Ian Lavender, one of Birmingham’s greatest cultural exports, talks to the Press.
To many people Ian Lavender will be forever a teenager, the immortal Private Pike in Dad’s Army. But while old soldiers never die, they do sometimes get older and Ian, now a doyen of stage and screen, will soon be playing the title role in Gilbert & Sullivan’s classic The Mikado, on a short tour which calls at Symphony Hall on March 10th. He told us of how he intends to steal the show in an all-star cast of Savoyards: “I only start singing towards the end, so people will be tired by then and will think I’m singing wonderfully well.
After being best known as a TV actor, with Dad’s Army followed by a long-running role in Eastenders as well as several other top-rated series, such a role is part of what’s almost become a second career for Ian, who also toured with the Rocky Horror Show and spent 17 months in the West End production of Sister Act the Musical: “I’ve really enjoyed musicals, coming to it late in life although it’s always been something I’ve wanted to do and not had the chance before. You stand there and sing a bit…it’s hard, hard work! Such hard work. I love it.”
The Mikado was written at the height of the Victorian era, which was about as far removed as you could get from modern society, but their humour is often amazingly close to ours.
“Yes, things such as Three Men in a Boat is obviously not written in a modern voice, but what they’re writing about and the fun they’re having, is so contemporary it’s untrue, And Gilbert & Sullivan in late Victorian times were very satirical. As we moved into the twentieth century people got to be a bit po-faced but Gilbert & Sullivan was rollocking stuff, taking the mickey out of people. The Mikado is essentially taking the mickey out of the fashionable vogue for everything Japanese at the time. Ladies were learning the language of the fan – if you couldn’t do that they looked down on you, so it’s laughing at peoples’ pretentions in the same way as comics do nowadays. It’s quite biting for its day.”
Unfortunately you’re only playing three dates – here, the Royal Festival Hall and the Bridgewater in Manchester.
“It’s the shortest tour I’ve ever done, but that’s the way of the concert world. We are doing some fabulous venues though, and I’d like to have a longer tour – for the obvious reason that you earn more money but everyone else in the cast has been playing the Mikado for years and this is my first, so by the time we finish I’ll be relaxed about playing it.”
You were born in Birmingham. Do you retain any affinity with the city?
“It’s home. The sad thing is that I don’t have any family here – my brother’s moved away, my parents are dead but it’s my home and whenever I’m there I do a total nostalgia tour of where we lived, schools, parks, the Lickey Hills, it’s brilliant. And quite honestly, I’ve lived in many places and loved the houses we’ve lived in but the house where I live now is the first place I have called home since I lived with my mum and dad. In the same way that no matter where you live in the world you’re British, wherever I might live Birmingham is always my home town. And I’m still proud of it. Whenever I go back most of the great things are still there from when I was a kid, and the way the city centre has been rescued is amazing. I think the Bullring is quite, quite superb, with St Martins and the way it’s been incorporated with the simple, beautiful architecture. I’m extremely proud of the city.”
You were part of a national phenomenon, a show that regularly drew audiences of fifteen million and more. That’s never going to happen again, you’re never going to get any TV series that the whole nation relates to, mainly because the number of television channels is far greater – which of course means more programmes and therefore more comedy. Is that a fair pay-off?
“I think it’s a good point – it’s a 50/50 split. There’s far more chance to get your programme made, the audiences are smaller because you now have hundreds of channels instead of four or five but the main downside is that not only television but everything is what I call niche-driven, made for small niches. ‘Our clothes are for 25-30 year olds and we don’t care about you because you’re 65’. How you shop, what you watch, where you go on holiday, they are more exclusive now. Holiday companies cater for 18-30s, clothes shops don’t want you, they want young men in their shops. That’s the sadness, but yes, everyone has a much better chance of getting their idea at least looked at. You don’t have to be part of those great organisations to get started. You don’t have to spend an absolute fortune, you can now make a show with a hand-held camera that costs maybe five grand. It’s fantastic, but the audiences aren’t there. And so yes, the days are gone when a programme would enter the nation’s psyche. I don’t know overall whether it’s a good or a bad thing.”
But you were part of what was one of the few comedies that became more than just television, with their lines and catchphrases entering common usage. Over the past forty years you must have lost count of the number of people who have repeated Pike’s lines to you. Do you ever feel like punching the next bright spark to call you a stupid boy?
“No, not at all. I get annoyed when they get a line wrong; ‘Don’t tell him your name Pike,’ that’s the common one. But not at all. If we didn’t want that to happen we shouldn’t have taken the job. It was because the show was an enormous success, if they’d said at the start that what we were going to do was going to turn into what it did, and did we want to turn it down , not many actors are going to say ‘Well in that case I won’t do it’. If you don’t want that to happen then don’t do the show.”
John Lawrie, who played Private Frazer, once famously said that he had played all the Shakespearean greats, and had become famous for playing “this rubbish.” Was that view held by any of the other members of the Dad’s Army cast – they were all vastly experienced actors. Did they resent being typecast in a TV comedy?
“I don’t think so, and neither did John. I was there when he said it; he was a wicked and impish man and he didn’t really think it was rubbish at all – ‘I’ve played every part in Shakespeare, I was considered to be the finest Hamlet of the twenties and I had retired, and now I’m famous for doing this crap.’ But how many thousands of people saw him as Hamlet and how many millions saw him as Frazer?”
The Mikado plays at Symphony Hall on 10th March at 3.00pm. Box Office 0121 345 0603, Tickets: £37.50 – £16.50. Website: http://www.thsh.co.uk/