Mr Flibble Talks To... Magnificent Masson-ry
Mr Flibble has a beak-wag with Stan Laurel's less robotic alter-ego, Forbes Masson.

5 March, 2004

Mr Flibble whispered his by-now traditional opening question to Andrew, who dutifully passed it on to Forbes: How did you start ACTING?

I always wanted to do as a kid, and I was discouraged greatly by family and teachers, but I pursued [it]. Then I went to drama school in Glasgow, I went to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and did a three-year drama course there.

While I was there I met a guy called Alan Cumming and we did some cabaret work together - basically to get Equity cards. We came up with these two characters called Victor and Barry. Then a guy called Michael Boyd, who was running the Tron Theatre, saw us doing this and invited us to Tron.

Then we got professional gigs, did the festivals. With Victor and Barry we did a huge tour of Australia, plus we did it every year at the festival, as well as doing serious theatre - we used to do it to fund serious work that we did.

We both went off doing other things as well, but skipping forwards I met various casting agents doing that, and I was also doing a play about Laurel and Hardy.

Really?!

It was a play by a Scottish writer called Tom McGrath, who wrote it about 20 years ago, and originally it was an actor called Kenny Ireland who played Oliver Hardy. But a friend of mine had read the play and thought about me, and a friend of his, to play the two parts. We played the Assembly rooms. It's a lovely play, actually, because it takes scenes from the films and some scenes from their real lives and mirrors the two. Laurel and Hardy are dead at the start of the play and waiting to go off to wherever, and it kinda backtracks through their lives.

I think it was [Dwarf casting director] Jane Davies who had seen the show, and I got this call saying that they were looking for someone to be Stan Laurel in Red Dwarf. I did a sitcom around the same time called My Dead Dad for Channel 4... which was a bit of a turkey, but it was good fun doing it.

Mr Flibble nodded understandingly. He'd tried to get his own comedy series - Flippers, with Flibble starring as the owner of a pinball arcade - off the ground years ago. It was never really accepted with the same enthusiasm as RED DWARF...

I remember getting a bit of a buzz going out to record at Shepperton. It's quite a historic place. And it's always difficult when you come onto a long-running series, because everyone knows each other. It's always difficult for those coming in to a) get up to speed, and b) get to know everyone in such a short space of time.

We had rehearsals, and I'd kinda met Craig before on the festival circuit. They were all very friendly - Robert Llewellyn particularly. I remember talking about his working - it's a bit of a nightmare for him. It's crazy!

One thing I do remember is that Eddy Izzard was the warm-up for the recording. I remember seeing him years later thinking "My God, that's that guy!" I met Eddy at a thing up in Glasgow and I mentioned it - and he had no recollection at all! (Laughs) He'd wiped it from his mind and I don't think he was very keen on being reminded!

It was weird, because there were a couple of people on the show who were obviously 'lookalikes', like Pauline [Bailey, who played Marilyn Monroe]. And Clayton [Mark - Elvis], he was a big hit. While we were rehearsing it, they asked Clayton to record the song, so they had Elvis singing at the end of the episode.

A lot of the scenes for Meltdown were filmed ON LOCATION...

We did some of the shoot outside, and... I might be making this up, but I'm sure someone said that the exterior stuff that we did was where they filmed some of Dad's Army! Maybe that was just in my head...

I remember Rob [Grant] and Doug Naylor were there, and I got on really well with them. They were quite up for... I made a couple of suggestions, just silly suggestions about what Stan Laurel would be dong on the battlefield, and they were really up for input, really open.

It was quite bizarre. It takes forever to film these things, so you're forever sitting around waiting and having cups of tea. This really old man came in for Ghandi and he was really unwell, so they were talking about recasting. It was very cold and we were in some godforsaken church hall, and he was sat around with all these duvets around him.

They were all talking about their lookalike jobs, so there was a lot of 'well, I'm an actor, I don't do that sort of thing'! (Laughs)

There was all these things blowing up. (Laughs) I'm sure there was an arms guy, because I had to fire the gun... but I thought Stan would fire it backwards. (Laughs) Just trying to put a little stamp on it.

[Mr Flibble would like it noted that you can see Forbes as Stan Laurel firing backwards and dying in the Series IV DVD deleted scenes.]

Mercifully they had a costume for me, so I didn't have to drag one down from Edinburgh. There was a lot of slapstick that we did, so it would have been covered in mess.

Someone came up and made some comment - why did Rimmer touch him, because he was a hologram and shouldn't be able to. It was this real anorak question. And there were people in the audience literally wearing anoraks, I do remember that. The cast did mention that they got a bit of that - but it's to be expected, and it's all worship. (Laughs)

Did you watch the show go out?

I did watch it at the time, but it was one of those things that I'd forgotten that I'd done. I'm generally not great at watching myself, but it was great watching the Red Dwarf [repeat] the other night. It was so long ago, so it's like a different world. It's good, I think it's really held up. Some comedies lose something over time, but this really held up. It's very witty, and very well-performed. It's a great cast.

Let's move on to a very different time in the spotlight for you as a somewhat villainous presence in EASTENDERS...

I was in Eastenders for a short time as Rodney Morris, the strange maths teacher. I came in and was all sweetness and light, and then Nikki DiMarco accused me of all sorts of things. Everybody was going 'he can't have done it, he's far too nice', and then it came out that he actually had. I rather naively thought that they might forgive me enough to get a couple of years, (laughs) but it was a very short contract. But I didn't want to be a 'soap person', I just wanted the experience. It was quite a scary time, because the character got quite dark - and that's good to play - but I was a bit worried about the repercussions. But mercifully there were none.

Mr Flibble - keen to talk about the production difficulties on his show Flippers - moved on to Forbes's co-writing and co-directing of BBC comedy THE HIGH LIFE.

I always end up doing kinda 'culty' things, that get a good audience but are viewed as 'cults'. Not always on the mainstream. I'm pleased with The High Life that people still come up to me and say 'Oh, I just got the DVD'. It's good that it's still remembered. It's a bit embarrassing sometimes, you look at it and think 'What was I doing?!' Mincing around...

How did the idea for the show come about?

We had an idea for a sitcom with Victor and Barry - they were amateur theatricals from Glasgow who had this little society. We had a couple of ideas, one of which was nearly taken up and then wasn't. But at the same time BBC2 were looking for short comedy ideas. At that point we were both living in Scotland and travelling a lot to London on British Midland flights. We used to see these [flight attendant] guys and they weren't too far away from the theatrical types we'd built for the cabaret act...

We wrote the ten minute thing and the BBC said 'Oh, we like this - make it twenty minutes'. So we made it twenty minutes. 'Oh, we like this - make it a pilot.' We did that, and they said, 'Right, you've done this... now we'll tell you how to write it.' I don't get it.

The series was recorded, and then repeated once. There was a possibility of a second series, but then that all fell by the wayside. I wrote scripts but it never saw the light of day. There was a change of management at the BBC and Alan [Cumming] had other work commitments, but prior to the change of management they were keen for it to go ahead without Alan. Angie, the director, was on board - but then it just fizzled out.

We had quite a fight to put it on in the first place. We had a script editor who was sacked... it was all kind of difficult to begin with. And it was just a lot of camp old pish - but it was funny, y'know? At one stage I was handed this document entitled 'how to write a sitcom', and you go, 'Well, I don't want to read that. If we fail we fail, but at least let us do what we want to do.'

Mr Flibble had the same problem with Flippers. Someone even told him that they were 'stretching credibility' by having a penguin running an inner-city amusement arcade. Preposterous! Andrew asked Forbes, who has worked in many different styles, what type of work he PREFERS?

I've never been one of those actors who can sit and wait for the phone to ring, I like to know that I'm doing something. I've been fortunate in my career that I can go off and write and get things staged - I've subsequently directed my work in theatres in Scotland. When The High Life didn't take, I lost confidence in the televisual side of things, so I moved into the theatre where things get made easier. You're not waiting around for other people to decide what to do... and there's no script editors!

With Victor and Barry I'd written songs, and there were musical elements in The High Life, so I think the natural step was to move into musical comedy in the theatre. Post-modern, alternative comedies. I've got a couple of commissions, but that's now on the back burner because I've just moved to the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Michael Boyd - who first saw Victor and Barry - is now head of the RSC, so that's kinda come full circle. It's very exciting. We're currently working on Macbeth, that opens in March, and then we go to work on Hamlet. It's just a different avenue for me - I like doing different things and challenging myself.

Mr Flibble enjoyed talking to Forbes Masson, and now that it's over... Mr Flibble is very cross.

Forbes Masson

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Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard