Playing a washed up stand-up comic who is out of tune with his audience should be a doddle for Shane Richie – the ex-Eastenders star says so himself.
He’s about to take on the stage role of Archie Rice in a new production of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, which can be both hilarious and heartbreaking.
The action has been moved from the 1950s to the 1980s but the themes of a failing star performing to audiences looking for a different style of comedy hasn’t changed – and Shane says he knows exactly how Archie feels.
“Unlike a lot of the actors that have played this part before me, like Sir Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Branagh – I mean there is no denying that they are wonderful actors – but they have never done stand up,” he explains.
“They’ve never stood on a stage, in a club or at Butlins when kids are doing knee slides in front of you, there’s someone playing on the fruit machines or waiting for bingo to get started – and I have.
“I’ve been that comedian and I’ve stood there doing my thing for all these people who have come to see Little and Large or Jimmy Cricket, and I’ve died on my arse because this audience had been fed a staple diet of your Jim Davidsons your Bernard Mannings, your Jim Bowens. That’s all they knew, so I would have to go up perform material which was totally not right for them and died on my arse. So, I know. I know what it’s like, I know who Archie Rice is, I know how it feels inside and I know what is like to be dead on stage.”
Richie was famously a Butlins redcoat early in his career but his experience of comedy goes back further than that.
“My dad used to run clubs in London, I grew up around working men’s clubs in north London,” he recalls. “I come from a big Irish family so every weekend we’d be at the clubs and I’d see these comedians come on stage and do Irish gags, homophobic, racist, sexist stuff and people would laugh. Then when I started in the business, in the ‘80s, it’s been well documented that I did stand up. I did shows like Live From the Piccadilly, Live From the Palladium, Seaside Specials, I did summer seasons in clubs, holiday camps, I get depressed thinking about it.”
Although Richie was inspired by the ‘new’ alternative comedy of the 1980s like Spitting Image, French and Saunders and Alexei Sayle, it did him no good at first.
“I’ve had beer bottles thrown at me in Colchester,” he laughs. “I remember in Wales, coming off stage, I was 19 or 20, and back then you had to do three half-hour spots. I remember doing this particular club, going on and doing the material that I was doing then and just dying a death. No one was interested, they were just talking.
“I remember getting changed in the dressing room in between spots and there was a duo there too and the average age of the duo was dead. And one of them said ‘Hey, if you don’t mind me saying, I don’t think you’re very funny.’ He said’ Do you know any Tom Jones? Why don’t you go and sing because you’re not very funny?’
“So I remember going on and just singing Rock Around the Clock and a load of old Elvis songs just so I could get paid.
“This is back in the day when you’d arrive in the middle of nowhere, find a phone box ring the agent and they would tell you there and then if you are working or not and then you’d have to find some digs for the night so, I know who Archie Rice is, and that is him.”
In The Entertainer the story is set against the backdrop of the Falklands War of 1982, and in a reversal of Richie’s experience, the satirical new world of alternative comedy has dismissed Archie’s style of humour and his sort of act as old–fashioned and even offensive. The mother-in-law joke has been outlawed and a generation of entertainers like Archie have suddenly found themselves irrelevant.
Richie, who played Robin Hood in panto at Woking two years ago and is also a Surrey resident, landed the Archie role thanks to director Sean O’Connor who worked with him as a story editor on EastEnders in 2001.
“He was responsible for a lot of Alfie Moon’s big stories back in the day and then we worked together on a reboot of Minder for Channel 5 where I played Archie Daley,” he explains. “I was in my mid-forties then. Sean was still in his early fifties and he said to me ‘Are you familiar with John Osborne’s The Entertainer?’ And of course, I was. That amazing performance by Sir Lawrence Olivier, a great movie, and he said, ‘Because one day you will make a great Archie Rice’.
“So, then we jump 12 years ahead and last year we’re chatting, and he said, ‘How do you fancy having a go at this?’ I said, ‘I’d love to’…”
Shane Richie will star in The Entertainer at the New Victoria Theatre, Woking, from Monday (23 September) until Saturday 28 September.