Force of Abbot – Russ Abbot
The product of a light entertainment circuit now long in demise and a household name throughout the eighties, Russ Abbot has found a new audience in drama. He tells Al Senter why his training was so important and how it takes producers with imagination to cast outside the box
The road from stand-up comedy to television drama stardom via the West End stage seems to be an increasingly congested one at the moment. Eddie Izzard and Alan Davies are only two examples of contemporary funnymen finding equal success at the legitimate end of the showbusiness spectrum. Remarkably, it seems to have been largely one-way traffic, unless Fiona Shaw or Simon Russell Beale have been secretly taming the hecklers at The Comedy Store. One shouldn’t forget Ian McKellen’s recent forays into his comedic side in panto and at the bar of the Rover’s Return. Nevertheless, the wise man who remarked that dying was easy, it was comedy that was difficult, has been vindicated many times.
One of the earliest pioneers to have made the leap from variety to legit was Russ Abbot, now nearing the end of a highly successful tour of a new adaptation of Wilde’s Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime. London audiences have latterly seen ample evidence of Abbot’s comedic and dramatic skills. Lengthy runs in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and as Doolittle in Trevor Nunn’s revival of My Fair Lady were followed last summer by his first encounter with Shakespeare. In an acclaimed double, he combined Bottom with more Lerner and Loewe as Sir Pellinore in Camelot. Now he has turned to Wilde and he has been attracting much laughter as Septimus Podgers, the society palm-reader who glimpses an alarming future for the eponymous Lord Arthur.
“Having done a Shakespeare play for the first time, I thought it would be fun to try something by Wilde,” explains Abbot. “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime is very funny, very witty and it is nice to be able to leave it to the text to get the laughs. If you believe in the text, it works.”
Abbot admits to having felt a shade apprehensive about doing Bottom in the Park.
“When I arrived for the read-through, I was very nervous, especially when I saw all these very experienced Shakespearean actors sitting around this huge table. What had attracted me to the part was the challenge of being true to Shakespeare while getting the laughs and once I’d begun to work on it, I found it came more easily than I’d imagined. A guy came up to me at the bar after one performance and told me that it was the clearest version of the play he’d ever seen.”
Even in the days when his Madhouse was regularly scaling the ratings heights on television, Abbot was already stretching his performing muscles. A West End run in the Cy Coleman musical Little Me was the prelude to three series of the bittersweet drama series September Song, in which he was paired to some effect with the late Michael Williams.
“It’s nothing new,” he insists. “I’ve always had a hankering to move into that side of the business and I’ve always preferred live theatre – it’s so in your face. I loved playing Doolittle in My Fair Lady. It’s not an enormous part but you have two great, show-stopping numbers in what was a great production by Trevor. It was second to none.”
In a way, Abbot’s journey is not so surprising when you remember that he was always less of a stand-up comic and more of a character comedian with a packed repertoire of vivid comic creations.
“I never really liked being described as a comedian,” he reveals. “I much prefer to be known as a comic actor. And I always had to make the audience believe in characters such as Basildon Bond – none of them was going to work if they weren’t believable. And although I’ve done my share of stand-up – often in ten-minute slots at the end of my tours or summer shows – I’ve never been tempted to step out of the character I’m playing in a drama or in a musical, simply to get a laugh. Of course, you use your comedy experience and when you play a part like Nick Bottom, you draw on some of the tricks which you have up your sleeve – what might be termed ‘Russ Abbotisms’. A sense of timing is crucial, of course, but good comedy is also about discipline.”
A career in showbusiness seemed inconceivable to the young Russell Roberts when he was growing up in Chester in the late fifties.
“I don’t know where it came from and although I was a bit of a practical joker, I never dreamed that I could make a living out of comedy.”
It was only when The Black Abbots, the group in which he played drums, failed to land a recording deal that they turned to comedy and it was during this period that some of his most enduring creations were developed. His belligerent Scot, known latterly as CU Jimmy, comes from closer to home.
“My mum was Scottish and, whenever we were driving up the motorway in our Ford Prefect to spend a holiday in Falkirk, the closer we got to Scotland, the stronger her accent would become. The famous ginger wig I borrowed from Dustin Gee. We were both in make-up during the recording of a Madhouse when we heard that David Bowie, whom Dustin was about to impersonate, had completely changed his hair-style. The ginger wig was no longer wanted and so I thought that I would claim it.”
Unlike others in the comedy business, Abbot seems entirely relaxed offstage and there is little sign of the pressure that has taken such a toll on other laughter-makers. He has shared a 35-year association with his manager Mike Hughes.
“I’ve never even filled in a tax form and having Mike has enabled me to concentrate on the work.”
Although he stresses that everything he has done has been a career move, he appears to possess the serenity of the man who has achieved everything envisaged in the gameplan.
“I’ve had a sensational career and it is very nice when people come up to you and say that your show was part of their growing up and that for them you’re a legend. I’ve never felt pressurised. I think that the only pressure you feel once you’ve made it on television is the pressure you put on yourself. It is not so much other people you are competing with, it’s your last show. You have to strive to be as good as, if not better, than the show you did the last time.”
Arguably, Abbot is one of the last generation of comedic talents to have emerged from the once thriving circuit that included summer season, pantomime and television light entertainment. He makes a number of shrewd observations about the territory he has largely left behind.
“I think that we badly miss people of the experience of somebody like Bernard Delfont. He acted as his own Watch Committee and he made sure that he gave the public clean family entertainment that was skilful, safe and good value for money. Not that I don’t like strong material – the great Billy Connolly uses it with such skill and timing and adult humour can be robust without becoming offensive. Of today’s generation of comics, I think Peter Kay’s a funny man and my kids are always nagging me to watch The Office or Little Britain. I’ll get round to them one day.”
The kind of comedy programmes so fondly remembered by Abbot’s audiences seem to have all but disappeared from today’s television schedules, retreating before the might of the reality phenomenon. Abbot is inclined to blame the regulators for the present situation.
“There was a time when the ITV companies were all individual and they could afford to recycle some of the profits they made from their popular programmes into developing vehicles for potential headlliners. But where are today’s headliners and where are the TV shows that will create them? Performers need early television exposure to give their careers that vital boost.”
In his late fifties, Abbot has no particular ambitions remaining. He would like to be offered more quality television drama and as an enthusiastic and experienced Captain Hook, he’d love to play similarly exotic villains – “maybe in a Bond movie”.
“I’m not one of those actors who are always on the phone to their agents, demanding to know why they haven’t been cast in this or why they haven’t gone up for that. You just can’t ring your agent and instruct him to get you a television series. You have to be asked. David Liddiment had the vision to see me in a different light when he offered me September Song and hopefully other people will have the same kind of imagination. I have a good deal of patience and I can afford to wait until the right thing comes along.”
* The tour of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime ends on June 4 at Nottingham Theatre Royal
Russ Abbot – A Summary
1947: Born September 16
1979: Appears on Freddie Starr’s Variety Madhouse
1980: Stars in Russ Abbot’s Madhouse
1980-85: Six series of Madhouse (LWT)
1984: Stars in Little Me at the Prince of Wales. Reaches No 7 in singles chart with Atmosphere
1986: Stars in One For The Road. The Russ Abbot Show airs on BBC1
1986-1991: The Russ Abbot Show runs for six series
1990: Wins Top Variety Act at British Comedy Awards
1993-1995: Three series of September Song
1996: Stars in Married for Life (ITV)
1998: The Russ Abbot Show on Radio 2 runs for five series
2001: Stars in Caught in the Net at the Vaudeville, London
2002: Plays Doolittle in My Fair Lady
2004: Plays Bottom at Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park
2005: Plays Podgers in tour of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime