30 APRIL 2 MAY (3 days only)
Eves: 8.00pm Wed mat: 2.30pm
18- 23 JUNE
DUNSTABLE GROVE THEATRE
Mon- Sat 7.30pm Wed & Sat mats: 2.30pm
WARNING: Production contains nudity and swearing.
Dead Funny was first performed at Hampstead Theatre in 1994. It won numerous awards including Best New Play and Best West End Play, and was garlanded by Terry Johnson being named Playwright of the Year.
He's been in Brookside, Coronation Street, Casualty, Brookside, Doctors and Family Affairs and played Lewis Richardson in Hollyoaks for six and a half years, so Ben Hull is quite entitled to be called the soap king!
But he's currently on the stage, touring the country with Dead Fuuny, a comedy that arrives in High Wycombe next week and at the Grove Theatre in Dunstable at the end of June.
It all surrounds the meetings of the Dead Funny Society, a group of misfits who meet to celebrate the memory of the dead comedians. But amidst the hilarious slapstick and re-enactments of magical comedy sketches of our time, secrets are revealed that promise to change the lives of this group of friends forever.
Ben is joined by a host of familiar faces led by Steven Pinder (Richard) familiar to millions of TV viewers as Max Farnham in Brookside, with Samantha Giles (Lisa), best known for her roles as Bernice in Emmerdale and Where The Heart Is and Robin Askwith (Brian) who is well known for the hugely popular mid-70s series Confessions Of.
I spoke to Hichin born Ben, who went to Hitchin Boys School and started acting in the town with the Bancroft Players at the Queen Mother Theatre, and he told me why he was not allowed to do acting at school - but he first explained what the play was all about.
Can you tell me a bit about the play? IS it dead funny?!
|Ben Hull in Dead Funny|
Ben: Yeah - I think it's great! It's a really unusual piece. It's about a group of people who meet to celebrate dead comics and go through all their routines and they take a real joy in that, it’s what bonds this unlikely gang together. It focuses around an evening in the early 90s when Benny Hill has just died, so they decide it's a really good opportunity to stage a meeting. Unfortunately, behind the scenes there are two dysfunctional marriages, adultery and all sorts of other lovely joyful things going on! The only thing that can lighten the mood is going through all these old routines. But what's really great about it is that I get to do Eric and Ernie sketches and Benny Hill sketches and Jimmy James sketches and it's really, really good fun!
So set against the comedy is the tragedy of personal situations?
Ben: Yeah absolutely! It's one of those things where you find yourself laughing at stuff that's actually quite tragic, which is what all the great comedians are about anyway.
Yes - you always seem to hear when these comedians die that they really weren't very happy at all?
Ben: That's absolutely right. All these great comedians just thrived on an audience loving them and always feared that would leave them. It's also staggering the number of comedians who have died of heart attacks as well - god it's all getting rather bleak isn't it?!
Let’s get back to the comedy then! Do the marriage problems arise from the people meeting to do this?
Ben: [laughs] No - the marriage problems go a little bit beyond that! My character is called Nick and is a frustrated, angry person. He feels like he missed out on a career of being a surgeon. He's a school teacher on a pittance and he despises his wife - you find out why later - but the only respite from this horrible situation he's in is making people laugh in this comedy group.
So you get to act out sketches - how have you approached that - have you watched videos and things?
Ben: Yeah it's brilliant! The Internet is fantastic for things like that and I might as well have taken out shares in HMV! I come out armed to the teeth with different DVDs! It was really great fun researching it all. I mean I'd never heard of Jimmy James – but he was absolutely fantastic, so off the wall and just absolutely brilliant. And Max Miller as well - they were absolute legends. They filled huge auditoriums with people just rolling about - it's great to see and mimic!
It sounds great round your house at the moment! Do you feel a responsibility though - some of these people were such cult figures?
Ben: Oh yes - you have to approach it very, very seriously. I do the world's worst Frankie Howard impression. I've tried so hard and spent hours on it and the only thing I can do quite well is one sound - "OOOHHHHH". I have this big speech to say like Frankie Howard and it always has everyone else on stage rolling about because the next thing is that Robin Askwith has to turn round and say "Oh - you are the best!" And every time he says it he has this look in his eye as if to say that was absolutely rubbish! So every time I think the audience are drifting away I just go "OOOHHHH"!
So it is something that I've taken very seriously but I'm not saying my impressions are any good!
You mentioned Robin Askwith there - it's got a really good cast hasn’t it?
Ben: Yes - it's got Robin Askwith, Steven Pinder, Samantha Giles, Ben Hull (who's very good!) It's a really cracking cast, we've been doing the show since the beginning of January so we've known each other for a while now and it's all kind of like a big family. It's really, really good fun and Robin is absolutely hilarious.
So you get laughs and emotion as well?
|Ben Hull in Dead Funny|
Ben: Yes - people come along to see the show because they're expecting the whole thing to be slapstick but it's not. When it starts you really are focusing on a couple's life and the intimacies of it and it's quite a dark piece in some aspects. But it's got a really good balance of light and shade. I've become quite obsessed about it and I think about it a lot - it's a really brilliant, unusual comedy piece. And I have to point out that there's nudity which will either have people flocking or running away from the theatre. It's not me, everyone will be pleased to know! It's Steve Pinder from Brookside or backside as he's now known! It's been like being in The Beatles, we've had screams - which I assume are good ones! He's ever so brave but it's all very tastefully done!
On to you then because you're a local boy aren't you? Where did you grow up?!
Ben: I was born in Hitchin and I went to Hitchin Boys School and I still go back to see my mum and dad in Letchworth and I've got loads of friends in Hitchin.
Is it right that you didn't do drama at Hitchin Boys because it wasn't considered to be a boys subject?
Ben: Yes - my headmaster who shall remain nameless - told me that I wasn't allowed to do it because it was a girls subject! I ended up doing geography for A'Level because I just about passed my GCSE and I absolutely despised my geography teacher so I decided that I would do A'Level just to spite them! And I got an N - which is nothing! I was really disappointed that I couldn't do drama but what's good is that it made me even more determined and I think you have to be determined in this business really. And also dealing with the endless disappointment, because you spend a lot of time with an awful lot of rejection. It's tough - it's not all a barrel of laughs.
So your disappointment in life started at Hitchin Boys then! How did you get into drama then - weren't you involved locally?
Ben: Yes - I was a member of the Queen Mother Theatre Youth Theatre. I've been acting since I was a baby really. Whenever they needed a child part in any of the Bancroft Players productions, my mum would drag me down there, so it's always something I've done. But I was part of the Youth group down there which I think is called Big Spirit now. It's run by a guy called Rory Reynolds who is absolutely fantastic.
You went to drama school eventually and since then you seem to have been on every soap (or serial drama) on the telly - except EastEnders!
Ben: [laughs] I haven't been in Emmmerdale either! It's one of those things - when you're in a soap and you leave you seem to get offered other soaps so I turned down lots of different bits and bobs when I left Brookside because I went from Hollyoaks, had two weeks off, and went straight into Brookside
I noticed that and got very confused!
Ben: You and me both really! I ended up walking into the wrong Green Room at one point because they were filmed in the same place! So I decided that I wanted to do other things, theatre stuff, I wanted to be thought of in a different way, but I've been long enough away from it now that I wouldn't mind going back to something like that really. But yes - I am soap king! EastEnders would be very nice so if anybody's listening ... I'm cheap!
Hollyoaks is such a massive phenomenon and still going strong?
Ben: Yes it’s changed a lot as well. I get people stopping me in the streets who say ‘oh mate, it was great when you were in it, I don’t like it anymore, it’s all changed now’. I watched it the other day and it has completely changed. When I did they were really trying to push the boundaries to see how far they could go with it. It would be hilarious if someone dug out the first few episodes of Hollyoaks because we were all fresh faced and we were all dressed like 50s film stars – I was going for a whole James Dean look and failed miserably on all counts! Now it’s all kind of cool and snappy and the way it’s shot is innovative - it’s great. I think it’s a great show and I’m very proud to have been part of it.
You’ve done much more theatre recently – is that your first love?
Ben: No – working is my first love! It doesn’t matter what it’s in! For me it’s all about working, I’ve got bills to pay and I get bored really quickly. I go where the work takes me. Doing theatre is really wonderful but then you’re doing the same show for six or seven months and you start to get itchy feet and wouldn’t mind doing something a bit different. It’s very difficult being an actor – there are ups and downs, peaks and troughs.
And on that subject, you’ve actually set up a company to help out of work actors?
Ben: Yes – it’s called Next Big Thing Management. We provide actors for events such as character hosts for events - and we also do confidence seminars for corporate clients. A lot of people get really uptight about public speaking but for an actor it’s quite a natural experience because they train how to warm the voice up and overcome nerves. So we teach businesses how to present with confidence. It’s been wonderful and something I’m deeply proud of. The whole idea is to help and support actors when they’re between jobs and to keep them acting.
And you’re also getting married this year?
Ben: Yes – I’m getting married in August to Anna Acton who I met on Family Affairs. She’s been organising the whole wedding thing while I’ve been doing shows, so I’ve found it an absolute breeze!
Where do you see your future career-wise?
Ben: It’s just to keep working really. I’m really excited by the business, that’s really growing and I’m really, really proud of it but the whole idea about that was to have a a fall back plan for when I was out of work. So what I’d really, really love to do is really build that business and that would mean that I could pick and choose more what I did rather than think ‘oh god I haven’t got any money I’ll do that’! Ideally I just want to keep on working and keep happy!