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Birmingham Stage Company Best of Barmy Britain heads out on a covid-compliant car park tour

Birmingham Stage Company Best of Barmy Britain heads out on a covid-compliant car park tour next month. Gill Sutherland spoke to writer and director Neal Foster, who stars in the show.

How is it performing in car parks?

It’s weird and wonderful to be performing in car parks and to see the audience having fun behind their windshields. We toured it last summer and that was a huge success, we are over the moon to be back on tour - we can’t wait to get back out there.

Neal Foster. (44777956)
Neal Foster. (44777956)

Where does the acting bug come from?

Officially I told my teacher, Mrs Beard, when I was eight that I wanted to be an actor, then she told my mum – so it was official and we all knew. ‘Neal had made his decision.’ I can remember doing The Nativity aged four. I was playing that very famous part in every nativity, the policeman. I did my song and bent my knees like all policemen do and I was not happy because people found it funny, I was a very serious policeman.

Have you always been a history boffin?

I did two history A levels – so I’ve always been interested in history because it’s about great stories and very interesting people.

I think of Horrible Histories as Monty Python meets history. In fact that’s something I once said to Michael Palin. He doesn’t live far from me and I ended up sitting next to him on a tube journey, and I said to him ‘I owe you quite a lot because I now write Horrible Histories scenes and really I’m just basing it all on all those years watching Monty Python’, and so he tried to negotiate a royalty!

I’d never met him before and one doesn’t like to interrupt the rich and famous, but he picked up a magazine and I said to myself if he starts reading it I won’t interrupt him but if he starts flicking through then I’ll know he’s not really reading anything, so he started flicking… We had a proper chat, he was a very nice chap.

Terry Deary [Horrible Histories creator] has a reputation for being very droll and a wee bit caustic, how is it working with him?

He’s very shy, never tells you what he really thinks. He’s got strong opinions and he’s not afraid to express them. Like a lot of the writers we work with he’s very generous and hands off. He knows how the process works theatrically as he’s an actor too so he leaves you to it once we’ve got the idea underway.

What do we owe Terry?

Well, I think without Terry Deary history may still be something dusty and formal and slightly reverential and sacred and what Terry did was throw it all up in the air and make it accessible and funny. History wasn’t funny before Terry Deary. I always remember I interviewed John Cleese when I was 19 at school and he said once you’ve made people laugh you’ve got them because they’re interested.

So laughter is a great way of bringing an audience in to understanding a subject and that’s Terry’s great secret.

What’s the ethos behind Barmy Britain?

Unfortunately we live in a country that is barmy and so it’s effectively ‘we used to rule the world and now we have trouble ruling anything’. It’s an affectionate look back on our past to see just how mad we’ve been and the influences on ourselves and others.

I think British people in particular love that perspective on their own history. Other nations don’t – Australians don’t like laughing at themselves; Americans are very sensitive about the things they’ve done wrong. We have been quite ridiculous and terrible on occasions; we have done horrible things to each other and others for all sorts of reasons.

Are we getting ever barmier?

I don’t think anything has changed, I can certainly say that. We have got a new line in Barmy Britain which gets the biggest laugh. I go: “We haven’t made much progress, it really is a shame but at least we’re not America who have clearly gone insane.”

You’ve met some great actors, who do you most admire?

The people I was most thrilled to meet would be Jack Lemmon, Peter O’Toole and John Cleese up there as the top three. But you get inspired by all sorts of people; I’m a volunteer for Age UK, who run a good neighbour scheme and I once visited was an old lady who lived to be 103 and she was one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met. She was born in 1910 and having lived through half the history I write about, she had fantastic stories.

How do you become the characters that you play?

You always want to understand their motivation because everyone always does something for a reason. So why did Guy Fawkes want to commit what would have been the biggest terrorist act the world had ever seen if he’d pulled it off? Why was Henry VIII so wicked to so many people? Why was King John so stubborn? In writing and performing it you have got to get under the skin of what was motivating them?

Horrible Histories Barmy Britain Carpark Party comes to Birmingham NEC and Coventry Ricoh Aren as part of its tour, from 13th April to 3rd May. The company also bring Billionaire Boy to Birmingham on 25th April. Book tickets and find out more at www.carparkparty.com

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