Archive for the ‘Actor’ Category

Arabella Weir passed me on to Tracy-Ann Oberman, who I met at the Hampstead Theatre.  ca987b_3dd22e6b93e55575fdff7d5989df3a4d.jpg_1024

Tracy Ann Oberman is trying to blag me a ticket for the play that she’s in.  The problem is the performance is too popular.

‘No returns?’ she asks the lady at the ticket counter? ‘What about if he sits in the lighting box?’

Both enquiries are met with a sympathetic but firm denial.  Nine years since she dropped a doorstop onto Dirty Den’s head, putting an end to the old philanderer’s antics permanently, Oberman is still hugely popular with the masses.  So much so that she still gets fan mail about Chrissie Watts, the character she played in Eastenders.

That role propelled her into the public consciousness, but she was a respected jobbing actress long before Chrissie came along.  After learning her trade at the Central School of Speech and Drama, she spent four years at the RSC before going on to appear opposite Kenneth Branagh at the National Theatre and generally working her butt off.  There’d been a ton of radio (around 600 plays), quite a bit of comedy with everyone from Lenny Henry to Simon Pegg and, she tells me, numerous voiceovers. You’ll be seeing quite a bit more of her on the telly in the coming months, firstly as Auntie Val in ‘Friday Night Dinner’ and latterly in Sky’s spring drama ‘Give Out Girls’.  Where does she get her strong work ethic from?

‘I come from a family where a lot of people died very young so I think I’ve always had this feeling of needing to do something before you go.  Maybe when you’re aware of mortality when you’re very young, you realise that you don’t know how long you’ve got. When people are dropping dead, the sense of immortality that children have goes very quickly.’

Oberman’s grandmother fled from the Russian pogroms in 1907.  Two million Jews fled Russia between 1880 and 1914 as anti Jewish rioting and killing was enflamed by the anti-semitic policies of successive Russian leaders.  After arriving in England aged 15 without her family, Oberman’s grandmother slept on the floor of a factory for two years.

‘We were bought up with this woman who could’t even speak English but would go on in Yiddish Russian ‘We’ve got to keep the bags packed in case the Cossacks come.’  My Dad’s family also lost a lot of people in Auschwitz and Dachau.’  It is this, she tells me, that propels her to make the most of her time.

Her father was initially terrified of the thought of her being an actress, telling her he thought she would end up a lonely old woman who lived with a cat, struggling to pay the rent on a bedsit.  ‘My family weren’t from the entertainment industry and they didn’t understand it at all.  They thought that real people didn’t get to do that, that you had to be the son or daughter of someone.’

Oberman has just finished a play at the Hampstead Theatre called ‘Godchild’ which held up a looking glass to an alternative future for her personally.  Her character Lou doesn’t end up with a cat in a bedsit but is someone who, as Oberman puts it ‘is a 40 year old in an arrested state of development.  She isn’t married, has never settled, can’t commit to anything and doesn’t really know who she is.  She’s had same job for 25 years, is hanging out with 19 year olds and is in complete denial that her life is just an empty meaningless void of sex and drugs.’  As a happily married woman with a daughter and a fulfilling career, does Oberman really think her life could have turned out that way?

‘I just know a lot of women like the character Lou that I played.  And a lot of men!  At a certain point in my life, maybe in my mid 30s, I might have ended up like that.  It’s the flip side of where I am in my life which is happy, secure, family, sense of belonging.  This character has none of that and I can easily see how that could have happened to me because it’s happened to a lot of my friends.   You know what I mean?  You get to 40 and you think, where did the years go, I still feel like I’m 20?’

Oberman’s own life couldn’t be more different.  Happily married to music producer Rob Cowan since 2004 and a Mum to seven year old Anoushka, her career is not only successful career but varied.  Many actors struggle to succeed in other genres after leaving a high profile soap; consider the number of popular characters that have returned to Eastenders and the security of a regular pay cheque.

Oberman went a different way.  She’s appeared regularly in theatre and kept her hand in with the television work, appearing in many popular shows including Doctor Who and Waterloo Road.  More interestingly, she’s increasingly turned to writing, adapting (with Diane Samuels) Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ for radio and imagining the personal conversations of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford for the Radio 4 play ‘Bette and Joan and Baby Jane’.   The success of this resulted in ‘Rock and Doris and Elizabeth’, this time using the characters of Hudson, Day and Taylor respectively.  There’ll be another instalment as Radio 4 have just commissioned the final part of the trilogy.

Rumours abound that Chrissie Watts will be resurrected though.  18 million people watched Chrissie murder Den, propelling Oberman into a world of paparazzi and successive TV magazine covers. What was it like being that famous?    Oberman-as-Chrissie-Watts-007

‘It was odd, it was like I’d never worked before.  I was well known in the industry but the public thought of me as the girl who vaguely looks like Alex Kingston.  Literally two minutes after my first episode had aired a car screeched to a halt as I was leaving the house.  A girl got out and took a picture on her phone and said ‘Allo Chrissie’ and I remember thinking that life would never be the same again.  I got stopped all the time but it was very nice.  People understood the difference between Chrissie and Tracy and the public wanted to talk about the character.  She was confusing for them – was she a victim or was she a villain?’

She tells me that it’s only now that she can take the tube without being recognised.  Anonymity has helped open some doors too, allowing her to go up for parts in comedies that her famous face formerly excluded her from.  Recently this has included a delightful turn as the love interest of Matt Berry in Channel Four’s hugely successful ‘Toast of London’. While she won’t be drawn on whether Chrissie’s return is on the cards, would she want to step back into the glare of the spotlight if the call came?

‘She was a character I was proud of because soap is a very interesting medium, it’s a heightened reality. At the same time I’ve been quite maverick in my career, I’ve never focused on one area.  Never having been pigeonholed has meant that I’ve never been out of work.  That means I will never rise to the top of anyones list: I don’t think that I’m the first  actor to go to for drama for example.  I span the theatre camp, I span the comedy camp and I think that’s a strength.  I’ve been lucky because every day there’s been someone different.’

arabella-weir_1940329bThough looking completely unfazed by the youths knocking back cans of lager on the corner outside her house, even nodding an ‘Alright?’ to them as she passed, Arabella Weir looked a little uncertain about the tall, sweaty bloke on her pathway on the hottest day of the year so far.  Then a lightbulb went off.  ‘Oh fuck!  I forgot, I forgot…come in.’ she said to me, opening her front door.  Weir swears freely and often in a rather glorious way.   Apologies and explanations followed.  The kids had to be picked up, could I amuse myself for an hour?  It was the end of a long week and I was gagging for a pint.  She dropped me off at a pub where I listened to labourers arranging their weekend drugs and then paid an old Irish alky 50p to stop telling me jokes.  Example: ‘Why is sex so good when you’re camping?’  Because it’s fucking in tents’.

Arabella Weir started her comedy career securing the gladioli for Dame Edna Everage before working with Alexei Sayle on his ‘Stuff’ show in 1988 (‘I wrote a load of sketches about two lesbians who ran a bike shop called ‘The Menstrual Cycle’’).  ‘The Fast Show’ is what made her though.  Her and her bum.   ‘Does My Bum Look Big in This?’ was not only one of the most famous catchphrases to come out of the show, but also the title of a chick lit book that she wrote that sold shedloads back when enough book sales could make you some serious dosh.  It’s the reason that she lives in a lovely big house in a nice part of town, with sofas as colourful as her character (hot pink, in case you’re wondering).  Houses were cheaper then too, she reminds me.

the_fast_showThough she doesn’t remember exactly when she met Charlie Higson, he was at University with people Weir knew and she’d been at school with his wife, so she thinks that she’d always sort of known who he was.  She’d got to know Charlie better when Harry Enfield asked her to work on one of his shows.  Charlie and Paul Whitehouse were writing for Harry at the time.  One night they were all in the BBC bar together, which Weir remembers as distinctly unglamorous, despite being full of the celebrities of the day.  ‘Jimmy Savile was over there, Alan Titchmarsh, Percy Thrower.  Those were still the days when Jim Davidson was top of the tree and everybody was murmuring ‘bit of a wanker…’ behind his back.  Paul and Charlie were a bit uncomfortable around women, a bit autistic.  They walked over and said ‘We’re doing a sketch show now, without Harry.  You’re funny, do you want to do a bit?’ I was like ‘Yeah, alright’.

Weir reckons she was born a performer after entering the world as the youngest child with two older brothers, meaning that she was always having to compete for attention.  Her mother later told her that her brothers had never played with her.  By the time she was at school ‘I was so locked into being the centre of attention I couldn’t ever give ground.  I remember going into battle with a teacher when I was 12 years old and actually thinking ‘I don’t even hate you, get me off this.  I wouldn’t mind learning about geography’.  But at the same time there was this sea of laughter and all the girls were thinking of me as a ringleader.  I thought ‘I’m bullying her, I wish I wasn’t but everyone likes me.’  It bought me two weeks worth of respect.’  When asked what kind of job she wanted to do, she figured being an actor was the perfect fit for a show off.

Eight years of auditions followed while she was in her twenties.  She tells me the worst part was never getting feedback.  Did she ever think about giving up and getting a regular job?  ‘You’re always battling against the little voice saying ‘Come on, look at the graph, you’re not going to crack it’.  I was a PA to a local Labour councillor and it was a job I really enjoyed but the only reason I didn’t give up is because I knew I’d never love something as much as this.  You have to remember you are at a roulette table and when Robson Greene wins something you’re thinking, ‘What the fuck?  Where’s the meritocracy? Caroline Quentin?  Hello?  I didn’t hang around for 30 years to see her doing well!‘   The Fast Show gig turned up when she was 30 years old and the only secret to success, she says, is determination.

The book that she wrote with her catchphrase as the title sees our heroine, Jackie, worrying through life about any number of subjects but you can probably guess the big one: her size.  At one point in the book she decides she can write a self help book and describes the most flattering positions in which to have sex.  How much was Jackie actually Arabella, I wondered?  ‘All of it, every single word’.  So how often were you worrying when you were, er…? ‘Every minute of every sexual encounter and I’ve had loads of fantastic sex with tons of men and I’ve really gone for it, but there was always a bit of me that was thinking ‘Oh shit, the tits! Oh no, the stomach, oh god my bum’ and then I’ve just thought ‘Fuck it, we’re here now.’  If you’re skiing down a hill and you’re wearing a helmet, it doesn’t stop you enjoying it, you’re just taking precautions.  That concern about how I look, has been…present.’  It is a testament to what great company she is that I could have this kind of conversation with Arabella having met her only half an hour earlier.

The PA job that she had as a struggling actress triggered a lifetime of political engagement .  She describes herself as a socialist and is an ardent supporter of the Labour party.  We discuss politics in passing and she is hilarious about ‘oily estate agent man’ Cameron, remaining aghast that he was elected.  ‘He’s got gazillions in the bank and if things get a bit rough, he can go private.‘ which I take to mean that she thinks he will never really know how tough life can be for the majority of people.  When I ask her if she thinks Ed Miliband can win she fudges the answer, choosing her words carefully to describe him as ‘extremely impressive and engaging’.  Politicians are judged by their appearances as much as anything else these days and we both know, I think, that there is an elephant in the room when it comes to Ed.  She hopes that because Cameron is so overly polished, Ed will gain an advantage when the electorate eventually wants someone more genuine.

And then it’s time to go to Waitrose.  Weir’s daughter needs dropping off at a party and her son needs feeding.  ‘You’re coming with us.’ she says.  So I do.  The kids are a delight, her daughter doing that teenage thing of rolling her eyes in a ‘Duh!’ kind of way at her Mum’s conversation and her son telling me that he’d like to be a surgeon one day because he’s done a few dissections at school that he was really interested by.  Weir credits her kids as one of the reasons why she’s so fulfilled.  ‘My parents were fantastically interesting, amazingly intelligent, vibrant people but really awful parents.  So I feel incredibly fulfilled because I’ve had children, very late, and I’m everything my parents weren’t while also being a great role model as a woman.’  Constant jibes from her parents, particularly her Dad, were to blame for her insecurity about her size, the worrying about and constant analysis of which has made her career in a way.  She’s 55 now and we’re nearly 20 years on from ‘Insecure Woman’ (the character who gave birth to the catchphrase in ‘The Fast Show’) yet during the course of our conversation it’s apparent that her size is still somewhat of an issue for her.  When’s that going to go away, I ask her? ‘Never. Maybe when I’ve got cancer I wont be worrying about that too much. That’s my go to place.’

She’s tried therapy and found it useful for ‘the opportunity to acknowledge that I was not well brought up and I was very heavily judged for the way I looked but then that is who they were and that is what it was.  I’m not going to let all that get in the way of doing things that I want to do.’  So she’s learned acceptance? ‘Growing up is about managing expectations, realising that life isn’t perfect but life can be fucking good if you do fulfill your potential.  Someone asked me what I want for my kids.  If they end up working in Tesco in Nuneaton I won’t care as long as they feel they are maximising their potential.  I cannot bear people going, I’d really like to write a novel but I cant because blah blah.  Don’t do that!   I’m very lucky in that I have an enormous amount of energy but life is so short, so do the best you can possibly do with everything that you’ve got.’

Eddie Piller passed me on to Matt Berry, having first furnished me with a copy of Matt’s album Witchazel.  The album is a trip, alternately beautiful and odd, with lyrics that are sometimes profound and other times surreal (‘Your penguin’s in the bath, it was put there by your Mum’ on ‘Song for Rosie’).  Musically, there is a broad spectrum of influences; psychedelic, folky, some of it sounds like it could soundtrack cult 60s and 70s film or TV.  There is funk and there is the lovely, sweeping ‘Take My Hand’ which also boasts a strangely moving video  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rdqu-HObUbo).  Here’s an amazing thing about Witchazel: Matt gave it away as a free download before Acid Jazz picked it up.  If you listen to it, you’ll be amazed that he gave all that creativity away for nish once upon a time.

And I have to admit, apart from that I didn’t know anything about him.  Which goes a long way to proving that I always miss all the good stuff on telly.  I didn’t know about Matt playing Douglas Reynholm in the IT Crowd, nor him being in Garth Merenghi’s Dark Place or Snuff Box on BBC3.  I didn’t know about ‘Sugar Tits’, I didn’t know about him being in a few episodes of the Mighty Boosh, about him being Vangelis on Shooting Stars, any of that. Even though I’d seen those last two.  He was even in the film ‘Moon’ which was class. It’s like I’ve been living in a televisual black hole for the last eight years, only using the goggle box for the weather (have you seen it?  It’s AMAZING), football matches, Family Guy and any number of movies on Film 4 that I’d either seen before or got sucked into thinking they’d be good before finding out that they weren’t.  Good job I did my research before I talked to him.  All Matt’s stuff is worth checking out on Youtube or 4OD or wherever you can find it by the way as pretty much all of it is really funny.  Hell, buy some of it even, then Matt can get some money for all this stuff he’s done.  Matt Berry’s work ethic will put you (and me come to that) to SHAME.  And it all stemmed from being told off for eating a Double Decker when he worked in a call centre.  Read on to find out why.

PMO – So how do you know Eddie Piller?

MB – Eddie released an album I did called Witchazel last March.  I met him through a mutual friend and I thought he might take a single but then he said he wanted to do the whole album, which was great.

PMO – I ask everyone to state their name, age and what they do for a living.

MB – My name is Matt Berry, I’m 37 and I don’t know…I get away with it.

PMO –  People will know you are are a writer, actor and a musician.  Of those things do you consider you’re one more than the other?

MB – I don’t.  I try not to consider myself at all.  Once you start doing that you’re in a bit of trouble.  I’m just kind of lucky to be able to do all of those things.

PMO – I saw an interview with you where  you said you’d had a job in a call centre and hated it.  You got sacked and that was kind of a pivotal moment for you, you decided that you didn’t want to do anything like that again.  What happened next?

MB – I was eating a double decker at my workspace and then was told to stand up in front of everyone.  I was told there was no eating at your workspace so I just got up and left.  Like you say, I was fired and then decided I wouldn’t do anything like that again and I would try and make sure that I didn’t ever have to do anything like that again.  I went from there to to the London Dungeon, which I loved.  From there I did a thing called Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace on Channel 4.

PMO – How does someone go from one moment working in a call centre to suddenly being on Channel 4?

MB – I was playing rude songs in town before The Mighty Boosh were doing their gigs.  I knew Noel Fielding and was doing stuff with him.  Matt Holness and Richard Ayoade were doing stuff at that same time and they wanted me to play one of the characters in the televised version of their Edinburgh show.  I wasn’t doing anything, I was in the Dungeon so that was it.

PMO – And has it been a springboard from then on?

MB – Pretty much.

PMO – Were you writing comedy before that?

MB – I was writing music and wasting time with bits of shit but never thinking that it would be taken seriously or that I would end up doing it for a living.

PMO – How did you know Noel Fielding and Richard Ayoade?

MB – This was the year 2000.  There was no interest in the Boosh then. It was because Noel and I shared an interest in art, we were very art school.  We had mutual friends who were at our art schools.  That was the only reason why I was playing songs before their show.

PMO – Do you think it’s true what people say then, that it’s who you know rather than what you know?

MB – Well if you’re shit then you go nowhere so there’s got to be something there.

PMO – Working in the arts can be notoriously difficult, did you ever consider doing anything else because you were completely skint?

MB – I’ve made sure that I haven’t stopped doing things.  Whether that’s doing music, voiceovers, TV comedy or making films.  I’m always working on something or about to work on something.  I think you’ve got to find your own thing.  The biggest truism I’ve found is no one is going to do anything for you. No one is going to write anything for you, you can’t sit back and wait for someone to write something around you so you have to do it yourself.

PMO – It sounds like you’re also saying that you need a few strings to your bow, that you can’t rely on one.

MB – Possibly. I was lucky with the voiceover stuff.

PMO – You’ve used that word a couple of times now.  Do you consider yourself lucky?

MB – Totally, yeah.  I think with things like voiceovers…there’s not much skill in that.  I just happen to speak like this and that’s done me a favour. That is luck.

PMO – How ambitious are you, would you want to end up where Russell Brand is now for example?

MB – I’m not sure because once you’re everyones property its very difficult to do stuff.  I’m more of a private person.  I don’t need to be in newspapers or spoken about.  I don’t really care about any of that, its just about doing decent work.

PMO – Do you think your work ethic has come from a fear of never wanting to be back in that call centre?

MB – I don’t think so.  I love the stuff that I do and I don’t think of it as being work.  Every album that I’ve made or show that I’ve been involved with…I’ve loved every minute of.  That’s why you spend all day and all night doing it, because it doesn’t feel like work.

PMO – I told a few people I know that I was going to be talking to you and one of their questions was have you ever used any of the phrases that you’re famous for, such as ‘Fuck You’ from Snuff Box or ‘Sugar Tits’ from the IT Crowd in real life?

MB – No.

Matt as Douglas Reynholm

PMO – Can you conceive of a situation where you might get away with that?

MB – I don’t think so.  The thing is, once I’ve said them in the show I totally forget about them because its a work thing.  When people come up to me and say those things I don’t know if its me that’s said them or another character.  It kind of disappoints them because a lot of the time I don’t know what they mean.

PMO – So do you get people coming up to you and saying your catchphrases to you?

MB – People do, yeah.  Thats all part of it.  I don’t mind it, it’s my fault, I did it.  You can’t get too shitty about it.

PMO – You’re working on something called Toast.

MB – Toast of London is a pilot for Channel 4 that goes out in August.  It’s written by myself and Arthur Matthews who co-wrote Father Ted.  I’ve worked with him on quite a few things before – he was the script editor on Snuff Box.  It’s a sitcom about an actor who is on his way to the theatre each night and it’s about the things that happen to him on the way there.

PMO – So you’re doing the pilot – what happens after that?  The suits look at that and decide if they’re going to commission you for six episodes?

MB – That’s basically it.  They might make a decision before.  There’s no firm offer from Channel 4.  They can say yes or no at any time.

PMO – Have you had stuff turned down before that you’ve pitched?

MB – No I haven’t.

PMO – So you’ve never known disappointment?

MB – There’s been things like Snuff Box not being recommissioned.

PMO – So how do you deal with that?

MB – I didn’t really mind so much because we didn’t have any more ideas for that situation.  I think we’d said all we had to say. At the time I wasn’t too pissed off.  It was a bit too mean.  I liked it, but I wouldn’t make a show like that now.

PMO – A lot of the stuff you produce seems to have a bit of a sentimental nod to the 70s.  I’m thinking of some of the deliberately wooden acting in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Douglas Reynholm being a bit of a throwback boss, misogynistic, bit vague, never seems to do any real work.  Even things like the piano intro to ‘Take My Hand’ smack of 70’s Abba or Elton John.  Do you have a particular love for that decade?

MB – Yeah.  With Darkplace that was more of an 80s horror pastiche.  I’m not sure if Reynholm is 70s.  My personal thing is stuff that makes me feel warm and it’s all analogue whether it’s audio production or visual effects.  I much prefer that.

PMO – I’ve listened to Witchazel quite a lot since I met Eddie and I think its quite a psychedelic album.  Is it an album to take drugs to?

MB – It wasn’t done with that in mind.  It was made without expecting anyone else to hear it.  I didn’t expect it to get picked up.

PMO – But it sounds like it was made with love, it doesn’t sound like it was just thrown together…

MB – It was absolutely made with a lot of love.  But it was made with love because no one had asked for it.  It was done just for me.  I didn’t expect anyone like yourself to have heard it.   It’s just the kind of album I would want to listen to.

PMO – If you spend all that time writing songs, getting the musicians together, the studio time…

MB – There wasn’t any studio time, I recorded it all myself.  Apart from the drums I played all the instruments.

PMO – You would have been happy for that to stay as a kind of a gift to people as a free download?

MB – Yep.

PMO – There’s a lyric on the track ‘So Low’ on the album that goes ‘Got to get me to the top, but it’s a million to one shot.  I guess I should be happy with my life, but I guess that I am not.’  You’re known for being a funny man so should we take that as a comment about yourself or is it ironic?

MB – It wasn’t about myself, it was about another comic I know who is so ambitious that it makes him unhappy and I’ve never understood that.  It’s not about me, I’m more than happy with my lot.

PMO – I wondered how you would feel if you hadn’t had the success that you’ve had and you were still writing and performing, playing music and it wasn’t going anywhere.

MB – Something would have happened.

PMO – You sound confident…

MB – If you give a shit and you look at the detail and you spend time and you deliver pretty good quality, someone down the line is going to appreciate it at some point.

PMO – That comic that you’re talking about in ‘So Low’, do you feel like he’s going to get some success?

MB – It’s never enough.  He’s not alone, there’s a whole bunch of actors like that.  They’ll get to a certain point…they’ll be the biggest thing in England and then they’ll get to be the biggest thing in the States and then they’re not the biggest thing anymore and that gets them down.  That constant striving…it never ends.  And he’s really good.  I do want to move on and do other things but at the same time I don’t want to be constantly pissed off that I haven’t achieved this or that.

PMO –  You seem to have a bit of a fascination for, the only term I can come up with is, country vermin.  You’ve got a song on your album about badgers and you’ve posted a couple of Twitter pictures of foxes.

MB – These are just woodland creatures.

PMO – True but those two do get a bit of a bad rap…you haven’t chosen something cute like a deer.

MB – I’ve always just been very fond of woodland creatures.  They would appear in whatever I did.

PMO – Of all the things you’ve done, is there one that you’re most proud of?

MB – I’m most proud of Witchazel.  That wasn’t with anyone else, it was exactly what was in my head.

PMO – You seem very calm and relaxed about the thing that you do and life in general.  We’ve also spoken about the person that ‘So Low’ is about.  If someone was a bit lost or frustrated about their life what advice would you offer them?

MB – I’d try and help anyone but I’m not very good at giving advice because I can’t really take it.  I don’t know the right answers.  I’ve got here through a mixture of hard work and luck. There is no right or specific kind of path to take or if there is, I don’t know about it.