The Entertainer: We Interview Shane Richie and director Sean O’Connor about bringing this classic British drama back to stage
Said to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, for the first time since its original premiere in 1957, John Osborne’s classic is given a vibrant new setting and an electric new vision. Archie Rice hits the bottle a little too hard and dodges taxes a little too often. Despite being a washed-up show-man playing the summer season in 1980’s Britain, he is determined that the show must go on – even if no one is there to see it.
Rebecca Rhodes talks to actor Shane Richie and director Sean O’Connor on bringing this classic British drama back to stage and what it means to be an entertainer today.
How did the opportunity come along to play Archie Rice?
Shane: Well this has been in the making now for about 12 years. Sean and I (Director Sean O’Connor) we worked together back in 2001 on EastEnders when he was Story Editor. He was responsible for a lot of Alfie Moon’s big stories back in the day and then we worked together on a reboot of Minder for Channel 5 where I played Archie Daley. I was in my mid-forties then. Sean was still in his early fifties and he said to me ‘Are you familiar with John Osborne’s The Entertainer? And of course, I was. That amazing performance by Sir Lawrence Olivier, a great movie, and he said, ‘Because one day you will make a great Archie Rice’.
So, then we jump 12 years ahead and last year we’re chatting, and he said, ‘How do you fancy having a go at this?’ I said, ‘I’d love to’.
It was then that he told me that he was going to do things a bit differently, to take the book, take this great classic that was set in the 50’s and for the first time we’ll reset it in the 80’s. Straight away, I thought great but how are we going to get permission to do that but, of course, Sean worked his magic through the Osborne estate and this is where we are.
We’ve got an old play done in a brand-new way. And that’s down to Sean, who has had the vision for a long time, and has wanted to do this but bring changes and bring it in for a modern audience. And Sean knows, more than anyone, he put The Archers back on the map, he was responsible for some of the biggest story lines in EastEnders as well as numerous TV and Film projects he’s worked on over the years and so there is no better person to turn this around.
What made you think of the 80’s rather than more modern than that?
Sean: Several reasons really, I think that one of the major issues is about the internet communication really. In the story you’ve got a very distant war where the son goes off and he is kidnapped and then dispatched by the enemy. Just the process of gaining information is much quicker now, it’s all done by mobile phones or emails.
I was looking for a context where the play would resonate today and the early 80’s with the Falklands War is one of the last big times when Britain was questioning its status on the international stage as we are doing again today. So I wanted to have an era that would speak very loudly about today and I think this period does just that, in terms of what Britain means, what it’s for and where it is going.
Secondly, 1982 is the moment when old style comedy, your seaside specials, your traditional comedians are being outlawed by the newcomers like the Comedy Store Players, the likes of Spitting Image and all of that satire; the change over from old style comedy to alternative comedy so that’s a moment. A moment of cultural change in a moment of historic change with all of Britain questioning itself. I think that the resonance for today is very clear.
Also perhaps Archie is not just an outdated style of comedian but an outdated style of man and ultimately, what he represents and the culture of what he represents; a certain type of opinionated, careless, insensitive,
middle class, middle aged man is now also being questioned, post Me Too movement in a way that has never been before. So, I think, just by transposing this story to a different time period makes it read much louder.
Shane Richie, Pip Donaghy, Sara Crowe, Diana Vickers by Alex Rumford
Shane are you basing your version of Archie on anyone in particular? Is it a cautionary tale?
Shane: Yes, he’s an amalgamation of people. My dad used to run clubs in London, and I grew up around Working Men’s Clubs in north London. I come from a big Irish family so every weekend we’d be at the clubs and I would see these comedians come on stage and do Irish gags, homophobic, racist, sexist and people would laugh. Then when I started in the business, in the eighties, it’s been well documented that I did stand up. I did shows like Live From the Piccadilly, Live From the Palladium, Seaside Specials, I did summer seasons in clubs, holiday camps, I get depressed thinking about it.
So I have worked alongside a lot of these comics and even when on TV, as Sean was saying, when Spitting Image started, French and Saunders, Alexei Sayle, I think it was only really Channel 4 who were showcasing this kind of humour which I loved. As a comic, working in the industry I saw the changes very quickly and the people that I was working with felt very dated very quickly.
Unlike a lot of the actors that have played this part before me, Olivier, Branagh, I mean there is no denying that they are wonderful actors, but they have never done stand up. They have never stood on a stage, in a club or at Butlins when kids are doing knee slides in front of you, there’s someone playing on the fruit machines or waiting for Bingo to get started and I have. I have been that comedian and I have stood there doing my thing for all these people have come to see Little and Large or Jimmy Cricket and I have died on my arse because this audience had been fed a staple diet of your Jim Davidson’s your Bernard Manning’s, your Jim Bowen’s. That’s all they knew so I would have to go up perform material which was totally not right for them and died on my ass. So, I know. I know what it’s like, I know who Archie Rice is, I know how it feels inside and I know what is like to be dead on stage.
I have been there. I have had beer bottles thrown at me in Colchester. I remember in Wales, coming off stage, I was nineteen or twenty. and back then you had to do 3 half hour spots. I remember doing this particular club, going on and doing the material that I was doing then and just dying a death. No one was interested, they were just talking. I remember getting changed in the dressing room in between spots and there was a duo there too and the average age of the duo was dead. And one of them said ‘Hey, if you don’t mind me saying, I don’t think you are very funny.’ He said’ Do you know any Tom Jones? Why don’t you go and sing because you are not very funny?’ So I remember going on and just singing Rock Around the Clock and a load of old Elvis songs just so I could get paid. This is back in the day when you’d arrive in the middle of nowhere, find a phone box ring the agent and they would tell you there and then if you are working or not and then you’d have to find some digs for the night so, I know who Archie Rice is and that is him.
What do you think audiences will take away from this version of the Entertainer? Or what do you hope they will take away from it?
Shane: Well we hope that there will be part of the audience that will come knowing the original piece but if you have never seen it then it doesn’t matter because it stands up on its own, I think it’s fair to say, isn’t that right Sean?
Sean: Yeah I think it’s a more accessible version of the play rather than the original play and it’s shorter and I think these days you have to remember people want to get home by half ten and that they are probably coming on a week night and working the next day so watching a three act play that finishes at eleven it’s just harder, it’s less appealing.
And we moved some of the scenes around, we have changed some of the songs, so that it feels more of its period, the early 80’s. And I guess that it’s an attempt to try and reach across the foot lights and hope that the audience enjoys a really accessible, entertaining, classic play.
You’ve managed to seamlessly move between working on stage and on TV, was that always part of the plan?
Shane: It was never my plan when I started, I mean I started very young as an actor, 1978 or 1979 I was in Grange Hill and then I was accepted into the National Youth Theatre. In 1980. I was just 15 and I didn’t do it, because I just finished doing TIE, Theatre in Education, I was touring with a theatre group, and because I grew up in a Women’s Refuge so I used to go with a lot of children to holiday camp as a kid. I remember going to a holiday camp and thinking I wouldn’t mind doing that when I’m older; being a Blue Coat at Pontins so that’s what I did. Even as a ten year old I’d call bingo, I would sing with the bands, I’d do the raffles, so I was used to being on the microphone and someone said ‘Oh you are really good at comparing, why don’t you go to Spain, there’s a comparing job in Torremolinos. So, I did.
After that I got a stand-up routine together, realised that I could make £50 a night as opposed to £50 a week as a compere and then I ended up doing Shane Richie’s Ladies Night Out which was me touring with strippers and drag queens around pubs and clubs as a 19 year old. Occasionally I would do the odd play, but I’d turned my back on it a bit.
In the eighties I did some TV, Seaside Special, Russ Abbott’s Mad House, Les Dennis’s show, a couple of sketch shows and then I was offered a show called ‘Lucky Numbers’ which was a bingo show which got 12 million viewers on a Friday night and then I got a Saturday night show and, bear in mind that I was still in my 20’s so I never had a plan. I didn’t want to be out of work. I had married very young and I had children when I was very young, so I had a family to look after. And I remember thinking there and then, if I am going to be an actor then I am not going to sit on my ass and just wait for the next job, so I learnt to dance. I went to Pineapple Dance Studio and I learnt to tap, I did Grease the musical I did a few other musicals, went back to acting school for a while and did a lot more stand up.
It was a necessity that I couldn’t be out of work because I had bills to pay and I had been poor once and I refuse to be poor again, I didn’t want to live like that so I was always working and a lot of it was out of choice.
It’s interesting because it brings me back to ‘The Entertainer’ again. I remember calling myself an Entertainer in the 80’s, and it was a dirty word because immediately you thought of someone on the end of the pier, your Russ Abbott’s and Bernard Manning’s. It wasn’t until Robbie Williams, after he left Take That, at the height of his fame, a worldwide solo artist described himself as an Entertainer and all of a sudden, every artist, even traditional actors would describe themselves as an Entertainer. For me the umbrella is an Entertainer, underneath that you may be an actor, singer, dancer, juggler, mime act but you are still foremost an entertainer.
I had a long chat, hate to name drop, with Judi Dench and she agreed with me. But then I remember being called a celebrity in the 80’s and it was a badge of honour to be called a celebrity, to be called a celebrity now feels like a dirty word.
Archie Rice is an entertainer but back then it represented something very different than it does now and that’s why I love playing Archie because I go back to what I know. I know exactly who he is, I know exactly where his heart is, where his head is, where his stand up is, where his attitude is, why he is doing it. I know everything about him.
the entertainer runs at curve theatre, leicester from 27th – 31st august
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for £20 tickets on best available seats on all performances.
Main Image: The Entertainer – Shane Richie as Archie Rice (c) Helen Maybanks