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Past/Present/Future for … Brian Conley

Having found fame in TV variety, actor Brian Conley’s stage career rocketed when he created the title role in the 1995 West End musical Jolson. He’s back on stage in Chichester this summer playing con man Harold Hill in Meredith Willson’s Broadway classic The Music Man. At Christmas, he’ll headline Cinderella in Nottingham ahead of a possible West End transfer of The Music Man in the new year.

PAST: I always remember the first phone call when they asked me to do Jolson, and I thought no way I was going to black up in the 21st century. I was really on a roll, my TV career had sort of taken off and I thought, I’m not going to rock the boat with something like this. Then they said have a chat with the director Rob Bettinson, which I did, and I looked at the script and realised there was a lot more to it. I found out Jolson was actually a hero to the black people of America. At his funeral, black actors lined the way, they really appreciated what he’d done for them. The only people who took offence at the time were white people. They didn’t like this cheeky character that Al had created and the way he would put down the white ranch owners in his sketches. Jolson wasn’t the black and white minstrel show, it was a serious look at the man and what he had achieved - he did the first talking movie, he was the first pop star and a really rich and powerful man. In 1917 he had $9 million, which was a huge amount then, he was the Bill Gates of his era.

For me, Jolson was the best thing I’ve ever done but also the hardest. I was on stage all the time. There were 26 songs and there was only one scene I wasn’t in - and that was because I had a heart attack in the scene before. Even when I was putting the black face on, the audience would see that. There was no respite, but the show was marvellous for changing attitudes towards me. It made people look at me in a different light. Before then, I was very much a comedian and variety performer. Suddenly, people recognised there was more to me than that. Looking back, I’m taken aback by the reviews we had. It was phenomenal – not one bad one. We came in as the underdog that year, and we went on to win the Olivier for Best Musical.

PRESENT: “The seed for The Music Man was planted with me by Cameron Mackintosh years ago. Then I saw Susan Stroman’s production on Broadway. Susan wanted me to bring that show to London. That’s when I really fell in love with it. I’d seen the film and thought it was alright, but it’s when I saw it on Broadway that I realised what a great musical it is, it’s much better on stage. Then a couple of years ago Chichester asked me if I wanted to do it and I said I would love to but I couldn’t because of television commitments. I had two series on at the time - Let Me Entertain You and Dirty Rotten Cheater - so I said, if you wait a year, I’ll do it. So I signed then, they waited the year and here we are.

I think the film didn’t work because they just tried to put a stage production on screen and that never really works. Also, though I love Robert Preston, I don’t think you ever feel that he and Shirley Jones are really in love.

Harold Hill is a con man at the end of the day, and you want to make sure he pays the consequence in the end. He’s managed to dupe the whole town because he’s so charming and people fall in love with him. He rallies up the audiences as well as the town. That’s something I do all the time with my live act, I love it.

The director Rachel Kavanaugh has done a fantastic job. She’s tweaked it a little bit for English audiences and shorted it too. The original is long. But the audience only want to sit there for an hour and twenty, then another hour with the best finale you’ve ever seen. That’s what we want to give them. We don’t want to make the same mistakes as Gone with the Wind. We’ve also got one of the best choreographers in the world in Stephen Mear. I’m not a trained dancer but he makes me look and feel good. He is phenomenal. And he’s moved heaven and earth, and turned down loads of other jobs, because he’s always wanted to do The Music Man too.

FUTURE: “My future has changed much more as I’ve got older, had children and lost my father. Ten years ago when he went other things became much more important. I was always striving for something that wasn’t there at the end of the day. Fame will never change you, it changes people around you when it shouldn’t, but it’s never changed me. I’ve done this for 35 years now, my mortgage is £42. I don’t need the money. I just want to do things I want to do and enjoy myself. I’ve turned down EastEnders twice when they’ve asked me to be on there for three-year contracts. The Music Man is absolutely definitely something I want to do as I can absolutely assure you I am not here for the money. My driver earns more than me!

The Music Man is in Chichester until the end of August. If everyone likes it and Meredith Willson’s estate are happy with the changes, we’ll possibly go into London’s glittering West End next year, sometime in February or March. I think it would work great in the West End. It’s a wonderful, feelgood night of entertainment. I mean, you can’t fail with a bleeding marching band – they would happily send armies off to be killed, remember!

We can’t transfer before next year because, after Chichester, I’m in Nottingham at the Theatre Royal playing Buttons in Cinderella. I honestly enjoy panto. It ticks all the boxes for me: you’ve got the comedy, the pathos, the ad-libbing and four little kids on stage with you. I have little kids and they’re part of the show when they come – it saves on babysitters.

I don’t have any television plans at the moment. I recently turned down I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here! and some other reality thing. I love being off the radar, going down to Sainsbury’s and not being recognised. There’s no continuity on TV nowadays because the heads of entertainment come and go all the time. So simply having a good show doesn’t mean you’ll get recommissioned for another series. I don’t worry about it anymore.

- Brian Conley was talking to Terri Paddock

The Music Man opens on 3 July (previews from 23 June) at Chichester Festival Theatre, where it continues until 30 August 2008. Rachel Kavanaugh’s revival of Meredith Willson’s 1961 Broadway musical also stars Scarlett Strallen as Marian Paroo, the librarian who falls in love with Conley’s fraudster, Harold Hill. Cinderella is at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham from 5 December 2008 to 18 January 2009.