Jeffrey Holland plays Tom Ballard opposite Nichola McAuliffe as Diana Trent, in the upcoming stage adaptation of the hit sitcom Waiting for God, set in the Bayview retirement home - the roles originated onscreen by Stephanie Cole and Graham Crowden in the TV series that ran on BBC1 from 1990 to 1994. In our Q&A Jeffrey talks about the play, stage versus screen, why television no longer writes sitcoms with older stars and his comedy hero, Stan Laurel ...
How did you come to be involved in Waiting for God?
I’ve known several of the cast members for a while. When sadly Roy Hudd had to pull out, a few names were bandied about. Nichola McAuliffe and David Benson [who plays Tom’s son Geoffrey] mentioned my name. Next thing I knew, I got a phone call and it was ‘can I start straight away, please?’ And that’s what I did.
I’m actually in another play at the moment, Richard Harris’ new dark comedy Dog Ends at the Tabard Theatre in London. So I’m rehearsing Waiting for God during the day and then performing Dog Ends in the evening until 15 April – it’s a busy time!
The rest of the Waiting for God cast had already been rehearsing for a fortnight. How did you feel joining them at this stage?
It was a bit daunting to say the least. The others had already established what they were going to do and blocked it out, as we say. And then they had to start over with me. We had another initial read-through, which, for them, must have been difficult. We sat round the table and read the whole play together so that I could get the measure of what was required.
It’s fortunate for me that I’ve got a photographic sort of memory for words so I’ve learnt the lines very quickly. With such a short amount of time, it’s just as well.
Have you and Nichola McAuliffe worked together before?
Nichola and I have known each other for over 20 years, but we’ve only previously worked together once, on a radio programme called Mooney’s Monday Magazine in the 1980s. It was a Radio 2 sketch comedy series starring an Irish comic called Patrick Mooney, who’s sadly no longer with us. It’s terrific to get a chance to work together again after all these years. Nichola is a very talented actress and a fun person. She makes me laugh, I make her laugh - we get on very well.
What else appealed to you about doing Waiting for God?
I loved the show when it was on television in the 90s. I used to watch it every week. I love the black humour of the situation, and these wonderful, bolshy old people who stood up for their rights and got laughs doing it. When this opportunity came up, I thought, well, it’s gone full circle, I’m now old enough to play it! Being 70 myself, I can relate a lot more to the characters in the play.
It’s a very funny piece. What the writer Michael Aitkens has done is take the idea of a series and turn it into a two-act play with a beginning, a middle and an end, as opposed to the series, which went on one episode to another and didn’t have a definite ending.
There are lots of quirky things in the play too, but if I told you, I’d be giving it away. All I can say is, there’s a surprise, and you’ll see a little bit more of me than you expect to see… I’m saying no more!
It’s such a good script, so funny. It really is a good night out. I do recommend it.
How would you describe your character, Tom Ballard?
Tom is eccentric and full of fun. He sees the amusing side of everything. Even when things are going wrong, he doesn’t get cross. Everything makes Tom smile. I’m just getting my head around that as a performer right now. Normally, your instinct is to shout if you get angry, but Tom’s not a shouter - he shouts with a smile on his face. That’s a rather endearing quality, and I’m enjoying discovering that in myself.
I’ve never played someone like Tom before, and that’s what I’m finding most enjoyable. I’ve played older men onstage, of course. But they’re usually doddery old duffers, silly colonels and the like. That’s a very different kettle of fish. Tom in Waiting for God is a very real person, and I’ve got to approach him in a very real way, not as a dramatic caricature.
Do you think attitudes to ageing have changed since Waiting for God first aired on television 27 years ago?
They do say 70 is the new 50, don’t they? People are staying younger longer because we have the means now. I’ve got a photograph of my father taken a few weeks before his death in 1961. He was 50 when he died and he looked 65. It’s partly a matter of style but also of lifestyle and what people have been through. Today, there’s more access to healthier food, exercise and fitness. People didn’t think about all that then.
Also, most people my age now don’t smoke. I used to. But you get to a certain time in your life when you realise you’ve got to pack that in. When I first moved in with my lovely wife [the actress Judy Buxton], we lived on the second floor and there was no lift. We were both smokers when we met and we intended to stop at some point. Then one day coming home, by the time I got up the stairs to our front door, I was wheezing and coughing and spluttering. I thought then, this has got to stop because I want to go on living here a little while longer, thank you. So we both went cold turkey and have never smoked again. We also eat well and I like to think we’re both fit as a fiddle.
Having said all that, we’d be lucky to get a show like Waiting for God on television now. Television doesn’t cater for older audiences any more, which means there are very few good roles for the older actor. That’s why most of my work is in the theatre now.
Why do you think television has changed since your time in hits like Hi-de-Hi (1988-1993) and You Rang, M’Lord? (1988-1993)?
Since I was in sitcoms back in the 80s and early 90s, television has gone through a lot of changes. When we were doing a series called Oh, Doctor Beeching! - which was my third situation comedy with [renowned TV producer and writer] David Croft after Hi-de-Hi and You Rang, M’Lord? - we were only allowed to do two series before they axed it. The man in control of BBC1 at the time went on record saying he didn’t want any more ‘net curtain comedy’, whatever that means. And that was it, we were out.
That was in 1997. Television was changing then. Not for the better, in my opinion. The comedies that started getting made then were not family comedies where you could sit down with granny and the kids. They were much more adult, containing bad language and sexual references and, well, smut is the general term I would use. I’m thinking along the lines of Men Behaving Badly and series like that that changed how television comedy was viewed.
I don’t personally like that kind of comedy. I liked being involved in the good, clean stuff. But that’s the way television evolved. Most of the people running television preferred that kind of comedy. I think they thought they were being clever.
Today, the young people who run television run it for other young people like themselves. Consequently, you don’t get many programmes for older actors commissioned and there aren’t many roles for older actors except if you’re a character in a soap.
Do you think theatre is less ageist?
Theatre is better for casting older actors. And, I suppose, since I’ve done a lot of television, my name is useful for theatrical producers who need somebody’s face to put on the poster. And I’m glad of that. Most actors will tell you the theatre is their first love. It certainly is mine. Out of theatre, television, radio and film, though I haven’t done much in the film world, it truly is theatre that I enjoy most. Most of my career now is in the theatre and I do pantomime nearly every year. Last Christmas was my 44th pantomime season. I adore playing the Dame.
Why do you love doing theatre?
I love theatre because it’s live. It’s just you and your audience. Although you do the same thing every night, you don’t do the same thing every night because you’ve got a different audience out there and you’re getting a different reaction. That’s particularly so with a comedy. You can’t always guarantee the laughs will come thick and fast; they might come thin and fast or thin and slow. It all depends on the audience. It gives you such a buzz responding to that.
I also love touring theatre, because touring keeps theatre alive all over the country. There are some wonderful theatres in the provinces and places my wife [the actress Judy Buxton] and I love to visit. Judy and I have worked together on many shows. We love touring and doing pantos together.
How well do you know the stops on this tour?
I have worked in a few of the theatres we’re touring to with Waiting for God. I’ve done the Devonshire Park at Eastbourne many, many times. The friends of the theatre know me well there and always put on a little party after the first night. I’m looking forward to that.
One of my favourite theatres, which we’re visiting, is the Blackpool Grand. That’s a beautiful theatre. It’s one of Frank Matcham’s best. When he was designing theatres at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, he was commissioned to build the Grand and he was given free reign and a good budget. They said, ‘do what you like, Mr Matcham’. So he did and it’s absolutely gorgeous. He didn’t miss a thing with that theatre. Every corner he could put or paint something into, he did. It’s glorious. And something else I love about the Grand – this obviously came some time after Frank Matcham - I’m on the comedy carpet that they have at the front of the theatre. Jeffrey Holland’s name is right next to Stanley Holloway’s! I never realised I was that well known.
Some of the theatres we’re going to with Waiting for God are new to me, including The Lowry in Salford, the New Wolsey in Ipswich and the Broadway Theatre in Letchworth, where we’re starting, is a completely new theatre and it’s rather nice to be part of that opening. Judy and I also love Bath and Malvern so I’m glad they’re on the tour.
Having done so many comedies on both screen and stage, what would you say are the key differences?
When you’re doing a comedy on television, if you have a studio audience, which we did in the shows I did, you have to rely on your audience for the reactions but always be mindful of being filmed. So you’re playing to the cameras but you’re listening to the audience. It’s like you need a third eye.
A lot of comedy on television now is made without an audience, which I think is a shame. The reactions of the studio audience also provide cues to the viewer at home as to what’s funny and when they should be laughing. A lot of the time with sitcoms that don’t have an audience, you might watch them at home and smile a bit, but I guarantee you won’t laugh as much as you would if you could hear the live audience response.
If you’re doing a play onstage, you have to allow the audience to laugh and wait for them to finish before you speak again – because, if you start talking too soon, they’ll miss what you said. That’s the basis of what we call comedy timing. You have to wait and play the laugh, hold the moment so that they don’t miss anything.
Stan Laurel knew how important it was to wait for the laugh. Before Laurel & Hardy films went on general release, they would preview them in cinemas before an audience. Stan would stand at the back and make notes about where people laughed and how long for. If extra time was needed to allow for the length of the laughter, they went back and reshot the scene so that the audience could get every gag.
That’s effectively what you have to do live when you’re doing theatre. After you’ve done a few performances, you get a feel for when the laughs are going to come so you can allow for them. It’s tricky old game. Not everyone can do it. But we can.
You’ve co-written and performed your one-man show …and this is my friend Mr Laurel twice at the Edinburgh Fringe and around the country. What was your inspiration for that?
Stan Laurel is a hero of mine. I’ve always admired him. He was a pioneering comic. He wanted to get into the movies from vaudeville and he did. He was the brain behind the Laurel & Hardy films. Oliver Hardy came in and did his job and he did it beautifully. Stan thought the world of him as a performer. But while Oliver went off to play golf, cook and eat – that’s why he was so big - Stan got deeply involved. Before they started shooting, Stan sat down with the gag men and sorted out the story. When they were shooting, Stan virtually directed all the films - although there were credited directors, they let Stan get on with it because they knew he knew what he was doing and it made their lives easier. And when shooting was over, Stan went into the cutting room and did all the editing. So he was basically in total control of the finished product.
When I learned about Laurel & Hardy, that was what I loved about Stan. I realised there was a great story behind his life and work and I thought, what a wonderful thing it would be to tell that story. And so far so good. It’s been a big success for me. The play itself is only an hour, but I come back and do a Q&A for the second half when I take it on tour. I tell a few stories about Stan, and then invite questions. The amazing thing is that they always want to know even more about Laurel & Hardy.
I think Stan would like Waiting for God. He would see the irony and the comedy, and he would love the way that this play communicates with its audience.
What do you think the main message the play communicates is?
Live for now. Carpe diem. That’s a phrase we actually use in the play. Carpe diem.
One of Diana’s great lines in Waiting for God is: “If you’re angry, you know you’re alive.” What would be the equivalent for you?
I think my character Tom would say ‘love and laughter’ and so would I. It’s very important to have both of those to have a happy laugh.