Tuesday 9 April 2019

Carry On Blogging Interview: Next Page Productions

I'm delighted to bring another interview to Carry On Blogging. Caroline Nash and Steve Dimmer are the brains and talent behind an excellent stage show with a strong Carry On theme. Caroline's company Next Page Productions have produced a play of two acts telling the stories of Carry On legends Sid James and Joan Sims. I wanted to find out more about Caroline and Steve and their play, Funny Faces. I hope you enjoy the interview.

Can you tell me first of all what made you want to become an actor?

Caroline - It's hard to say really. I studied acting at school and then in Amateur Theatre productions and always found it to be such an incredible way of reaching out to people. I loved that power of seeing people laugh, cry, think and generally walk away talking about whatever story you had told. I wasn't in a position to go to Drama School when I left education so my life took a different direction in the form of an Area Sales Manager and Recruitment Consultant. It wasn't until the ripe old age of 34 that I decided I wanted to train as a professional actor. 

What were the reasons behind setting up your own company, Next Page Productions?

Caroline - Ten years ago I was given the opportunity to perform a one woman play that had been written for me called 'From Me To 3792'. I really wanted to take the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so I set up Next Page Productions to enable me to do that. Since then, the whole focus of Next Page has been to work only with new writing and using only Midlands based artists, including Writers, Directors, Actors and Technical crew. I wanted to let people see how much talent there was in the Midlands without having to draw on London based artists. I wanted to offer a platform for these people, but also to generate some fabulous storytelling and acting opportunities for myself and others. 

Can you tell me where the idea for your play ‘Funny Faces’ came from and what kind of research went into putting it together?

Steve - I knew quite a bit about Sid and Joan because I’d watched him from childhood. I read a lot, not only the biographies but other people’s life stories as they both seem to feature heavily in books about Tony Hancock, Kenneth Williams etc. I remembered a lot about them that I’d seen at the time but have never been officially recorded so it was nice to include that in the play and preserve the facts in some way. Obviously I re-watched a lot of the films and had fun sprinkling some of the titles throughout the plays – little references that only the diehard fans would spot. Neither of them were keen on giving interviews so there were only a few direct quotes I could use. It was important to me to remember that we were creating a piece of theatre and you can get backed into a corner if you adhere to the truth too slavishly so there were times when I invented incidents to make things flow better. Hopefully you can’t see the joins between the reality and the imagined.

Of all the Carry On team, why did you decide to focus on Sid James and Joan Sims?

Steve - There have been a few stage shows based on the life of famous comedians – Hancock, Kenneth Williams, Tommy Cooper, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, the list goes on – but no one had ever explored Sid’s life. This struck me as odd because he is still looked at with great affection and admiration. So it seemed a great topic to explore. Originally WOT SID DID was intended as a stand-alone piece until Caroline asked for a companion play to make it a whole evening. Hattie Jacques had already had her life story told on TV, so the obvious counterpart was Joanie. Until I began to look into her life, I never realised how versatile and varied her career was and this element, combined with her complicated private life gave us a rich mix for SIMply JOAN.

‘Funny Faces’ is divided into two solo performances – what are the challenges of appearing on stage by yourself in front of an audience?

Caroline - That's a great question. There are many challenges, but also many positives. Initially, the biggest challenge for me was the fear. If somethings happens or distracts you, or you lose focus, then you have no-one to help you out or get you back on track. You have to know your character inside out and back to front so that if anything goes awry, you can react in the manner of your character so as not to break the belief of what people are watching.  Another challenge, (which doesn't affect me too much anymore as I am so used to it) is not being afraid to look people in the eye. Talking to them directly, and involving them in your story. Making them feel a part of it without making them feel uncomfortable. There is something hugely rewarding about being on stage alone and being able to keep your audience engaged.

Steve - In both plays the audience is directly talked to and the first challenge is to get them to accept that convention. Without that acceptance, the plays can’t succeed. So getting the audience on side is the first things. One of the nicest compliments we’ve had about FUNNY FACES is that audience members felt like they were the only person in the room and we were just chatting exclusively to them. Both plays last an hour so that’s a lot of words. Learning them was trickier for Caroline than me I think as I’d lived with them for so long. Often to settle herself in Caroline would swap a word or so around and I’d have to gently remind her what it really was. It’s all to do with the rhythm and beat of a speech. Caroline was very patient with an over-protective author. Also because both plays are monologues, there is a danger of them becoming too static. Luckily we had a wonderful director in Rosemary Hill who made both plays kinetic but not frenetic. And for me the hardest thing was perfecting Sid’s laugh. How can you do a play about him without that?

Both Sid and Joan had difficulties in their private lives which often contrasted with their public personas. How much of that is portrayed in ‘Funny Faces’?

Steve - A lot. This element drives both plays, the private life versus the public persona. I wanted the plays to be true dramatic works rather than a serious of superficial anecdotes. People are surprised (I hope pleasantly) that both plays show so much of the underbelly of Sid and Joan. They both knew how to get laughs but are also aware there was a price to be paid for doing so. Joan’s vulnerability means she’s very shy away from her profession, very lonely, a lot of it stemming from her insensitive Mother. Sid initially comes over as brash and invulnerable but as he relaxes and the whisky loosens his tongue, we see a softer side, particularly when he’s recalling his time with Barbara Windsor.

Given that Sid and Joan were both at their peak around forty years ago and times have changed, I’m interested in the kind of audience your plays attract and what their reactions are – what do they think?

Steve - In SIMply JOAN, I’ve seen people crying their eyes out as they get engrossed in her story. There’s an enormous amount of empathy and support expressed for her by the audience. With Sid, it’s amazing how much they love him. He confesses some of the really terrible things he’s done and they forgive him. He’s excused because he’s Sid. I think the majority of our audience are people who are curious about their lives and want to know more about them. Having said that, I had a super conversation with a 14 year old who’d seen the plays and had a grudging admiration for Sid who he called ‘a bit of a player’.

Joan Sims is my ultimate comedy heroine, I adore her. Why do you think she is still so well loved and respected?

Steve - Again, her versatility. She was amazing at accents and voices. When she took over from Betty Marsden in the follow-up to Round the Horne (Stop Messing About), her contribution is so solid and inspired. We have a little piece in SIMply Joan of her playing a Victorian baby farmer who killed over 200 children and her work there is just amazing, absolutely chilling. I remember her playing in a comedy-drama series called Born and Bred. It had a huge celebrity cast, Max Wall, Richard O’Callaghan, Gordon Kaye, Susie Blake etc. and Joan acts them all off the screen. Such a consummate actress.

A general question – why do you think it’s so important we remember and celebrate comedy greats like Sid and Joan and highlight their legacy?

Steve  - I don’t think we need to remember them, I think their body of work is celebration enough. And luckily, because we have recordings of them in action, future generations will be able to discover and appreciate them.

I ask everyone this question so I must include it – what’s your favourite Carry On film and why?

Steve -This’ll be a bizarre answer because I’m going to name one that Joan only has a small part in and Sid isn’t in it at all. Carry On Screaming. It’s a fantastic mixture of inventive comedy and real thrills. I love Harry H Corbett as Sergeant Bung and Fenella Fielding simply smoulders sex. And let’s not forget the brilliant visual feel of it, so rich and authentically Edwardian (even if it was done on a budget of 10 bob!)

Caroline - I think mine has to be 'Carry On Up The Khyber' and 'Carry On Camping'. I remember watching these over a weekend as a kid and think they are probably the ones I have seen over and over again.

Where can people see you in ‘Funny Faces’ next and how can they book tickets?

A new tour is currently being planned for Funny Faces but Joan will be appearing at the Live @ The Libraries Event in Oldham on the 9th July, the full show will be at The Bonkers Playhouse in Kettering on the 20th July and Lichfield Garrick Studio on the 18th October. There will be more bookings available shortly. You can find more details and book tickets atwww.nextpageproductions.co.uk or follow us on Facebook at Next Page Productions Presents where all new venues will be announced.

Finally, what’s up next for you and for Next Page Productions?

Caroline - Sid and Joan have taken over our lives for the last few years, but I would love to think that Steve and I would work together again. It has been great working with him after a 30 year gap and he has written 2 more incredible scripts which I would be delighted to be a part of, so watch this space. 

A huge thank you to both Caroline and Steve for taking part in the interview, it was an absolute pleasure. I'd like to wish them luck with all their future endeavours. And do check out their website for more information on Next Page Productions. And of course, get along and see one of their fantastic shows.

And you can follow Next Page Productions on Twitter @NextPageProds 

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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