Eleven minutes with Brian Conley

Multi-talented award-winning Brian Conley tells Sandra Kessell why he’s having a hard time keeping track of his lip gloss now he’s starring as Edna Turnblad in the sell-out musical Hairspray.

I can hear Brian Conley’s booming voice and deep throaty chortle from way across the Milton Keynes Theatre foyer. The actor, comedian, West End star, chat show host, singer and all-round performer is “on” for this interview and before we’ve even shaken hands he’s showing me (and the show’s publicity team) his recently re-done tattoo, gauging our shocked reaction and laughing – his trademark dimples dipping in and out of his cheeks – as he sits down and waits for me to compose myself and deliver the first question.

    • Why do you live in Buckinghamshire? I’ve lived there for 18 years. I love it because you’re not a million miles from town, and it’s quite central for me, I’m on the A40 and I can get where I want to get easily. Being here is nice, Milton Keynes is local so I can get home easily. I can’t see myself ever moving away. My girls love it, they go to school in Uxbridge, where they’re very happy.
    • Were you born locally? No, I was born in Paddington General Hospital and lived in Kilburn, then moved to Watford, then Rickmansworth – I’ve kept coming out. I’m too common to live in Buckinghamshire really. When I very first bought my house, the local Conservative person rang the bell and when I went to the door he said to me: ‘Are your parents in?’ I said: ‘No, this is my house,’ and the bloke went: ‘Really?’ as if I wasn’t capable of owning a nice house. I bet he thought I was some sort of burglar.
    • Does it take you more time to take your show make-up off than to get home from here? Taking it off is not a problem, getting it on – well, they’ve got in the show report thing that it takes two hours. I don’t know where they got that from – it takes me about 30 minutes – though I don’t put it on myself, the make-up lady does that. Michael [Ball] does his own, but I can’t. I just think they do a better job than me. I guess it will take me about an hour to get home, I’ve not done it yet.

There’s no denying I’m a bloke dressed up as a woman

    • Who or what have you used for inspiration for your role as Edna Turnblad? When I saw Michael do it I thought, ‘This is great!’ but then I thought, ‘How am I going to do it?’ But listening to Harvey Fierstein, who was the original  Edna on Broadway, and who has got a deeper, more gravelly voice than me, was my inspiration – and Divine – [who played the role in the 1988 film version] – that’s my way of playing it – a bit more grotesque. But when friends come to see me I really do camp it up. My feminine side comes out. I love it when they come backstage and say, ‘You’re so – feminine.’ That’s about the way you hold your bag, you take shorter footsteps, the way you stand – all those things I think about when I’m out there. There’s no denying I’m a bloke dressed up as a woman – a lot of the comedy in the show comes from that, and there’s a lot of confusion when he, she, is on the phone and they think they’re talking to the father of the house and when me and Les [Dennis] kiss, the audience are laughing because they know it’s two blokes kissing. You’re playing the scenes in a little family unit – your love for Wilbur has got to come across and your unbelievable love for your daughter Tracy has got to come across.
    • So, what about Milton Keynes – do you love it or do you get lost in it? I’ve never been here [the town centre] before, but I don’t think there’s enough roundabouts. The last time I was in Milton Keynes I saw Robbie Williams at The Bowl with 80,000 people. I’d like to do that – then I could do one big night – it would be great, wouldn’t it? Steve Martin does a whole routine about that, doing a big concert one night a year – hehehehehe.

I don’t drink – I know that’s hard to believe

  • But what would you do with your time off then? Because you seem to be busy all the time. Well, you know, I tick over. What’s lucky about this show – well I don’t know if it’s more luck than judgement, is that me, Michael [Ball] and Starkey [Michael Starke] are sharing this role. I’ve got some nice time off in the summer, though I’ve doing the couple of weeks in August in Plymouth, but I’m taking the whole family down and we’re going to have a little holiday down there – being a dad is very important to me. Half the things I do because my girls would be proud of me – I loved doing Chitty Chitty Bang! Bang! [playing Caractacus Potts] and this, Hairspray, if you’ve got young girls, is the best show you could ever take them to see. Lucy, she’s eight, Amy’s 13 – they’re perfect ages – they wear tee-shirts saying ‘My Dad’s Edna.’
  • Do you socialise in Buckinghamshire and go to local pubs and restaurants locally? Yeah – well I don’t drink – I know that’s hard to believe – but there’s good food around and lots of places to have fun in Buckinghamshire. I love Cliveden – it’s a lovely place to stay – although we don’t live that far away – I’ve stayed there a couple of times. And we had our wedding reception at Pinewood Studios – we only realised afterwards that we could have been married there.
  • Where’s your favourite view? One of my favourite views is from the back of Cliveden looking out on to the beautiful lawn and then seeing the Thames. And in Bray – there are some lovely places in Bray [though that’s Berkshire] and where they filmed Vicar of Dibley [Turville] – you can get some wonderful fish and chips there.
  • And when you’re not entertaining other people what are you doing? Doing the school run – being a dad – at the moment watching the football. This year is taken up doing this and my own show – The Best of Brian Conley – going away on holiday – we got stuck away in Cyprus for a lot longer than we were supposed to because of the volcano – we ended up being away for nearly a month. I haven’t got major hobbies but I’ve always enjoyed being a dad and being with my girls.  That’s one of the best things about your job – isn’t it? Yeah – though one of the worst things is you work when other people are off, often bank holidays, weekends, you know. I love it when my kids come back stage, though one time they were in the dressing room and – how many dads say this to their girls – I had to ask, ‘Which one of you has been using Daddy’s lipgloss?’ Hehehehehe.
  • If you weren’t an entertainer what would you be, then? I don’t know – I’ve always done this – I’ve never had a proper job – I suppose I would be a second hand car dealer with the gift of the gab. Maybe in my younger day I would’ve done that. Maybe now I’d be a bloomin’ recluse.
  • No! Hehehehehe.

<Dates refer to 2010> Brian Conley plays Edna Turnblad in Hairspray at Milton Keynes Theatre from September 20 to October 9 (tel: 0844 871 7652) and at Oxford New Theatre from October 12 to October 23 (tel: 0844 847 1585). See http://www.hairspraythetour.com for more details.

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Dee Caffari – sailing beyond boundaries

Dee Caffari

You’re more likely to find record-setting yachtswoman Dee Caffari wearing Dubarry sailing boots than high fashion Jimmy Choo sandals. Despite her life on the open sea she’s a woman who is firmly grounded. She doesn’t mind the lack of glamour in her wardrobe and she jokes she spends half her time dressed in bright “Teletubby” colours having swapped life as a PE teacher for life as a sailor.

“I wanted to have adventures and go travelling and I thought, ‘If I don’t go now I won’t be able to get up and go when I’ve got commitments’,” she says of her decision to seek fresh challenges after five years in front of secondary school pupils.
She re-trained as a water sports instructor, then gained offshore sailing qualifications and worked in the yacht charter business. It was different from a day in the school gym or on a playing field, but how did she make the giant leap from the genteel world of the yacht charter business to becoming a round-the-world pioneer?
“It was a bit extreme,” admits Dee, explaining that she was working for Mike Golding Yacht Racing when it dawned on her that she could reach for a fresh high. Newly immersed in the sailing world she watched competitors returning from Sir Chay Blyth’s inspiring Global Challenge – a race between a fleet of matching yachts crewed by amateurs sailing the 29,000 nautical miles (54,000km) around the world, taking in Cape Horn and the Southern Ocean against the prevailing winds and currents.
“They were having a big party. I knew they were everyday people and I thought ‘That’s really cool’,” says Dee. “I wished there was a crowd of people celebrating my achievements.”

Four years later, having honed her skills further, Dee found herself part of the party crowd as the only female skipper in the race, supporting and being responsible for a crew of amateur sailors on the craft, Imagine It. Done. It was Chay Blyth himself who encouraged Dee to take on her next challenge – again sailing around the world “the wrong way” or “westabout” but this time non-stop and single-handed.
“When you get somebody like that, someone of that calibre and experience, suggesting things to you and saying, ‘Why don’t you go and do that?’ and, ‘You can achieve so much more,’ it gives you confidence in yourself to step outside your boundaries,” says Dee.

The way Dee describes it sounds so straightforward, yet she still had to manage the logistics of planning her record-setting attempt and overcome the not inconsiderable hurdle of funding her dream. She found a sponsor in insurance and investment giant Aviva and by November 20, 2005, she was setting off in a Challenge 72ft Class yacht, the same boat she had skippered just four months earlier in the Global Challenge. It speaks volumes about her charisma that Aviva had never before sponsored an individual endeavour of this kind.

“I became the first female to do it,” she says of the voyage that took her 178 days and put her name in the history books as well as the front page of most national newspapers. “But I wondered what else was possible, and I thought maybe I should go round the other way.” True to form, she signed up for the Vendee Globe, a round-the-world solo challenge that is known as the Everest of racing because it’s so hard to complete. Of the 30 yachts that started only 11 finished, with Dee coming home sixth, despite having trouble with her mainsail – the powerhouse of the boat.

“If anyone had offered me sixth place at the start I would have been delighted,” she says. “I learned so much along the way and I want to do it again. I’d like to compete in 2012 and finish on the podium, if I can find the sponsorship,” she says, adding that she will have gained more experience and know-how by that date. So does Dee consider herself tough, or extraordinary?
“I would not that long ago have said, ‘Not at all’,” she says, without a hint of false modesty.

“When I talk to my family and friends they tell me I have attributes and traits that I never felt I had as a kid,” she continues. “I went to ballet school and did tap dancing, and in my head I thought I was going to be a dancer. As I grew older I played more and more sport, particularly volleyball at quite a high level, and I was very happy teaching. I didn’t have a burning ambition as a youngster to be a record-breaking sailor,” she says.
When not out on the water competing she really enjoys time at home and maintains good links with her local community, particularly at St Mary’s Junior Sailing Club, in Alverstoke, Hampshire.
“It’s a privilege to have that ability to inspire and encourage,” Dee says. “I think sailing in itself is quite unique. You can push as hard as you feel comfortable doing. If your confidence grows you can challenge yourself a bit more and stretch your limits. If the worst that can happen is that you get a bit wet it’s not a bad way to learn,” says Dee. “At its worst being wet and cold can be a bit miserable, but you do get through it and you do get to good bits, the bad stuff doesn’t last forever.”
So what does she find the worst thing about her solo sailing challenges?
“I do miss the interaction with people. It’s a lonely environment but I’ve learnt all about myself, I’ve learnt to get on with myself,” she says.
Dee would like her feats to inspire other people, older, as well as young, and to give them the courage to try something they’ve always longed to do.
“When you meet someone who has done something quite extreme you do think, ‘Maybe I could do it. How could I manage, how could I get around things?’ I consider myself very lucky to work in the environment I do; to see oceans uninterrupted by land or humans and watch amazing sunsets and sunrises, or a whale or a dolphin and feel as if I’m intruding on their environment. In the Southern Ocean you see albatrosses and icebergs,” she adds.

Her idea of a relaxing break would be to go island-hopping in the Pacific. It’s hard to imagine Dee Caffari ever feeling like retiring, but she acknowledges that one day she may just hang up her Teletubby outfits.
“But for now all my focus is round-the-world sailing,” she says.
You can get news and information about Dee’s exploits at her website www.deecaffari.co.uk. She also has a Twitter account and Facebook page where she posts regular updates.

Facts about Dee

  • October 2004 Sets off on the 10-month Global Challenge Race.
  • November 2005 Starts her solo “westabout” non-stop voyage.
  • May 2006 Completes her record-setting solo voyage
  • April 2007 Completes the Flora London Marathon.
  • June 2007 Awarded an MBE.
  • September 2007 Publishes “Against the Flow” her autobiography.
  • February 2009 Completes the Vendee Globe race becoming the first woman to sail solo, non-stop around the world in both directions.
  • June 2009 Sets a new speed record for circumnavigating Britain and Ireland of 6 days 11 hours 30 minutes and 53 seconds, knocking 17 hours off the existing time.

Click here to view the full magazine article in pdf form Dee Caffari magazine pdf

This article appears in the current issue of the MSSC Seafarer Magazine.