There was a brilliant moment at the Royal Variety Performance when Brian Conley was standing on stage with his old mate Bradley Walsh.
“I’m going to do an impression,” Brian said. “This is Bradley Walsh.”
He faced away from the audience at the London Palladium, looking towards the curtain. And as Bradley looked on, none the wiser, Brian wrapped cellotape around his face so that his nose was squashed against his face and his eyes were wrinkled. He turned to face the audience, aped his good mate’s accent and stood right next to him.
The audience roared.
And then he started to jog across the stage. “Don’t make me look stupid, Bradley, ask me what I’m doing?”
Bradley looked at Brian, jaw dropping somewhere near the floor.
“What are you doing, Brian?”
Brian is a fascinating man. He was rubbish at school and now gives interviews where he typically says: “I think I’ll stay at home and count my money.” He’s joking, of course, but like all good jokes there’s a grain of truth concealed somewhere within.
For Brian is the archetypal rags to riches perfomer. He’s the guy who ought to have ended up on the bins or shuffling papers round a quiet office who, instead, decided to make something of his life – while having fun along the way.
He’s been entertaining people for 45 years, having got his first paying gig at the age of 12. During that time, he’s made five Royal Variety Performance appearances and featured in the lead role in such musicals as Me and My Girl, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hairspray, Oliver!, The Music Man, Barnum and Jolson for which he was nominated for a prestigious Laurence Olivier Award. He’s also won a raft of awards, The National Television Award for Most Popular Comedy Performer and a British Comedy Award.
He’s not done badly, in short, for a kid who was chucked in the remedial class at school because he couldn’t read or write.
He’s on the road again in spring, taking his one-man show to the masses. It’s called Brian Conley – Still The Greatest Entertainer In His Price Range, a typically tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating title that avoids self-aggrandisement. And, with some tickets selling for less than £20, it’s accurate too.
The show reaches Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre on March 10 – and he’s slipped in a matinee because the evening show is almost sold out. There will also be gigs at Lichfield Garrick on April 6 and Birmingham’s New Alexandra Theatre on May 13.
“I’ve been doing this show for long enough now to know what the audience wants. I do some songs from the musicals and there’s plenty of comedy. It’s saving the audience a fortune, I throw all the musicals into one show and talk about them and sing a few songs. It could have cost them thousands of pounds to see the same musicals in the West End. I’m saving them money.”
He loved the Bradley Walsh skit at the Royal Variety Performance and is thrilled it struck at chord. They remain the best of friends and Brian is chuffed that his mate is enjoying one of the most successful phases of his career.
“I do a bit in my own show about being confused for Bradley. It happens all the time. The two of us get along well. I was an usher at his wedding and he was an usher at mine. I introduced him to his wife and he’s had great success in his career. He’s Doctorr Who’s assistant at the moment, which is great. If he ever gets ill, I’ll step in for him.
“We go back a long way. We both grew up in the same area – Goodwood Avenue, in Watford.”
It’s those early years in Watford that shaped Brian’s comedy. As a school kid, he became the class clown as a way of staying alive. He couldn’t live with the bright kids so had to make classmates laugh to get anywhere.
“It all stems from my dyslexia. I was put in the remedial class at school and struggled with my writing particularly. I survived phonetically and to defuse it all I would make people laugh. I had a strong singing voice and that was the only thing I ever excelled at. I had many knock backs along the way.
“At one time, my mum and dad questioned whether I should do it. I was at an awful club in London and I bombed. I was 22. My mom and dad told me not to do it anymore. They said it was good for my wellbeing. But I stuck at it. Deep down I think I probably realised that I couldn’t do anything else. But it came good over the years. It was a struggle and in the beginning it was very much about being dyslexic. You roll the dice and move on and try your best.”
He finds it remarkable that he’s been around for 45 years. When Brian played his first gig, the world was reeling from the Munich Olympics Terrorist Attack, Mark Spitz was winning seven gold medals, the world’s first digital watches were being introduced. Electronics companies were launching the first scientific hand-held calculator, Atari were releasing PONG, there was a Cold War, Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday in Northern Ireland and the Watergate Scandal in the USA. It seems like a lifetime ago. And it probably is.
“Can you believe it,” he says, rhetorically. “I was a professional when I was 12 and at stage school. I got my acting card then. So in five years time, I’ll be ready for the big tour. It’ll be 50. But this game, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve had my ups and my downs. I’ve had more than enough heartache, just like everybody else – the people in the audience and the people in the business.
“I remember as a kid someone saying to me ‘you’re not funny until you’re 40. Sadly, I’m now in my 50s’.”
In a profession that’s notoriously fickle and in which people can expect to spend half their time out of work, Brian has been ever in demand. He picks and chooses what he wants to do, organising his diary to suit big productions alongside stints in panto, the occasional TV and plenty of touring. He likes them all. He’s an Old School entertainer who gets a thrill from simply making the audience laugh, from sending the punters home with smiles on their faces.
“It’s all great fun and I put the work in. Panto is very physical, then there’s shows like Me and My Girl and Barnum, which are really big parts where I was on stage the whole time. Doing the tour of Barnum was hard. I had four days off in the whole run. I was walking on the high wire every show. But that’s what I do. I’m a variety entertainer and Barnum was a family show. Panto is just the same. Panto is a big variety show with a flimsy story that we hang all the comedy onto, that’s all.”
Barnum was a highlight. He was asked to do it by Sir Cameron Mackintosh, one of the most successful theatrical producers of all time, whose hits have included Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins, Oliver!, Miss Saigon, Cats and Hamilton.
“Barnum was a highlight, yes. But it was hard. There was a guy who broke his leg on the tight rope. It was 7ft up and it was a lovely finale for the audience. When I was getting on, I’d be thinking ‘Here we go, here we go’. It was very weird learning to do that but it helped me to focus. Iearned the knack of what to do when you fall. You have to have a plan. And I also had plenty of lines to say if I did fall off, so the audience would be with me. I used to give myself three goes. If I fell off three times, we’d go to Plan B.
“I loved doing it. It was a wonderful to do it for Sir Cameron Mackintosh. He’s a billionaire. Can you believe that. And he didn’t make money from that show; he just wanted to do it. He’s very good, he knows his stuff. It’s incredible – he’s not a millionaire, he’s a billionaire – he knows what he’s talking about. Cameron will walk into the room and give his comments and everyone will listen.”
Brian still worships at the feet of 20th Century greats. He admires musical hall entertainers and variety stars who lasted the course and entertained the masses.
“A few stand out. There’s Tommy Cooper, of course, and I loved Bruce. In his day, Bruce was incredible. Something I’d love to have done was play a musical instrument. I can’t play, not like Bruce did, and I’m not as good a dancer, either, as we proved in Strictly.
“But I like funny people. Tommy Cooper was one of my heroes. He was naturally funny and I love naturally funny people like him, or like Peter Sellers. I love being out there.
“If I’m on holiday, I’ll get up and do a bit. No one knows who I am and to the disappointment of my family, I’ll get up and do a song. I just love doing it. It’s not about the money.”
His shows locally will be loosely rehearsed – but expect each and every night to be different. The audience will be on their toes and Brian will be taking them to different places every time he goes on stage.
“I like the magic of them not knowing where you’re going to go next. I don’t want to just stand there are tell jokes. I like people to be surprised. I have a short attention span and will move from fire-eating to the violin. It depends how I feel.”
While Brian’s story might not be about the tears of a clown, there are hidden depths. He’s suffered during his life, as most people do. Bouts of serious anxiety led to a lengthy period of medication while he cut out drinking after boozing it up once too often.
“We’ve all been through the mill. With my father’s death, I went to a really dark place. So now I have real empathy for people who have struggled. I never really had depression but I definitely had anxiety, I really struggled. In the long run, that’s put me in a good place because I’m empathetic towards others now. I don’t say ‘snap out of it’, or ‘pull yourself together’ because I understand that things can be out of their control. There are moments when everyone struggles, whether it’s through bereavement, having kids or just because they’re getting older.”
Brian is as much of an entertainer off the stage as he is when he’s on it. On his wedding day, for instance, he and his wife, Anne-Marie, reduced their friends and family to tears. Linda Lusadi said it was the funniest wedding she’d ever been to and Brian and his bride left the church in the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car.
“It was just lovely. Anne Marie and I worked really hard on creating the day. I got married and it was brilliant and I’m very lucky to have had a wife by my side since 1996. We’re very different but we also have two wonderful kids. One is in Australia and other desperately wants to be in this business and loves performing. I’m in a very, very fortunate position.”
He returns to his recurring theme, that his career has been a marathon, rather than a sprint. And though the bright lights of the West End and big budget musicals are thrilling, he’s just as happy in Wolverhampton, Lichfield or Brum. “I love going out there and being in control. When you’re in a musical, it’s all set and you have to deliver what’s on the page. But when you’re doing your own show – it’s your gig. You can do what you like.”
That wasn’t the case on Strictly, where he lasted until round six before grabbing the headlines for muttering about poor quality toilets after being ejected.
“There are 11 million watching you live. I was very out of my comfort zone and the turnaround between shows was quick. You have to keep pushing yourself because you know you’re going to be live for the nation a week later. I got through six weeks and I was really chuffed with that. I couldn’t have lasted much longer – I’d have been going out on a mobility scooter if I’d stayed another week.”