Mr Flibble Talks To... Top Hat Acting
Mr Flibble faces the impressive presence of Jack Klaff - Meltdown's Abraham Lincoln.

16 January, 2004

So Mr Flibble tries to call Jack on his mobile - but the signal keeps cutting out. Then he tries a nearby callbox, only to discover that the line is dead. So finally, fending off those needing to make emergency calls, Jack takes hold of a nearby pub's phone and hogs the line to talk about how he began ACTING...

I started [off] being quite academic and doing plays in my spare time. I got involved with the professional side of things in South Africa. I did a range of things - I had my own radio series, and I had a lot of experience doing little bits of movies, bits of theatre work, and so on.

Somebody said, "You really should train," and at the same time I got involved with an organisation that was anti-apartheid, where I got very committed to political theatre. There's a famous theatre in South Africa called The Space, and [it was] a combination of doing professional work and seeing what theatre could do - especially because, as a law student, I wanted to fight for 'justice'. I saw that storytelling could bring...a different kind of justice.

[Eventually] I auditioned for the Bristol Old Vic theatre school, got in, started to work there. Because of my antecedents and my political theatre work in South Africa, I was granted a kind of...political-asylum-stroke-leave-to-stay.

My first job in the business, after the theatre, was Star Wars. I seem to move between doing science fiction and doing other things. And then I went to the Royal Shakespeare Company. So I had a lot of luck to begin with. From then on I've done maybe 150 TV dramas and comedies, things like that. The comedy people think I'm very, very serious and the serious people think I'm laughable. So that all balances itself out... (Laughs)

But you also write as well...

I've written maybe 13 or 14 dramas, either for the theatre, television or radio. Ranging from ages ago to an experimental radio piece I did last year called Three-Five-Silly-Twerp about two people who had strokes.

Between it all I started to write about science in a 'popularising' way. I've been involved with high-level scientists for four or five years, and I was professor of the public understanding of science at a think-tank in Brussels until quite recently. Their lab is called Star Lab - so it was kind of like Star Wars to Star Lab. (Laughs)

Mr Flibble can apparently be seen as an extra Ewok in Return of the Jedi, though he did need stilts to fit into the costume. How did you get the part of Abraham Lincoln in RED DWARF?

I think it was the 'poets' - Bobby Llewellyn and Craig Charles - who knew me from Edinburgh. They all kind of knew me. Bobby Llewellyn I'd actually directed twice. I knew his wife, Judy Pascoe, because I'd directed her, and he asked if I'd come and work with him.

Or maybe it was Ed Bye, who knew me from Ruby [Wax], who said, "That guy looks a bit like Abe Lincoln, let's have him in." It's really all about looking at where the nose and mouth go and then imagining them with a beard. I actually did look incredibly like Lincoln when it was done.

I once did a short movie in which I played Pasternack, and actually I look an enormous lot like Pasternack. But the thing I get most often is Andy Warhol, because of my white hair. Once I was walking through a queue in Edinburgh with a friend who was slightly pissed, and a guy said "Warhol!" and my friend said "Asshole!" (Laughs)

I guess knowing so many people in the cast made arriving on-set less intimidating than it could have been...

There is that. It was very easy-going and stupid. Tony Hawks was in that episode, and he got huge laughs because he's such a naturally funny guy. There was a wonderful performance from the guy who played Stan Laurel [Forbes Masson]. He was brilliant. He had a double-act with Alan Cumming, who has now gone into stratospheric orbit, but you could see that he was a talented guy, Forbes. And there was a guy doing a very, very funny Noel Coward [Roger Blake].

It's the kind of job where you just go in and say 'here I am, let's do it'. I've had a lot of those, in bizarre circumstances. I was in a series with Anne Bancroft - any day is peculiar. Today I had a meeting about a film, then a meeting with a buddy of mine, and then you rang!

It was an odd collection of talents - actors, impressionists, that penguin-alike they had to bar from the set, a couple of IMPERSONATORS...

Marilyn Monroe! She was sweet. Absolutely nothing like Marilyn Monroe, but from a certain angle...She was a sweetheart. She had the right face - and I'm not putting her down - but Marilyn was...verging on the chubby, but [Pauline Bailey] was an 'averagely-built' girl of the 80s or 90s.

And Clayton Mark as Elvis - who ended up singing the closing theme...

That was something they dreamt up on the night, because the crowd went wild. It was wonderful. Both my son and my daughter have been around me when I've had to wear top hats. My daughter went to Princeton nursery school while I was there and they all had to put on the top hat and the beard and be Abe - fantastic. So my daughter's done it, too - it's a family tradition. (Laughs)

Mr Flibble will be leaving his red bow-tie to his children in his will - passing the mantle on. Where did the all-powerful Lincoln voice (loved by the cast during the DVD commentary and documentary) come from?

It was a tiny, tiny part. I put the thing on and just did it - ran across a field and pulled myself into it. [But] we know that he was from Illinois, we know that he was a tough guy. We know that he had a strong voice. This is getting very method-like for a tiny part in a sitcom, but it just came. I knew a certain amount about Abe Lincoln, and he was a very great man.

You have to consider things that he's well-known for - [like], of course, the Gettysburg address.

Mr Flibble knows this one - it's 127 Gettysburg Avenue. (The tape is almost silent for a moment, though through the whistling wind the sound of a slapped penguin can faintly be heard.)

No-one realised what a great speech it was at the time he made it - at the time people spoke for a lot longer. People were pissed off - the photographer was really angry because he didn't get a photo of it, because it was so short!

Did you know the show before you appeared on it?

I have to say, it was my son's all-time favourite show. Can you imagine how proud he was that his dad was in Red Dwarf? That was a big thing. There [have been] some terrific things in it. The idea that Kennedy shot himself! Those kind of things I really like. I enjoyed it - but my son absolutely loved it.

Now, I don't think anyone would forgive us if we didn't ask about your STAR WARS role - playing a pilot during the final Death Star attack, no less!

I didn't even audition for it. I had a fan who was a casting director, who was casting Star Wars who knew me and got a group of people together as pilots. They just said, 'Go to Pinewood and do this movie', and I'm like, 'Yeah, yeah - bullshit.' (Laughs)

They put me on this platform in front of a bluescreen and they shook me a lot. And they said did I mind being blown up, I said "no", so they blew me up. Then they put a wet rag over my face and said, 'good ob'. I think my lines were something like, "Red Four standing by", "I've got one, I've got one", "Arg." And I think I get eight letters a week, still, about Star Wars!

What was really weird was that, when I did Space 1999, 1999 seemed a long way off. Then in 1999 I was working in a high-level, international science-based, multi-disciplinary think-tank in Brussels alongside the world's greatest physicists, time-travel experts and the like. That was surreal. And a lot of them had seen Space 1999 when they were kids...

You were also in what may have been Roger Moore's best Bond movie - FOR YOUR EYES ONLY - as the villain's henchman, Apostis.

The thing about [director] John Glen was that he was an editor - he was all about stunts. I remember one actress - ironically enough Cassie Harris, who was married to Pierce Brosnan - she went up to him and said, "How was that scene." And he said, "Fantastic, fantastic," and she was sort of preening, being praised for her acting, and then he said: "Your stunt girl went right through the windscreen!" (Laughs)

He was a very, very good stunt guy. That sequence I'm involved with where Rick [Sylvester], this wonderful stunt guy, fell off the mountain...! It was a rather nice job - I wrote rather pleasantly, had a very nice time in Greece. That sequence was short partly on location and they had to rebuild the monastery [location] in Pinewood because the monks complained.

I remember going out to Pinewood one morning, and it was the morning John Lennon was shot. So that's one of my main memories of the shoot, just us sitting around going 'Jesus...' Oh, and also my pants split while I was climbing up the mountain...

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

Jack Klaff

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Mr Flibble's right hand provided by
Andrew Ellard