We were delighted to speak to Clive Merrison, who is reprising the role of Bomber in the critically-acclaimed Land of our Fathers (our top theatre show of 2013), which transfers to Trafalgar Studios on 3rd September.
Over a long and busy career, Merrison has appeared in projects as diverse as Escape to Victory and Doctor Who. He was the po-faced Headmaster in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys and has played Sherlock Holmes on radio in every Conan Doyle story.
During our lively discussion, we learnt which Welsh actor Clive based Bomber on, what he makes of Twitter, and what Peep Show fans shout at him in the street…
Clive, how are you today?
I’m very well. I’ve just filmed a little trailer for Land of Our Fathers, all the stuff one has to do these days. It’s a funny old world. I think in future you’ll only be able to be cast if you’re on Twitter.
You are on Twitter.
I know, I was rather forced into it. I was doing Peep Show and they said, “You’ve got to be on Twitter”. These days you’re supposed to help with the marketing on Twitter. I’ve heard that in casting, they’re more keen to cast people with a big Twitter following these days. Ha! What a world we live in (laughs)!
You’re very active on it, with your acting and newt wrangling.
I am. I enjoy it. I spend a lot of my time sitting in a wood in Suffolk and I can get a bit cut off and lonely, but with Twitter I’m in touch with the world, which is rather marvellous.
Tell us a bit about Land of Our Fathers.
It’s set in a mine, and it turns out to be an acute and immersive theatrical experience for an audience.
It’s set in Wales. Did you relate to the piece, being Welsh yourself?
Well, yes… I think people have forgotten I was Welsh, because I don’t play Welsh very often. I was told very early on in my career by the great Welsh character actor Kenneth Griffith [Welsh accent], “Don’t be a Welsh actor, boy. It limits you.”(laughs) That’s what happened to Ken. But it’s good to go back. I did have a grandfather, or great-grandfather, who worked in a mine in South Wales. When I was a boy, I was very good at art – I got into art college as well – maybe I should have done that? Maybe I’ve made a huge mistake. Anyway… I did a painting of a mine which is the only one I’ve still got from my artistic period (laughs)!
Have you been down a mine yourself?
Well, last time we did the play, at Theatre503, we went as a group to a mine in Glenavon – but I’m claustrophobic! So I went along but I couldn’t go in the mine itself because I might have gone a bit peculiar…
It’s a very claustrophobic play…
It is, but I wouldn’t want to put people off (laughs)! But the audience, they’re down there with us, that’s for sure.
Definitely. That sense worked brilliantly in Theatre503.
I think it’s going to work well at Trafalgar Studios too. In some ways, it’s even closer. We have side seating as well, so we’re wrapped around with people in a small space. It’s not going to lose that claustrophobic, immersive quality. I know immersive is a buzz word these days in theatre – but we are it!
That’s certainly true, but it’s also a very funny play, isn’t it?
It is. He’s an extraordinary talent this young man [playwright Chris Urch]. It’s his first full-length play. He a twenty-seven year old Cornish boy. How the hell did he write that? I know how these hairy-arsed old Welshmen speak, and he doesn’t put a comma wrong.
I assumed he was Welsh!
(Laughs) I have to say, he’s a brilliant fellow.
How did you get involved with Land of Our Fathers in the first place?
Paul Robinson, the director, asked me to do a workshop. I read the play and I thought, “This is bloody brilliant.” I’ve been more used to, in the last twenty years or so, working in great big spaces, shouting in the evening as Patrick Troughton called it. But I started off in fringe theatre, at the Soho Poly, at the Bush, doing new writing. So it’s great to go back to that. It’s been a good move. I was right! The play worked, and my theatrical taste buds are still accurate!
It had great reviews at Theatre503.
Do you know, Theatre503 don’t have an Arts Council grant. How can that be the case? It astounds me.
Really? That’s shocking.
I think it’s vile. I’ve watched what they do with all these young writers, these rapid response things. I’ve seen the garden at the back full of thirty young people learning to write – all this stuff that they do and they can’t get an Arts Council grant. I can’t understand it. I know we’re ruled by politicians, both Conservative and Labour, who have no cultural life…
That’s why many of them are in politics…
…but it’s a mystery to me. Anyway, I’m glad to get that on record.
Tell us about the character you play: Bomber.
He’s curmudgeonly – he’s too old. I’m certainly too old – I’m older than Bomber is (laughs). I’m coming up sixty-nine, and Bomber’s sixty, I think. Luckily, I look very young for my age (laughs)! But Bomber’s the paterfamilias of the play. He’s the guy that they all look up to. He’s witty and funny, but he has this big backstory. He’s in a society that I was brought up in, in these small Welsh towns, where secrets and lies are always underneath the surface, and he’s wanting to get them out.
Bomber has a wonderful acid tongue. Audiences will learn a few great put-downs.
Yes, he’s a pleasure to play. I question I was asked was, “If anybody else were to play Bomber, who would it be?” I have to say (I often do this) I base Bomber on the great Welsh Oscar-winning character actor Hugh Griffith, of Ben-Hur, do you recall him?
I do indeed.
Wonderful, drunken, carousing old Welsh bugger, he was. I did a thirty-minute theatre with him when I was a boy. I was twenty-eight. It was just him and me. We rehearsed in his bedroom. It was a half-hour play, and we did two recordings of it in Cardiff. The first lasted ten minutes, and the second run lasted an hour, because we made it up as we went along. He was a marvellous character.
It must have been great to work with him early in your career.
Yeah! You’ve got to pick the guys, and know who to steal from! This is a steal from the late Hugh (laughs). I believe there’s a recording of it – Uncle Rollo it was called – but I’ve never found it. Maybe your readers can send me one!
Is it coming back to you easily, embodying Bomber/Hugh Griffith again almost a year since the previous run?
Yeah! You’ve got to make it better. How can I be better? That’s the task. I have to spend a lot more time these days with the learning process. It doesn’t get easier as you get older. It’s always the first question people ask: “How do you learn all those lines?” When I was young, it wasn’t a problem, you just did: now it’s getting a little trickier, so I have to be solid. In TV or film, you can kind of half know it, so you can get some air around the lines: but these days I have to know them back to front.
Does it help it’s so well-written?
It is very well-written, but there are a lot of half-lines and many overlaps which makes it fiendishly difficult. A lot of the better writing is. Chris Urch’s writing reminds me of Tennessee Williams. It’s that kind of wonderful, rhetorical, emotional stuff that he can do. Quite remarkable in a young man.
We’re looking forward to seeing what he does next.
Ah! I know what he’s doing next, but I can’t possibly comment… But he’s not a flash in the pan, I can tell you that.
We’ll be keeping a keen eye on his career.
Absolutely, so will I.
The cast has an interesting dynamic, because there’s a mix of older and younger: but all male.
Yep, there’s not a woman in sight. But for both productions we’ve had a woman as stage manager, which is good. It’s nice to have a woman in the rehearsal room. It can be a bit testing for them at times because of the language. But it’s nice to have a female looking on. I always like that.
You’re no stranger to long runs in shows, having done the History Boys more recently.
Yes, I’ve done my bit. I can’t say I’ve done very long runs. I did one long run in the West End, and I’d never want to do that again. That was way back [1973/74]. It was Saturday, Sunday, Monday: Franco Zeffirelli’s production. Not a big fan of long runs, but a month? I can do a month!
Do you think, having been in theatre for a long time, that there’s ever been a golden age?
I suppose every actor has their own golden age. My particular golden age was around the Olivier company in ’72. I think anyone who was in that company would say the same. But I’ve had my share of gold nuggets and base metals. People talk about the golden age of television. I remember the North Acton Hilton with all these great big cameras lumbering around. But now, you see The Honourable Woman, and you think, this is terrific British television: better than anything we did. The first big thing I did on TV was The Glittering Prizes, a Freddie Raphael thing. All the actors in that did well, but if you look back at it now, it’s pretty clunky (laughs).
More recently you were in an episode of Peep Show – a Christmas dinner from hell…
“Cauliflowers are not traditional.”
I don’t think they are.
Neither do I, but David Mitchell’s father thought so. I get that shouted at me in the street quite a lot by Peep Show addicts. There are a few!
Is it that and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys that people know you for more recently?
Yes, all kinds of stuff. The thing that haunts me is Escape to Victory (laughs). The last run at the 503, a guy turned up, and he had the signature of every single person who was in Escape to Victory: Pele, Bobby Moore before he died… I was the last one in the cast on this t-shirt he had signed. He got it and put it straight on eBay! It had taken him years.
What a waste! Hopefully it’ll go to a good home. You’re in Land of Our Fathers until 4th October. Do you have anything else coming up after that?
I had a month on Lewis before Land of Our Fathers, but afterwards, it’s time for me to go back to semi-retirement I think. I’ll get back to the wood and the newts, and have a little lie down for a while. I have a few things bubbling under, but as you get older, chances are you’re asked to just turn up to do a little cameo here and there. You become what they call a ‘day player’. There’s not much fun or money in that, but it has to be done.
Did it take any persuading for you to reprise your part in Land of Our Fathers?
No, none at all. I cleared my decks, and said, “I’ll be there.” It’s a great experience, and the rest of the cast are so gorgeous, despite all our age differences and all the rest of it and a few arguments here and there: but it’s been great to be with these boys.
We’re very much looking forward to seeing it again, and wish you all the best for the production.
You can show Clive Merrison some love on Twitter, @clivemerrison, as well as follow @LandOfOurFather for the latest show updates. Land of Our Fathers runs at the Trafalgar Studios from September 3rd to October 4th. Tickets are available now through ATG.