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

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - INTERVIEW -

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

Credit: Jo­han Pers­son

Brian Con­ley on the tightwire – and cen­tre – as PT Bar­num

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