Sunday 29 July 2018

Carry On Blogging Interview: Julian Dutton

I'm absolutely delighted to bring you an interview with the very talented, clever and all round lovely chap, Julian Dutton. Julian has many strings to his bow - he's an actor, a writer an impressionist and a voice artist. Julian's work spans theatre, radio and television and during his varied career he was won both a BAFTA and a British Comedy Award.

Julian's current project is a one man show based on the life and career of that wonderful British character actor John Le Mesurier. Entitled "Do You Think That's Wise?" the show is touring the UK throughout 2018 and 2019 and is about to head to the Edinburgh Festival. And it couldn't be better timed in this, the 50th anniversary year of Dad's Army.

First of all I'd love to know how you got started in the business. 

My parents were actors and my brother’s an actor (Simon Dutton) so it seemed utterly normal for me to follow that path. So I began as an actor – the usual stuff, rep, touring, a stint in the West End etc. – but I was always drawn to comedy. This next sentence makes me sound like I’m 95, but I did catch the very tail end of variety in my younger days - I did panto  toured in a variety show in the northern working-men’s clubs, a concert-party in Fulham etc., and was always gravitating towards the variety/comedy/stand-up side of the business. I think it’s a certain temperament that makes you want to write or perform comedy. Call it neurotic, call it psychotic, but you play the cards you’re dealt. So when I chose to pursue comedy - in particular when I began writing & performing comedy shows for BBC Radio in 1990 and later, TV - I really did find myself ‘at home,’ and have loved it ever since.  

Can you tell me a bit more about your one man show "Do You Think That's Wise?" and how it all came about?

I co-created and co-wrote a TV series called The Big Impression with Alistair McGowan & Ronni Ancona and we did a series of Dad’s Army sketches, which I wrote & performed in as John Le Mesurier, with Alistair as Pike. Also, in my stand-up act I’d do Le Mes and was always surprised how well the bit went down, even with young student audiences. It dawned on me that he had never fallen out of the British public’s consciousness, young and old. I’d always meant to try a full-length show about him, and now I’m actually the same age as he was when he got the part in Dad’s Army! This, plus the fact of being the 50th anniversary of the series, made 2018 the perfect time to create a show and take it on the road. And I’ve been bowled over by the reception – the previews have gone very well – and I’d like to thank everyone for coming to them because when an audience sees a preview they’re essentially watching a rehearsal of a work-in-progress. A UK tour is being set up for the Autumn & Winter so I’ll be playing theatres all over the country, which is tremendously exciting. Also, there’ve been some very exciting ‘long-form impressionist’ shows in recent years – David Benson’s Kenneth Williams show, and Jack Lane’s tribute to Norman Wisdom, Wisdom of a Fool – and these contributed to inspiring me to create the Le Mesurier show.

You are playing the Edinburgh Festival this Summer - what are your thoughts on that?

Well I cannot wait – it’s one of the most amazing experiences any performer can go through. The last time I performed there I was doing cabaret, so it’ll be a good challenge to present a play. It’s a marvellous place to run in a show – I’m doing every single day of the Festival including Sundays at the Cabaret Voltaire – a lovely venue in the heart of the Old Town – at 1.10pm, which is a very civilised time.

I was lucky enough to interview John Le Mesurier's son Robin a couple of years ago. He spoke really fondly of both the actor and the man. How much of his background and life away from our screens will come across in your show?

I try to present both the public and the private man. I had to, to be honest with the subject really. I had two choices when creating this show. I could have done an ‘Audience With’- type show, with Le Mesurier telling funny stories, snippets from films, TV shows, etc. Or I could write a play that really tells his story. I chose the latter. Although he tells some very funny stories and was a marvellous raconteur, I knew that the ‘Audience With’-type show wouldn’t work; a) because he wasn’t a stand-up, and b) because I don’t think he would have done that show for ITV - unlike, say, Kenneth Williams. Some people after watching a preview have said ‘wow, it’s quite serious, isn’t it,’ as if that’s a bad thing! But I learned a very good lesson from something Steve Coogan told me years ago, and that is that in any creative enterprise - be it a play or a TV series or whatever – the creator must always be the one that chooses what to do. 

That’s not to say one must ignore all comments – some of them may be valuable – but when push comes to shove there are no rights or wrongs, there are only choices – and this the show I wanted to write, and as its creator I am the only arbiter. So my play is full of funny stories, but it’s written as a drama, and I’ve tried to give it the shape of a drama. It’s set in a BBC dressing-room in 1972, when Dad’s Army has been going for three series. Le Mesurier has just won a BAFTA for the Denis Potter play Traitor and he’s waiting for a journalist to interview him; and as he waits, he looks back on his life. I haven’t shied away from the darker things. We all have ups and downs in our lives and it would have been wrong of me to avoid Le Mesurier’s. But one thing I did learn from creating the show, and that is his remarkable stoicism, his loyalty, his steadfastness, and his adherence to the ethics of the English Gentleman. So I hope that comes across in the play. The aim of the show is for people to go away not only thinking he was a wonderful performer, but also a wonderful man.

In this, the 50th anniversary year of Dad's Army, why do you think the series is still so popular?

Where do I begin? It’s a masterpiece. Essentially, it’s a dream of old England - a dream within the memory-span of many who first watched it, but also Chaucer’s England, Shakespeare’s England. Alan Coren wrote a fabulous piece on Dad’s Army in The Times in1974 (and I’m looking this up now, not quoting from memory!) Basically, after defining the bumbling volunteers as being firmly in the long line of comedy soldiers from Bardolph & Falstaff to Laurel & Hardy in Blockheads, he adds ‘but behind the daftness there is a certain valuable poignancy which is not altogether explained by nostalgia. I suppose what I mean is that they would have died, too, if the greater folly had demanded it.’

And that of course is the heart of its success – we laugh at them, but we also love them. For despite their idiocy, their pretension, their frailty, when the chips are down they are heroic – or at least willing to try to be. And the central relationship of Wilson & Mainwaring is of course the engine of the show. Their rapport was magical. In his memoirs A Jobbing Actor Le Mesurier said: ‘Arthur and I got on very well… In fact, so well attuned were we that often an exchanged glance between us was enough to make a point in the script.’ For me, it is a flawless masterpiece of comic English literature up there with Shakespeare and Dickens.

John Le Mesurier was so much more than Dad's Army - his career was so wide-ranging. Do you have a favourite out of all his performances? 

I have to say I love him in everything he did, from his Boulting Brother’s films to the Hancock’s Half Hours to the sitcom George & the Dragon with Sid James to Denis Potter’s Traitor. His National Trust Officer in Hancock’s ‘Lord Byron Lived Here’ was hilarious. Hancock is trying to convince him that the romantic poet once inhabited 23 Railway Cuttings, and quotes one of the poems he claims to have found scrawled on the wall: ‘O wondrous moon, with silvery beam, that throws its light upon East Cheam,’ – and Le Mes instantly replies ‘Oh, get out.’

His BAFTA-winning performance in Traitor is the jewel in the crown of his serious work: harrowing yes, but it was so gratifying to see him rewarded late in life, so justly, for a magnificent piece of acting.

You're both a writer and a performer. Do you have a preference and if so, why?

I love writing and have been very lucky – I’ve written more than 50 episodes of TV, about 250 episodes of radio comedy, and published 4 books. I’ve written for Griff Rhys Jones, Roy Hudd, Lee Hurst, Alistair McGowan, Jon Culshaw, Lewis Macleod and many more – and it’s extraordinarily satisfying to see something you’ve written successfully recreated. I’ve always made sure I’m in everything I’ve written, and I have to say - if push comes to shove – that performing is more enjoyable. I think performers get more respect! I’m going to whinge a little now and say that the status of writers in this business has suffered a bit in recent years. In Galton & Simpson’s day, Esmonde & Larbey’s day, right up to – I think – the era of say, David Renwick and One Foot in the Grave – the writer was afforded a freedom and respect by commissioners and production people that simply doesn’t exist today. More often than not now a show is devised by a producer who then ‘brings in’ writers to write it up. And of course then they’re not considered co-creators. 

Financially I’ve been very very fortunate – my last TV series Pompidou is currently being shown all around the world on Netflix, for example. But artistically I think writer’s freedoms have diminished. Writing can sometimes be very frustrating – for example I had an animated feature film optioned by a company that contractually said they would develop it, and then did nothing with it for three years! Which was annoying to say the least. Basically, I would advise every writer to make sure they work with good people, and with companies that adhere to their contracts. I’ve never really pursued being a ‘writer for hire’ – what I’ve tended to do is create an idea and then doggedly pursue it until someone commissions it. So I’ve had the satisfaction of having my own ideas be commissioned – but as I say this route is becoming rarer and rarer. Many sitcoms now are devised by a star and a producer and writers are brought in. So being a writer AND performer is the best thing, I think – to broaden one’s options. But there’s nothing like being on stage and an audience laughing – or crying – and being gripped. That beats everything.

You have enjoyed a prolific career writing and acting on the radio. What makes working in that medium so attractive?

It’s a cliché, but radio is a great place for beginning a comedy writing career, it’s innovative, experimental, and of course many of the greatest TV comedies have started on radio from Hancock’s Half Hour to Little Britain. I cut my teeth on radio in the 90’s and was lucky to be given several of my own series – including my favourite, Truly, Madly, Bletchley. All in all between 1990 and 1998 I wrote in the region of 250 half hour eps. And as said, I always make sure I perform in the things I write. It’s all great apprenticeship – but of course, when you look back, you realise it’s not just ‘apprenticeship’ because a lot of it is actually far superior and funnier than much TV comedy. I think there’s nothing wrong at all in considering radio comedy as a goal in itself. 

When I started in radio there was a scheme where two or three writers were given a bursary, a retainer, and would work on many shows at once, which was fantastic because you worked on all sorts of formats – sitcoms, sketches etc. – and of course worked with lots of different producers. And you learned from other writers – I was awarded the contract with Richard Herring and Stewart Lee. We used to work in the same offices, and I have to say I learned a hell of a lot from their work ethic. They were prolific. I think things were more open and anarchic then – everyone was getting pilots going – Harry Hill, Alistair McGowan, Armando Ianucci, Chris Morris. I do recall - and this is absolutely true - having an idea for a series in the morning, showing it to a producer on a piece of A4 paper, the producer took it upstairs straight to the Controller of BBC R4 – the Controller commissioned a series of six episodes there and then, and I began writing the series in the afternoon. That could never, ever, happen now. I think!

You worked with the legendary Liz Fraser on the radio series Truly, Madly, Bletchley. What was she like to work with?

Liz was absolutely wonderful. She’d been a heroine of mine since childhood – I fell in love with all the glamorous stars of the 50’s and 60’s - I’m still in love with them. Her work with Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers was marvellous of course, as were her Carry On appearances. We sent her the pilot script of the series and I was overjoyed she said yes. As you might expect she was consummately professional, very generous, and so encouraging – she kept telling me how funny the show was, which was a fillip when a common thing is to begin to lose faith in it as the recording date approaches. I’ve seen her over the years since – most recently at an event celebrating Peter Sellers' 90th birthday at the BFI, at which I gave a talk on his visual comedy.

I understand you're also a big fan of the Carry On films - as I write this blog I've got to ask what your favourite film in the series is and if you have a favourite actor in the team?

Oh yes, I’m a huge fan. John Le Mesurier was married to Hattie Jacques of course and he talks fondly of knowing all the Carry On actors – there were wonderful parties at their house in Earl’s Court.

I could bang on for hours about how the Carry Ons are the natural heirs to Roman comedy, Restoration farces, and the healthy, bawdy vulgarity of music-hall and variety. I’m a bit of an evangelist about them actually. I think there’s a lot snobbishness about them. It makes me laugh when I read about theatrical people aiming to put on ‘working class theatre’ in arts centres in towns and cities up and down the country, when the ‘working-class’ once had a perfectly marvellous form of entertainment in music-hall and variety in theatres the length and breadth of the land – and the Carry Ons are most definitely a continuation of that working-class tradition. One wonders how many working-class people go to theatres today to watch the latest ‘working-class’ drama? One suspects the audience are mostly middle-class.

A favourite? Well, as I love Fifties comedy I adore the Norman Hudis Carry Ons, from Sergeant to Cruising – because they catch the tail-end of the Ealing ethos. I do love the Rothwell era – Spying, Cleo, Doctor etc. – but there’s a warmth about the first six, when everyone was finding their feet, in the flush of (relative) youth, as it were. To pick a favourite is so difficult, but if I had to I’d choose Carry On Cruising. Sid James was marvellous in it – playing against type as an officer – and though it lacks Hawtrey, there are some lovely cameos – Esma Cannon in the bar, the lovely Liz Fraser at her most seductive etc.
A favourite actor in the whole team? That’s pretty impossible! Everyone shone. I can name my favourite SUPPORTING Carry On actor (though he was in so many that to call him ‘supporting’ might be unjust) and that’s Peter Butterworth: he always turned in marvellous work - his preacher in Khyber is hilarious. 

Why do you think the Carry Ons are still so popular 60 years after they first hit cinema screens?

For many of the reasons I’ve cited above, actually – they’re utterly unpretentious, and locked into a fertile, rich seam of British comedy – bawdy farce. Because sex is funny – and men pursuing sex is the biggest joke of human life and history. Now, of course, it’s no longer ‘respectable’ to consider that funny! So the Carry Ons have become a kind of ‘guilty pleasure’ – which is of course nonsense. My mother was an ardent feminist and she loved the Carry Ons. You see, a man saying ‘phwoarr’ to a passing woman, is funny. But now that can’t happen in comedy – even if men are still saying ‘phwoarr’ inside their heads. The problem with sanitising comedy is that those foibles, flaws and sexisms don’t disappear – they just get bottled up. In today’s climate we’re all meant to be “getting along with each other”- genders, races etc. We’ve all got to be “nice.” But of course that’s not funny - and it’s not how the world is. It’s a death-blow to comedy to bottle all that up. The laughter of foibles, sexisms, and dare I say it racisms (who cannot say that Rigsby is not still funny?) was, I think, a great cultural release – and a telling of truth. Which is my long-winded way of explaining why, for me, the Carry Ons are still perennially popular – because they were the last comedy films to show, brazenly, the idiocies, sexisms and foibles of people: that is why people still love them - they are a breath of fresh air. They are honest. They are true. They are consummately performed by many of the finest broad comic actors of the era – and they are funny.

Where can we find out more about you and where you'll be performing?

I’ll be performing my John Le Mesurier show at the Cabaret Voltaire, Blair St., Edinburgh, from August 2nd-26th, incl. Sundays, prior to a UK tour later in the year. All tour dates will be posted on my website -

- and more and more theatres are booking the show every day, so hopefully I’ll be playing a theatre in most parts of the country!

Finally, what's up next for you?

Well 2018 and the first part of 2019 will be focussed on John Le Mesurier, but I’ve always got about three projects on the go - I’ve just written a sitcom script which I’m pitching now, and I’m planning a new book. But the main plate I’ll be spinning is Do You Think That’s Wise? I’ve rewritten it after every preview, and it’s building as every week goes by. I’m working very hard to make it a worthy tribute to the man himself.  

You can find out more about Julian on his website and do give him a follow on Twitter @JulianDutton1

I'd like to thank Julian very much for taking the time to provide such considered and thoughtful responses to my questions and I wish him all the very best with his excellent show. 

"Do You Think That's Wise?" will be on at Cabaret Voltaire as part of the Edinburgh Festival from 2nd to 26th August.

And a big thank you to Sam Westerby for helping to set up the interview and for providing the wonderful photos.

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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