- APRIL 8, 2004
WILD ABOUT HARRY
With a Golden Rose to his name from the
Montreux Television Festival, a very busy Steve Pemberton reveals what
the future holds for The League of Gentlemen and the coincidences
behind his latest role as Harry Secombe alongside Geoffrey Rush.
The rubber-faced actor, comedian and writer, who was one of the founding
fathers behind anarchical cult hit The League of Gentlemen, has
been filming opposite David Suchet and David Soul in the latest TV
version of Death On The Nile. He plays an oddball German doctor
with an eye for the ladies. Now just about to start a new BBC series,
Blackpool, he will also appear in the big-screen version of The
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, playing Prosser, the foreman of the
demolition gang which arrives to knock down Arthur Dent's house. "The
man, in fact, who actually starts the whole complex adventure rolling,"
says Steve Pemberton.
But amidst all these fictional characters, the 36-year-old has also just
finished playing the very
real, much loved and much-missed Welsh singer, comedian, actor,
presenter and devoted family man, the late Sir Harry Secombe for HBO.
Work has just been completed on a TV film called The Life and Death
of Peter Sellers, with Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush as Sellers and
Charlize Theron as Britt Ekland, one of the comic's many wives.
"It was a great, great privilege to play Sir Harry," says Pemberton,
"because he was one of the most admired men in show business. No, his
family weren't consulted, as far as I know, but I'll be very interested
to hear what they think. The funny thing was that I believe the part was
originally offered to Johnny Vegas but he'd grown a beard to appear in
Sex Lives of the Potato Men and he refused to shave. So because of his
commitment to the Potato Men, I landed a wonderful role."
He recounts another bizarre coincidence: "When The League of
Gentlemen was entered into the Montreux Television Festival a few
years ago-and we walked away with the Golden Rose, the main prize-the
publicist from the BBC who came with us was none other than Jenny
Secombe, Harry's daughter. She was a marvellous lady and very very
supportive, a lot of fun. I never
dreamed then that I'd be playing her famous dad a few years later. "I
even get to sing as Sir Harry. It's a scene at a garden party and Harry
and Ray Ellington - the bandleader of the Goon Show-break into song and
perform Dream a Little Dream of Me. Incredibly, Ray is played by his
actual son, Lance, and he knew the words. I didn't! He had to teach them
The HBO show is expected to air in the UK in the early schedules. "The
funny thing is," says Pemberton, "that I never really listened to any of
the Goon Show tapes before I got involved, although I am absolutely sure
that we - The League of Gentlemen - are in a line of direct
comedy descent via Monty Python from those iconic radio shows. "When I
knew that I was going to play Sir Harry, I listened to just about every
tape of the Goons I could get my hands on. Milligan was an absolutely
brilliant innovator, a comic genius, that's all you can say. But sadly,
because of copyright reasons, we couldn't use any of the original
material in the film. Geoffrey Rush and I had to come up with something
that sounded as if it was the real McCoy. A flavour of what was created
in the BBC studios and which millions of listeners used to enjoy. I hope
we've done them justice."
He continues: "It's a huge responsibility when you bring something like
Hitchhikers Guide or a fragment of the Goons to the screen because
people have such incredibly strong images in their minds of what their
favourite characters look like. You have to be fresh and new but you
also have to be loyal to the original and not betray your fans. We found
out about that when we took League of Gentlemen from Radio 4 to BBC2.The
radio version featured a lot of characters that we had
invented but we couldn't take them all over to TV - they just didn't
seem to fit somehow. So some were amalgamated with others, while others
were 'lost' and some new ones popped up." Pemberton says that although
the comedy team were liberated on radio, they were not as liberated as
on Television. That was mainly because the radio show went out at 6.30pm
in the evening, where they had to be fairly careful about what they
could and couldn't do. Because the TV version was after the watershed,
they could be a lot blacker - "and we were."
"Nevertheless, I have a great fondness for the original radio series. A
guy told me the other day that we were very nearly the cause of a nasty
accident. It seems that when the BBC audio tapes came out, he had
brought the entire set to play in his car - and very nearly ended up
wrapped around a lamp post on his way home one night because he'd been
laughing so much." Pemberton and his League of Gentlemen mates have also
toured the UK with the show. He admits that they were amazed at what a
huge fan following the League has but points out that, although it did
pretty well in London and the south of England, it was as they toured
further north that the audiences got warmer and warmer. "And in
Scotland," he says, "we were like heroes. People are always quoting
lines back to me, they love the wackiness of some of the characters that
I play - like the perverted old schoolmaster Herr Lipp - and the line 'a
local shop for local people' has now even gone into catchphrase books.
We never reckoned on that happening, ever."
And there is even better news for League fans-the lads are going back on
the road late in 2005 and there is also a movie of the show in the
offing. The team spent much of 2003 getting the script together. "Now,"
says Pemberton, "it's the agonisingly slow process of getting the
finance together. Anyone who has ever attempted to make a British film
will know what that is all about and how complex and terrifying it is. A
truly agonising process. You go to see a British film in the cinema and
you have to spend about ten minutes before the titles come up reading
the corporate names of all the companies who have put their cash into
"Anyway, we hope to have everything in place within the next few months
and we hope that we'll film in late August and early autumn. We'll do
the post-production and editing in the winter and we hope that it will
be up on screen in spring next year."