|Russ Abbot as Alfred P Doolittle|
20 Questions With...Russ Abbot
Date: 21 April 2003
Comedian & actor Russ Abbot, who is currently playing My Fair Lady's Alfred P Doolittle in the West End, shares his thoughts on the first day of rehearsal, great dames, travelators & Cameron Mackintosh.
Russ Abbot is probably best known for his TV comedy programme, The Russ Abbot Show, which enjoyed more than ten series on different channels, but his varied career has also encompassed playing drums in The Black Abbots band and releasing a single "Atmosphere", which made it into the top ten, as well as acting.
In addition to Abbot's own show, the entertainer found television success with September Song, Married for Life, Mad House and TV to Go. He was also known as the face of Hamlet cigars. His many awards include Top Variety Act in the 1990 British Comedy Awards.
Despite his television fame, Abbot is no stranger to the West End having tread the boards in shows like Neil Simon's Little Me, Willy Russell's One for the Road and the 2001 farce Caught in the Net, Ray Cooney's sequel to Run for Your Wife. His other musical credits include Fagin in Oliver! and the title role in the UK-wide tour of Dr Dolittle.
Abbot has recently taken over from Denis Waterman playing Alfred P Doolittle Trevor Nunn's multi award-winning revival of Lerner and Loewe's classic musical My Fair Lady at the West End's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Date & place of birth
Born 16 September 1947 in Chester, Cheshire.
Lives now in...
Wentworth in Surrey.
First big break
Oh gosh, I suppose it must be The Russ Abbot Show.
Career highlights to date
Fagin in Oliver! but TV-wise September Song.
Having done so much in your career, what type of work do you enjoy most?
I love doing musicals like My Fair Lady and Oliver!. It's incredibly rewarding doing eight shows a week, it's great.
Favourite production you've ever worked on
My West End debut which was in 1984 at the Prince of Wales theatre in Neil Simon's Little Me. I was the lead. I played eight parts and had 21 costume changes. It ran for over a year.
It would be unkind to name individuals. I've had such a great time with them all. But recently, the late Michael Williams (Judi Dench's husband), who I worked with on September Song, because it was my first TV drama and I learnt a great deal from him.
I haven't really had a bad a one. David Bell was wonderful when we did Mad House because he believed in me.
Charles Dickens for Oliver! - does that count? - and Ken Blakeson for writing September Song.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I'm enjoying playing Alfred P Doolittle, but as to roles I'd like to play in future, it's hard to say. It depends what comes out. I do like musicals, though. I'd like to do Professor Higgins one day too. I'll have a go at anything.
Why do you like to return to the stage?
The reaction you get is spontaneous and immediate - and once you step out there's no turning back. With TV, you aren't in the living room so you don't know what people really think. And what is it they say? There's nothing like the smell of the grease paint and roar of the crowd.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently
Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in The Breath of Life. That was a wonderful experience, to see two great dames together on stage.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Go out and see a bit more of it. They shouldn't be afraid to be seen in public - it would probably do those politicians a bit of good to switch off.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I'm lucky, I've had a pretty good time being me. I'm not envious of anybody else, so I've no reason to change. But if I had to say someone, maybe Father Christmas.
I haven't read a good book for a long time. Dickens again really - Oliver! is my favourite. I've just finished reading Pygmalion and that's good, it really helped me with Alfred P Doolittle. The great thing about the first day of rehearsal is doing the read-through. When we did for My Fair Lady and I heard the songs narrated rather than sung, it made me realise just how good the lyrics are. Of course, they are all taken from George Bernard Shaw's play.
Favourite holiday destinations
Barbados in the Caribbean.
Why did you want to accept your part in My Fair Lady?
I saw this production when it first came out. After seeing it, my family and I talked about it and I said I'd love to be in it, but never dreamed I'd be offered the part. When Trevor Nunn and Cameron Mackintosh asked me to play Alfred, I was flattered. And Cameron is a wonderful man to work for. The respect he gives his people is second to none so you know you'll be working in a wonderful environment. His productions, especially with Trevor Nunn at the helm, are wonderful. And I had such a good time doing Oliver! I couldn't refuse.
What's your favourite line or song from My Fair Lady?
I've got two of the best songs. To try and choose between "A Little Bit of Luck" and "Get Me to the Church" is impossible, and I only have to listen to "I Could Have Danced All Night" and I get a lump in my throat. As I said before, when you sit around and hear the lyrics spoken you realise what classics these songs are.
But I suppose my favourite line is when Pickering says to Alfred, "Have you got no morals man?", and Alfred says, "No, I can't afford them". He wants a fiver to leave Eliza with Higgins but won't take a tenner, all he wants is the price of a pint. At the end of play, Alfie invites Eliza to his wedding saying, "Do you want to come and see me turned off this morning?" I like that one, too.
What was the funniest thing that happened in rehearsals?
We have to work on travelators, so bits of stage move, and if you aren't careful, you'll fall into a compromising position!
What are your plans for the future?
I try not to plan too far ahead, but I'd like to do more TV drama.
- Russ Abbot was speaking to Hannah Khalil
My Fair Lady is playing at the West End's Theatre Royal Drury Lane. To take advantage of our current Meal Deal for the show, click here.