Television fans will be most familiar with actor Sam Kelly from his roles in classic comedy series including Porridge, On the Up, Paul Merton in…, Dave Allen and ‘Allo, ‘Allo.
But since the beginning of his career, when he spent five years in regional rep and then a year with the Young Vic company under Frank Dunlop, Kelly has returned regularly to the stage. His most famous TV role, as Captain Hans Geering in ‘Allo, ‘Allo even provided him with a crossover vehicle in a stage production that toured the UK and then transferred for a West End season at the Prince of Wales theatre.
His many other stage credits over the years, in the West End, at the National, the Royal Court and elsewhere, have included The Government Inspector, Run for Your Wife, The Odd Couple, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, Killers, Pericles, Dead Funny, War and Peace, The Homecoming, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Toast, Peter Pan, HMS Pinafore and Under the Whaleback. Most recently, he’s been seen at the National in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and, with Ian McKellen at the Old Vic, in Aladdin.
His myriad other screen credits include: Barbara, Heartbeat, Black Books, EastEnders, Oliver Twist, Cold Feet, Holding On, Martin Chuzzlewit, Hold the Back Page, Bleak House, Coronation Street, Now and Then and Boys from the Black Stuff on television; and All or Nothing, Topsy Turvy, Honest, Getaway and Blue Ice on film.
Kelly now joins the Peter Hall Company for its third annual summer repertory season, running this year from 22 June to 3 September 2005 at the Theatre Royal Bath. He plays Dogberry in Hall’s own production of Much Ado About Nothing, which also stars Janie Dee and Aden Gillett as Beatrice and Benedick.
Date & place of birth
Born 19 December 1943 in Manchester.
Lives now in…
Twickenham, south London.
I went to LAMDA (London Academy of Dramatic Arts) at the age of 20 but spent three years in the civil service before then.
First big break
Porridge as it turned out, though I didn’t know it was going to be a break at the time. Working with Ronnie Barker was an education in itself and the scripts were second to none in television terms. So if a break means getting better known, that was probably it. If it means doing your best work, well that may be something different.
Career highlights to date
Going to Australia with the Two Ronnies. My first job at the National Theatre. Working at the Old Vic and working at the London Palladium. Any actor would love to work at those theatres, both so steeped in history.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
I had a wonderful part in a wonderful play, CP Taylor’s Bread and Butter, in which I aged from 35 to 70 over the one evening. I’ve always played old men. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the National last year – there’s about 25 years between those two jobs! Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny, which I did at the Savoy. And a remarkable production of Macbeth, with Nigel Hawthorne, at Sheffield in 1970. We really got it right with that production – it was terrifying, exciting, colourful.
I got on very well with Nigel, as I did with Paul Freeman, who was also in that production of Macbeth. Ian McKellen is fantastic. I did Aladdin at the Old Vic with him this past Christmas. I wanted to do it because I wanted to work at the Old Vic and work with Ian and with Maureen Lipman, who I’d been at drama school with. But I didn’t really enjoy doing the show. I didn’t have enough to do it, it was a thankless role.
The man who taught me everything I know about acting is Philip Hedley. Other favourites are Peter James – who I worked with at Liverpool, Sheffield, the Young Vic and at Hammersmith – John Dove, Mike Leigh, although I’ve never worked with him in theatre, and Kenneth Parrott. I’d put Kenneth down alongside Edward Hall. They trust in you and that therefore gives you the confidence to be brave. If it doesn’t work, they’ll tell you but they’ll do so without embarrassing you and making you feel like a fool. A lot of directors will encourage you to be brave but will then stop you because they get scared.
Alan Bennett. I’d love to do a Bennett but I never have; I nearly did one on telly once but I wasn’t free so he did it himself. Neil Simon, whose plays I’ve done twice. Simon’s writing is miraculous comedy-wise. Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett. A younger playwright I’ve worked with is Richard Bean, who I going to be huge. I did his play Under the Whaleback at the Royal Court and have just done a reading for his new play, Europhilia, which is a farce set in Brussels with lots of doors, running around and sleeping with the wrong people.
You’ve worked extensively in TV, film & radio as well as theatre? Which do you prefer?
I suppose I like theatre best really. I also like filming things on location, but I wouldn’t mind if I never had to go into another television studio for the rest of my life. As you get older, theatre is bloody hard work and there’s no money in theatre - you have to do television to subsidise it, if you’re lucky enough to get the work – but it’s still my favourite.
Do you think theatre has changed much since the start of your career?
Maybe it hasn’t really. Television has – the quality of the work has gone since the demise of the studio plays. But in theatre, I did Pinter’s The Homecoming in 1970 and then in 1995, I did A Funny Thing… in 1970 and again in 2004. These plays are still there, many of the same authors are still writing and there are lots of great new voices, too – Joe Penhall, Richard Bean and Sarah Kane, who died much too early. So theatre carries on. If there is anything different with theatre, it’s that it’s harder to get people to come and see it – unless it’s a big West End musical. Although I’ve done a few, musicals are not my bag really. I’m not sure I want to do any more.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Trigorin in The Seagull, Max in The Homecoming - I’ve played Uncle Sam both times I’ve done it – and maybe Macbeth. None of those are uproariously funny, are they? I suppose I’m best known for comic roles, but that’s not of my doing. If I am allowed to play it straight, it’s more likely to happen in theatre than television.
What’s the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
When I saw The Wind in the Willows at the Liverpool Playhouse at the age of eight, I said to myself “that’s what I’m going to do”. Television wasn’t around much then so theatre was that mattered to me. Recently, I’ve seen Losing Louis at Trafalgar Studios and an adaptation of Adam Bede at the Orange Tree, both of which I enjoyed. Also The History Boys, which was fantastic. It’s not really that I go to the theatre that much, I go to see friends. On tour, I saw Jerome Flynn doing Tommy Cooper in Jus' Like That. It was not an impersonation, Flynn really got under Tommy’s skin, he became him – it was stunning.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Either abolish or reduce VAT on theatre tickets. Reinstate the regional repertory system so that young actors can get proper experience. And make Lottery money for artists as much as architecture. I don’t care if we actors don’t get the extra money – let the writers have it so they’re encouraged to write more for theatre. But what do I know?
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Alfred Brendel so I could sit down and play Beethoven until it came out of my ears.
Favourite holiday destinations
I’ve had maybe three holidays in the last 35 years. Let’s say Criccieth in north Wales. There’s a shop there that sells the best ice cream in the world. They only do vanilla but it’s worth driving 250 miles for.
Favourite after-show haunts
If I’m in the West End, I get into my car and drive home as fast as I possibly can after a show. I don’t like London very much. And in the West End, I don’t like that, because the theatre bars are all shut afterwards, you never really get to meet your audience. Outside of London, everyone meets in the bar – it’s quite nice to know what audiences actually think.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
Can I say three things as possibilities? I would have liked to have run a village post office in the heart of the countryside – I know those people have to get up at 4.00am but it’s still a rural idyll for me. Or I would have liked to play cricket for England. Or I would have liked to have been a professional singer in a small consort, maybe six to eight people. I’m not religious but I love church music.
Why did you want to accept the role of Dogberry in this particular production of Much Ado About Nothing?
Partly I did it simply because Peter Hall asked me to. I’d never worked with him before but he wrote to me and offered me the part after seeing me in A Funny Thing, which of course was directed by his son, Edward. Who doesn’t want to work with Peter Hall? Or at least try to? It also adds to my little list of Shakespearean clowns. I’ve done Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pompey (Measure for Measure), Touchstone (As You Like It) and now I’ll do Dogberry. Many years ago, Matthew Warchus offered me the same part in a production of Much Ado that Thelma Holt put on at the Queen’s with Janet McTeer and Mark Rylance. It was a wonderful production, which stupidly I turned down. This is my second chance.
Do you have a favourite Shakespeare play?
The ones I know best are the ones I’ve been in. Of those, I’d say Romeo and Juliet. I don’t have any deep insights into these plays. I’m just an actor who does them as well as I can. Although in fact, my Benvolio (in Romeo and Juliet) was absolutely horrible.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m in Bath until August. After that, I’ve got a new play I’ve been working on with my actor friends Brian Protheroe and Ian Bartholomew. During the war, Ian’s father was in the RAF and he had a singing group called Three Boys and a Guitar which went around the camps in the Far East. He kept a diary of his experiences, which David Cregan is adapting for us as a three-hander. We’ll get to sing in close harmony – we’re already preparing a CD of songs from the era like “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)”. Brian will be on the guitar, playing his dad. He and I first met on my second-ever theatre job at the Theatre Royal Lincoln and we’ve been singing in a barbershop quartet together ever since. It’s called The Gay Blades. Martin Duncan (joint artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre) is also in. It’s great to be able to sing.
Much Ado About Nothing runs in repertory from 29 June to 6 August 2005. The rest of the Peter Hall season at the Theatre Royal Bath comprises Noel Coward’s Private Lives, George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell and Hall’s 50th anniversary production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (See News, 15 Apr 2005).