Interview with the Christmas Pantomime’s funny man, Ben Nickless

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth

Sunday 18 December 2016 – Saturday 14 January 2017

The stars of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs brought some early Christmas cheer to Plymouth last week as they officially launched this year’s spectacular Theatre Royal Plymouth pantomime.

I was lucky enough to have a chat with Ben Nickless, the comedic Muddles …

You are one of the most popular pantomime comics in the country. How excited are you to be here in Plymouth?

I can’t wait, it’s just down the road from me because I live in Torquay now so I can drive in – once I’ve parked my car, I’ll be alright then, I can go on stage and perform! I was here four years ago and I love the theatre and the audiences. It’s the biggest pantomime down here as well so they all come to watch it, they all seem up for it and have a good laugh. The crew is here and the band is here so I know a lot of people. I knew Lesley before so we get on really well and have a bit of banter – I’ll definitely be watching her on Strictly!

Having worked alongside the likes of Christopher Biggins and David Hasselhoff, how do you feel to be working with Duncan James this time?

It’s weird because I worked with Simon Webb last year as well so I’m getting through the group! Me and Simon had a great laugh last year and I know Duncan through a few people. I just met him just now – literally I was in the hotel, the producer was in one room so I had to go and meet him, I knocked on his door and Duncan opened his door next door in his pants! We’ll have a few laughs on stage. I’m looking forward to it.

As an actor, do you feel happy to be playing Muddles again or do you think you’d like to try a different role?

Great question. First of all, I’ve never classed myself as an actor. I always go on the stage as me and that’s why I get these parts because it’s who I am, I’m not playing a part. Obviously I am playing a ‘part’, but it doesn’t involve that much acting on my behalf. I’m more of a nuisance, I try and put them all off! That’s why I love pantomime so much – in any other job, a musical or play, you have to do exactly the same lines every night, whereas in pantomime there’s that freedom to have a laugh. Every show’s different – it’s not the same show for six weeks. It’s good fun.

So you wouldn’t like to try a period drama on TV or anything like that?

I’m open to trying things. I’ve just got a new agent actually and that’s kind of what we’re maybe looking at, to do some acting. They always say comedians make great actors because we are an act onstage. When I say I’m just me onstage, I’m an exaggerated me, it’s not what I’m like all the time. It’s that kind of exaggerating yourself. I’d love to try and do maybe a play or a musical, but my first love is always comedy. It’s good to challenge yourself and try different things. I think I’d have to do a comedy part to make sure I’m still getting the laughs, because that’s the buzz for me.

Where did you train?

I didn’t really! As a kid I always used to do comedy and impressions and stuff like that. I got an office job when I left school and hated it, so I entered a talent show just to see what happened and I won the talent show and I got offered a summer season. I suppose that was my training, being on stage. I remember my first night in my first summer season I went out and did my first stand up show, and died a death! I was like, what have I signed up for here? I’ve got a year of this! But you just learn, because not every audience is the same, every audience is different, so you’ve just got to find what the audience wants.

You’ve said you just play an exaggerated version of yourself, but do you have a process for going on stage? When you’re getting ready, do you talk yourself through anything?

No, I don’t. I am professional though! I try and learn the whole show as much as I can, know exactly what’s going on and what’s happening and then once we do the first two or three shows I’m settled then. I’ll know who’s easy to corpse on stage, with different scenes and different characters.

It’s so interesting that you have so much talent and natural ability, that it’s all you really need to do – you can go out and entertain people and still be a success!

I remember the first pantomime I did, you had the vocal warm-ups and the dancers were doing their warm-ups and I was just sitting there eating a cake! To be fair, I should do a vocal warm-up, but my warm-up is my own which is rubbish and I’d never teach it to anyone. I suppose when you get the ‘beginners to the stage’ call, I’ll probably do a bit of *hums a scale* but that’s pretty much it, nothing professional at all! But the pantomime, because it’s two shows a day, six days a week, it is tiring on the voice so you should do a vocal warm-up and look after yourself. But for me, it’s a game, I just turn up and have a laugh. I have got more professional since my first show though.

Have you got any advice for anyone who wants to follow a comedic route as a career?

You’ve just got to get as much experience as you can. The only way you can do it is by getting out there and finding out because that’s all I’ve done – you throw yourself in the deep end. My first gig went really well and I thought, ‘I’m brilliant’, and I didn’t do another gig for about two months and then it was awful, they didn’t laugh. They just talked over me, they didn’t listen. No gig will ever be the same because everybody has different tastes and different humour. In every show I’ve done I can guarantee there will be one person who isn’t laughing. There are comedians out there on the telly who are doing really well but there will always be someone going, ‘that’s not my cup of tea’. I think if I was starting now it’d be a lot harder because as you get older you get more scared of it all, whereas I started off really young. When we went on holiday there’d be a bar with a microphone and a DJ, and I’d get up, I just loved it. Experience is my advice – you’ve just got to keep doing it. No comic has ever gone up on stage and not died. It’s how you learn. If you’re known, it’s easier.

Rebecca Kohler