Sunday, 5 March 2017

Carry On Blogging Interview: Mark Farrelly on Howerd's End


 

Earlier this year I got in touch with the actor Mark Farrelly. I had been aware of Mark's work before but realised he was in the process of writing a show about the late, great Frankie Howerd. With Frankie's centenary looming I got in touch with Mark and was delighted when he agreed to an interview.

- First all of can you tell me a bit more about your career and how you started out?



I did an English degree at Cambridge, and whilst there got cast as Hamlet in a month-long tour of North America. Realising that this was a deeply fulfilling way to use my time on the planet, I decided to pursue acting full time on graduation. But I only started writing about five years ago, having tired of constantly speaking other people's lines and wishing to be more than a 'covers artist'. Also by this time I'd been exposed to sufficient emotional suffering to have something worthwhile to say.


- You have toured in a number of one man shows. I think many people would find that quite a scary experience to be out there alone. What is it about that kind of performing that appeals to you?



Well, we're all on our own in life aren't we? The only person who is truly with you every step of the way is yourself. So I think there's a powerful statement about standing alone on stage, because that is the human journey. I also like connecting with the audience directly. I'm not a big fan of the 'fourth wall' in theatre, whereby actors and audience pretend that the other one is not there. Let's connect! And with solo work you have to connect. Shakespeare does it all the time...Richard III, Hamlet, Benedick...they all turn to the audience and say "Let's talk". Amen to that.



- I'm interested in the process you go through when coming up with an idea and then going on to writing a show. How do you like to work?



I try to create a show that doesn't currently exist and which I would like to go and watch if I wasn't involved with it. I then tend to spend a long time on the writing process. I come from a background of what's called 'classical theatre', and for me the words are sacrosanct. I will spend ages nudging a syllable around until the line sounds right to me. I try to make every line funny, provocative, or preferably both. Hopefully one is left with an ultra-lean script that wastes nobody's time.




- How did the idea for the Frankie Howerd show, Howerd's End come about? 



I miss Frankie Howerd. Since childhood he has made me laugh, and I never got a chance to see him perform live (I was fifteen when he died). So from a pure pleasure perspective I wanted to make a show where I would be on stage with Frankie Howerd (I play Dennis Heymer, his long-term partner). More deeply, I wanted to write about how to say goodbye properly. I feel that when Frankie suddenly died, there was probably a great deal left unsaid between him and Dennis. This is surely part of why Dennis got so stuck, never really got over Frankie. It's happened to me - in particular, when two romantic relationships I was in ended, the girls concerned choose to deal with the break-up by never saying goodbye or speaking to me again, which I have found excruciatingly painful. So the play is partly about what would happen if Frankie and Dennis got the chance for a proper goodbye, and how cathartic that might be. Also of course, it allows the audience to say a proper farewell to Frankie in this, his centenary year. I went to Monty Python's farewell show in 2014, and it was so damn cleansing to be able to laugh and cheer one last time and say 'Thank you'.



- Can you tell me a bit more about what aspects of Frankie's life and career the show covers?



You get the whole life, from his early days of trying to get a foothold in the business, to his final performances as a 1990s cult. You get to see the whole range of his comic evolution, how he developed over the decades, but always stayed true to that radical, brilliant idea of doing an act about his inability to do an act. You also get the inside heart of this extraordinary, largely untold love story between himself and Dennis, whose existence was kept a strict secret from so many people for over thirty years. I think doing a tribute show is pretty easy, so I wanted to do something more ambitious, largely told from Dennis' point of view. Ultimately the play is a love story, that I hope will make people realise that they have far less time than they think to tell those closest to them how much they love them.



- As a performer who writes all his own material, how does it feel sharing your work with an audience after working on it so long by yourself?



Wonderful. The most fun I've ever had with my clothes on.



- Having written a show about Frankie, what's your opinion of him now both as a man and a comedy performer?



I have the highest respect for him as a performer. What a genuine legend. To have survived in the slash-throat world of comedy for 45 years is astounding. The fact that he's still funny to this day really must, as Hamlet said, give us pause. As a man? One could dwell on the sadness (no shortage of that in his life). I prefer to admire him for having managed what he could, given that he was so emotionally dysfunctional, as a lot of people, especially in this country, are. His self-loathing, his terror of emotional vulnerability, fuelled his brilliant act, but must have made him exceptionally difficult to live with. I think he did the best he could with a very shonky hand of cards, and for that I again admire him very sincerely. Before Christmas I went to the house in Somerset, Wavering Down, where he and Dennis lived, and was shown around by the current owners. This was where Frankie felt safe, and tried to love, and it was invaluable for me as the play is set in the lounge of Wavering Down in spring 2009.



- Why do you think Frankie is still so popular so many years on from his death in 1992?



Because he represents that nervous, frustrated, insecure and troubled part of all of us. He suffers so beautifully. He captures in a very pure form that feeling that haunts all of us that, lovely as life can be, it's also deeply disappointing and not what we signed up for. In fact did we even sign up? Oh the agony! It's the timeless human 'condition', and Frankie skewers it better than anyone else I've ever seen.



- Do you have a favourite of all Frankie's performances and if so, which one and why?



I love his performance at the Oxford Union in 1990. He was 73 years old and still able to rock a youthful audience. Their laughter is not charitable either...he was genuinely very funny to the end of his life. On screen I love him in The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery...the scene where he gets sucked into a Morris dance is bliss, and has always been a family favourite. Whenever you watch Frankie, you get the joyful realisation of "So it's not just me that's making a hash of life and doesn't really understand it". How beautiful and precious is that?

 



- It has become very popular for TV companies to produce biopics of some of our favourite comedy heros. Why do you think there continues to be so much interest in the lives behind their comedy personas? 



Because all comedy is based on frustration, disappointment and failure. So of course we all want to know what happened in the performer's life to make them 'turn' to comedy. It's a tease basically, and I completely understand why people want to know more. And nothing wrong with that.



- As I run a blog about the Carry Ons, I have to ask, what's your favourite Carry On film?



Perhaps controversially I would say Don't Lose Your Head. It's partly nostalgia as it's the first one I ever saw, but I also think it's superbly executed, and the sense of fun that radiates off the screen is palpable and infectious. Everyone either side of the camera is at the top of their game. The huge sword fight in the chateau at the end is such a wonderful romp and they all look like they're having a ball. I also have to give a nod to Carry On Abroad, which I think is so quintessentially British and bloody funny from start to finish.



- Finally, what's coming up next for you?



I am about to appear in a new comedy called The Club at the Vaults in Waterloo. Then I'm doing some more performances of my solo play Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope. In the autumn I'm getting stuck into a new solo play I'm writing called Groundswell, which is about a nuclear attack on London during a new Prime Minister's first day in the job. On top of that I've started directing theatre, which I'm finding very gratifying. And of course there's Howerd's End this summer. I just want to keep growing as a creative soul, because, as David Bowie rightly said, the moment you feel comfortable, you're dead. So here's to discomfort!

I'd like to thank Mark for taking the time to answer my questions, it was great to hear more about his work and of his love Frankie, something I think many of us share. You can find out more about Mark and check in on his latest tour dates by visiting his website

 


You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and also on Facebook

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