Older but wiser
Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer are heading to Richmond Theatre with their new comedy Vulcan 7. They talk to Tina Lofthouse about their play, the lasting legacy of The Young Ones, and their love for the area…
Eighties show The Young Ones became a cult classic with its oily, anarchic house-sharing rabble of characters, catapulting Nigel Planer, Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall, Christopher Ryan and Alexei Sayle into a decade and more of off-kilter comedy hits that delighted many and disgusted others in conservative, and Conservative, Britain.
The stars worked together in the likes of The Comic Strip Presents – and Adrian and Rik united on the outrageous show Bottom, – as well as carving out separate careers on stage and screen. But still to be ticked off the list for Nigel and Adrian was performing a play together.
It has been a 25-year fruitless search for the perfect vehicle – so they decided to write their own. The result is Vulcan 7, a tale of two washed-up actors in a sci-fi film. While it is a comedy, Nigel and Adrian are keen to point out that it is a “proper play comedy”. Anybody expecting the slapstick and surreal gags of The Young Ones and Bottom will be disappointed.
Both Nigel and Adrian have loved the whole process of writing the play. Says Nigel: “We sat in the same room writing it together, literally line by line.” Adds Adrian “Normally writing can be quite tortuous but it’s been great fun. I’ve known Nigel forever – before we ever got anywhere – and the play is quite germane as it is about two actors who have known each other since drama school.”
Unlike Nigel and Adrian, the two actors in the play have never got on. However, there are some similarities with their lives that Adrian and Nigel drew on: “We have both worked in the sci-fi genre, and we also know what it is like to be sitting in your trailer in ridiculous make-up for hours waiting to go on,” says Nigel.
“We have worked in the sci-fi genre, and we also know what it is like to be sitting in your trailer in ridiculous make-up for hours waiting to go on”
Adrian also says he identifies with some elements of the character he plays. “He’s not near me but definitely within. My character is a horrible bastard and I do have a horrible bastard in me somewhere.”
His character of Vyvyan Basterd in The Young Ones was also anger personified. But Adrian, who turned 60 last year, is more mellow with age. “I have mellowed,” he concedes. “But I know that [angry] person who is in there. It is about sticking on the lid.”
Given the trials that have been sent his way, Adrian could not be blamed for at least some anger. His wife, fellow comedian and actress Jennifer Saunders, had breast cancer in 2009, and the death of his close friend and co-star Rik Mayall from a heart attack in 2014 cut deep.
Adrian credits the philosophy of stoicism for helping him to find some equilibrium in his life. “I did a bit of therapy and that didn’t work for me and then I saw an article about a book [on stoicism], I bought it and I was transformed. I’m a lot nicer person. It is not nice being around angry people. Angry people are really tedious – having to deal with their flailing around. And it is not good for you.”
Vulcan 7 brings Nigel and Adrian back to Richmond, and they know the local area well, with Nigel having been brought up in East Sheen and Adrian living in Richmond when his children were young.
“I have really fond memories of the area,” says Nigel. “My dad was still in East Sheen up until he died two years ago and I’d always be there to visit and for family dos. I also lived in Twickenham for a couple of years.” Neil’s first acting roles were in Richmond as part of an amateur group. “When I was a kid I was cast as the younger boys in the likes of Richard III and The Merry Wives of Windsor and we used to perform on Terrace Gardens.” While Nigel has lived on the South Bank in central London for many years, he describes his ideal weekend as being able to stroll around Richmond Hill or down by the river in Ham.
Adrian lived in Richmond for 15 years up until around 2000, with his children starting school there. “We enjoyed playing in the park. Richmond is a very nice place with a proper town centre.”
Adrian divides his time between a home in Devon and in central London. He has three grandchildren, aged six, four and two. “They are an absolute delight,” he says. Do they keep him busy? “They are around a lot but that’s the great thing about being a grandad. You don’t have to do too much looking after, you can do the fun stuff.”
Plans in the pipelines
Nigel too is in his sixties, both still have ambitions they want to realise. Says Adrian: “I want to write a definitive Sunday night television series about a philosophical detective. That is my plan today. Tomorrow it might be different but that is how my brain works.” He impressed with his character Count Ilya Rostov in War & Peace, is doing another series of ITV’s Bancroft, and has just released his second children’s book.
This year, Nigel has just released an audio drama, appeared in ITV’s Marcella, and the BBC’s Death In Paradise. He has been busy on the stage, and in 2014 was nominated for an Olivier Award for Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Nigel comments that he found his “older-man self” in Grandpa Joe. “That was a lovely part. He is optimistic, but quite greedy too. You find bits of yourself to fit the requirements of the role and I put myself into everything. It must be horrible if you are constantly cast as perverted serial killers! Some actors can do that. It would take it out of you.”
He contrasts the acting required for these roles with the characters, or rather alter egos, he helped to create from scratch, namely hippy Neil from The Young Ones and thespian Nicholas Craig. “Both are reflections of myself. They are parts of me that I’m offloading onto everyone else,” he says.
So just how like Neil was he? “A lot,” says Nigel. ”I went hitch-hiking in India. I did drop out of the University of Sussex. In fact, we made a card of Neil for the title sequence fast asleep in the library and behind him is the School of African and Asian studies, which is the school I was at.”
Somewhat surprisingly, given its massive influence, The Young Ones only ran for 12 episodes over two years. Nigel says that its success was the right combination of people at the right time. “There was a Young Ones-sized hole waiting to be filled – a desire to find a new thing. And all of us were like-minded people who were lucky to find each other at that specific time. It feels like it was an inevitable thing.”