Brian Conley Interview
Exposed meets Brian Conley. Dangerous Brian is back- and by that we mean Brian who tight-rope walks and eats fire. What could be more dangerous than that, you ask? Performing to a huge crowd at the same time, in the musical ‘Barnum’? And before you ask, there are no puppets… We had a chat with the primetime idol who is starring as America’s Greatest Showman himself; Phineas T Barnum…
Where are you at the moment then Brian?
I’m in a hotel suite in Glasgow.
Ooh very glamorous. Barnum was one of the first musicals you saw as a nipper- did you have designs on playing the lead back then?
No, never ever at all. It was the first thing I saw in the West End. It had Michael Crawford in it and I was blown away, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would one day be playing P.T. Barnum. But it’s a great show and I was always excited by it. They felt they needed a showman to play Barnum and so Sir Cameron (Mackintosh, theatre producer) contacted me and asked if I’d be interested and I said yes.
That must have been flattering?
It’s like being called up to the Premier League; the greatest football manager in the world ringing you up and saying, ‘Do you want to play with us’? It’s a big honour. Everyone wants to say they’ve worked for Cameron; I’m lucky I’ve done a couple of shows for him now.
Tell us a bit more about Barnum
It’s an interesting story because it’s a true story. The man was the richest man in America when he died and before he died he was the first millionaire. He was the first spin doctor; the first person who knew how to manipulate the press. He was a very clever man and he moved into politics. Everything I talk about actually happened. Every ornate theatre in the country; in the world is down to Barnum because he wanted to bring the middle classes into theatres, which were quite seedy places.
You put in some serious commitment to the show- even learning circus training. What was the hardest part?
There are certain skills you have to perfect when you’re playing P.T. Barnum, whether its walking the wire, stilt walking, juggling, or acrobatics. And of course, there’s the comedy and the acting and the singing. There are only a handful of people who can take on the part of Barnum and I’m lucky I’m one of them. Without a doubt the hardest was learning to walk on a tight wire. Its seven foot up, ten foot across and there’s no safety net or anything. More than anything, it’s everyone looking at you. It’s all very well doing it in a rehearsal situation but when you’ve got an audience looking at you, suddenly the pressure is on.
Crikey. And just how do you relax after a hard day spent eating fire and tight rope walking?
Well it’s gotten easier. The tight rope walking is at the end of the first half so…
Those first couple of months you do find that you’re a bit wired and it’s difficult to come down. The more you do it, the more you get into a routine and now I don’t find it too difficult to come down after a show.
Do you find yourself busting out an American accent in your downtime?
(Puts on an American accent) My American accent is always there. My name’s Barnum, P.T. Barnum.
How easy was the transition from TV to musical?
Well I’ve always alternated throughout my career. I’ve done so many different things; musicals are something that I’ve always really enjoyed and been passionate about. I enjoy going to see musicals and enjoy being in them. I’ve always been an entertainer and singing was my first true love. I always say I was born to sing and everything else I’ve learned.
How did it feel to be nominated for an Olivier award? Was it a career high?
Nah ‘cos I didn’t win it! I think doing eight Royal Variety shows is quite an accolade. I think for me, to have ticked every box; to have done everything is quite an achievement. To do musicals; to do television; chat shows; I’ve pretty much done everything there is to do. I’m chuffed that I’ve done all that. If there were highlights in my professional career, it would have to be playing Jolson (showman Al Jolson); I took it to Canada and London and I created the part. I’ve done so many things there’s no real moment I go, ‘yeah this is it’.
He says all casual!
The older you get, the more casual you get. I’m very honoured to have done them. This little lad from an estate in Kilburn has gone on to be successful and survived for forty years. I’ve been doing this professionally since I was 12.
Do you still get shouts of ‘it’s a puppet!’?
Oh yes, even when I’m just about to walk across the wire. Its fine, I’m glad I’ve got a catchphrase. I was in a shop not that long ago with my youngest daughter. There were some puppets and I put one on my hand and I was going ‘aw look at this one’. Someone shouted across the shop, ‘IT’S A PUPPET!’
What’s next for Brian Conley?
Well I’m just about to do a television series for BBC1 which is coming out later in the year. I can’t tell you too much about it. There are twenty episodes of a new TV series which I’m very excited about which I film in May. There’s no other big master plan. We’ve all got a good feeling about Barnum that it’ll go into the West End. You never know and that’s what’s exciting about our game.