Brian Conley: “being live on stage feels like home”
He has been described as ”Britain’s most versatile performer”. But even comedian, actor, singer and chat show host Brian Conley admits he thought “What am I doing here?” when he took to a tightrope for his latest demanding role.
Conley is touring the UK playing the lead in Barnum, a musical about Phineas T Barnum – the extraordinary circus entertainer who was regarded as America’s greatest showman.
Although Conley has no fear of heights and prepared himself physically for the role, walking a tightrope proved to be one of his biggest challenges.
“It’s one of the obstacles the show poses and I did find myself thinking initially when I was on the tightrope ‘What am I doing here?’ I’m not afraid of hard work, whether in this or any show. I do eventually cross the wire, not always on the first attempt, but that’s what makes it so exciting – the whole audience appreciates that I’m not a professional tightrope walker.
“I broke my finger doing the tightrope a few months ago and that was when I was all of one foot off the ground. I also sprained my ankle pretty badly on the second day of rehearsals when I was on the wire at its full height which is eight feet off the ground. I think you can say that I’m afraid of falling but not afraid of heights!”
The role of Barnum is comparable to other stage roles Conley has undertaken. He appeared in the musical Jolson, about the legendary singer and entertainer Al Jolson, in the West End from 1995 to 1998 and followed that with a stint in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man in 2008.
“I played Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man and he’s a similar type of con man character, and Al Jolson in his own way was a hugely driven man whom you grew to love. In each case you’ve got to play these roles without malice but with energy and charm.
“What I’m hoping to bring to Barnum is a real contact with the audience where we talk to them and keep them engaged. It’s important whatever you’re performing to be visually interesting so you don’t just stand there and waffle on.”
Brian Paul Conley was born in Paddington in 1961. He studied performing arts at the Barbara Speake Stage School and as a teenager Conley had a few minor television appearances including an advert for hot dogs. When he was 16 he lied about his age so that he could start work as a Pontin’s Bluecoat.
Later he fronted a comedy showband called Tomfoolery which performed in pubs and clubs. Conley was spotted by an agent who got the teenager work as a warm-up man for television shows hosted by the likes of Kenny Everett and Terry Wogan.
Conley then appeared in front of the camera on various comedy programmes before starring in his own sketch show and making his first appearance in the West End, playing the lead role of Bill Snibson in Me And My Girl.
Further television success followed, with The Brian Conley Show, which had a variety format, becoming Britain’s most-watched light entertainment programme at the time.
That featured characters such as Larry the Loafer, Dangerous Brian and Nick Frisbee who was responsible for the catchphrase “It’s a puppet!” which even now people shout at Conley wherever he goes.
On the small screen he played Doug “Dynamo” Rigby in the comedy drama The Grimleys opposite Amanda Holden, Nigel Planer and Noddy Holder; presented The National Lottery Show Live; and performed in numerous Royal Variety performances.
But it is on stage where Conley excels. He has thrived on parts such as Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium, Edna Turnblad in Hairspray in the West End and Fagin on a UK tour of Oliver! He has also been in more than 20 pantos, playing Buttons in Cinderella 14 times.
Says Conley: “When I’m on stage I feel very much as if that’s where I belong. My commitment to taking an audience somewhere is important to me: being live on stage feels like home to me, and I always say that I was born to do it.”
Conley, who married Anne-Marie in 1996 and has two daughters, is particularly looking forward to coming to Nottingham: “There’s definitely a buzz when you’re out of London. The audiences on tour are so warm and genuinely enjoy going to their local theatre. So far they’ve been phenomenal.”
As for Barnum, Conley saw Michael Crawford perform in the show in the West End in 1981 and he feels it is a “wonderful honour” that producer Cameron Mackintosh asked him to take on the role.
Conley started training for the role before Christmas 2013 even though the tour did not start until last September: “I was at circus school twice a week and then we had five weeks of rehearsals. It’s certainly physically demanding but no more so than doing panto twice a day.
“Sure, I have moments of thinking I’m too old for this, but then I think to myself it’s as if I’ve been called up by the England manager of the theatre world in Sir Cameron Mackintosh, so I can’t let him down. And the wonderful thing with Cameron is that there’s absolutely no skimping; you know everything will be done to the highest degree.”
While Conley may have had reservations about tightrope walking, he has no worries about singing in Barnum: “Don’t forget that Jolson was pretty full-on – that had 26 songs, although to be fair some were quite short. All you can do with a role like this is trust and hope that your muscle memory kicks in and you settle into a routine.
“It helps, I think, that I don’t drink any more – I packed that in ten years ago – and that I know how important it is to rest. That said, I’m not afraid of putting the time in to get results.”
You might think that everything has been rosy for Conley who has won accolades including the National Television Award for the most popular comedy performer and an Olivier Award nomination for best musical actor for Jolson.
However, two years ago he revealed he had been on antidepressants for 15 years. He stopped taking them when he went on I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here despite producers telling him to continue with his medication. He was forced to leave the jungle after ten days because of malnutrition and exhaustion.
Now his life and career seem back on track. The tour of Barnum continues until August and afterwards it seems fairly certain more offers will come his way. There is one in particular role he wants to do.
“I would love to play Miss Trunchbull in Matilda. That’s a part I would be very interested in after this. But beyond that, who knows? I don’t have a huge game plan and I’m very fortunate to be in the position that I can do what I want to do as opposed to what I have to do. Anything after Barnum will be a piece of cake!”
* This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of Country Images magazine