More than 35 years since The Young Ones, Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer are working on a stage project. They tell Nick Smurthwaite about staying busy and trying not to turn into their classic characters
While Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer are now virtually unrecognisable as the maniacal punk Vyvyan and the depressed hippie Neil, spending any time in their company can feel like travelling back in time to that scummy flat share of The Young Ones, the cult sitcom that helped cement their popularity.
They may be in their 60s now, but traces of those delirious characters are still evident. Edmondson remains a youthful bundle of energy, while Planer has the furrow-browed gravitas of the man Neil might have grown up to be.
They have reunited, after 40 years of friendship, to write and appear in a new stage comedy, Vulcan 7. It follows ageing, has-been actors, Gary Savage (Edmondson) and Hugh Delavois (Planer), once students together at RADA and now appearing in a Star Wars-type movie franchise, being shot in Iceland next to a volcano.
Unlike Edmondson and Planer, the protagonists can’t stand each other, which makes their off-screen drama rather more lively than what they are required to do in front of the camera.
Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, both actors have appeared in sci-fi franchises in recent times, Edmondson as Captain Peavey, an officer of the First Order in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Planer as Vorgenson, the ringmaster-turned-baddie, in the family-friendly stadium tour of Doctor Who Live.
So did their respective experiences working in science fiction feed into Vulcan 7? Edmondson says: “We’ve both done a lot of hanging about on film and TV sets over the years, so it was more a question of thinking of all the unpleasant people we’d worked with, plus a dash of our own hidden flaws. I’ve teased quite a lot of stuff out of Nigel that’s gone into creating Hugh.”
Before he has a chance to elaborate on his friend’s less admirable traits, Planer himself chips in: “I know, he’s talking about my indecision, my flapping, and Hugh, my character, has an annoying habit of listing every single credit of his own and Ade’s character’s, which is a bit sad.” For his part, Planer says he enjoyed exploiting Edmondson’s “general belligerence and not really caring about anyone else” in the character of Gary.
They’d been looking for a project together “for years”. Several things were considered and then abandoned, including a revival of the 1965 musical Man of La Mancha, in which Planer would have played Don Quixote, with Edmondson as Sancho Panza.
“We looked at another project that wasn’t quite right,” says Edmondson, “and we suddenly thought it would make more sense to try to write something for ourselves.” Planer adds: “We wrote it together in the same room, which I’d never done before, with Ade as the sitter, writing it all down, and me as the pacer. When I’ve written with other people in the past, we’ve always worked separately, emailing bits to each other.”
Though many will think of the pair primarily as performers, they have both written and generated plenty of material over nearly four decades, going back to their early stand-up days at the first incarnation of the Comedy Store in Meard Street, Soho, in the late 1970s. Not long out of university, they were hungry for success.
They had been doing what they describe as “shit jobs” – exhaust fitter, pork-pie packer, gravedigger, painter and decorator – to pay the rent. All of a sudden they were feted alternative comedians attracting celebrity audiences to pop-up West End comedy clubs.
Along with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Alexei Sayle, Peter Richardson, Arnold Brown and Rik Mayall, they defected from the Comedy Store to set up the Comic Strip in a room above Raymond Revuebar, a strip club in the heart of Soho, in 1980. It was where the characters from The Young Ones took their first anarchic steps.
“It was a very heady time. We had swanky people such as Bianca Jagger, Jack Nicholson and Robin Williams coming to see us,” says Planer, who looks and talks like an Oxford don these days. “We became the groovy new thing to see in the West End.”
The success of the Comic Strip coincided with the early days of Channel 4, which, seeing its potential, commissioned the group to make a TV film in 1981, Five Go Mad in Dorset, the first of many Comic Strip Presents works.
Did they all hang out together? “Yes we did,” says Edmondson. “We were a very social group and went on tour as the Comic Strip Live around England and then Australia. We saw a lot of each other for about seven or eight years.” For some it was even longer: Edmondson married Saunders.
Over time, Planer gravitated more to the London theatre – leading roles in Chicago, Wicked, Hairspray, We Will Rock You, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the live stadium tour of Doctor Who – as well as his very successful book and stage spin-off I, an Actor, about the self-regarding thespian Nicholas Craig.
Edmondson concentrated on his partnership with the late Rik Mayall in Filthy Rich and Catflap – also starring Planer – and three series of Bottom, before quitting TV comedy to pursue his other passions for music, cookery and farming. More recently, he too has morphed into a ‘straight’ actor with major roles in War and Peace and Bancroft on TV, and last year’s Twelfth Night with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Did they have to work hard at reinventing themselves? Planer says: “We’ve both tried all our lives to make things happen in order to stave off the boredom.” To that, Edmondson adds: “You’ve got to keep going haven’t you? I get bored easily so I try to do a lot of different things. Nearly all the work I’ve done is self-generated, apart from the straight acting jobs. The idea of sitting around doing nothing is anathema.”
Even 35 years after The Young Ones, Planer says he still gets recognised on the street as the long-haired hippie Neil. “My wife notices it more than I do. It can be quite tiresome.” His friend has a theory: “It’s because you walk around moaning. People put two and two together.”
Vulcan 7 starts in Guildford then tours the country for eight weeks including Cambridge, Newcastle and Edinburgh. When asked if they are looking forward to going on the road with Vulcan 7, Edmondson responds: “Yes. My plan is to moan about my costume, which is hot and heavy, so that I annoy Nigel more than I annoy myself.” Planer adds: “It’s a nightmare, darling.”
Planer is a lot more optimistic about going on tour now that his wife Roberta has said she is coming along to keep him company. “At least I won’t have to sit around in dreary hotel rooms on my own,” he says, sounding just a little like Neil.
The Young Ones may have only been six months out of their lives more than three decades ago, but it seems impossible to shake off – for the actors as well as the fans. “You shouldn’t dismiss your past but you don’t have to dwell on it,” says Edmondson. “I prefer to look forward.”
Born: Bradford, 1957
Landmark productions: Theatre:
• The Rocky Horror Show, Piccadilly Theatre, London (1990)
• Waiting for Godot, Queen’s Theatre, London (1991)
• Bottom, UK tour (1997)
• Neville’s Island, Chichester Festival Theatre (2013)
• Twelfth Night, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon (2017)
• The Comic Strip Presents: Five Go Mad in Dorset (1981)
• The Young Ones (1982-84)
• Filthy Rich and Catflap (1987)
• Bottom (1991-95)
• If You See God, Tell Him (1993)
• Miss Austen Regrets (2008)
• Ade in Britain (2011)
• War and Peace (2016)
Agent: United Agents
Born: Westminster, 1953
• Man of the Moment, The Globe, London (1990)
• Chicago, Adelphi, London (1997)
• We Will Rock You, Dominion, London (2002)
• The Rocky Horror Show, UK tour (2006)
• Wicked, Apollo Victoria, London (2006)
• Hairspray, Shaftesbury, London (2009)
• Doctor Who Live, UK tour, (2010)
• Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London (2011)
• The Young Ones (1982-84)
• Shine on Harvey Moon (1982-85)
• Filthy Rich and Catflap (1987)
• Episodes, Series 4 (2015)
• The Comic Strip Presents, Red Top (2016)
Other – book:
I, an Actor (1988)
Honorary Doctor of Arts degree, Edinburgh Napier University, 2011
Agent: Maureen Vincent, United Agents
Vulcan 7 opens at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford on September 19, then touring for eight weeks