FOR almost 30 years he’s felt omnipresent on our TV screens. Boon in the 1980s, Men Behaving Badly in the 1990s and, erm, Bob the Builder in Noughties, Neil Morrissey has carved a TV career out of being the archetypal everyman.
Which makes his latest role, as the unscrupulous Jewish miser in Lionel Bart’s stage musical, Oliver!, a surprising move.
As a repugnant crook, Fagin doesn’t exactly fit the regular bloke mould which has made Morrissey one of Britain’s most familiar stars of screen and stage – and he knows it.
At the age of 50 he’s also conscious of the comparatively limited experience he’s had in musical theatre.
“Before this I did Acorn Antiques and Guys and Dolls in the West End. And that’s it.” he recalls “In the latter I was Nathan Detroit and in the lead-up to opening night I was absolutely ****ing myself.
“I came into it by accident really. My agent just told me one day he’d put me up for Guys and Dolls and I was like: ‘Oh...why?’ and he just said: ‘Oh come on, I know you can sing – I’ve been to the pub with you’.”
But his local is a long way from the string of giant theatres he’ll visit on this long tour of the UK. Plus, he’s playing an iconic role in an iconic musical, one produced by Cameron Mackintosh no less.
Morrissey has just had his opening night at Leeds Grand Theatre after completing a run at Newcastle Theatre Royal. The pressure of being on the road, he admits, gets to him.
“Last week I was a bit anxious – I couldn’t eat properly.” he says “Because you’re putting the show together again in your head. New Dodgers, new Olivers, new gang. And you don’t know how everyone’s gonna react.
“You tend to enjoy these things in retrospect. At the time you just get on with it, you know? The real pressure comes from hoping you can raise yourself to the level of the rest of the cast who are just amazing.”
You could easily form the impression that Morrissey was chosen on a whim for the role. He does seem a rather random choice – a big name to pull in the masses, not a seasoned performer. But the show has already scored good reviews and he’s by no means winging it.
Besides, Mackintosh rarely makes decisions on a whim. He is known for his discerning choices and high expectations.
“Oh I had to go in and prove I could do it.” says Morrissey “I auditioned a lot for this role, three or four times actually. And people like Cameron and his team, they know it’s a departure from what I am known for.
“But Cameron actually wants you to bring something different to the part every time. I’ve tried to retain the dark elements of Fagin and mix that with the humour, because he is essentially a comedy part, even though, if you read the Charles Dickens novel, he’s really a horrible character. So, I’ve tried to come at this as much more of an actor than a musical theatre star. Still, everyone’s done it differently over the years.”
The list of actors who’ve tackled Fagin, either on stage, on TV or in movie adaptations, is daunting. The roll call of stars includes Alec Guinness, Ben Kingsley, George C Scott, Timothy Spall, Jonathan Pryce, Rowan Atkinson and Robert Lindsay, the latter winning an Olivier Award for his performance.
“But you can’t think of all the actors who’ve taken on Fagin in the past, you just have to go at it gung-ho,” says Morrissey, considering the fact that some audience members might come along to see ‘the bloke from Men Behaving Badly’ rather than a veteran thesp. But he’s already amazed most audiences.
“I think people are surprised when they see me doing this,” he says. “They like to come and say ‘Oh my God!’ because people have said to me that they didn’t recognise me and were still waiting for me to appear after I’d been on stage and gone back off again.
“And that’s good. Because you do get some stars where they’ll come on and you say: “Oh that’s such-and-such...in a wig!”
“It doesn’t matter too much what people think of me in that respect, though it is nice to be able to broaden people’s idea of what you’re capable of.”
But Morrissey isn’t merely buried under his character.
He says: “We do hark back to the ‘Neil Morrissey thing’ a little in one section of the show – but I’m not going to tell you what it is. Suffice to say there’s a snippet of something that won’t disappoint.
“You have to learn how to use your profile to the right effect. The feedback I get is that people like me, or at least the characters I’ve played because they can’t really get to know you. But through things like this they almost do get to know you more.
“And if we can use that as a force to get people’s interest then that’s great, and it’s great for me because they see me doing something other than a half hour show on television. But when people do know your name it does end up being a bit like a circus – I think the audience would love it if I fell off the stage or passed wind in the middle of a song or whatever.”
The buzz surrounding Morrissey has, it’s fair to say, died down since the late 1990s and early Noughties when he was hounded by press and paparazzi as Men Behaving Badly, the BBC comedy he starred in alongside Martin Clunes and Leslie Ash, became one of TV’s biggest hits.
That intensified when, in 2000, it was revealed that Morrissey was involved in an extra-marital affair: the wife was Britain’s Got Talent star Amanda Holden, and the husband was gameshow host-turned-actor, Les Dennis.
Not surprisingly, it was all played out in the eye of a media storm. It also turned out to be the perfect media storm, playing to the laddish image which he was tagged with after appearing in Men Behaving Badly.
“Thankfully it has been sorted out now, or at least calmed down for a while,” says Morrissey “Because I’m pretty sure it will come back. That whole period was bittersweet, but mostly sweet. In one sense the attention is flattering but in another sense it’s intrusion and you have to find that balance.
“I just wish I’d had public relations people then. I didn’t because I thought that was a bit grand, but basically they’re damage limitation.”
Over the past decade he’s had more TV roles, albeit nothing which attracted quite as much attention as the sitcom which made him a household name. Then there has been more straight theatre and his first tentative steps into big shows. So, is he prepared to take the leap and enter another decade as a star of musicals?
“By February I won’t want to do a musical for another year at least.” he says, already sounding a little weary. “Though, you never know, because if Cameron comes along and offers me an absolute cracker of a part, what do you do? It’s the equivalent of Spielberg offering you a part in one of his movies. But, to be honest, I’d rather have a rest.”
To December 8, Leeds Grand Theatre, New Briggate, Leeds, 7.30pm, mats 2.30pm and 3pm, £20 to £48.50, Tel 0844 8482700, www.leedsgrandtheatre.com