When Susan Boyle told Christopher Fairbank that he could sing, it was unexpected praise for the actor still most recognised for his role as fire-raising Scouse builder Moxey in Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' builders abroad comedy drama, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. In the midst of rehearsing Scrooge for a festive production of A Christmas Carol at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Fairbank had arrived early one Saturday morning to find director Andrew Panton standing outside. As a silver Mercedes pulled up beside them, who should step out of the passenger seat but Ms Boyle herself.
Fairbank followed the pair up to the rehearsal room, and offered them a cup of tea. When he took the hot beverage to them, Panton was playing the piano to accompany Boyle going through her scales. Panton, who is Boyle's musical director on her forthcoming Christmas album, sang a thank you to Fairbank, who sang back his own thanks.
“You can certainly hold a note,” joked SuBo.
“Yes,” Fairbank quipped back, “but I think it's just the one.”
Sprawled on a sofa sporting anorak and trainers and with a West Ham United woolly hat beside him, Fairbank is full of stories like this. These stretch back over fifty years, to his first ever stage performance, when he appeared in a primary school production of Paddington Bear. Then, Fairbank saved the day after a fellow pupil dried and he improvised a line that would get both of them offstage. Fairbank continued acting while a teenager at boarding school, where, on declaring his desire to act professionally, he was informed by a master that 'the profession is riddled with drug addicts, alcoholics and homosexuals.' “Two out of three ain't bad,” was Fairbank's response. By mutual agreement between the school's headmaster and his parents, Fairbank was eventually asked to leave.
A teenage conviction for possession of marijuana saw Fairbank put on probation for two years, when he opted to stay in a Liverpool hostel. Still only seventeen, he became involved with the city's Unity Theatre, where he performed in John McGrath's play, Events While Guarding The Bofors Gun and John Arden's Live Like Pigs. A post drama school stint in weekly rep left Fairbank disillusioned, and, after nine months at sea, Fairbank drifted towards counter-cultural Mecca, The Roundhouse. It was here that comedian and Fairbank's occasional busking partner Chris Lynam pointed out maverick director, Ken Campbell. Campbell was putting together his epic nine hour staging of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's epic science-fiction conspiracy trilogy, Illuminatus!
“Ken told me to read the books and tell him what part I wanted to play,” Fairbank remembers.
The experience of performing Illuminatus! in a converted warehouse turned hippy cafe/arts lab known as the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun with the company Campbell styled as the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool changed Fairbank's life, and almost certainly enabled him to tackle such an iconic role as Scrooge.
“He's an awesome character,” says Fairbank of Charles Dickens' quintessential miser. “The challenge is finding the line between really going down to the depths of what Scrooge has become, and remembering that it's a Christmas show.
“You have to base all that in truth, and I think what do have going for me is my age. I cracked sixty last month, and, given all the things that Scrooge is faced with, without being absolutely literal about it, I think it's fair to say I've had my fair share of ups and downs, and been round the block more than once, so I haven't got to act anything beyond my experience.”
That experience arguably began with Illuminatus!, which reinvented the rules of theatre, and became a smash hit sensation that featured the likes of Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy in the cast. Illuminatus! went on to open the Cottesloe in the then newly built National Theatre on London's South Bank.
“I've never experienced anything like it before or since,” says Fairbank. “Ken was the answer to a prayer, and opened me up to so many things. My ideas about being an actor and the sort of work I wanted to do, it all came together during that time. That year I spent with Ken, I look back on it as the greatest year professionally that I've ever had.”
In the years following Illuminatus!, Fairbank fell out with Campbell after accepting a TV role in a Sunday afternoon Dickens adaptation, and was sacked by the Royal Shakespeare Company shortly before being cast in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The latter stabilised a career that has seen Fairbank become a familiar face on film and in television.
A Christmas Carol marks Fairbank's third stint at the Lyceum, following on from the theatre's 2009 production of Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class, as well as a turn in The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh in 2012. It's interesting to note that animals featured in both shows, with a live sheep onstage in the former, and a (fake) dead cat in the latter. These tie in with another show in Fairbank's early days, when he took part in Campbell's post Illuminatus! play, The End is Nigh, and shared the stage with a pair of pigs.
“I think that was the beginning of Ken's obsession with ventriloquism,” says Fairbank, “which went on to give Nina Conti such a glittering career. You had all these great long speeches, and Ken would be shouting, 'I don't wanna see anyone's lips move!'.”
Fairbank's face contorts as he launches into an ear-piercingly accurate impression of Campbell. His uncanny skill for mimicry goes some way to explaining his frequent voice-overs for assorted animations and computer games.
Fairbank's last saw Campbell when the pair performed a marathon week-long live reading of the entire three books of The Illuminatus trilogy on web-based radio station, Resonance FM. With Campbell narrating, Fairbank played several hundred characters, each with a different voice.
While only one voice will be required for Scrooge, Fairbank remains conscious of not taking things too far.
“Kids love a villain,” he says, “just as long as they know they're safe, but the minute I hear crying, seats flipping up and parents taking their children away because they might be traumatised for life, that's when I'll know we need to lighten up a bit.”
A Christmas Carol, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, November 28th-January 4th 2014
Christopher Fairbank – A Life in the Spotlight
Christopher Fairbank was born in 1953, and grew up in the Essex village of Clavering, where celebrity chef Jamie Oliver also hails from.
After appearing at Liverpool's Unity Theatre, Fairbank went to RADA, which he left after two years to work briefly in weekly rep before going to sea.
After meeting Ken Campbell at the Roundhouse, Fairbank joined the cast of Illuminatus!, which became a sensation in Liverpool and London.
Fairbank continued to work with Campbell in Psychosis unclassified, which played in New York.
After being sacked by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Fairbank was cast as Moxey in Auf
Wiederesehen, Pet, appearing in all four series, plus a 2004 two-part special.
Since then, Fairbank has appeared in numerous television dramas, including Law and Order, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Ashes To Ashes.
On film, Fairbank has appeared in Tim Burton's Batman, Zeffirelli's take on Hamlet, Luc Besson's The Fifth Element and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
On stage, Fairbank has worked with directors such as Max Stafford-Clark and John Dove, as well as with Terry Johnson, playing the late Sid James in Johnson's Carry-On based play, Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick.
Fairbank's voice-over work includes Wallace and Gromit and numerous computer games.
The Herald, November 28th 2013