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THE STAGE - APRIL 8, 2004

By Phil Pinfold

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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 to me."

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 it."


"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."


Transcribed by Claire



 

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