Look back with camera – screen and stage star switches the focus
Fresh from starring as Barnum in a hit tour, Brian Conley is hosting a new BBC show called The TV That Made Me. Sara Willis finds out more
MEETING Brian Conley at the iconic Pinewood Studios in Iver during one of his rare lunch breaks seems hugely appropriate. He’s a seasoned pro and a workaholic, having been in entertainment for 41 years, and greeting Love Sunday magazine with arms outstretched and a showbiz kiss (just one, he’s not THAT showbiz), he hasn’t lost that mischievous twinkle in his eye.
Lounging back and sipping a decaf coffee, he’s totally relaxed, although eager to get back to work. And it’s obvious Brian feels at home here in Bucks – he has a huge mansion in the county and Pinewood is where he had his wedding reception.
“I proposed as a knight in armour, with a choir, like you do,” grins Brian, who married his beloved wife Anne-Marie in 1996, and claims the secret to their long marriage is the fact she’s not in the industry.
“And the car from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang brought us here from the church!”
He really does live and breathe showbiz. And the affable 53-year-old is quick to point out he’s one of a rare breed of true entertainers.
“I’ve been doing it all my life,” he says in his down-to-earth manner (born and bred in London, his dad was a cabbie and his mum was a dinner lady).
“It’s funny that in the old days people would sit at home and watch entertainers – now entertainers sit at home and watch people. I’ll be watching telly thinking, ‘What the bleeding hell are they doing up there? Leave it to the professionals, love!’
“I don’t mind Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor, but something people forget is at the very core of it, you do need a bit of talent,” he laughs, shaking his head in despair.
A father of two (eldest, Amy, 18, works in events management, while Lucy is 13), Brian insists he has the same advice for his youngest, who would love to follow in his footsteps, and has already shown flair in a few TV roles.
“She’s really good,” he says. “But when I was young, people wanted to know how to get into the business. Now they say: ‘How can I become famous?’”
Brian worked hard at his craft – he went to stage school at 12, before starring in ads and TV shows. He became a Pontin’s Bluecoat, then did warm-ups for acts, including the late comedian Kenny Everett.
“I’ve done it all,” says Brian, who still has a boyish charm, despite going grey. Then, in 1992, he got his big break with the hugely successful The Brian Conley Show. It became Britain’s most-watched entertainment programme, coining his catchphrase “It’s a puppet!”.
“People still shout that at me every day,” he says. “When my youngest popped out, she was a blue blob. I was very anxious and said, ‘Is it alright?’ and the midwife said, ‘It’s a puppet!’ But I’m easygoing, I embrace it.”
However, along with his success came a drinking habit that took its toll. “Drinking is so prevalent in our game,” he says. “And I never saw the point in having a drink, only in getting drunk.
“At its height, I’d be drinking a bottle of wine and three Jim Beams a night. I was on stage one evening in 2003 and I just wasn’t there. I’d had a real bender the night before and I was stammering.
“I realised then I had to quit. I haven’t had an alcoholic drink in 11 years. It was the hardest but most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
Brian saw a psychiatrist for a year as he tried to give up booze. “He was very wise, like Obi-Wan Kenobi,” he laughs. “I remember saying, ‘I’m going on holiday to Antigua and it’s allinclusive, all the booze is free. When I come back I’ll stop.’
“And he said, ‘Won’t there always be an Antigua?’ So I went and didn’t drink. Although every time I went to the bar and ordered a coke, the barman shouted: ‘But the rum is free, everything is free!’”
It seems even when it’s a sensitive subject, Brian is happiest when making people laugh. By his own admission, he just can’t help performing. But not everything goes to plan… In 2012 Brian hit the headlines when he collapsed off-camera on I’m A Celebrity… and had to be stretchered out after 10 days.
“I ended up in hospital with malnutrition and exhaustion,’ he says, showing a rare serious side. ‘Well, we had Helen Flanagan in our team who wouldn’t do anything to earn us meals, and I’m no good if I don’t eat.”
But when asked about reports he’d stopped taking the anti-depressants he’d been on for 15 years to cope with depression, which got worse when he lost his dad to cancer in 2004, Brian fidgets nervously for the first time. “Maybe that’s what you heard, but I’m not saying anything,” he says.
Now he likes to stay healthy, cycling everywhere (confessing he doesn’t wear a helmet), and he’s been walking a tightrope in the musical Barnum for the last year.
“It’s so demanding,” he admits. “It has to be one of the toughest roles in musical theatre. I started training six months before the tour. I went to circus school to learn how to wire walk. I lost a stone, and I’ve got muscles where I never thought I’d get them. And now I’m a professional tightrope walker!”
Brian insists he doesn’t find work stressful “when they feed me”, and has a happy work/life balance – although he hasn’t had time off all year. He and his family live in a beautiful Buckinghamshire mansion complete with pool and tennis courts, and recently bought a beachside cottage in West Sussex.
“I am very fortunate,” he says. “There’s nothing I love more than being at home with the wife and kids.”
We’re meeting at Pinewood because Brian’s finishing his new BBC show The TV That Made Me, which sees celebrities reminisce over defining TV moments from their lives. Stars lined up include Eamonn Holmes, Sandi Toksvig and Natalie Cassidy.
“It’s like Desert Island Discs, but for TV,” he explains, clearly thrilled to be back on the box. “If you’re not on telly people think you’re not doing anything. But I’m in demand because there are not many people who do what I do, that’s why I’ve never stopped working,” he says.
And with that, Brian shoots off back to work. It’s obviously true what they say, they don’t make ’em like that
anymore… How do you spend your Sunday? Weekend away or stay at home? Home, because that’s where I truly relax. My girls and wife and I chill out and have a barbecue and watch a movie. I’m a big movie buff. Lazy lie-in or up with the lark? I’m a night owl. I work late, I go to bed late and get up late. I don’t do mornings. Sunday lunch at home, or a pub roast? Sunday lunch at home. My wife does the best Sunday roast. I like chicken with everything. I couldn’t get through the weekend without..? My family. They mean a lot to me. When I’m touring I find it very hard. ’m fortunate to have a lovely home, and I just love pottering around. Night out or early to bed? Never early to bed, but not a night on the tiles either. The last thing I want is to be surrounded by a load of drunk people. When you’re sober, you realise that drunk people keep repeating themselves.
There are not many people who do what I do – that’s why I’ve never stopped working”
Happiest at home in Bucks – Brian Conley
Brian Conley on the tightwire – and centre – as PT Barnum