He’s been around the showbiz block more times than he cares to remember, starring in his own TV shows, been a contestant on reality shows such as I’m A Celebrity and is a stalwart of the panto circuit.
But now Brian Conley is about to take on one of the most well known and demanding roles in musical theatre – Barnum. He tells Kate Gould all about it.
pic credit: Johan Persson
COMEDIAN, actor, singer, chat show host and all round entertainer Brian Conley has been at the forefront of the British showbiz scene for more than 30 years.
Indeed, the very definition of old-school entertainer, he has almost dominated the industry with his versatility since he burst onto the scene in the 1980s.
In his heyday he was one of the biggest and best loved names in television - who can forget his larger-than-life caricatures of Nick Frisby, Larry the Loafer and Septic Peg not to mention his catch phrase "it's a puppet".
A multi award winner, the 53-year-old has also appeared on The Royal Variety Show an incredible eight times.
He has turned his talents to almost every medium including carving a successful career for himself in the West End, appearing in such shows as Oliver, Jolson and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang not to mention stints on reality shows including ITV's I'm A Celebrity.
Now he's added yet more skills to his bow - tightrope walking, fire eating and juggling - as part of his role in another musical - Barnum - produced by Cameron Mackintosh and Chichester Festival Theatre.
The show will visit the New Wimbledon Theatre next week as part of a national tour and sees Brian take the role of Phineas T Barnum, a role that he was perhaps born to play.
"He's an entertainer like me, he's got wonderful charm and you have got to be a showman to play the part because you talk to the audience so much," he says.
"I am really excited about it and am very honoured to be part of it - it's spectacular, full of colour, tricks, high comedy and some great songs and when I got the script my wife kept telling me to put it down because I was glued to it!
"It's also a very demanding part because I'm on stage such a lot and I've had to learn some new skills such as how to tightrope walk. It took a long time - seven months but it's something to put on the CV isn't it?" he chuckles.
"I've also learned how to eat fire, juggle, do acrobatics and walk on stilts - and I've lost a stone in weight since we started the tour and now have a 32 inch waist," he adds laughing. "It means I can eat what I want which is great!"
The story follows the irrepressible imagination and dreams of Phineas T Barnum, his life and marriage to Chairy and his subsequent affair with Jenny Lind, a woman he bought into the show.
It follows the legendary showman's life as he lit up the world with the colour, warmth and excitement of his imagination and finally teamed up with JA Bailey to create Barnum and Bailey's Circus.
"It's a true story, and a love story between him and his wife, his rise to fame and all his wheeling and dealing," says Brian.
"He spent $135,000 for Jenny Lind to come over and perform, had an affair with her and made $5million on her.
"He was the Simon Cowell or Cameron Mackintosh of his day. He was also very clever, charming and quite manipulative and always wanted to get his own way, though never ripped anyone off so he's quite a character.
"There are 25 of us in the cast and 11 in the orchestra which is fantastic but there are no clowns - it's more of a spooky circus which is really deep and dark."
And while Brian is following in the illustrious footsteps of Michael Crawford and Jim Dale who famously starred in previous productions of the show, he is keen to make the part his own.
"Barnum was the very first show I saw in the West End," he says. "It was at the Palladium and starred Michael and it completely blew me away.
"I never thought in my wildest dreams that all these years later I'd be playing the role.
"But here I am and it's great though I was keen to make it my own. I've helped Cameron bring it into the 21st century which I think is important. There is a slight change to the story and we've brought the jokes up to date too.
"I also wanted to work on the relationship Barnum had with his wife. He's got to be begging for forgiveness so it's very emotional.
"It will set me apart from Jim (Dale) and Michael (Crawford). They were both actors whereas I'm more of an entertainer, and Barnum is more an entertainer and showman, like me, and used to talking to the audience so I think I can bring something different to it.
"But it's a dream come true and I couldn't wish for a better part to play," he adds.
Indeed he says it ranks up there in the top 10 of his career highlights.
“I’ve been very lucky in my career,” he says. "But this has to be one of my highlights – that and being in Oliver, Chitty and Jolson. Jolson opened so many doors for me which was amazing.
“Working with Cameron is a dream too. It's the premier league - you always dream of doing something like this and for someone like Cameron.
"His investment in time, money and the attention to detail is incredible. He doesn't do things by halves and is not trying to make a few quid - it's all about his passion for the show - he's the only man that can put a West End show on tour."
Brian adds he always wanted to be in showbiz.
"I am dyslexic so at school everything was really confusing," he says. "So I made the kids laugh in the classroom and I embraced it - it made me what I am.
"I was no good at education and I am no good at anything else - in the real world I'm shit!" he laughs loudly. "But being on stage is where I belong. And what I love is taking the audience on a fantastic journey."
And he will be hoping to do exactly that when the tour rolls into Wimbledon. Indeed, it turns out Wimbledon holds special memories for him as well as it is here that he met his wife Anne-Marie.
“It was in 1990 when I was in Cinderella," he says. "I was working with Barbara Windsor, Bonnie Langford and Ray Alan. Ray’s wife said there was a lovely girl in her office and she said she would be perfect for me. She came to see the panto and was impressed and that was it!
"We’ve been together ever since and married for 18 years so it'll be lovely to do the show here.
"We have done much bigger rooms than Wimbledon but what I love is that it's a very intimate venue even though it's a big theatre.
"This show will engulf it," he adds cheerfully. "We don't have a circus ring but the stage goes over the pit where the band is and so we are right there with the audience - it's going to be fantastic and spectacular!"
Barnum is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre, Broadway from Tuesday, October 14 until Saturday, October 18. Tickets from £10. Visit www.atgtickets.com/wimbledon or call the box office on 0844 871 7646.