The journey from stand-up comedy to soap operas is a well-worn path. Mike Reid, Shane Richie and Bradley Walsh reinvented their careers via said route, establishing a tradition of comic performers playing on their personas and proving their acting chops by joining the juggernaut of continuing dramas.
This week, another famous funny man moves into the soap sphere as Brian Conley arrives in EastEnders. The legendary star of stage and screen debuts on Tuesday 18th May as Terry ‘Rocky’ Cant, long-lost father of Sonia Fowler (Natalie Cassidy). One of the first people he spoke to about the role was an old mate, and aforementioned Walford alumni who also graduated from holiday camp entertainer to soap star.
“Shane Richie rang me the day after it was announced I was going into the show,” says Conley, speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com. “He said, ‘Welcome to the Square, Brian! I know you’re going to love it and it be wonderful.’ That was lovely, he told me about how it works and his experience on the show.
“There is a history of comics who’ve gone into soaps, which is interesting. You can use some of the same skills. Comedically I can make certain things work, because the role is a cheeky Cockney and I’ve established an entire career on being that kind of character. He likes to embellish on certain things when he talks about his life, almost like a stand-up act. It’s lovely to play.”
Conley’s chirpy Cockney credentials make him a natural fit for EastEnders (“At least I don’t have to work on my accent!”) – this is a world he knows.
“I was born in Paddington, my dad was a cab driver. My parents would take me to Chapel Street market and we’d go for pie and mash and see blokes just like Rocky,” he recalls. “These people exist and that’s the kind of guy I’m playing here. I can bring an authenticity, and the writers are starting to play to my strengths now they know it’s me doing it.”
In a career spanning almost 50 years (“I’m waiting to bring a book out until it’s the 50th anniversary of getting my Equity card in 1973!” he laughs) it’s surprising the star hasn’t been in the show already, despite coming close a few times.
“I was approached twice before,” he admits. “The closest I got was to actually play a relative of Shane’s character, Alfie Moon. I was called in and had several long chats about it, but we just couldn’t make it work because of my schedule.
“They needed an immediate answer as it moves quite quickly with casting on these shows, but I had work I was already committed to. However, I always thought that one day I would love to be in it.”
An eventual part in EastEnders was seemingly written in the stars, and showbusiness in general is in the blood for Conley, who grew up sneaking behind the scenes of TV sets thanks to his late father’s other career.
“As well as being a cabbie my dad also worked for the BBC for 25 years as a rigger supervisor for the outside broadcast unit,” he says. “They’d cover sporting events, things at the Houses of Parliament, big stuff like that.
“He’d take me and my brother to the BBC’s Television Centre studios in Shepherd’s Bush on a Sunday when were kids, because you could get a cheap Sunday roast in the canteen! My dad would sort out all these little perks and treats for us, I remember being in the viewing gallery watching Doctor Who being filmed on the monitors.
“We’d get to be on sets, and in the audience for It’s a Knockout or the FA Cup final at Wembley, though we’d have to get there early so my dad could put up the scaffolding for cameras and sort out all the cables. We grew up in TV.”
Thanks to his father’s handiwork, Conley also managed to make several surreptitious appearances in EastEnders during the programme’s early days – after a fashion.
“When it first started they would use the outside broadcast crews for exterior filming, so my dad would sneak posters of shows I was in like pantomimes or summer seasons onto the wall behind the market! We’d gather round the telly to spot my name in the background. That was his little joke!”
All-rounder Conley has done the lot – stage comic, audience warm-up act (for Terry Wogan and the Krankies, among others), sketch shows, presenting (he’s one of the most frequent hosts of the Royal Variety Performance), singing, musical theatre, straight acting and even Strictly. One of his most famous roles was in comedy drama The Grimleys, an early success for writer Jed Mercurio before he went on to create corrupt cop phenomenon Line of Duty. “Look at him now,” exclaims Conley. “That man is a God!”
But nothing can prepare an actor for the frenetic pace of a hectic soap filming schedule and Conley is full of praise for the hardworking cast and crew, name-checking on-screen daughter Cassidy for showing him the ropes.
“I have been helped and guided by Nat, she’s told me how it all runs and what to do. It’s second nature to her, she started in 1993 when she was just 10 years old, which is the age her eldest daughter is now. Can you believe it?”
Sonia is one of the show’s longest-serving characters, but viewers have never met her biological father and she’s only just decided to track him down. Terry’s arrival after all this time fills a huge gap in the backstory, and is full of future plot potential.
“She’s barely had anything to do with her dad her whole life, but Terry genuinely wants to get to know her. Of course Sonia is very tentative and will be for some time – it’s a big thing for him to turn up 30 odd years later.
“As for the reasons Terry was never a big part of her life, that hasn’t come out yet – and I honestly don’t know myself! He finds all these connections in Walford through Sonia and starts to learn about his daughter’s past. I don’t want to say too much…”
Just a few months in and Conley admits the novelty has yet to wear off. He’s the kind of performer, and Terry the type of character, viewers love and the show is crying out for – amidst the murders and vengeance, an injection of humour and warmth will be welcome. The actor is all too aware of EastEnders’ iconic status, and is still having those ‘pinch me’ moments on set…
“I’m so chuffed to be here, but thinking about the people who’ve gone before can be nerve-wracking. I was in the hallway at the back of the Queen Vic bar, where the they keep the crisps, and realised I was in the exact place where Den gave Angie the divorce papers. Thirty million people watched that, and now I’m standing in the same spot!”