Interview: Actor, writer and comedian Simon Day talks to Your Move
As a stand-up comic, principal performer on 90s TV smash ‘The Fast Show’ and more recently the ageing progrockers Brian Pern, Simon Day has been a mainstay of the British comedy scene for almost 25 years.
Ahead of an appearance at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall’s Music Room, Your Move caught up with the actor, writer and comedian to discuss his best loved characters, how not to win on fruit machines and the chances of a ‘Fast Show’ comeback.
Interview by Lawrence Saunders
How’s the tour been going so far?
I think people are enjoying it. They’re getting four characters, which is good value, and I’m really enjoying it too. In the past I didn’t so much.
In the past I didn’t put a lot into [stand-up] – I’d just turn up and do the material. Back when I was doing television I got to the point where I thought ‘do I really want to be going to Durham on a Thursday night when I don’t have to?’.
“Having done Brian Pern on the BBC, there are so many things you aren’t allowed to say and I can say want I want live, which is really refreshing.”
But I’ve been galvanised recently and have started to enjoy doing it more.
Also, having done Brian Pern on the BBC, there are so many things you aren’t allowed to say and I can say what I want live, which is really refreshing.
Out of all your old characters, what made you choose to do Billy Bleach, Brian Pern, Geoffrey Allerton and Tony Beckton for these shows?
I wanted to do something a bit different and some of my characters are easier to do live than others.
I do [Billy Bleach] because he’s a good compère, everybody recognises him and he looks like the type of person who would talk for ages. With Geoffrey Allerton, I like doing the poems and again it shows a different side.
Tony Beckton is the hardest one because you’ve got to make him quite believable. He’s not cracking jokes, he’s talking about his life in jail but hopefully he’s funny too. I wanted to show that strange dichotomy which those types of characters have.
With Brian Pern, he was on television and there are a lot of fans out there who want to see him and I thought it was a bit unfair to kill it off. Although it was only on BBC Four, a lot of people did like the character.
Out of the four characters, the one people will possibly be most familiar with is Billy Bleach from ‘The Fast Show’. Where did the idea for him come from?
He’s based on an amalgamation of people from my past. Back when I used to go the pub a lot, there was always one guy who was always in there; he was quite intelligent – a bit of a waste really.
He’d talk about lots of different subjects; he was quite knowledgeable in some ways, opinionated, but you knew he was never going to get out of the pub.
Billy is always happy to offer his expertise to anyone trying their luck on the fruit machine in the pub – often with less than ideal results. Is it true that this bit of his character is based on you?
Yes! I was that bloke. I used to go over to people and say ‘get out the way!’, and help them with the nudge and all that. I was a proper fruit machine addict.
But some people didn’t appreciate the help. In those days you had a set amount of time to nudge the right things down, and if you got it wrong you would lose the jackpot.
So if you got it wrong and you had pushed somebody out the way and done it for them, they would be like ‘oh, cheers! Thanks for nothing’.
Brian Pern, another of your most treasured characters, is an affectionate parody of singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel. Were you happy to hear he was flattered by your portrayal?
Yeah it was good. I’ve always been a fan of Peter, more so than ‘Genesis’, and so was Rhys (Thomas) who I wrote [‘The Life of Rock with Brian Pern’] with.
We didn’t take the mickey out of him but obviously some of it was a bit silly. It was Eric Clapton who said he has to like it because if he started raving about it, he’d look like an idiot.
Luckily it’s on BBC Four, so it’s not like he’s getting people coming up to him in the street saying ‘you look like Brian Pern!’. Had it been on ITV and had 20 million viewers, it might have been a bit different.
Rhys came up with the idea for the character whilst watching clips of Peter online. He was doing these video blogs and he was clearly very uncomfortable talking to camera.
“We’d like to do something live. We’ve been talking about it but who knows?”
That was what the original joke was – a guy who was doing this but he didn’t really seem to be wanting to. He has the most unemotional, flat delivery.
It’s that reserved English manner, which is not Keith Richards or very rock and roll but instead very introverted and quiet.
Recently we’ve seen comedy programmes like ‘Vic & Bob’s Big Night Out’ and ‘The League of Gentlemen’ reappear on our screens. What are the chances of ‘The Fast Show’ making a similar comeback?
Possibly. We’d like to do something live. We’ve been talking about it but who knows? When you do ‘The Fast Show’ you’ve got to get all the people together, pay them all and it becomes more complicated.
Paul [Whitehouse] and I have been talking about doing something on a small scale in London.
But ‘The Fast Show’ coming back as a television show? I don’t know. It’s kind of dated in a way; it’s not like ‘The League of Gentlemen’ where there are plots to back it up. Who knows?
Simon Day is playing Music Room on 14 March.