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Brief Encounter With ... In Basildon's Phil Cornwell

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Phil Cornwell plays Len in David Eldridge's new play In Basildon, which opened last night (22 February 2012, previews from 16 February) at the Royal Court.

Cornwell returns to the Court having starred in Penelope Skinner's The Village Bike in the Theatre Upstairs last year.

He's perhaps best known for his works as an impressionist on TV shows including Dead Ringers and Stella Street, while other screen credits include I’m Alan Partridge and The Comic Strip.

In Basildon is billed as “inheritance in the heart of Essex”
I don’t know who coined that but it’s a quite a good description. It’s about a family from the East End who have done what a lot of families do and moved out to greener pastures - first to Romford, then to Basildon. It’s about the brother, Len, who I play, who’s dying on a bed from cancer, while his sisters and other family members gather round him. There’s a feud between the sisters because of money, and it’s the story of what comes out of that. It’s so well structured, building to a great final scene.

Were you familiar with David Eldridge’s work before this play?
I wasn’t. Shamefully, I don’t see much theatre, I mainly watch Sky Sports! Sad, isn’t it? I prefer to be in plays really, rather than watch them. But I did know he was a very accomplished writer and he’s been fantastic to work with.

And like him you were born and bred in Essex?
Yes. I moved to London for about 30 years, but recently moved to Leigh-on-Sea. It’s a well trodden path I think - young people move to the city and then move back out when they get a bit older. The play certainly resonates with me, and David’s dialogue is spot on.

What is it about Essex that holds such fascination?
I think it’s got a very strong identity - certainly more so than somewhere like Surrey or Kent. I can’t really imagine a programme called The Only Way is Middlesex. I don’t know why that is - perhaps because it’s so close to the East End of London. It’s the Thames corridor, Dagenham, Tilbury, where the Thames widens out towards the sea. Romford’s a weird place because it’s sort of betwixt and between; it’s steeped in the vernacular of East London.

When I think of you I think mainly of your comedy and impressions work
I trained at drama school - East 15, in Essex - as an actor. But it was hard getting work afterwards so I created my own by doing impressions, which became my route in. I had an act which I took round the cabaret circuit; I went through the listings in Time Out and just phoned up all the venues and got my first gigs that way.

What was your big break?
Well I started making a living at it in the clubs, and that led to doing the Radio 4 series Week Ending, which was a forerunner of Dead Ringers. I did that for a couple of weeks and then did a TV show called Saturday Live (see clip below), which was compered by Ben Elton and starred Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Harry Enfield. I got a slot on that which was a bit of a turning point and led to doing The Comic Strip and then Stella Street.

Is there one impression you always get asked to do?
Michael Caine is very popular. And Mick Jagger, though that really hurts the throat.

But you’re now fulfilling your original ambition to act
Yes, and it’s fantastic because all the time I was doing impressions I was crying out to be taken seriously! And it’s great to be working at the Royal Court, which is on a roll at the moment. I did The Village Bike Upstairs in the summer, which was a very different piece. Theatre really is the purest form of acting. It is after all the original form - acting for people to entertain them and to take them somewhere.

So what’s next?
I’m hopefully going to be playing Jack Slipper, aka ‘Slipper of the Yard, in the ITV drama Mrs Biggs that’s coming up. Daniel Mays is playing Ronnie and Sheridan Smith is playing his wife Charmian, around who it’s centred. It’s a cracking story. And after that, who knows - I’d love to do some more theatre.

In Basildon continues in the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 24 March 2012.


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