I never thought The Archers would kill Nigel Pargetter says The Ladykillers’ Graham Seed
Mike Kwasniak Photography, 2017 - www.mikekwasniak.co.uk
Graham Seed talks about his role in the stage version of Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers, currently on at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre, and being dropped (literally) from The Archers. Spoilers ahead.
“I’m known for falling off roofs, as you might know,” laughs Graham, who played the late Nigel Pargetter in The Archers. Doing it on stage is different to doing it on radio though.
During rehearsals, he admits he’s a bit scared about his character Major Courtney’s exit in the stage adaptation of the Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers; which sees a gang of robbers masquerading as musicians fall foul of their do-gooder landlady Mrs Wilberforce.
“I went up there for the first time last night and I must admit I was so terrified I couldn’t do it. That scream,” he laughs, recalling Nigel’s demise in the climatic seconds of the BBC Radio 4 soap’s 60th anniversary episode in 2011.
“I do another scream on this, I’m probably only here because I’m good at falling off roofs. Nothing to do with my talent.”
Graham quite enjoys the Major’s demise.
“He’s quite elegiac. He talks about how he likes King’s Cross and he goes off on a little thing. I enjoyed it in the rehearsal room, whether I will still enjoy it the first week up at that house... soon I’ve got to slip and fall to my death, oh my God.”
Fans of The Archers were shocked and outraged when Nigel was undone by a dodgy roof slate and rogue new year banner during a family do. Looking back, it was a pretty terrible decision, smiles Graham, adding when you’re in something you never quite appreciate how lucky you are.
“It’s extraordinary, The Archers. I was in it for 28 years and took it for granted I was going to have it for life but nothing is certain. They wanted something special for the 60th anniversary and I got the short straw. I was told they had to kill off someone who was popular, well only in my industry would that happen... I never thought for a moment they’d choose me.
“I still get letters. Even in the Radio Times last month there was this big thing about ‘can’t Graham Seed come back as Nigel’s long lost cousin or brother or something’... I’d love to come back,” he says.
He made a return, of sorts, as part of a star-studded jury deciding abused wife Helen Titchener’s fate.
“It was a bit like the Hancock’s The Bowmans,” he laughs, referencing the comedian’s parody of The Archers which saw a departed actor return as his own twin to please angry audiences.
“It was so kind to be invited but there were Nigel Havers and Eileen Atkins there, wonderful people who were of course using their own voice. Character acting for me is taking off my tie. I’m not the most versatile. I do know in the theatre a lot of people will recognise my voice because it’s quite distinctive and I don’t try and hide it in The Ladykillers.
“I was an abattoir manager so I had to sound a little bit rough round the edges,” he recalls of his return, slipping into the accent of a disreputable secondhand car salesman.
“I had a name like Kevin or something. I don’t know whether I succeeded. I was so proud I sort of managed it. We recorded the trial in London, because it was only celebs and there was a time factor so I didn’t go back to see everyone.”
Helen’s trial for the attempted murder of her abusive husband Rob won many plaudits. Series, even those like The Archers, must move with the times.
“It’s tricky but The Archers works on so many levels. When Nigel was in his height it was light comedy in the wine bar with Nelson and I loved all that Englishness about it; Nigel being posh but not very good at anything.
“It’s been an institution ever since I’ve been in it. Of course I miss it, what actor in their late 60s wouldn’t? But I’m working thank God, I’m still hanging in there.”
If only Nigel and Major Courtney had managed the same.
All actors have in their mind a list of parts they want to play. Graham was on a list to take over from James Fleet in the role of the Major. As is common in showbusiness, things didn’t work out but he always thought “oh, that’d be a good part for me one day”.
“The Major comes into his own in the second act and its rather touching I think. He starts on the verge of hysteria and it’s quite hard to sustain that without being a dreadful ham...
“At first you can’t imagine any of them killing Mrs Wilberforce, you can Louis; in fact he’s the person who says he can’t. It’s the Major who stands up and says he will but of course he’s got his own agenda, to get the hell out of there. It’s quite nice the second act because there’s a darkness.
“To make the play work even though they’re stupid you have to believe they could be killers and they’re not good people; it’s a heist isn’t it. They’re there to do a job that goes incredibly wrong and they’re a bit too nice to this old lady really.”
First night is still a week or so away when we meet at the New Wolsey Studio, where the cast give me a sneak peek at the closing scene of act one.
“You’re the first audience we’ve had and it’s very hard, actually, doing one scene out of sequence in the act because the adrenalin of the scene before makes it easier to play. We’re a very happy company and looking forward to it enormously. There’s such team work. But the audience are a vital part in these things; you reach a stage where you can only do so much without them,” says Graham.
He’s, wisely, never seen the Coen brothers’ 2004 version. “American humour is so different from English humour. What I like about this is it’s written by the guy who wrote Father Ted, which I still laugh at.”
Graham remembers the wonderful 1955 original starring Alec Guinness among others.
“Cecil Parker played the Major and he had that wonderful sort of solid look about him, but the part is not the same part because he didn’t have to cross dress and that adds another dimension. Fine though he was you try to make the part your own of course and I soon put Mr Parker out of my mind.
“We were a bit nervous because you were our first audience, but there’s this wonderful feeling of relief when its all over because when you’re in your late 60s you know what can go wrong,” he laughs. “You’re sailing along, thinking ‘oh I’ve ticked that box, I’ve been rather good tonight’ and shock horror, you have an adrenalin pump and realise ‘I’ve jumped onto that’.
“It’s interesting... you enjoy it when it’s over but I do get an adrenalin rush and one has one’s standards. You get terribly upset if you don’t give a good performance but I’m very glad that I’m still invited to be on stage.”
• The Ladykillers, written by Father Ted and The IT Crowd’s Graham Linehan and directed by the New Wolsey’s artistic director Peter Rowe, runs to September 30. Read arts editor Andrew Clarke’s review here.