HomeTVInterview: sitcom star Robert Gillespie guests at the Write On Comedy Carnival

Interview: sitcom star Robert Gillespie guests at the Write On Comedy Carnival

Recently, we caught up with Robert Gillespie, an actor with a list of credits as long as your arm, whose career dates back to a stint at the Old Vic in the early 1950s.

Finding a niche in situation comedy, Robert appeared in almost all of the best-loved British sitcoms of the golden age. An impressive résumé includes guest roles in ‘Dad’s Army’, ‘Rising Damp’, ‘Butterflies’, ‘George and Mildred’, ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’, ‘Porridge’, ‘The Good Life’, ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?’, ‘Robin’s Nest’ and ‘The Liver Birds’. But it is for the sitcom that he fronted in the early 1980s, ‘Keep It In The Family’ for which Robert is best-known. Five seasons of the madcap adventures of Dudley Rush and his cartoon Barney the Bionic Bulldog are fondly-remembered to this day.

In more recent years, Robert has documented his extraordinary and varied career in two volumes of autobiography called, ‘Are You Going to do That Little Jump?’ He remains in demand on the comedy and cult television event circuit, and will soon appear at the Write on Comedy Carnival at the Pump House in Watford. Join us as we find out more about the event; learn about his niches for petty crooks, desk sergeants and men who are sick of their jobs; and recall David Frost’s one failure – ‘Come Back Mrs Noah’, among much else besides!

Robert. You’re appearing at the Write On Comedy Carnival on April 22nd. What’s happening there and how can our readers find out about it?

Well, the keystone to all this is a man called Robert Ross, who has become enormously high-profile in comedy. He is a totally immersed devotee. He has written books about it and is hugely in demand interviewing people. There was a Chiswick book festival where he spoke about the Carry On films. Then he was at the Tabard Theatre talking to Jeffrey Holland from ‘Hi-Di-Hi’. He’s very friendly, warm and outgoing. We’re in quite close contact. For instance, there was a recent event at the Leicester Square Theatre, which he fronted, which celebrated Richard Briers at the tenth anniversary of his death. Because I was in one episode of ‘The Good Life’, he asked if I would come on stage and say a couple of things. Watford will be a version of that. Robert Ross will be the host and interview everybody, showing clips from episodes they’ve been in – he’s extremely professional. People call him the historian of comedy. Guests will be chosen in advance to come up on stage. Brian Murphy [‘George and Mildred’] is coming. There is a real following for this.

Well, you’ve certainly piqued our interest, because if he’s written books about comedy, that’s right up our street. Is this sort of event new to you?

I’ve attended a few in the last three or four years. It started with a setup called Misty Moon. The first event was a kind of book signing. And one thing that startled me was that people sold photographs of themselves. I mean, I normally just sign anything. To me, it’s pretty cheeky to sell them for £10 and £20 quid! But I was also signing books because I published my autobiography, ‘Are You Going to do That Little Jump?’ In two volumes. And signing books is fine. I mean, a lot of work has gone into them! So that was a lesson and introduction to this kind of event. So gradually people have got to know that I might be available. And of course, the advantage when they go down the list of potential bookings to see who they could get is that I’m alive! Out of ‘The Good Life’ cast, they’re not all still around. Obviously Richard isn’t, and Paul died some time ago. I’m hoping the Write On Comedy event is going to focus on books, because that’s the idea. I’ve written my books. Brian Murphy doesn’t write himself but his wife Linda Regan writes books. And so there’s a writing and a book association with all of the guests that will be at the Watford event. So we’ll be available with our books all day, and when it’s our turn, we’ll be invited onto the stage to chat to Robert. That’s the format. The festival runs over three or four days, but I will be there on Saturday 22nd April.

And so people can buy copies of your book on the day, the two volumes of ‘Are You Going to Do That Little Jump?’ What would you say is the selling point of the book?

The reception for them has been very good. They are extremely well-produced. There was an event in Hammersmith some time ago and a couple of publishers came to it. They looked at the book and said, “We couldn’t possibly afford to produce a book of this quality.” The number of illustrations is phenomenal. They are comparative recent history and they also cover a period in “the business” from an individual’s point of view which is unique and probably not covered in that way. Because most people I’ve noticed that have published these sort of autobiographical works tend to be as jokey or as racy as possible. The thing that of course is lacking and would have sold out is if I’d have introduced some scandal!

The books are a very good insight into the business. They give you a good background as to what acting and the theatre is all about.

I also didn’t want to leave out the down sides, because quite a lot of people enhance parts of their past and say it was all fine. Fellow students at drama school [RADA] agreed that it was not quality teaching and not worth the money. And then, decades later, one of these friends of mine, seeing the current principal of RADA, told him they were the best and happiest days of their life! We were an interesting group, and we got on very well together and had a good time. But we all bitched about the teaching! With one or two exceptions: the voice coach and Mary Duff were good.

You found a professional niche as a natural comedy actor, and seventy years later you’re still invited to events to talk about your work. But do you wish that you’d had a chance to play parts in other genres?

Well… you decide to be an actor. You look around and see about forty million other people want to be an actor. You have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through. At RADA, certain people were being groomed at that time for a definite track through the business. If you were around between five feet ten and a half and six feet tall, male and good looking, you knew that you’d be up for absolutely every leading part. And then all you had to do was to be talented. But that didn’t always matter, either. Because in quite a lot of West End shows at the time, you were a walking clothes horse with a three-year run. The categories then were far more rigidly compartmentalised. I was short and not conventionally good looking. So the question was what the hell to do with me? And the drama school had the same problem. They took you because they noticed a glimmer of talent for performing. But they had no idea. I began to be wily and not go for leads, but try to get the really juicy character parts to play, young or old. I had no idea how to launch myself, but I noticed auditions at the Old Vic, and I got two years work out of that. But then you come out of that and people won’t take you if you’ve been in the classics. Because you you’re supposed to be speaking in the grand manner all the time. So having done two years solid with one of the big famous companies in England I had to not talk about it and start again. For nine years I had no agent. And the one thing that started to be reasonably consistent was small time crooks. I looked like one and I could more or less put on any kind of accent that suited any kind of script. So I was interchangeable but the category that seemed to be emerging was small time crooks. There was a BBC programme which I would love to see again called Dead Easy [1957], in which I played a small time crook and it had some wonderful people in it like Helen Cherry.

You are a natural comedy actor, and your career would take you in that direction.

In the course of this interview I have at times made you laugh, but I haven’t told any jokes. I don’t know how you classify that. If someone puts me on the stage and says, “Be funny,” I wouldn’t know what to do. I’m not a stand-up. I can’t do gags. But I could find a laugh in lines people had written. A director said, “The thing about Robert is that he never misses a laugh.” I say that solemnly, not looking for a laugh. I wouldn’t dream of it.

Your very first line in Rising Damp, “I’m from the gas board,” gets an enormous laugh.

It’s been so well set-up. It’s a brilliant piece of writing. The audience has seen him steal money from the gas meter.

You almost come in backwards, too. Apologetically. Your physicality is funny too.

Already hating my job, yes!

You eventually had some very influential comedy writers who were casting you. I’m thinking of the likes of writing duo David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd.

After nine years I got myself an agent. I claimed to be able to speak and have a German or French accent. That’s all it was, it wasn’t any kind of other ability. And David Croft happened to be casting a particular episode of ‘Hugh and I Spy’ which they set in Morocco. So Hugh Lloyd and Terry Scott were sent abroad. In Morocco then, the people in charge of everything would be French or speak French as it was a colonial situation. And so there was this desk sergeant. That was my first time ever, but it kicked off all the other similar roles. Nobody would ever come to me to play a policeman on stage in those days, as you had to be six feet tall! But nobody worried about height on television. The copper official behind the desk role then got comfortable, where I’d be playing phlegmatic, world-weary coppers dealing with a couple of idiots. So that’s how it started. David Croft noticed, because he was in the business of making people laugh, that I got laughs. I was a nobody-in-particular person, therefore, I could be anything. But the other side of that coin is that at RADA I was advised that the thing to do commercially was to become typecast. Like Donald Pleasence, who invented that persona, he wasn’t like that at all, but he made a fortune doing it. But because I wasn’t a particular type of character, David Croft realised he could put me in anything. Rather than it being a ‘Robert’ type part, it would be more, “Well maybe Robert could do it?” That’s why I ended up being Charles Boyer playing Napoleon in ‘Dad’s Army’. Boyer was a heartthrob superstar! David wanted a clip from the original film but of course it would have cost the BBC too much money to get the rights. So quite often I was cast to do odd things. What David did for me was to kick me off in sitcom.

It’s funny to think you were playing small time crooks and then police officers. They can be crooked, but they’re usually on different sides.

To my relief, the crooks went away, once I was a comic world-weary policeman! Though in ‘The Professionals’, that was a good small time crook part [the episode ‘Long Shot’]. It’s funny how things turn out.

You appeared in literally dozens of sitcoms over a very few years in the 1960s and 70s.

That’s right. I did a couple of episodes of ‘Rosie’ [1977] playing a part that would be politically incorrect now because he was virtually blind. He had huge glasses and was running into things. So it was physical clowning. I loved doing that, reaching for the wrong thing, knocking things over – it was just amazing fun to do. But I mean, I’ve never done stage clowning. I admire the great stage clowns, Laurel and Hardy say.

A Lloyd and Croft sitcom that you appeared in the pilot episode for as the Mission Controller – who was an authority figure – was called ‘Come Back Mrs Noah’ in 1977. What are your thoughts about that one?

Well, first of all, I remember thinking, “Is this up to David’s standard as a script?” It struck me that it was forced. Somebody, as ever, had had the great idea. “Tell you what, let’s shoot Mollie Sugden into space.” It’s a funny idea! But then you go into, “What is the feel of it, moment by moment, what is the texture of it?” And when I got the script, I remember thinking, “I don’t know why he’s cast me for this.” Probably because he wants something done. And he thinks Robert is the all-purpose actor. So get him to do this. But my stuff isn’t funny, is it? I mean, there isn’t a joke in it. And I wasn’t normally in the habit of playing it straight. It’s a long time ago, but I do remember wondering if it would go anywhere. It was full of separate ideas that in themselves might have led in a direction, but it didn’t hang together. To my surprise, I gathered it was going to be a series. I was rehearsing what was going to be episode two, and it was nice to be in the main cast of a comedy series because I was never in one except for my own! I thought I had episode two because I’ve kept virtually every script of everything I was in. But with this one, I left mid-rehearsal. I don’t know if I was still the Mission Controller, But the I remember had an enormously long speech, which was in the mode of very English meaty reporters, in the style of Leslie Mitchell. It was a report on an event. There was no bit of me that could relate to it as a comedy actor or indeed as any sort of actor. I couldn’t see the point of it at all. That made it very difficult to learn. I kept losing the words. I went to David and said, “I think this would be really good if I did it like John Lennon,” more throwaway. It would become funny and doable. But he said no. So I was just wrong for the part. It was difficult, as there had been half a week’s rehearsal and they had to get somebody else in. I’ve never seen it, have you?

I don’t think the series of ‘Come Back Mrs Noah’ has ever been commercially available.

There was just one series, but it died. I think they suppressed it because it was a failure. David’s only failure. It was a shame, because in his eyes I wasn’t then available for any things he did subsequently, ‘Allo, Allo’ or whatever. I dodged a bullet but did myself out of work with David. Nothing stopped for me. I remained busy, but David didn’t hire me again.

How did you find doing smaller roles to jumping to being the lead in ‘Keep it in the Family’?

What became astonishing to me was how regularly I became employed by people. Do you remember the actor Michael Balfour? I got to know him and went to his house. Lovely man. Sitting there, during a conversation of half an hour, he’d be interrupted maybe five times by the telephone. “Another job,” he’d say each time. It became a bit like that with me, and if I was free I’d take the job. I got habituated into being on the television in so many things that ‘Keep it in the Family’ happened out of ‘Robin’s Nest’, in which I more than once played, you guessed it, a copper. I got to know Brian Cooke and Johnnie Mortimer who were writing together, and I had been on their show ‘George and Mildred’ too. Brian sidled up to me one day, or more likely hovered over me, as he’s much taller than I am, and said, “How would you like to have a situation comedy written for you?” I told him I wouldn’t mind!

Did you have any concerns taking on the part of Dudley Rush?

I’d done so much that in some ways it was just another piece of work, but there was heightened responsibility and the possibility of crashing in flames. We did the pilot, as I write about in ‘Are You Going to do That Little Jump?’. I did worry about how to play Dudley Rush. Who was this person? That’s all I panicked about. Brian said, “It’s you! I’ve written the part of a manic depressive for you.” I thought I wouldn’t query it, as I had the part. Let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth! The difficulty was I’d never played myself so I didn’t know who I was on stage. But fortunately it worked very well. Brian was so rich he was advised by his agent to travel around the world for a year. So he went to Hollywood and made even more money. Like a lot of these big-time writers, he stopped writing ‘Keep it in the Family’ after the second series, apart from an overview, but the quality of the writing was variable after that. Mark Stuart, our director, was very good, but nearing the end of his career. He got the opportunity to direct ‘The Morecambe and Wise Show’ after the established director died, so he left. Another director came in to our show who had no ear for comedy. Sadly for Mark, Eric Morecambe died shortly after he had left us. That was the end of ‘Keep it in the Family’. I think that’s what you call an act of God!

Pauline Yates didn’t do the last series.

She felt that the writers weren’t finding much for her to do. She was just coming in and offering cups of tea, and that sort of thing. She was right. They found Glyn Houston, me and the girls things to do, but Pauline was filling in. She was Leonard Rossiter’s wife in ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’. She didn’t have much rewarding to do in that show either. So perhaps she thought she’d just ended up playing somebody’s wife again.

The roles she played weren’t dissimilar.

Exactly. I watched my episode of ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ and realised that I played more or less the same scene with Leonard Rossiter in that as I had in ‘Rising Damp’. Two fellas sick of their jobs. Maybe I had another line in people who were sick of their jobs, come to think of it. The only thing that’s different is the pay-off. We’re putting clips on the Little Jump by Robert Gillespie YouTube channel, which your readers should subscribe to. Some of the clips are getting a lot of views. There’s an edit to the end of an episode of ‘Keep it in the Family’ that is like French farce, so we’ve called the clip, “Ooh, la la!” Watch out for more videos coming soon.

It’s great that you are sharing the extraordinary archive of work you’ve done. We’re pleased too that a live audience will get to enjoy stories about your career in comedy very soon at the Write On Comedy Carnival, for which we wish you all the best. Robert Gillespie, thank you very much.

Thank you!

Find out more about Robert Gillespie’s archive on the Little Jump website. Book to see him at the Write On Comedy Carnival.

Greg Jameson
Greg Jameson
Book editor, with an interest in cult TV.

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