Published: 10:00, 16 May 2014
Brian Conley talks to What’s On about rumours he was the highest-paid man in TV, his daughter’s own bid for fame, and why – despite his TV success and West End runs – bringing his variety show to Kent is still such a big thrill.
While you might be thinking that Brian Conley’s career peaked in the days of prime-time light entertainment in the 1990s, that depends on how you judge success.
If money is the benchmark, then that era might well have been the high point.
“I think Michael Barrymore was on telly more than me, but I did very well,” comments Brian on rumours that he was the highest-paid male on British TV once, quipping with a grin: “I probably was for about a week, but I don’t earn £40m like Ant and Dec – I’m not in their league.”
If, on the other hand, you define success on consistently being at the top of the showbiz ladder whilst maintaining a happy family life with his wife of 18 years and two daughters, then it’s no wonder that Brian adds more thoughtfully: ‘I’m very happy where I am.”
After the heady success of the Brian Conley Show, in which the 52-year-old hosted Hollywood leading lights as well as the cream of British celebrities, and then the popularity of sitcom The Grimleys with Amanda Holden, Brian has forged a huge career in musical theatre. He has starred in West End hits Me and My Girl, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Jolson, Hairspray and most recently played Fagin in Oliver!
“Jolson was a big turning point for me,” he says, referring to the 1995 show which gained him an Olivier Award nomination for best actor in a musical.
“After that people appreciated there was a bit more with my acting, and that opened the door to Chitty.”
The next big project Brian is committed to is playing PT Barnum, the American circus entrepreneur of the 1800s, from September, in a national tour of Barnum masterminded by Cameron Mackintosh ‘the most successful, influential and powerful theatrical producer in the world’, according to the New York Times.
There was a high-profile low point in 2012 when he left I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here on health grounds after hunger had prevented him from taking the anti-depressant tablets he’d been on for some time. Being handpicked for Barnum proves Brian is still right at the top of his game and in very good company.
“I’m learning to walk on a tightrope for Barnum, I’ve been going twice a week since Christmas, and I’ve cracked it! So that’s another string to my bow. And fire-eating, which I’ll be doing in my Kent shows.”
Brian is referring to his own variety tour, which drops in on Canterbury and Tunbridge Wells this week.
“I love doing my own show – it’s freedom to have as much fun as you can with your clothes on.
“I’ll be singing songs from Hairspray and Chitty, so I’m saving the audience money, all these musicals would’ve cost them at least £400!” he joked.
“It’s a comedy-driven show and I’m really looking forward to it,” he added.”
Brian loves variety’s place not only in entertainment but in life generally.
“I’m very lucky that I’ve got fingers in a few pies and it keeps it fresh because I can move about,” he says.
It’s a lifestyle that ensures his Berkshire-based family – wife Anne-Marie and daughters Amy, 17, and Lucy, 12 – are well-travelled too, as they often join him in shorter stints when school holidays allow it.
“It’s the nature of the beast, you’ve got to where the work is but we rent a property so that we can be together.”
His girls are obviously Brian’s pride and joy. “Amy’s a teenager and she’s studying hard, and little Lucy loves to become part of the show behind the scenes.”
In fact, Lucy made her own TV debut recently when she appeared in ITV’s recent one-off Tommy Cooper drama Not Like That, Like This as the young Vicky Cooper.
“It’s her first professional job, and I’m a huge fan of Tommy Cooper,” says proud Brian.
“She goes to the Pauline Quirke Academy of Performing Arts at weekends. At the moment it’s just fun.”
Would Brian encourage her into a career in entertainment? “If she’s happy to do it, then all well and good,” which speaks volumes of the hand that Brian feels this showbiz life has dealt him.
Brian Conley’s tour stops at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre on Saturday, May 17 at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £22.50. Call 01227 787787.
He moves on to the Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall Theatre on Tuesday, May 20 at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £22.50. Call 01892 530613.
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