Rufus Jones and Ralf Little in rehearsals for Dead Funny
Rufus Jones and Ralf Little in rehearsals for Dead Funny
© Grace Wordsworth

Ralf Little became a household name in 1998 after The Royle Family first aired – it was his first big role aged only 17. Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps – his second big role which aired three years later – cemented the nation's view of him as a TV comedic northern everyman. But it's easy to forget that Little is also a really good stage actor. His professional stage debut was at the Royal Court - he played the young George Harrison in the world premiere of Presence in 2001 – and he was nominated for an Olivier Award for it.

Over the last twenty or so years (Little is now 36), the actor has worked at theatres including the Bush Theatre, starring in 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover in 2008 and The Aliens in 2010, Trafalgar Studios in Jack Thorne's one-man show Stacy in 2007 and to the West End, in the recent stage adaptation of the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers which returned in 2013. And he's about to open in the West End revival of Terry Johnson's play Dead Funny. It's a smart and satisfyingly varied theatre CV, especially for someone who cut his teeth on the small screen and didn't go to drama school.

His latest is another good choice. Dead Funny is one of those plays that went down in history as a bit of a game changer. In a recent piece for The Guardian, Steve Pemberton – who stars alongside Little in this anniversary production – waxed lyrical about the show, citing Zoe Wanamaker's turn as the best performance he had ever seen. Little, on the other hand, hadn't actually heard of Dead Funny.

'I wasn't rock and roll enough to consider being an actor'

"It's a bit embarrassing, because I should have [known it]," he says to me in a break in rehearsals at the Vaudeville Theatre. "But in my defence I was only about 12 when it was first staged [in 1994]." Despite not having heard of it, when he read it he immediately realised that it was a great script. "It's a brilliantly, tightly written play. Our job is almost just to be precise and get the timing right and the rest of it can take care of itself," he says.

Dead Funny is a comedy of manners. It pokes fun at uptight Britishness and the breakdown of relationships. At its heart is everywoman Eleanor (played by Katherine Parkinson) who is exasperated by her uptight husband Richard (played by Rufus Jones). He barely pays any attention to her, too obsessed as he is with his Dead Funny society, which was created to pay tribute to all the old music hall comedians, such as Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd and Eric and Ernie. Little plays Nick, a comedy connoisseur who is one half of another couple who are friends with Eleanor and Richard.

"There is a great line in it, where Eleanor says 'I wouldn't be so surprised that you loved all these comedians if you ever actually laughed at them while you're watching them'," Little says, "She means we all nod meaningfully and then go – 'Oh very good'. It's actually what I do when I watch stuff," he laughs.

'I don't get nervous,' he says at one point, before admitting that he actually does

But, I protest, he must find some things laugh-out-loud funny. He thinks for a minute and says, "Yes, the last thing I actually laughed at was Peter Sellers in an old clip of Pink Panther. But let's be honest, videos of people falling over and hurting themselves are pretty funny too."

It's a quick u-turn, but it's also an example of several moments during our interview where Little makes himself sound a bit grandiose and is then hilariously honest and climbs back down to earth ("I don't get nervous," he says at one point, before admitting that he actually does but mostly just pretends he doesn't). It's probably got something to do with the fact that, with two decades of experience, he knows how many actors are prone to believing their own hype and how fickle and judgmental show business can be.

Little got into drama because his parents "never allowed us to be bored". He and his siblings were constantly carted off to various after school groups, one of which was a drama group. It was through this that Little landed his first TV job, aged 13, in a show called Sluggers. Still though, he says he was "too sensible and not rock and roll enough to consider being an actor." He went to university to study medicine before dropping out to take the part in The Royle Family.

That job changed his life: "It was amazing [working on it] and I know I might go my entire life and never experience something like that again," he says. The show was an overnight success, but, Little says, fame took longer to come for him.

'Let's be honest: videos of people falling over and hurting themselves are pretty funny'

Now though, he takes his status as a celebrity with a certain amount of responsibility. Speaking about his 94,000 Twitter followers, he says: "If I can change a few minds, do I have an ethical or moral obligation to say something?" He's a constant troll battler, putting people into place with polite but sharp put downs. But the truth is that he's really, really concerned by the state of the world at the moment. "Politicians have always lied," he says, "but there was a time when if a politician was caught lying we, as a society, would be pissed. He or she might deny it, but there was some accountability. These days we just seem to go – Oh well. That's what worries me most."

But though he's worried, he's also clearly happy at the moment, not least because he's focusing a lot more on writing and producing. He hopes his new project – a two hour TV pilot that he has written and will be starring in – will open up more than a few doors. "Writing is painful and hard and it's boring a lot of the time, but it means I have a hand in my own destiny." It's a prime example of Little's can-do attitude: it's certain that whatever his 'destiny' might be, Little will absolutely be the one behind it.

Dead Funny runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until 4 February.