

So how would a nineteen-year-old Derek Jacobi fair today? “I don’t think… In the theatre, nearly so well as I did because I was very lucky; I’ve been dogged by good luck my entire career,” is the modest answer from the man whose autobiography is entitled As Luck Would Have It. “I think nowadays I would probably take the television route. When you’re performing eight times a week you have a whole other set of disciplines, and obstacles to overcome. It’s harder on stage, much harder. Much more stressful. Much more frightening. Much more rewarding!”

Derek has so much experience in comparing the benefits of theatre over those of television and film: “Also, in the theatre the actor’s in charge. Anything to do with the camera, the director, the editor, they’re in charge. In the theatre it is down to you and the choices you make, the artistic decisions, the creative decisions are yours. Of course you’ve rehearsed and have been directed but when you’re out there it’s you and them, and that is frightening and exhilarating all at the same time. That is a job satisfaction you cannot get in front of a camera because, as with anything to do with camerawork, you are reliant to somebody else responding. You can’t actually tell yourself how you’re doing because how you’re doing is ultimately irrelevant and is given to somebody else to fiddle with; the music goes on, they can change your voice if they want to. A moment you thought was maybe one of your best, maybe the camera wasn’t on, or it was on your left ear – it’s about pictures, it’s about photography. What the public eventually sees is somebody else’s version and not necessarily yours.”

Nowadays Derek can make the leap between genres look easy. “As long as you accept the parameters, but the biggest job satisfaction comes from theatre,” he reassures. “And it’s much easier to go from the theatre into television than the other way around. If you’re used to the intensity and the smallness of a camera space and you’re suddenly put in a 5,000-seat theatre then it’s much harder to fill that space when you’re used to filling such a smaller one. It’s much easier to play it down then for someone that is used to this tiny space to get it all out.”

And of course he’s worked with them all – something a lot of amateur actors might also boast although for different reasons; actors, directors… as amateurs we often have to play whatever hand we are dealt. I can’t resist asking Derek if he’s ever found it hard to take direction or if he’s ever disagreed with a director’s vision for a particular character. “I think it’s very dangerous for an actor to say ‘my character wouldn’t do that!’” he says – so I listen. “We spend our lives acting out of character and I think actors are lazy when they say, ‘Oh no, my character wouldn’t think that’ or ‘my character wouldn’t do that.’ Of course they would, in the right circumstances, in the right situation. We are all capable of anything. So to say you are so aware of who you are by playing a role you limit yourself enormously; you have to go down blind alleys to find out they are blind. ‘So let’s think of those circumstances and see what happens.’”

Faith in your director from the outset is a prerequisite then? “Oh yes! And directors do come in all shapes and sizes,” Derek enjoys telling us. “In my early career I came up against one of those directors – actually there were two in particular – who believed an actor’s creative juices would only flow if they were in a state of abject terror. They were the sort of directors who terrorised a show out of you. And there are remarkably a lot of them around, and they’re awful. You’re performing just for your director because you’re frightened of him.” We sense a story is about to be spilled. We are right.

“There was a frightful director called John Dexter in the early days of the National Theatre. It was the very first production of The Royal Hunt of the Sun and during the dress rehearsal he fired the boy who had one of the smallest parts, the role of the Head Man who I think is only in one scene, saying that he was bad. It wasn’t that he was bad. And it was a terrible moment for that actor. And then we fast forward years later and that boy is now a movie star, and is having tea in New York. And John Dexter walks in. So, there sits Michael York… who cuts John’s balls off! I wasn’t there but Michael told me all about it; I was his best man when he got married.”

Derek revels in storytelling so we ask him to explain further why he’s so convinced that his success is all down to luck. “It was 1963, it was the 50th anniversary of The Birmingham Rep and to celebrate they were going to do the three Shakespeare plays they have never done: Titus Andronicus, Cressida and Troilus, and Henry VIII. They offered me Aaron in Titus, Troilus and Henry VIII – for fifteen weeks in repertoire. And it was while I was doing that, that Laurence Olivier came talent scouting.” One of us suggests to Derek that surely you have to put yourself in the right place for good luck to happen, but he’s having none of it. He continues: “In Henry VIII I was sharing a dressing room with Cardinal Wolsey, and I used to get out very quickly after matinees and go for my tea. After this particular performance I had changed already. As Henry of course I’d have all this padding, the lot! There was a knock at the door and in HE came. Arthur, who was playing Cardinal Wolsey, was still in full drag, so Laurence Olivier came up to me and said ‘Well done, well done,’ and then went over to Arthur and raved about his performance, and then he left. About thirty seconds later he came back in and said ‘YOU… were Henry?’ I said ‘Yes, love.’ And then I got a bit of a rave – and a job!”

Just before I garner Derek’s opinion on ‘we amateurs’ I have to mention his recent television successes namely Last Tango in Halifax and Vicious, both of which signal a departure from his default image as a classical actor. We suspect he treats these shows as a breath of fresh air? “Oh, wonderful!” and his face instantly lights up! “When Tango came along I was over the moon because of this label of being classical and Shakespearean; BBC2 rather than BBC1. And somebody had the foresight to see an ordinary bloke in me. My background is ordinary – I’m from East London. So I jumped at it, it was wonderful. I love doing it. It’s coming to an end though, we are doing a ninety-minute Christmas special and that will be it. And then Vicious came along completely out of the blue. Of course Ian and I have known each other for fifty-odd years, we were at university together, and when my agent rang up and said ‘What do you think about doing a sitcom with Ian McKellen?’ I said ‘Fantastic!’ It was originally called Vicious Old Queens and I rang Ian and said, ‘Are you going to do Vicious Old Queens?’ And he said ‘Well we can’t have that title, it gives us nowhere to go.’ So we ended up with it just being called Vicious.”

After such a long friendship, Derek and Ian McKellen certainly know each other well although their personalities are quite different. “Vicious is actually from an American writer who also did things like Will and Grace, and Family Guy. Of course sitcom in America is a lot stronger. We were taken out to dinner by the writer who said ‘I’ve got these two characters, which one you want to play?’ And Ian immediately said ‘I’m the actor!’” Considering Derek is very quiet and private while Ian is loud and gregarious, they probably got Stuart and Freddie the right way round. “Yes, they did. We’ve filmed the final episode that they’ve hung on to and is also going to be shown this Christmas.”

Just to demonstrate his friendship with Sir Ian, Derek can’t resist one last swipe at his old university chum when I ask if there are any acting boxes he still would like to tick off: “I’d love to do Coronation Street, certainly. They have offered me a couple of parts in it but I was so miscast in both of them, it wouldn’t have worked. Ian had the perfect part, somebody who was not connected with The Street. He was just a visitor, a conman. Six weeks in. Perfect!

“What else can I tick off?… Oh, a big franchise movie, so I could earn a lot of money! Ian’s got money coming out of his ears!” Derek’s probably not wrong either – just Xmen, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit would fill a career in itself for most actors.

AMATEUR THEATRE (and the gossip)
No star-interview would be complete for Sardines without asking a member of acting royalty to share their opinion on the UK’s amateur theatre scene – probably because you never quite know what they’re going to say. Little did we know Derek had been keeping a bag of gossip gold up his sleeve for this very moment: “I love it! I think it’s great. People are so keen and immersed in drama,” enthuses our lunch guest. “At one time or another actors were considered bohemian and strange, and then when television came along acting was fed into people’s sitting rooms all over the place. People sat and they watched early sitcoms and comedies and stuff like that and they thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that, it looks easy.’ And actors became part of everybody’s life rather than a world apart, a magical world. It engendered the actor in everybody, and I think that’s very good because people who are immersed in amateur acting also support the professionals – and I think it feeds into each other. It’s marvellous. And the fact that there are so many amateur companies around the country means it’s vital and therapeutic for people.”

When I ask him – as a genuine fan of the film – how close he thinks the fictitious ‘Stratford Players’ got to a real village am-dram society, in the 2008 film A Bunch of Amateurs, Sir Derek Jacobi told us: “I loved making that film and we all had such fun. There were some great actors in the film, although we had problems with HIM [Burt Reynolds]. Because the rest of us, of course, were all company actors; some were pretty well known but company actors nonetheless. So we ‘loved him up’ and one day he turned on us all – and that was horrible!” Talk about life imitating art! If you know the film’s plot – a Hollywood superstar accidentally agreeing to do King Lear in Stratford, thinking it’s the RSC, only to realise too late that it’s with an am-dram society instead. So they bend over backwards to keep him happy, while he treats them like something he’s just stepped in.

Derek had plenty more to say on the subject: “He was typically American. I remember in Much Ado about Nothing the way Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington would come onto the set, and Burt was exactly the same. Apparently Keanu would stand facing the wall for half an hour getting into the part while Ken Branagh, who could be laughing and joking one minute, and the next, ‘All right everybody!’ …and turn round on a sixpence and do the shot. Americans need ‘space’ and ‘silence’, and one day we were all joking around and Burt screamed at us!

We didn’t pay too much attention to it because we had been giving him EVERYTHING. The man was a zombie. That film could have been marvellous, but his performance was… he was a total zombie! He was on pills, antidepressants, anti-pain, he was held together with pink string and sealing wax. He gained over forty injuries in the course of his career. He had a corset and it took them half an hour to get his costume on. He was almost a dead man walking. So we’d love him up and then he suddenly and spitefully turned on us because we were being a bit naughty. It was a shame.”
When I tell Derek how previously, I’d also heard a Burt Reynolds / Bunch of Amateurs story where his lines had to be stuck up all over the film set, he merely announced, “Darling, at one point I had one of his lines written across my chest!”

Speaking of words and lines, something all actors can suffer from is stage fright and the dreaded thought of drying up mid-scene. And just to show it can happen to absolutely anyone, Derek bravely tells us about the two-year break in his career when he was too petrified to walk out on to a stage. “It’s something I did to myself, I put a web of doubt in my head and it took me two years to get rid of,” he remembers rather reluctantly. “I questioned my ability and my desire to act; my enjoyment of acting. You often hear people ask, ‘How do you learn your lines?’ or, ‘How do you get up in front of 1,000 people?’ And I asked myself, ‘Yes, how do I?’ And the moment I asked that question I couldn’t do it. And it was only because of an offer I couldn’t refuse that I was able to get out of it.” Derek describes the exact moment things went terribly wrong: “In 1979 I was coming to the end of a world tour of Hamlet in the Theatre Royal in Sydney. It was the last day of the tour and our interval came just before the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech. I was waiting in the wings thinking ‘this is the speech, these are the first few lines. Everyone in the world knows them. What would happen if the actor forgot them?’ So on I went, I started the speech, I got about four lines in and went totally blank. Fortunately I had played it so often that automatic pilot kicked in and I carried on, pouring with sweat, and I got to the end of the show, and I didn’t go on stage again for about 2 1/2 years. I was catatonic with fear that I would forget the whole thing.”

Wow! You’ve really got to know yourself to break out of such a self-induced condition. When you’re that famous, you might know yourself but can you ever see what the public sees? “I know who I am, but I don’t think I know the person the public think I am. A word I think describes me very well, I think is ‘timid’. I’m told a triple Libre, if you believe that sort of thing, which means I am very anti-confrontational, I’m very placid, I don’t get angry. In fact I’m rather lacking on the personality stakes and my public life is virtually restricted to my work. I don’t front campaigns, I don’t relish public speaking. I love my work, that’s what the public sees. The rest of me is mine, and I don’t share it publicly. On occasions you have to, like this interview, but I don’t relish interviews and don’t particularly like talking about myself… so you’re very lucky to have me, aha! I wouldn’t do a chat show. Some actors enjoy it; Ian is a master at it and he enjoys it, but that’s not me.”

What a great way to finish up, but just before we wave Sir Derek off, and by way of tradition, we tap our cover star for some invaluable parting advice exclusively for the amateur performers amongst us: “Well, I always say ‘If you want to be an actor, don’t! But if you need to be an actor, then do!’” he says, before elaborating. “Amateur actors who are successful… they obviously don’t need acting; they’ve got another life, a job. But you’ve got to think of life without acting, and if you can’t conceive of a life without acting then you’ve got to be an actor. You’ve got to do it.

“But it’s a vocation, you’ve got to have the fire in your belly, you’ve got to need it. It’s an extremely risky decision to take. It doesn’t earn you a living but it can make you a fortune. It’s a risk.”

Fifty-six years ago, way back in 1960, we realised Derek Jacobi was someone special, but who could have predicted the career he has had …so far, with more to come. Sir Kenneth Branagh is remaking Murder on the Orient Express next year for which he’s already invited Derek to step into the role Sir John Geildgud previously played. Before that, he’s recording a romantic CD with Last Tango co-star Anne Reid (another reason he was voice-conscious during our chat); 12 songs – Gershwin, Porter, Sondheim etc. So that’s another box ticked off too.
Signing off I really feel like that young girl all over again, fifty-six years ago. Good luck with all you do, Derek.

I am thrilled to have had the chance to interview you – twice! And I am so proud to be counted as your friend.

A Play About Amateurs

A Play About Amateurs

Another show which has fallen victim to the current health crisis is the first-ever UK tour of Ian Hislop & Nick Newman’s comedy, A Bunch of Amateurs. Sardines sat down with the pair at Ian Hislop’s Private Eye HQ just as the Coronavirus was gathering pace. Two weeks later, the tour may be postponed until later in the year but the following conversation is well worth reading, and is a real tale of life imitating art…

Nick N:

“Of all the things we’ve done it’s been the most surprising; it just keeps going on and on and on. We suddenly became aware that so many amateur groups were doing it – and it’s been done all over the world, as far as Alaska and New Zealand…”

Ian H:

“…And I think the professional company that’s putting this on had a good look at the fact that it was on all the time and filling up local theatres and thought, ‘Hello, perhaps it’s time to do it professionally.’ I think it’s now out of licence for the duration of this tour, but it’ll definitely be back.”

Nick N:

“The thing that’s really impressed me is how imaginative all of the groups are, I mean much more imaginative than professional theatre. One group sent us a programme where they had their own version of The Stratford Players’ programme including biographies of all the leading characters. That’s far more than we’ve ever gone.”

Ian H:

“We’ve seen lots of posters and promotional material from amateur productions and have often said to each other, ‘Bloody hell, this is really good!’ Ha ha!”

2008’s film, A Bunch of Amateurs

Trial by Laughter and The Wipers Times are based on historical events, while A Bunch of Amateurs is a very different kettle of fish. What gave you the idea?

Nick N:

“It was actually bought to us as a project way back in the early 2000s. It was being developed as a film by our friend, David Parfitt, but the script had stalled and wasn’t getting anywhere. So David asked us to come and have a look at it, which we did, suggesting a few things. Anyway, we ended up rewriting it from scratch. And then it got made. It was a bit out of our comfort zone I suppose.”

Ian H:

“At the age of 17 or 18 I was part of an amateur theatre company, in a barn, in Sussex. So I know ‘those’ characters; they were people with whom I did some very strange plays with. Lots of Dickens and plays about the Saints. But anyway, I’ve been there. And Nick and I both acted at school – not terribly well – but in a very similar setup. We’ve become ‘very serious’ people in later life but to get the chance to go into all this again was a real treat.”

Nick N:

“Also, we had already written a thing for Dawn French called He Died a Death – in the Murder Most Horrid series – which was about a version of The Mousetrap, where an actual murder takes place on stage and a couple of policeman have to crack the case in half an hour. So we were already quite obsessed with actors and that world, and we just thought why should it be any different for an amateur company – such as the egos – compared with a professional one? We have many many actor friends, who are all lovely, and they are such brilliant raconteurs with so many anecdotes, but you never quite know where the actor ends and the person begins. We tried to do that in the Murder Most Horrid episode and it seemed very natural to bring it into this play. That was really the starting point wasn’t it?”

Ian H:

“And I think as we’ve got older we know more and more famous people…”

Nick N:

“… Well, you do!”

2008’s film, A Bunch of Amateurs

Ian H:

“Yes, Nick will say he knows one famous person, but he’s mad. I.e. me! But we felt we had both ends of the story, just watching how bonkers being famous is and how peculiar it makes people. And then we did the film with Burt Reynolds… which was just a complete eye-opener. You’ve no idea just how mad he was. We then rewrote the whole thing really to incorporate just what we’d found out about Burt and put it back into the play. The version of the play that exists now is full of things about Burt Reynolds… (laughs)”

Nick N:

“… Stuff that he did, and his lack of self-awareness… nothing prepared us for. The British cast were consummately professional, very funny, knew the script and could turn it around at the drop of a hat. But Burt arrived and we sort of joked to him at the meet and greet that ‘we hope you’re going to behave very badly’, to which he said, ‘Oh yes, I’ll keep them on their toes.’ And he proceeded to behave very, very badly. We thought, ‘You’re portraying a kind of washed-up actor who comes over from the States and starts behaving very badly’ – this really is life imitating art!

“But then to get the detail, because we couldn’t have imagined it in the screenplay, for instance, he said to the make-up lady: ‘Give my hair a pull! The stuff keeping it on is what holds the space shuttle together.’ You cannot write lines like that.”

Ian H:

“It’s now all in the play. Ha ha!”

Nick N:

“We flew out to the Isle of Man prior to three or four days of filming to find some enormous cue cards. We questioned, ‘Are these for the play within the film?’ No, they were for Burt, and for the most basic lines of dialogue. The other character from America in the film was the guy who played Burt’s Hollywood agent. He was actually older than Burt and could remember fewer lines than him. The is a scene where they are acting together and the director, Andy Cadiff, had so much trouble getting an angle where there wasn’t a cue card in shot; they were literally all over the set.”

Ian H:

“Derek Jacobi actually came up with the funniest line, which we’ve put back in the play. He said that Burt shouldn’t be playing King Lear, he should be playing Yorick – because he was so old and decrepit. Incredibly funny, so we stole it and put it in the play. I’m sure Derek would pretend he didn’t say that, but it’s definitely his line.”

2008’s film, A Bunch of Amateurs

Nick N:

“The funniest story I heard, after Burt passed away, was in filming a scene – which sadly we can’t recreate in the play – where he goes to a phone box to call his agent because there is no satellite signal in the village. He’s screaming down the line while, outside the phone box, there’s the entire village listening in on the conversation. Of course he couldn’t remember his lines, so they fed them to him down the phone line. However, that’s not the funny part. When it came to the end of his rant and Andy Cadiff said down the line, ‘Put the phone down, Burt,’ of course he shouts out, ‘PUT THE PHONE DOWN, BURT!’ …Somewhere there is a clip of that.
“He was immensely good value, quite by accident. And we mourned his passing. Along with our producer, David Parfitt, we do hanker after making My Week with Burt because it was such an experience.”


“That is one of the things that’s really special about the play, going forward; it’s riddled with real life. We knew quite a lot about it before, but after a film shoot with Burt, I think the character of Jefferson Steele is pretty accurate.”

Nick N:

“I think it’s quite good for amateur groups because it doesn’t patronise them, as really they are the stars of the show. It’s really about how the amateurs are better at it than the great professional.”


“The fact that the word ‘amateur’ actually means ‘lover of’ is really interesting because the play is riddled with love letters from us to the amateur stage; trying to save it, people explaining why they do it in the first place, what is the point of it – apart from getting out of the house? But their commitment is above and beyond because they’re doing it for nothing. I think they’re phenomenal.”

As well as eventually being “reconciled with his estranged daughter,” Jefferson Steele ultimately “realises that he is no better, in terms of talent and intelligence, than his amateur colleagues.” A telling appraisal of the murky grey area between amateur and professional?


“I think if you look at Student Review, which is where we started, people who had done nothing much more than making people laugh when they were undergraduates, manage to go straight onstage, and then do it again. I saw David Mitchell’s performance in Upstart Crow and he commanded the stage for two and a half hours in the West End stage adaptation. What is his theatre experience? He doesn’t have any, but he can do it. I’m sure some people are very snotty and would think that ‘it’s all rather amateur’… but it isn’t.”

Nick N:

“There’s also a requirement of the stage for a certain level of professionalism which I do think eludes some film stars now. Burt is used to doing ten takes, in which somewhere there will be something which is usable. But – and I think this is what he found when he was onstage performing with Derek Jacobi, Samantha Bond and Imelda Staunton, who were all so on top of their lines – they were getting it right all the time and he wasn’t… which is no doubt why he felt insecure and threw some wobblies and tantrums.”


“The more we talk about it the more Burt sounds like Jefferson Steele. It’s great and we were so lucky to have him in the cast; it really fell into our laps. Its further life on stage is just one more level of fun, because we’ve now done life imitating art, and the life again, then art, back to life and so on… but it’s much richer because of it.”

Nick N:

“For us, we did about eight weeks at the Watermill Theatre with it initially, before Wipers [Times] or Trial by Laughter, so that was the start of our relationship with the Watermill. Heather Davies, who was in charge at the time knew it was being made into a film and, once it had come out in 2008, came to us and asked if we’d ever thought of doing it as a play. So we adapted it as a play. Then they had the noble idea of including local amateur groups to make up bodies onstage, shifting scenery etc. So that was great as it allowed us to do a pared down version of the film – I think we’ve ended up with seven characters – but other people are on the stage to give you the sense that there are many more people involved.
“So we did that as a run and had a fantastic cast, plus it was great fun. It was also our first go at writing for the stage, and when the Watermill asked us if we had any other ideas, because we’d had such a great time, that’s when we said, ‘well actually, we’ve written this thing called The Wipers Times. Then came Trial by Laughter, and here we are today. It’s been a fantastic run with The Watermill, and the good thing is we know A Bunch of Amateurs works. I haven’t yet seen an amateur production of it – and I know I’ll need to get around to seeing it sometime, but purely as a piece of theatre, thankfully we can be assured we’re on pretty safe ground.”

So are you excited about seeing amateurs performing your work, or worried at what we might do to it?


“Ha, ha! I hope it inspires them, as I think it often does with amateur companies. Even if they come to see it and think, ‘Well that’s not hard, we could do that!’ So I hope we’ll get lots of people doing it again afterwards. It’s such a pleasure knowing that it has such legs.”

How long have you both been collaborating now?


“About forty-five! We were at school together. Have I Got News for You will be thirty years old this year. It’s older than most of its viewers! Ha, ha! Somehow Nick and I got locked into the long-term project; arguably your whole life. Nick’s been at The Sunday Times for thirty years.”

Nick N:

“…A fantastic feat of survival.”


“Yes, you should have been sacked years ago.”

Nick N:

“Professionally we’ve been fantastically lucky; Ian edits the magazine and its structure is such that we have one week on and one week off. At the moment, this is our week off, so we’ve got time to do a bit of writing or whatever. In the time that we devote to writing projects it never feels oppressive, in terms of being with each other all the time.”


“It was the founders of this place [Private Eye] who came up with the idea of a fortnightly – they say because they were ‘very lazy’ – but actually it means that everybody who works here, every other week, goes off and does something else. So we’ve all got time. Plus we’ve only really got back to the stage in the last ten years. We’ve done an awful lot of telly. But we love it; I used to perform live, and so did Nick. We’ve probably rediscovered a lot of that early energy. Live performance is just fantastic.”

The Wipers Times UK Tour (2017)

Nick N:

“When it works well, it’s the most exciting thing. And nothing prepared me for how exciting doing A Bunch of Amateurs was the first time round. We’d done lots of radio and lots of successful TV shows, but you’re completely unaware of anybody laughing or finding it remotely amusing. When you’re in a hall where the whole place is ringing to the rafters, you not only see it for the first time again and again, you also see it change. You never see the same performance and it gets better – otherwise you fix something if it’s not working. In film, it’s all done and dusted and your writers are very much kept at arm’s length. Radio is better as the writers are an integral part and you can change things on the hoof…”


“…A lot of telly, written telly, doesn’t have an audience; it’s just shot. You see it at home when it goes out and you hope it’s going to be well-received. Then I remember turning up in Chichester and thinking, ‘God, there’s a thousand people here!’ Then the laughter belts across from the back, and you realise, ‘There’s nothing like this.’ And there really isn’t.”

Trial by Laughter UK Tour (2018)


“It’s also work in progress. Take Michael Frayn and his plate of sardines. He worked on Noises Off continually for over twenty years, changing bits and rewriting the ending while it got better and better, polishing other bits. He’s my idol really. When we were doing both Wipers and Trial by Laughter some of the actors were pretty smart writers too, so they would suggest a line or two and, if it worked, we would go for it.”


“We cut things and we changed things during the tour; it just give you the chance to do it again, rather than once, and that’s it. Have I Got News for You is recorded over about an hour and forty-five minutes. There’s a studio audience there, and I love that, as Nick will tell you – I’m ‘very vain’. Ha, ha! Paul Merton did a panto in Wimbledon and he suddenly sounded like us. He said, ‘It’s absolutely brilliant, panto. It’s fantastic. I want to do theatre!’ And now he’s doing theatre – Hairspray, when it eventually gets the all-clear. I think he’s also decided that ‘live’ is great.”


“In 2017 we did a special charity production of The Wipers Times on Armistice Day. It was a very special night and performed after the ceremony at the cenotaph, so we had veterans in the audience. Aled Jones came in and sang Stille Nacht [Silent Night] which really made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Just fabulous. But, the star of the show was… Ian. It had been mooted that the writers might like to take part in some way. Ian had to be restrained, the speed at which he rushed up there, whereas I prefer to watch from the audience. Ian came on as the vicar and got a big laugh, not I think because you delivered the lines in a particularly comprehensible way, but he’s such a luvee and desperate to be back on the stage.
“When we’re completely washed up we’ll no doubt put on our own amateur production…”


“…Definitely! I shall buy a small barn in a village and put on our own plays, endlessly.”

As the UK tour has been postponed, please check the show’s website for all the latest news and updated details: