Mike Atkinson

Interview: Rodney Bewes

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on September 22, 2007

Following a successful run at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, former Likely Lad Rodney Bewes is currently in the middle of a marathon one-man tour of the UK, stretching right through to April 2008.

The show in question, On the Stage – and Off, is a comedic adaptation of the first book by Jerome K Jerome. As Rodney wryly commented, when EG spoke to him earlier this week, “He was only famous for Three Men in a Boat. Nobody thinks he did anything else, just as nobody thinks I’ve done anything other than The Likely Lads – although I’ve been an actor for fifty-five years.”

Before embarking upon his literary career, the young Jerome spent three years during the 1880s trying to make it as an actor, with a spectacular lack of success that left him penniless and nearly destitute. On the Stage chronicles this period – but with the accent on comedy rather than tragedy, as Jerome lurches between a succession of second-rate productions, seedy lodging houses and unscrupulous managers. “Slowly, he comes to see the world of glamorous show business for what it is”, explained Bewes, with some force of feeling.

Jerome’s memoir was well received in its day, so much so that when Three Men in a Boat appeared, the critics were initially disappointed that it didn’t live up to the expectations of his debut. Having already toured Three Men as a one-man show in the 1990s, Bewes clearly feels a particular affinity with its author.

“He came to London from a poor upbringing, and then he made his own life – which is exactly what I did. I could never have done P.G. Wodehouse! I can empathise with Jerome K Jerome, as he wasn’t posh. After his success, the press nicknamed him ‘Arry K ‘Arry, because of his street vernacular. Even so, he became best friends with Conan Doyle, Kipling and J.M. Barrie, and so he was part of the literary set.”

As the tour progresses, Rodney has noticed that it tends to attract “an audience who like theatre. They’re the people who keep the roofs on theatres. It always amazes me who actually comes, away from the television and the fireside and the barbecue and the lawn.”

The show is also peppered with unscripted ad-libs and asides, ensuring that it never becomes a dry, scripted monologue, of interest merely to the antiquarian. “Somebody said it was ‘interactive’, and I had to go and ask what that meant. Apparently, it’s when I muck about with the audience. But I love latecomers, and I love mobile phones.”

“During one of the Edinburgh shows, a mobile phone went off. Because I’m an actor in my head during the play, I turned in the direction of the phone and said: ‘Do answer it! It might be an offer of work!’”

Although the young Jerome might have failed to find his big break as an actor, the young Rodney Bewes enjoyed conspicuously better luck. Following his casting alongside Tom Courtenay in the classic British comedy film Billy Liar, there was no turning back. A few years later, his portrayal of the hapless Bob Ferris in The Likely Lads sealed his reputation. While some actors might have felt somewhat shackled to such an enduringly popular character, the experience has brought Bewes nothing but satisfaction.

“A lot of actors get very grand and self-important, and I don’t think you should. The Likely Lads was my claim to fame, if you like. I even mention it on the posters for my tour. Why not? We’re here to sell tickets.”

The series was re-released last year on DVD, and a man from the BBC said to me: ‘We’re so thrilled that you’re going to be a boxed set, Rodney’. And I said: ‘Well, what’s next? After you’re a boxed set, it must be the knighthood!’”

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