If you’ve ever marvelled at an actor “truthpumping”, “perf-quaking” or spraying their “actoplasm” across the front row then you’ll be familiar with the wisdom (and luvvie lexicography) of Nicholas Craig. The spoof thespian and self-styled sage of the stage, created by Nigel Planer and Christopher Douglas, shared his hard-won lessons on performing at theatrical bastions such as the RSC and “the Nash” in the memoir I, An Actor.
Published in 1988, the book came complete with glossary (eg Berk off: “to go to Los Angeles”) and photographs of Planer, as Craig, brooding in rehearsals, brandishing weaponry amid billowing smoke as Coriolanus and clad in scuba gear for an underwater avantgarde production of The Winslow Boy. Hailed as “the Spinal Tap of actor biographies”, it spawned a series of TV and stage outings for Planer and was reprinted in 2016 with a foreword by Steve Coogan, thanking Craig for a one-to-one acting masterclass delivered atop Helvellyn.
Hearing performers’ tales of their brave quests to scale mountainous roles is what led Douglas and Planer to create the character. When I meet the duo on Zoom they recall the rise in the 1980s of a certain breed of actor, pumped up with pomposity and short of self-awareness, who loved to hold court by assessing their toil and craft.
“In those days, great tasks of acting could sometimes be just someone turning up at a theatre shouting in a cloud of dry ice,” says Douglas. “There were a small number of people who seemed to get all the jobs – and they’d then go on television and say what an incredibly difficult job it was.” As the pair’s mock thespian grew more famous, actors began to acknowledge, in their riper moments mid-interview, that they might be having a Nicholas Craig moment. “We spoiled their fun for a brief period,” observes Planer with a smile.
There were as many cliches to observe in such performers’ behaviour onstage as off. In his list of chestnuts of classical acting at the time, Douglas savours “motivated squatting” such as “the brooding crouch before battle”. Before lockdown began last year he saw an actor assume such a pose and says it was like spotting a vintage steam train. Planer adds another favourite: “Talking quite normally and then SHOUTING,” he bellows, “and then talking normally again.” What was all that about? “To show the control you have,” he explains, “and to wake the audience up I suppose.” Douglas, who started out as an actor before concentrating on writing, noticed how Shakespeare was increasingly performed with manly clasps, plenty of hugging and slapping. He remembers a rehearsal of Cymbeline when “quite a distinguished classical actor did that to me”. On this occasion, at least, “it was a completely wasted effort because it was on radio! But he still felt the need.”
Douglas and Planer have been busy plotting a post-pandemic return for Craig and, earlier this year, had a first script reading for their new drama. The character’s past appearances on stage – including at the Hampstead theatre, the National and on a UK tour – have been one-man shows for Planer. It was essentially a standup character – “a solo voice”, says Douglas. The new script gives him a son – played, at the reading, by Poldark’s Jack Farthing. On his own, Craig has always been “obnoxiously conceited and bitchy”, reflects Douglas. In this new scenario, however, he grows more sympathetic. In one scene he has cooked a meal for his son who doesn’t show up to eat it. “He has become like a sitcom hero,” adds Planer. “Put a selfish character like that in a situation and we sort of love them. When he’s just on his own you don’t love him – you just love the way he attacks things.”
Now living in a crumbling pile in Primrose Hill, Craig has no regular income but refuses to sell up and move on. These days his performances are likely to be in the “skip ad” commercials you encounter online, they suggest. But Craig’s wheeze to launch a Primrose Hill short film festival lands him a small fortune in entry fees from well-heeled locals. However, explains Douglas, he just gets annoyed by the admin challenge of handling such a large amount of money. “Even at his most successful, Nicholas manages because of his temperament to spoil it,” explains Planer. “He pisses on his own shoes.”
When they created him, Craig was at the height of his popularity; the memoir ends as he packs his bags for America to star on TV. In that respect he differs from another of Douglas’s long-running characters, the harrumphing hack Ed Reardon who he voices in a BBC Radio 4 series co-written with Andrew Nickolds. “With Ed we encountered him in his early 50s when his career was already in ruins,” Douglas says. “That felt a bit easier to write. Failure is always more interesting than success.” Craig’s career promptly plummeted, much like that of Douglas’s down-and-out cricketer Dave Podmore who he also plays on radio (co-written with Nickolds and Nick Newman) and who once had a spoof Guardian sport column.
Reardon, now drawing his pension, is back this summer for the 14th series of Ed Reardon’s Week. The first season was broadcast in 2005, outlining his faltering career bashing out novelty books in a leaky abode he shares with a cat named Elgar. Douglas soon found that other writers would happily volunteer stories of their own humiliations to him. “We used quite a lot of them. We tweak and distort things for dramatic effect but there’s not very much made up in the show.” Tussles and indignations from Douglas’s daily life invariably also end up in the files he keeps for Craig, Podmore and Reardon material. “Ed has aged as I have,” he says. Planer laughs: “He’s aged worse than you, surely!” Both say that Craig’s experiences of rejection as an actor didn’t require too much research.
Plenty of real-life actors, directors and critics are lampooned in the book; was there any flak from their stage brethren? Planer recalls that Warren Mitchell wasn’t much impressed. “I used to be nervous of meeting people, thinking they’d hate me,” he adds, “but on the whole they were very nice.” The idea for a book about a spoof actor had appealed to Planer in the years after he played the despondent hippy Neil in The Young Ones. Nickolds suggested that he develop it with Douglas who came from an acting family. But Douglas says everyone warned him the idea was a self-indulgent in-joke. “Particularly my parents, who were both in the business.” Once they had the book deal, they penned a letter by Craig and sent it to famous actors, asking for insights on their craft. Among their questions was “have you ever had an orgasm on stage?” Douglas begins to crack up: “And somebody said yes … twice!” Only a couple of recipients smelled a hoax. The pair decided not to use the replies. “It wasn’t funny,” says Planer. “It was sad.”
Douglas acted as a teenager, but his introduction to the magic of theatre was a job as assistant stage manager on a panto in Porthcawl, cutting up loo roll for a snow scene. He recently spotted an early screen performance of his on the archive channel Talking Pictures. “Things from 30 years ago you’re just embarrassed about. Forty years ago, you think … is that really me?” Planer says “the world I was brought up in did not take [acting] seriously or approve of it” but he dropped out of university to attend Lamda. He and Douglas share a passion for theatre history and farce, especially those of the late Brian Rix. Planer, who knew Rix’s family, laughs as he recalls performing as Nicholas Craig at Rix’s memorial: “getting really cheap laughs in front of Ray Cooney and Nicholas Parsons”.
The industry, they recognise, is in for a reckoning post-Covid. “Theatres are very expensive buildings to run now,” says Douglas. “A lot of it was being subsidised by freelancers who have all had to find ways of surviving in this crisis. There may not be an appetite to return to the way things were.” They agree there is still snobbery in theatre. Planer, whose stage hits include Wicked and Chicago, says musicals are “looked down on by the theatre elite – I think that’s foolish”. There is a similar lack of respect for comedy. Douglas thinks “the agenda’s being set by the gatekeepers increasingly … there’s less of the weird, interesting stuff”.
As our conversation winds up I wonder if Douglas’s characters have ever crossed paths. The pair have been imagining a play written by Reardon with a plum role for Craig. Reardon’s previous attempts, Educating Peter and Stanley Valentine, were upstaged by similarly titled Willy Russell efforts, explains Douglas. This one “should be absolutely panned”, he reckons. “But Nicholas succeeds out of this disaster,” adds Planer. “That’s how these characters work.” They bat about ideas for Craig’s bravura full-frontal performance. “If we have a session like this every week for the next six months, we may have a good outcome,” wagers Douglas. “Can we all make this a regular thing?”