Famously one of the most prolific figures of the Alternative Comedy revolution in the 1980’s, writer, actor and comedian Nigel Planer burst on to the entertainment scene alongside fellow comedians Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson and Peter Richardson. Yet his entertainment roots couldn’t be more different from the anarchist movement of comedy’s rock and roll. Attending drama school alongside the great Stephen Poliakoff, he starred in a selection of plays written by the future heavyweight playwright before together forming a theatrical company where Nigel would perform his early plays. Through this he realised that it was the comedy pieces which allowed him to shine and offered Planer the opportunity to follow his path.
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Meeting Peter Richardson at drama school, Nigel began to create a comedy character to perform in the clubs and pubs around London.Before long, Richardson was to open up a new club which would rival the in vogue Comedy Store. The Comic Strip was a live variety show which combined the talents of French and Saunders, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson alongside Peter Richardson and Planer. This coincided with the launch of a brand new television network and before long The Comic Strip Presents… debuted on the opening night of Channel Four. For Nigel, it’s difficult to pick a favourite episode of The Comic Strip Presents…yet one which sticks in his mind is Bad News Tour in which they play a touring heavy metal band as he thrived upon the opportunity to become a rock star, even if it was in the name of satire. For the next quarter of a century, The Comic Strip Presents…dealt with everything from The Famous Five to New Labour and provided a platform for some of the brightest new comic talent. Despite his vast achievements, The Comic Strip Presents shall forever occupy a very special place in the career of Nigel Planer and remains extremely grateful to Peter Richardson for offering the opportunity to be part of such a cult comedy phenomenon.
Taking full advantage of the underground comedy scene of the late seventies, he created the character of a bohemian, laid back vegan called Neil. This provided inspiration for Ben Elton and Rik Mayall to incorporate such a character into their new BBC2 sitcom and thus The Young Ones was born. Originally performed as part of live sketches at the famous Comedy Store with Peter Richardson playing the part of Mike, it wasn’t long before the act received attention from TV producers and BBC stalwart Paul Jackson made them an offer too good to turn down.
In 1982 The Young Ones exploded onto BBC2 with a brand new comic vibe which resonated with the youth demographic of the time and in turn virtually rewrote the rule book for TV situation comedy. The image of Vivian tearing down the opening titles of The Good Life was seen as a watershed moment for British Light Entertainment and was the ultimate symbol of the revolution which was taking place. Nigel revelled in the unconventional structure which the sitcom created and it was refreshing to be part of something that rebelled against the fixed concept of the traditional sitcom. Never before had sitcom dared to step outside the fourth wall of reality but The Young Ones set out to push the boundaries of the genre.
With a variety segment thrown in, this was the first sitcom to defy the principles which the audience had grown accustomed to for the last thirty years. Little thought was given to the transitions between scenes and Nigel thrived upon this rustic approach. Indeed it wasn’t seldom for the plot to be broken up by a song by some of the biggest pop acts of the day or merely a surreal dialogue between two puppet rats. This in turn made it easier to end a scene as it didn’t necessarily require a joke or payoff as the uniqueness of the musical segment was enough to carry the show on. Over two series, these elements helped transform The Young Ones from an experimental sitcom into a cult comedy classic which helped to define the 1980’s. Yet just as the flat mates were vicariously dangling over the cliff in one of the most iconic scenes in British sitcom, Ben Elton was already at work on another comedy jewel.
This led to a reunion with the same cast in 1987 for the flamboyant sitcom Filthy Rich and Catflap where he played sleazy showbiz agent Ralph Filthy who was tasked with reinventing the career of TV personality Richy Rich. For this, Nigel was determined to make the character as far removed from Neil as possible which meant changing his appearance and shaving his head. Ralph Filthy was an irrepressible, larger than life character with severe illusions of grandeur who thought he was right at the heart of 1980’s entertainment. In the era where old school established entertainers were frequently the subject of subtle mockery from the alternative comedy generation, Filthy Rich and Catflap took a satirical look at the ridiculous, phoney side of British Light Entertainment. Merely surviving for just one series, Filthy Rich and Catflap was able to further explore the concept of slapstick which Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson would further explore in the hit BBC2 sitcom Bottom. Yet for Nigel, this was the end of an era which arguably defined his career in British comedy.
For his next project, Nigel wanted to do something totally different. By the mid nineties, the subject of mental health remained an issue which was often controversial and remained far away from political agenda. Together with Red Dwarf’s Robert Llewelyn, Nigel embarked upon a satirical self help book entitled Therapy and How To Avoid It which discusses the advantages and disadvantages of various counselling techniques. In the age before mental health awareness, this book aimed to dash popular misconceptions surrounding various psychological issues in a satirical manner which found the perfect balance between comedy and reality. The social landscape of thirty years ago was extremely different from the accepting society of today and Nigel remains intrigued as to how different the book might be had it been penned today. Yet he’s also pleased that it still has the ability to give readers a sense of comfort in what remains an overpowering illness.
Irrespective of his achievements as a writer, Nigel has never forgotten his theatrical roots and the ability to sing has made him the obvious choice for musical theatre. Making his West End debut in 1978 as the understudy for David Essex in the first theatrical adaptation of Evita, he has since enjoyed a love affair with live theatre which has lasted over forty years. Although there is no doubt that the art of a studio based drama remains easy for actors to churn out performances, theatre is an extremely unique experience for both audience and performer and has remained loyal to Nigel throughout his career. This eventually resulted in his welcomed reunion with Ben Elton in 2003 for the award winning We Will Rock You which he used as the springboard to become one of the most versatile actors in the West End appearing in everything from Hairspray to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Nevertheless, his theatrical career didn’t seem to slow down his contributions to TV comedy and in 1997 appeared alongside Paul Merton for ITV’s tribute to The Galton and Simpson Playhouse. Nigel approached the role with a certain degree of trepidation as he didn’t quite understand the purpose of remaking such comedy classics. To him, he was unsure if they had the rite to take on such a comedy classic written by arguably the greatest sitcom writers of their generation. Appearing in an episode entitled I Told You, It’s Burt Reynolds, Nigel had the daunting prospect of embodying the role originally played by the legendary Roy Barraclough. Despite being honoured to have the opportunity to revive such an iconic series, Nigel believed that they could never rekindle the magic of Leonard Rossiter and co and to him it proved a pointless exercise.
Slowly becoming an elder statesmen of drama and entertainment, Nigel remains extremely excited about the multi platform landscape of today. In 2020 he reunited with Adrian Edmondson for the stage play Vulcan 7 yet performances were obviously halted for the pandemic. Yet an exciting mysterious opportunity now awaits the evergreen comedy star who remains as enthralled by the world of entertainment as ever and I can’t wait to discover the identity of the project. Alas, if his treasure trove of memorable characters is anything to go by, it shall be worth the wait. It was an absolute pleasure to interview the great Nigel Planer and irrespective of his future plans, he can now reside to the fact that he has made an indelible mark on the comedy landscape which undoubtedly will last a lifetime.
For more information on how to order Nigel’s latest book ‘Jeremiah Bourne in Time’ please click the link below –