Q&A: Nigel Planer

Grandpa in the stage version of Grandpa’s Great escape

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Funny and sad: that’s the magical mix that makes David Walliams’s books so brilliant, says Nigel Planer – Grandpa in the new stage version of Grandpa’s Great Escape. The actor (pictured above in the cockpit) is best known to parents and grandparents as Neil, the unhappy hippy in TV’s The Young Ones, but is now playing old ones and gaining a new generation of fans in the process. He gets festive with Simon Bland

You played Grandpa Joe in the West End production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. How is this Grandpa different?

I’m also playing a Grandpa in series two of There She Goes with David Tennent, which starts in the spring on BBC Two, so I’m doing a line of grandpas these days – but just because they’re grandpas doesn’t mean they’re all the same. This one’s different. He’s going a bit soft in the head. He’s a gentle man who doesn’t quite know where he is until you mention the war or Spitfires because that was the high point of his life.

David Walliams has written so many children’s books. Why do you feel this one is particularly suited to the stage?

It’s family viewing. Kids can enjoy it but it’s not condescending. It’s got all generations in it – there’s Grandad and the parents and the kids. There are jokes, it’s funny and it’s sad – I think that might be the key to why David has had extraordinary success with his books. It’s a show that kids can go to with their parents that their parents can enjoy too.

Grandpa drives a tank and flies a life-sized Spitfire in the show. Have you ever flown a plane?

I did fly a plane once. It was only a two seater and the pilot said: “Go on, have a go at steering.” I touched it not even a millimetre and the whole thing went around to the right and scared the heck out of me. I touched it a millimetre back the other way, thinking I’d right it, and it went down to the left, with the ground coming up over my head. It wasn’t for me. I’m not built to steer planes – I never want to do that again. It was well scary.

Do you think it’s especially important for kids to experience live theatre in an age of smartphones and tablets?

I think it’s incredibly important. When I was young the thing that really took my breath away was seeing live theatre. It’s a wonderful thing for kids. I did Dr Who Live and in the first half audiences thought my character was nice but it turns out he’d captured the Doctor. After the interval, I walked back on stage and hundreds of people started booing. All of that is wonderful. It’s like pantomime. I find live performances very exciting.

Do you have fond memories of taking your family to the theatre when they were growing up?

Yeah, I do. The trouble was: when my boys were young, I was always in the show myself so their memory of it might not be quite as rosy as mine because they had to sit in the wings, the dressing room or with their mum or stepmum in the audience.

This show will be a Christmas treat for many. What’s a typical Christmas Day like at the Planer house?

Normally we have a quiet Christmas Day and then masses of family over on Boxing Day. Everyone comes to us and there’s about 30 or more people – but this year we’re going to be doing two shows on Boxing Day and two shows on Christmas Eve so we’re going to have to cancel Christmas this year!

Christmas is a time of excess. What’s your favourite festive guilty pleasure?

I like those scotch whisky tasting sets where you get small bottles of about eight different whiskies. You start by comparing them, thinking, ah, yes, this one’s 10 years old but not quite as nice as this one. You pretend you’re tasting the difference and then end up just drinking them all and you haven’t the faintest idea which one you’re drinking by the end. That’s my guilty Christmas treat.

Dads and grandads are always difficult to buy for at Christmas. Does the same apply to you?

Oh yes. I could never think of anything to get my dad and I must be just as impossible to buy for. Last year I got a load of expensive socks and that was really good because they were the sort of things you wouldn’t spend money on yourself. They were really nice stylish ones.

You’re an actor, so does that mean you’re skilled at pretending you like bad presents?

You’re right. I am quite good at lying, I have to admit. He said… lying.

Grandpa arrives in Sheffield, at the Fly DSA Arena on 29 Dec, then heads to Manchester Arena on 1 Jan, and Liverpool M&S Bank Arena on 4 Jan (greandpasgreatescapelive.co.uk)

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