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.